SubScribe: September 2013 Google+

Saturday 21 September 2013

Richard Beeston: farewell to a giant of journalism What a man, what a life, what a shame

When Richard Beeston was suffering from the later stages of cancer, his wife Natasha took a deep breath and said: 'We need to talk about your funeral.'
'The hell with that,' came the reply. 'Let's talk about my memorial service.'

And so was sown the seed that brought journalists back to a Fleet Street shorn of newspapers yesterday to pay tribute to one of the greatest foreign correspondents of the age.

Hundreds of friends, colleagues and admirers squeezed into St Bride's to sing, laugh and quietly weep  in memory of the former Times foreign editor who died in May, three months after his 50th birthday.

Here in the first row of the chairs brought into the heart of the church to supplement the pews sat the Beest's heirs at the Times, Deborah Haynes and Catherine Philp.  Around the edges were scattered the royalty of war reportage: Anthony Loyd, Jeremy Bowen, Jon Snow, Don McCullin, Janine di Giovanni and Sam Kiley - who gave the first reading, the Beatitudes.

There, a couple of seats from di Giovanni, was Boris Johnson, a near-contemporary of Beest whose brief youthful spell on the Times foreign desk was rather less glorious. James Harding, the displaced editor who is now head of BBC news, perched at the back until someone kindly agreed to swap seats. Senior executives, junior reporters, peers, PAs, distinguished foreign correspondents and diplomats were mixed together, grateful just to take part in the service. Having somewhere to sit was a bonus.

They had come from Belgravia, Brighton, Brussels and beyond.  Devika Bhat, who flourished as a foreign news editor under Beest's tutelage, came from Washington. Annie Barrowclough, charged with establishing an Australian bureau under Beest's watch only to be chopped down in this summer's Times cull, flew from Sydney. 'I had to come,' she said. 'I needed to be here. That man was everything. He did so much for me. He changed my life.'

But this wasn't a day about journalism. It was a day to show the family and friends sitting near the altar how much Rick was not simply respected, but loved. The  television producer Simon Cellan-Jones, who related the 'We need to talk about the funeral' anecdote, said that Rick had been his best friend for 37 years. His address was warm, charming, funny, irreverent - just like his subject.

There were tales of late-night poker, vodka martinis and an appalling taste in music. One can only wonder quite what the ambassadors of Iraq and Israel made of the story about the Beest dad-dancing naked in the rain with friends - and being caught photographically in all his glory when everyone else managed to achieve some Calendar Girls level of modesty.

The second address from Ben Macintyre of The Times described the passion for journalism - a real passion, not the ersatz  'I'm passionate about lipstick/children/equality' - and the derring-do of a war correspondent whose choice of destination for a romantic weekend of R&R with his wife was Kabul.

Fortunately, Natasha was understanding - and game. On return from honeymoon, the Beestons had decamped to the Middle East for Rick's new posting in Jerusalem. He suggested they spend a weekend in Gaza.
'First their car was hijacked by two Palestinian gunmen, then they found themselves involved in a full-scale gun battle. Finally, Natasha was left hiding behind a wall with some Palestinian children who periodically emerged to lob back teargas canisters, while Rick went reporting.'
An adventurer certainly, but Macintyre also spoke of  the generous mentor always willing to share his knowledge and experience with the next generation.

And that generation reciprocated with a special supplement expressing their thanks for the opportunities Beest had given them. They told of little acts of kindness, words of advice, challenging commissions. But the where-are-they-now full-page photographs said much more about how he had nurtured his proteges. Ruth Maclean in an armoured car in Darfur, Tim Albone in flak jacket in Afghanistan, Emily Ford on the Great Wall of China, Tom Whipple at base camp on Everest, Hugh Tomlinson in Beirut, Alice Fordham in Libya, Hannah Strange in Mexico City.

The supplements were handed out as the church emptied after a service that had been pitch perfect in every respect -  the readings, the music, the addresses; the downing of imaginary vodka shots, the smashing of imaginary glasses, the suggestion of armed  intervention in France.

The congregation had arrived in sorrow but left in joy: the joy that comes from singing 'Glory, glory, hallelujah' at the top of your voice while a tear sneaks out of the corner of your eye hoping that no one will notice; the joy that comes from having known - and been known by - such a remarkable man.

If Beest did have a hand in it, then once again he got it just right.

And so we said goodbye to a gentleman who was not only charismatic and quietly heroic, but also suave and Hollywood handsome. There has to be a film. With luck, Ben Macintyre will be involved in the screenplay.

Well, Natasha, is it to be Leonardo di Caprio? Jude Law? Did he give any hint at all as to who should play the leading role?


When Rick's work was first published in The Times it was under the byline Nicholas Beeston, to avoid confusion with his renowned father, also Richard (but known as Dicky).

After leaving the field Dicky Beeston also worked for a while on the Times foreign desk as a casual late-night news editor. When he retired his son reverted to the byline Richard Beeston.

[Another titbit while on the subject of bylines: when Boris was on the paper, his work would be tagged 'By Alexander Johnson'.]

The nickname Beest probably emanated from his logon name on the old Atex system in Wapping. The former production supremo Tony Norbury could be creative in ascribing user names. Most were straightforward surnames, but there were occasional 'specials'. Alan Hamilton, for instance, was Nelson. Stewart Tendler, the crime reporter, was Cathy (his wife's name). David Hopkinson was, of course, Hoppy. Rick was Beest.

It is humbling to realise how privileged I was to watch for a quarter of a century as that eager young man with wavy blond locks, bouncy walk and constant smile evolved into a master of foreign affairs. The transition from student to sage was so natural that it was imperceptible. He always seemed exactly the same to me.

The Times has now put a video of the hour-long service up on its website, along with Roger Boyes's report,  Fleet Street friends raise final glass to Richard Beeston
It may even be outside the paywall.

What others have to say

Pens with much finer nibs than mine have writtenmore elegantly on the Beest; voices of much sweeter timbre have spoken more eloquently. Here is some of what has been said:

The Times obituary

Ben Macintyre Times tribute: A man with journalism in his veins

The Telegraph obituary

Kim Sengupta, Independent obituary

Oliver Kamm: Objectivity doesn't mean balance. It means telling the truth about what you discover

Tributes via The Times Storify

David Hearst and Mary Dejevsky: Valdai Club

The Italian Insider: Beest's private army

Adel Darwish: Inside British Politics

Con Coughlin: Beirut, 1985: When Rick went to sunbathe at the Hotel George V hotel on the Corniche, he had to place his sun-lounger close to the hotel wall to make sure he was not interrupted by stray shrapnel fragments.

Sue Foll Blipfoto picture of the day: RIP Richard Beeston

Bernard Emie, French ambassador: Britain has lost an astounding journalist, and France a friend.

Ruth Elkins: What a great service it was for the most gentle of men, Richard Beeston. We miss you very much.

Kaya Burgess: A touching and uplifting memorial service today for Richard Beeston, our much-missed and legendary Foreign Editor. His words of advice were always so valuable and, were it not for him sending me on Hostile Environment Training, I would never have met Kat. Here's to the Beest.

Devika Bhat: So very fitting to celebrate the life of Richard Beeston, my amazing boss and dear friend, at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street. A brilliant journalist, and true gent, greatly missed.

Charlie Gere: Beautiful memorial service for Rick at St Brides, off Fleet Street. Courageously and brilliantly organised by Natasha Fairweather. Among the highlights, speeches by Simon Cellan Jones, and Ben Macintyre, and the singing by the choir, which was wonderful.


Earlier Twitter tributes 

The master at work

Finally, the Beest himself  conveys so much in eight paragraphs that we can only read in wonder:

The Times, January 18, 2010

It has taken nearly 22 years for Ali Hassan al-Majid to be judged by Iraqis for perpetrating one of the worst massacres in modern history.

Even peeering out from the smudged window of an Iranian helicopter, it was clear that a terrible crime had been committed against the inhabitants of Halabja as part of a campaign by Saddam Hussein and his commanders to teach Iraqi Kurds the cost of siding with the enemy - at that time Iran.

On the ground the scale of the slaughter became clear. Entire families had been killed by the poison chemicals. Some died together huddled in makeshift shelters that offered no protection against the gas. One family was killed in their garden along with their pets.

Another succumbed as they tried to escape by car. We found the vehicle crashed into a wall with the driver and all occupants dead and the keys in the ignition. The most poignant memory of that day was a father in traditional Kurdish dress lying dead at the entrance to his home, cradling a baby.

Those who survived were arguably worse off. Hudreds had been hit by mustard gas that burnt their eyes and lungs but did not kill them. Victims of this slow and painful poison are still dying of their injuries to this day.

Even by Saddam's ruthless standards the massacre broke new boundaries. Yet what was more shocking was the cynical response of the West. The US attempted to blame this crime on Iran. Britain carried on business as usual with the regime in Baghdad. Saddam was shielded from any meaningful punishment. He went on to invade Kuwait two years later and ordered the massacre of thousands of Iraqi Shia Muslims in 1991.

The failure of the West to respond adequately to this outrage made it difficult for George Bush and Tony Blair to make a moral case for overthrowing Saddam in 2003.

But as the Iraq war comes under new scrutiny and more voices argue that Saddam should have been left in place, it is worth sparing a thought for those thousands of innocent Kurdish men, women and children who died in the deadliest chemical weapons attack on civilians in history.

Accentuate the positive: 1

This is the first in an occasional series to celebrate three good things in one issue of a paper, local or national, or news website.

In tribute to Rick Beeston, we'll start with three cheers for The Times today:


...for this headline


...for this German flag  triptych of Merkel's handbags 


...for this heading. 
Yes, two puns out of three choices, but they're good 'uns.

If you see a trio of goodies please share them on the SubScribe Facebook page. It's a public page, so anyone can post their thoughts about media related issues. And while you're there, you might care to 'like' it.
No pressure!

Monday 16 September 2013

The Le Vell trial: don't shoot the messenger

There seems to have been less concern about this
than about the Guardian's straight court reporting

Oh we're a wicked bunch in the media. We don't focus on the important things. We get our facts wrong. We hack into people's phones. We are biased and our reporting is unfair....(add complaints to fill - Ed)

We've heard all of these and plenty more. We've all smiled at the raucously funny 'better watch what I say - don't want to end up in the papers' on being introduced to someone at a party. As members of a trade for which a key qualification is a thick skin, we should be used to it by now. Everyone blames the media for everything they don't like about anything. We 'print lies' and 'stir up dirt' just to sell papers.

Course we do. It's our business isn't it? Tesco is there to sell groceries, Apple to sell iGadgets, journalists to sell newspapers.

Well, no, actually. Most of us write our stories because we believe in them and we think that they will be of interest to our readers. We don't do it because we want our proprietors to make huge profits, any more than the lad in Tesco gives a toss about whether anyone buys the beans he's stacking. He does it because it pays his wages. Most journalists do it because they care about the job.

Even in these tough times for the industry, about 20 million people read a newspaper every day. Many millions more listen to the radio or watch television. The vast majority come back day after day, week after week. But still they hate us. Still they don't trust us. And when they disagree with the coverage of a subject close to their hearts, they vilify us.

And so it has been in the past few days since Michael Le Vell was cleared of raping a six-year-old girl. The mindless misogynists have demanded that the girl, now 17, be 'named and shamed' or prosecuted for perjury. Fanatical feminists have been saying that  Le Vell should have been convicted, even if innocent, 'pour encourager les autres'. 
More moderate folk on either side of the fence have called for anonymity for rape defendants or persisted in referring to the girl as 'the victim', in spite of the verdict.

Newspaper columns, breakfast TV sofas, websites, blogs, community forums have all been abuzz with the debate. There are so many expert opinions  (SubScribe is obviously The Most Expert):  people who know what the prosecution said, what the girl said, what her mum said, what Le Vell said, what the doctors said, what the judge said.

And how do they know all  this, given that Manchester Crown Court couldn't have accommodated them all?

From the media.

Yet the media are being attacked from all sides for 'hype', for 'unbalanced reporting', for 'sensationalism', for 'perpetuating rape myths'.

Before writing SubScribe on Wednesday, I read every report from every day of the hearing in every national newspaper, the local papers, the hour-by-hour live updates from the Manchester Evening News court reporters as well as the online coverage by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Apart from the questionable celebratory pictures and some weighted commentary after the verdicts, most of the coverage seems to have been straight down the line.

The trial of an actor who is welcomed into millions of living rooms two or three nights a week is of intrinsic interest to the public, whatever the charge. In a case that pitches him against a teenage girl alleging years of abuse, who needs hype?

If a prosecution barrister says that the defendant climbed into a six-year-old's bed and put a teddy over her face while raping her, what should the report or the headline have said? 'Actor assaulted child'? Hardly informative. Reporting the most striking things said in court is not sensationalism; it is telling the reader what happened.

Most of the complaints about press coverage of the trial have come from those whose natural instinct is to believe the accuser.
Just because Le Vell was found 'not guilty' doesn't mean he is innocent. Quite so.
Child abuse victims do not lie. Maybe not as a general rule.
But it is dangerous to apply general rules to a specific case as though they are gospel. That way, no man in a 'his word against hers' trial could ever be acquitted.

It also seems to be the 'serious' papers rather than the tabloids that have come in for the most criticism. Jane Merrick in the Independent was calm and thoughtful in considering the dangers of identifying accusers, shielding defendants, and a rolling bandwagon of ill-considered trials. But that apparently didn't excuse her for falling into the not guilty/innocent trap or spare her 'like 95% of rapists' mockery for her assertion that 'one day a guilty man might go free'.

Even more worrying were the websites that took  Nigel Bunyan of the Guardian to task for failing to question the judge's summing up. The judge instructed the jury that it had to decide whether the girl was being truthful in recalling traumatic events from an early age or if she was deceitful and had gone to court 'quite literally to destroy the life of the defendant'.

Perhaps there was a third possibility - that she believed she was telling the truth but that the attacks didn't happen - but that wasn't put to the jury. The judge presented a stark choice of malice or trauma. He may have been at fault in so doing, but a reporter cannot inject his opinion into a straight news report.

Bunyan is further criticised for not pointing out in his report of the defence barrister's closing speech that it is a 'rape myth' that victims scream.

The complainers may have a fair gripe against the judge and the barrister, but not the reporter. He did his job. Introducing background knowledge into a court report is an absolute no-no. There are strict rules for covering court cases and they do not allow reporters to express opinions, even if they know for sure that what is being said  is wrong.

As it happens, Bunyan is the most inappropriate target. He has spent many years interviewing women who have been raped, and he knows all about the myths and the sensitivity required. He has even just written a book on the Rochdale abuse ring and he told SubScribe that it mentions a little girl who did not scream:
'She was three or four at the time, and when she was eight her memory of that first time was jogged by a line in Roald Dahl's "The BFG" where a little girl 'screamed but no sound came out'. Heartbreaking.
We aren't all hard-nosed, unfeeling and thoughtless. Look, too, at the work of Andrew Norfolk for The Times, covering similar ground in Rochdale to Bunyan, and winning the Orwell Prize in the process.

Back with Le Vell, there seems to have been less concern about the Sun, which  managed to produce two bad front pages on the trot - first the 'Carling' acquittal and then the 'devil woman' splash, which was both weak and offensive - a spread of cold fare from the trial rehashed and spiced up with dotty quotes from 'neighbours'.

But the 'celebratory' tone hit a nerve. I wouldn’t say it was wise for Le Vell to pose for a photograph with a big grin, his thumbs up and a pint in hand. But there have been plenty of pictures of women with their arms in the air outside court after being cleared of killing violent husbands or partners. Were they inappropriate?

Of course there were follow-up interviews with Le Vell and he will naturally have spoken about his 'ordeal', but the Sunday Mirror headline didn't go down at all well.

Had  he been convicted, the tabs would have been ruthless in dissecting Le Vell's womanising and drunkenness. There would probably have been 'exclusive' interviews with the girl and her mother, accompanied by a picture of a shadowy figure against a bedroom window, possibly gazing down at a teddy held in both hands. With a 'not guilty' verdict it is trickier to give equal space to the girl - especially since the public - unlike the jury - is not allowed to know anything about her or her background that could lead to her identification.

What we do know is that the girl in this court was not a child clutching a favourite teddy, but a young woman of 17.  If she was raped at six, assaulted on random occasions over the next eight years and then disbelieved by a jury after finally plucking up the courage to tell the police, then she is going to be in a terrible state and in urgent need of love, help and support. 

And if she was lying? She is in need of love, help and support..

And if she believed herself to be telling the truth but the flashbacks were all in the mind?  Yes, again, she needs love, help and support.

It is a sad story all round. But the media didn't make it up. 

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Michael Le Vell: Rape cases never have a happy ending

Photograph: BBC

A victory for men? A defeat for women? A licence for sex offenders? A witch-hunt? A time to name and shame? A time to change the law?

One man is found not guilty of a series of sex offences and half the population dashes to the keyboard to denounce the other half. Seven hours of trudging through the quagmire of the papers, the blogosphere, legal websites, feminist websites, misogynist websites, has left the mud on my boots so thick that I can barely move.

How did we become so cruel, so vitriolic, so bloody stupid?

Two years ago a 15-year-old girl went with her mother to the police to complain that the actor Michael Le Vell had raped her when she was six and continued to sexually assault her over the next eight years. Le Vell was arrested the next morning and questioned for a number of hours. Once the police had completed their investigation, the file was passed to the CPS, which decided not to proceed with the case.

After a  few weeks the girl returned to the police with fresh allegations and her mother asked for the case to be reviewed. Eleven months later - in February this year - Le Vell was again arrested and charged. Yesterday a jury found him not guilty of twelve sexual offences, including five of rape.

Given that the complaint was not made until a year after the alleged offences ceased, there was no physical evidence to incriminate Le Vell. It came down to his word against the girl's. The jury made its choice and Le Vell went not to jail, but to the pub.

Photograph: ITV

He paused on the way to say the obligatory few words to the Press and at one point he dared to do the unthinkable - his sister put her arm round him, he looked back at her and he smiled. Until then he had seemed wary, almost diffident, his eyes uncertain. But once he saw that he was among friends, he relaxed. Later he relaxed a bit more and was photographed holding a pint and giving the thumbs-up sign.

The vision of a man who had been accused of rape looking not just relieved, but happy, was too much for some. Others had snapped much earlier - when the verdicts were announced. Women did not make false claims of rape; no one would go through the ordeal of taking a case to court if they were not telling the truth. Ergo, any man accused of rape must be guilty.

And even if he wasn't, he should still be convicted so that other, real, rape victims were not deterred from stepping forward.
Better that ten/a hundred/a thousand innocent men suffer than one rapist goes unpunished.

One tweeter even suggested - and defended the stance - that men accused of rape should be presumed guilty until they could prove their innocence.

It wasn't only the jury - which included eight women - that got it 'wrong'. The prosecuting barrister was a bully who tried to undermine the credibility of the accuser, and the press coverage was a disgrace, peddling rape myths. (Why do people always peddle rather than perpetuate myths - is there a market price for them?)

The Guardian and the Independent were thought by one blogger to be so culpable that they should publish front-page apologies. Maybe I missed something, but I've gone through both papers' coverage and can see nothing but straight court reporting of the entire trial. Nothing is written that is not attributed to one of those participating in the trial - although it may be the case that the blogger was in court throughout and that there have been sins of omission.

The Mail, on the other hand, once again showed its mastery of producing seemingly balanced coverage while actually weighting it with well-chosen verbs and adjectives. Le Vell was an innocent actor whose life had been hell for two years after being dragged in for questioning and hauled through the courts. Prosecution lawyers tried to portray him as a guilty man. He was taken apart on the witness stand in an attempt to expose every minor flaw in his character.

His accuser, on the other hand, was a highly emotional teenager who gave evidence from behind a screen and embellished and changed her conflicting story at every turn. She made spurious claims and admissions and has been exposed to everyone she knows and who matters to her as a liar.

Well, do you know, it is the job of prosecuting lawyers to portray defendants as guilty men, indeed to prove them to be so if they can. [It is also the case that defence lawyers will seek to undermine the credibility of prosecution witnesses - who may sometimes also be the 'victim' of the alleged crime.]
Many witnesses, and not only in rape cases, give evidence from behind a screen or even by video link. There is nothing sinister in the fact.

For the most part the Mail's coverage was what you'd expect from the paper, but there was one unforgivable factoid in one piece that should be brought to the Attorney General's attention.

The Sun meanwhile published a front page of such misguided awfulness that it is hardly worth discussing. The 4-5 spread was a run-of-the-mill 'My two years of hell', but then the paper devoted most of 6 and 7 to making the same points three times - first as 'The weak case against Corrie star', then as a timeline 'How the girl's lies unravelled' and finally as a giant factbox comparing the girl's 'claims' with the 'reality'.

Claim The girl said the sex attacks began when she was six and finished when she was 14.
Reality She did work experience on Coronation Street, aged 15, which Le Vell arranged to help her as she wanted to be an actress.

This might be an unlikely sequence of events, but the 'reality' could equally be a result of the 'claim', an attempt to make amends. Certainly neither one disproves the other.

Back in cyberspace where all men are rapists and all women are moaners, there has been outrage at the assumption that the girl was lying and outrage that she should retain her anonymity.

Some believe that she should now be 'named and shamed' and  'dragged through the courts' on charges of perjury and wasting police time. There is also a revival of the call for rape case defendants to remain anonymous unless or until they are convicted.

There is a problem in this country, as elsewhere, in bringing sex offenders to justice. For many, many years any woman who made allegations of rape or lesser offences were disbelieved by police, subjected to insulting and undignified physical examinations and forced to reveal their life histories in court.

The prevalence of such crimes was therefore unknown. Few came forward to complain, fewer went through with the court case, even fewer saw their attackers convicted and fewer still saw them sent to jail for their crime. Judges were as likely as defence barristers to cast aspersions on the victim's character, morals or behaviour.

Over the years there were half-hearted attempts to improve the situation, but nothing concrete was done until the 70s. In 1976 the law was changed to allow lifelong anonymity for women  from the moment they made a rape allegation - unless they chose to reveal their identity themselves, as the victim of the Ealing Vicarage rape in 1986 did.

The rule was introduced in recognition of the difficulty in persuading women to speak up and of the prolonged humiliation that may follow a trial. As the committee reviewing the law in 1975 said:

"While fully appreciating that rape complaints may be unfounded, indeed that the complainant may be malicious or a false witness, we think that the greater public interest lies in not having publicity for the complainant. Nor is it generally the case that the humiliation is anything like as severe in other criminal trials: a reprehensible feature of trials of rape…is that the complainant's prior sexual history…may be brought out in the trial in a way which is rarely so in other criminal trials."

The woman is named in court, but everyone - the media, social websites, individuals - is  forbidden to publish anything that may lead to her identification. This rule was later reinforced to prevent readers 'joining the dots' by taking different facts from different newspapers to work out who the complainant was.

Say a woman is raped by her brother

One paper might feel that the relationship makes it a better story - especially if most of its readers won't know the man involved - and therefore say that they are siblings without naming either.

Another might feel that it is necessary in the interests of justice to name the accused - and so refrain from mentioning the family link.

While neither paper believes it has done anything wrong,  the two reports taken together would lead to the identification of the woman and therefore break the law.

This protection did little, however, to raise the conviction rate and it has taken a long time to reach even its present low level. As it happens, Britain has one of the highest conviction rates in Europe - with 2,333 of 3,692 rape trials (63%) ending in a guilty verdict last year, according to a report from the DPP in April.

But this is a tiny proportion of the 60,000-90,000 rapes that are believed to take place each year. Fewer than 16,000 women report attacks to the police, a quarter of the culprits are never identified and even those who are apprehended are most unlikely to end up in court.

Many other statistics were being paraded around yesterday, including a graph on false allegations which actually came from Washington, but even though the numbers differed, they all told basically the same story.

The 1976 Act also gave defendants in rape cases anonymity in the interests of equality and to protect innocent men from lasting stigma. This provision was repealed in 1988 after the Criminal Law Revision Committee concluded that there was no reason to differentiate between someone accused of rape and those accused of any other crime - was there more stigma attached to having been accused of rape than of murder? The committee rejected the notion of equality between the parties as superficial.

There have been a couple of attempts since then to reinstate anonymity for men charged with rape, most particularly to protect teachers and others responsible for children from malicious accusations, but these have come to nought.

 This is partly because the number of false rape claims is so low, but also because by identifying a man in custody other victims may come forward, as happened with the taxi driver John Worboys, the sports commentator Stuart Hall and - too late for justice - Jimmy Savile.

Today the argument is being rehearsed on the internet, with some men pointing to Le Vell's acquittal as an unanswerable case  for equal protection, while radical feminists point to the rarity of false complaints to explain their concern over the Le Vell verdict.

At the same time there is a third group complaining that the case was brought only because of a 'celebrity witch-hunt' that has led to a string of arrests since the Savile revelations and left anyone in the public eye vulnerable to random accusations.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens in a free society: we have the right to argue loudly and fearlessly regardless of whether we know all, some or none of the facts.

And when a jury clears a man because it doesn't believe the young woman who says he raped her?

That is justice.

Further thoughts on the case from SubScribe here

...and a few more opinions from all sides

Shockingly low conviction rates, the Independent

Rape myths, CPS

Guidelines on prosecuting rape cases, CPS

My Elegant Gathering of White Snows by Louise Pennington

'Not guilty'  does not mean she lied

Le Vell's character is stained, Fleet St Fox

Some thoughts on victim blaming and Le Vell by Glosswatch

Dangerous and persistent rape myths, Sian and Crooked Rib

A life ruined v a fate worse than death

Salem comes to Britain, Brendan O'Neill on Spiked

Anonymity for the accused, Ally Fogg

Prosecution by cliche, the Justice Gap

Anonymity for rape accused, Mark George QC

The case for anonymity for men and boys, COWRA

The truth about rape statistics, Angry Harry

#ibelieveher hashtag on Twitter

Thursday 5 September 2013

Life after death: the art of the obituarist

St Peter's cultural reception area will have been more crowded than usual after the skytrain from the British Isles pulled into the terminus this week.

Cliff Morgan, Seamus Heaney,  David Frost and David Jacobs were all in their seventies and eighties when they boarded that final shuttle - but who alighted? A rugby international or a broadcasting chief? A young satirist, a jet-setting talk-show host or a media entrepreneur?

It seems fair to assume that those whose earthly lives earn them admittance to the ultimate penthouse should not be required to spend eternity with the rickety joints and stilted gait that come with advancing years. The experience and wisdom acquired over a lifetime, yes, but in partnership with the physical and mental energy of youth. If there is a choice, I for one should prefer to be stuck at 28 or 38 rather than 58 or - if spared - 88.

Down here, it is the obituarist's privilege to determine at which point the clock should be frozen. A picture may be able to paint a thousand words, but finding one image to sum up an entire lifetime is a greater challenge. Take someone like Frost:, a man whose face has been familiar to most people in this country for the past half-century. His death made most of the front pages and in almost every case the photograph chosen had been taken in the past year or so. The Mail went for a slightly younger Frost - presumably on the basis that it was the best available picture of his wife - but only the Guardian looked back to the Sixties.

A figure such as Frost will always cause something of a tussle between the news and obits departments because there will have to be a potted life history up front as well as the inevitable 'tributes poured in last night to xyz, who has died, aged xx.'  And with someone who has lived almost their entire life in the public eye, there will be no shortage of pictures. Without disciplined picture editing, a page really can be spoilt for choice.

The Telegraph ran the story across the top of pages 2 and 3, with the Nixon interview photograph in the centre across the gutter. The intention may have been to make it the focus of the montage, but the monochrome picture is overshadowed by the shot of Frost and his wife at Ascot and the strange assortment of surrounding images. They don't tell a story and the pictures have been sized to fit a grid without proper consideration of their content.

The sofa picture of the TV-am crowd top right is full of character and brings back memories of the Eighties, but it's a ridiculously small slot for the Famous Five. We are also reminded of his old flames - Diahann Carroll, who dumped him virtually at the altar, and Lynn Frederick, to whom he was briefly married. Now here he is in the Sixties with Paul McCartney and there with Mrs Thatcher with her face split in two - is the picture supposed to echo the one of Nixon above? And to top it off, an utterly pointless picture of Frost with the Goldsmith women. Has the Telegraph still not got over its Jemima fetish? Nothing from ground-breaking That Was The Week That Was, nothing from the Frost Report. There is, however, a postage stamp of Frost and family at Buckingham Palace after he was knighted in 1993.

The obits page is far better with a portrait similar to the one used on the front of the Times, Frost (looking astonishingly like Michael Sheen looking like Tony Blair) with Nixon and our first view of the man as the host of TW3.

Most papers joined the Telegraph in going for montages inside - with rather too many clumsily splitting pictures across the gutter. The Mail, generously giving Max Hastings two bylines, focused on the family in the first of two spreads, and the socialite interviewer on the second. The Petula Clark picture is an odd choice for a main image - her legs perhaps? - but the end result is better composed and more easily navigable than the Telegraph's. There is nothing  from the earliest years but, for today, the Mail is forgiven almost everything for unearthing this gem from 1968, which deserves a bigger show:

Of the rest, the Express went in for shameless self-promotion, while the Guardian and Independent both opted for a small collection of pictures on the news pages with a strong portrait to illustrate the obit. The Guardian's captioning was the most helpful with the simple device of putting the year first.

My favourite combination came from The Times, whose uncluttered coverage managed to span the key points of Frost's 50-year career in six pictures. I particularly liked the use of the class sketch cutout of John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett as that, more than anything, tells you straight away what the Frost Report was about. We also have a picture of the entire TW3 gang, portraits from two eras and a couple of the Sheenalike Frost with Nixon.  My only quibble is that, with the exception of Millicent Martin, it's a mite too male; a photograph of Frost and Lady Carina might have helped.

Ian Brunskill, obituaries editor at The Times, explained the balancing act: 

'There is no hard and fast policy, just that rather unsatisfactory process of finding what we hope is "the best pic". With less-than-public figures, it's often a case of making the best of whatever we can get from family or friends. Given more choice, there's obviously a strong case for using pics of people in their prime, if only because that's generally the period of the life that the obit will focus on. That was what we did with Frost - that main obit picture seemed to sum up his personality at the time of his greatest impact, as described in the piece.

Personally, I think that characterful older faces can make for very striking pictures and with someone who has lived to a great age or had one of those lifelong careers, I've often been inclined to go with something older. The present editor is a very firm believer in younger/prime pix every time, so that's the way we'll go whenever we can.'

The philosophy was seen in practice at the weekend with the death of Cliff Morgan, who started out as a rugby player, became a consummate broadcaster and rose to become the BBC's head of outside broadcasts and sport, overseeing coverage of the Olympics, the Queen's Silver Jubilee and the Charles and Diana wedding. A picture of an executive in a suit - or sports jacket - in front of a microphone or wearing earphones s never going to be as appealing as one of a fit young man, so it is unsurprising that most papers went with pictures from his playing days.

But Morgan (who happened to share a birthday with Frost) retired from the game 55 years ago, which means we are presented with an unfamiliar image of a familiar face. This works only if paired with a more modern picture somewhere on the page as a point of reference. There is also the fact that photographers worked in black and white in the Fifties.  Can a mono picture hold up a page of grey type, given that the obits pages tend not to go in for the whistles and bells  that we see in the news section?

We can see from this quartet that it can and does - but it needs to be given room to breathe. The colour picture in the Times seems static. The Telegraph, bottom right,  has a clear shot of Morgan, ball in hand, which ought to count as the perfect obit photograph, but there is more dynamism in the picture chosen by the Guardian and the Independent. The Independent has tried to cover both bases by pairing it with the armchair portrait, but it loses the drama of the game that we can see in the Guardian's version. 

The Mail and the Telegraph both chose that picture for their sport spreads - each of them splitting it over the gutter. The Mail also managed to dig out a really old picture and some really old words  - the late Ian Wooldridge's review of  Morgan's autobiography - for the news pages. Quite why it had to turn the death of a much-admired public figure into an assault on the BBC is hard to fathom. It's hard to imagine that Morgan will have held a grudge for 15 years after being taken off air prematurely.


Morgan obviously found his way into most sports sections and the natural choice for these pages would be the action shots. But the Independent, above, went completely left field with a straight portrait of a man in later years with half his head chopped off. There was also a double with a repeat of the obit photograph.

For David Jacobs all four broadsheets turned to the archive, two to the Fifties DJ era and two to the later years of the suave man-about-town. They all have charm and that smile has an impish aura that clearly never faded. Seeing the four together demonstrates that whatever the setting and whatever the age of the subject, a good photographer can capture the essence of a person in a single frame.

Harry de Quetteville, the Telegraph's obituaries editor, says his objective is 'absolutely to get a picture of someone in their prime'.

'The Pope is the one person where we would definitely go for a big picture of an old man, because that is how people know them.

Sometimes it is hard to get hold of what we want, so we are stuck with pictures of people in old age. But with people who have spent years in the public eye, we can use several pictures showing the evolution of a career. With David Frost we could go from the fresh-faced graduate straight out of Cambridge to the elder statesman of broadcasting.

When Michael Jackson died we ran three photos of him side by side from the black boy with the Afro hairstyle to the almost white adult with the delicate nose. Practically everything about him had changed.

With David Jacobs we could have done something with his early life and later career, but we decided not to do that - we thought the one big photo did the job. Unless you are stonkingly famous, one good photo usually does the job.'

I'm not sure that the photograph above meets the 'in his prime' criterion, but few papers covered themselves with glory when Seamus Heaney died. Here we had the passing of a  literary giant, but half of our Press didn't seem to care. Because he was not British? Or because he was Irish?

The Mail's first mention of his death came on page 33, and even there, Heaney wasn't deemed worthy of a full page - he had to share the space with a house ad. The Express did at least manage a page 2 teaser to its obit on 39. The Telegraph's news coverage was confined to a double-column page 13 lead over a 25x4, and while the Times did manage to put him on page 4 - it was halfway down the page. Pride of place at the top was surrendered to a puffy bit of country house and garden porn.

There was never any hope of a mere Nobel laureate making the front page in these four papers with the Duchess of Cambridge appearing in a pair of skinny jeans that she had - heavens alive - worn before she was pregnant.

The obituary pages are a bit of a law unto themselves, though. And long may that continue. It is here that you can find fantastic writing and the most amazing life stories - look at this one in the Telegraph today for example. This is the place where we can find the diamonds of the newspaper world, surrounded by the grey carbon of thermal underwear ads, lonely hearts and racecards. Here, at least,  the Telegraph and the Times teams realised the significance of Heaney's passing.

But the stars of the show were the Guardian and Independent. Both devoted the top half of their fronts to Heaney. A foreign poet. On a Saturday. With a war brewing. Hurrah. 

The Guardian had secured Colm Toibin, whose piece started on the front and continued on the whole of page 3. This was complemented by a full-page obit. The Indie gave the poet three spreads: pages 2 and 3, which featured a photograph of Heaney as a 30-year-old nursing a pint in a pub, the obit and the piece de resistance, his Nobel acceptance speech across 28 and 29, below. Unless I am mistaken, it was also the only paper to print a Heaney poem. Copyright issues can be tricky - and pricey. So hats off to the most poverty-stricken paper on the street for paying up and serving its readers well. True style.

This august quartet from England, Wales and Ireland were sadly joined on the skytrain by another literary great from Scotland. Alan Hamilton, the Times's appropriately titled Special Writer and royal correspondent, died last Friday aged 70. He was accorded an obit in his own paper and in the Telegraph. A youthful or mature photograph? A mature man relaxed in retirement. But this gentleman of letters never changed. He was magnificent at every age. 

And finally, SubScribe set itself a challenge. Was there anybody with a public career spanning a lifetime whose whole life could be told in a single photograph. Certainly not the Queen, nor Paul McCartney. No sportsman or actor. But I believe there is one person for whom it could work.
If you have other ideas, please share them.