Thursday, 1 December, 2011

“Please could you get me a quote responding to this specifically and a more general one saying what you think it will achieve. As I said we will be publishing the piece at 14.30 GMT so a quick response would be appreciated.”

That’s how “doorstepping” (cornering somebody for an unexpected interview) is done by e-mail. Even though the sender is a journalist with a “quality” newspaper and although he uses the word “please”, the naked threat is conveyed by the formulation “we will be publishing the piece at 14.30 GMT so a quick response would be appreciated”. In other words, we’re going to press with this regardless of what you say.

In its “Editorial Guidelines“, the BBC elaborates upon doorstepping thus: “Any proposal to doorstep, whether in person or on the phone, where we have tried to make an appointment for an interview with the individual or organisation concerned must be approved by a senior editorial figure or, for independents, by the commissioning editor.”

How does approval by “a senior editorial figure” or by “the commissioning editor” turn an invasion of privacy in something beneficial for the public? What extraordinary moral standing do these people possess that renders a questionable practice acceptable? If “a senior editorial figure” called Jack tells a reporter called Jill to doorstep a person called Di, is that OK then?

In the relatively courteous 1960s, an inexperienced John Simpson attempted to doorstep Harold Wilson at a railway station. The pipe-smoking British Prime Minister rewarded him with a sharp punch to the stomach.

The biter got bitten in the early 1990s when Lorraine Heggessey of the BBC doorstepped the doorstepping reporter Roger Cook over allegedly dodgy reporting tactics he had used during a show on Arthur Scargill. She then chased him down the road shouting, legend has it, “Answer the question, you fat bastard!”

But in Ireland, where different standards apply, some of the doorstepped were willing to go beyond epithets and punches. In “Veronica Guerin: The Life and Death of a Crime Reporter“, Emily O’Reilly recounts that, “Throughout her time in journalism, she doorstepped politicians, the child of a politician, crime victims, armed robbers, murderers, suspected murderers…” On 26 June 1996, when Veronica Guerin stopped at a red traffic light on the outskirts of Dublin, she was shot dead by an armed man on a motorcycle.

Tomorrow, here, victim impact statements.

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