By Mike SeccombeJuly 25, 2012
Some focussed on the social-media blunder when Seven News removed the anguished Facebook comment of a bereaved mother who’d been harrassed by their TV reporter. But the odious culture of the “death knock” is as old as journalism itself. It’s just getting worse.
The first lesson in the psychology of death knocks, taught to police rounds cadets at the late, not much lamented, afternoon tabloid The Brisbane Telegraph, was 'Never phone first'. If you phoned the newly bereaved, they were more likely to tell you to piss off. The old hands deemed it was harder for the family to say no when they were face-to-face with an uncomfortable young reporter.
The second lesson was, leave the photographer in the car. Allegedly this was also about psychology; the bereaved were more likely to be spooked by the appearance of two people, one of them festooned with camera gear. I'm not sure, though, whether this was not at least partly a fabrication of the photographers, who tended to be older and wiser, and slower if people set the dog loose. If they let you in, if it was apparent they were going to talk, that's when you would call the snapper in.
The third lesson was that your chances of success were greater if you timed it right. There is a time not long after the death when the shocked relatives will talk to almost anyone.
Thus went the simple psychological calculus of death knocks.
I actually had a pretty good success rate, I think because I looked so genuinely sorry to be there. "Come in," they would say, all too often. "Have a cup of tea." And so you would ask your awkward questions about a death of which you knew a little and a life of which you knew nothing.
I always left it to the photographer to do the really intrusive stuff — asking to see the family photo album, asking to borrow pictures, et cetera.
Get in, get the stuff, get out, get it written for the next edition, which in those days was never more than a couple of hours away. There was little joy in a 'success', and if you came back a failure — saying, truthfully or not, that there was no one home — you were likely to be sent back.
I hated it. But at first, being young and eager to please, I did it. Later on, I began to use my own initiative, conspiring on occasion with the photographer to skip it. Other times I could see the point to a death knock; where the deceased had been the victim of crime, for example, a story might help the police investigation.
But mostly, it served no useful purpose that I could see.
It was a relief to be moved off police rounds — I could never establish a rapport with the cynical, racist, sexist individuals who ran Joh Bjelke-Petersen's force anyway — and ultimately into politics, where there were no innocent victims.
I'll offer a limited defence of what I did as a death-knocker: I never approached it cynically. I tried not to sensationalise, but to produce human stories. I never tried to make them cry — though many did cry. I certainly never staked them out or stalked them, or snooped around their properties. Or conspired to take unpermitted photos of their grief.
In short, I never behaved like Australia's commercial TV networks, whose sad excuse for news increasingly involves the presentation of gossip and sensation, tragedy and trivia, serving no real purpose of public information. It's become a matter of the cynical catering to the interests of the prurient.
And while we're at it, we shouldn't let newspapers off the hook. They too have become increasingly dependent on this kind of stuff as a cheap alternative to substantive reportage.
But our case in point today is an electronic media one: Channel Seven's recent handling of the death of a child, Molly Lord, 13, in a quad-bike accident.
Well, Molly's mother, Linda Goldspink-Lord, was outraged at the way the network went about reporting it. She wrote an angry post on Seven News Sydney's Facebook page about the "pain and harassment" the network had inflicted. She alleged she had been filmed with her daughter's body, from a network helicopter. Footage was put up on the network's website before she had even told all the members of her family. She said a reporter — presumably from Seven — was wandering around the house and stables on her property, "whilst Molly was still on the ground".
"Channel 7," she wrote, "you are a disgrace and what should have been a private moment between a mother and her daughter was exploited for the sake of an exclusive story. You bastards".
The public rallied to her. According to a Sydney Morning Herald report 32,000 people "liked" her post.
Seven responded by taking it down, which was of course the stupidest thing it could have done.
She posted again after it was taken down berating them this time for their cover-up. Then a support site, Justice for Linda Goldspink-Lord, attracted hundreds of comments and thousands more "likes".
And, belatedly, Seven sort of apologised.
A statement attributed to Chris Willis, Director of News at Seven Sydney, was released, saying Goldspink-Lord's comments were removed from the site "in error".
"Taking into account her understandable distress over the coverage of Molly's death, I did ask for the footage to be taken down. That happened but unfortunately her remarks were deleted as well. They are now being restored to our Facebook page," the statement said.
"I would also like to stress that we have re-examined our reports into Molly's tragic death and can find no video showing Ms Goldspink-Lord hugging her daughter."
He tried to spread the blame, saying Seven was not the only network to visit the family's property.
He said the station's reporter left "immediately" on being told the family would not talk.
We note the statement included no denial of shooting from a chopper and no denial of a reporter roaming about the property. We sought to speak with Willis, but he didn't get back to us. Anyway, the statement ended: "Our reporters and camera crews know that grieving families have to be approached with sensitivity and compassion."
Indeed, Seven's reporters should know they don't have to do it at all. Point 11 of the Australian Journalists Association code of ethics says: "Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude." (My emphasis.)
The sad fact of the matter, though, is that death knocks are not just here to stay, but are now more intrusive than ever. It's not just some nervous kid reporter knocking at the door anymore, but rapid-response teams of coiffured bimbos and himbos who descend on the bereaved with practised looks of concern, with helicopters and high-tech transmission equipment.
It's awful, but what can you do? Too many people mistake this stuff for news.