Sex, death, brass bands and libel by photograph

IF you want to find mistakes in papers look at the pictures.

The Sun on Sunday has just paid out in a libel settlement after running a story about a man discovering he was the son of Fred West – but the picture they printed on the front page was the man’s half-brother who was entirely unconnected to the serial killer. It has been reported that a five figure sum has changed hands as a result.

I’ve some sympathy for the Sun on Sunday, such things are all too easily done and let me share with you the story of one such disaster, which, sadly, I had a hand in. I’ve blogged this elsewhere on a previous occasion, but it bears repetition as it highlights the legal dangers of the photograph and its caption.

This is back in the days when I was a jobbing hack on the Daily Post and it was my turn to ‘do the calls.’

This was the round of phone calls made several times a day to the emergency services to see if there were any crimes, deaths, disasters or other human misery happening for us to report on. It was also in the days when such calls were made to human beings – usually a duty inspector in the police control room, or a desk sergeant at individual police stations. Since then these humans, who one could have a conversation with, have been replaced by pre-recorded ‘voicebanks’, which are a journalistic dead-end and should only ever be used as a starting point for a story by any reporter worth their salt.

Anyway, I digress, back to the sex and death. You see the virtue of talking to a human is that they do love a bit of gossip and so it was that morning when I made the call and was informed of a sudden death in a nearby market town, woman in custody as a result. Slowly, but surely, the story emerged.

It would seem the local brass band was a hotbed of illicit passion, and the alleged crime involved two of its members. She was 30, he was in his 60s, and after band practice they would adjourn to the local marshes in his roomy estate car where they would consummate their affair. Both were married.

The police were holding her as they believed she’d hit him in a lovers’ tiff, causing a fatal heart attack. She said he had died while they made love. The Daily Post at the time was intent on becoming the ‘Daily Mail of the North’ and for us the story had everything – sex, death, death caused by sex, and a brass band.

So, I set out hotfoot to the market town with a photographer, and crucially got to the bandmaster before word had spread of just how this bandsman had died. The family were letting people know of his death, but were, understandably, not sharing the grisly detail.

Most important, we got a photo of the band. Dead man, back row centre, and the bandmaster never queried it, but we got him to name every single band member, and there she was, in the front row – the, quite literally, femme fatale.

So, were were very happy with ourselves, we had the story, the picture, the whole lot and off to Liverpool it all went to be printed the next day in the Daily Post.

The next day, when I opened the paper, it was one of those moments as a reporter and you will all have them, when you close the paper, wanting what you see not to be true.

Because, on the front row far right there was a man in a wheelchair, and there was no-one sitting or standing behind him – what a designer would call ‘dead space’ a blank wall. So the man in the wheelchair was cropped off to neaten the pic. However, when the caption, which has already been written, reads: “Mrs X, fourth from the right,” the crop means that the identification moves along to the right. So instead of accusing the femme fatale of killing a fellow bandsman with her amorous attentions, we accused the 16-year-old schoolgirl sitting next to her.

So, I have some sympathy with the Sun on Sunday, as I said, it is easily done.

But if you do do it, then get it sorted quickly, which is precisely what the Daily Post did.

Firstly, we didn’t wait for a complaint. Eric Langton, who was on the DP newsdesk – one of the best news editors I’ve ever worked with, a real newsman, totally unflappable and a pleasure to work for – went straight round to the girl’s family with a letter of apology from the paper.

Her dad, you will understand, was not a happy man. Let’s face it, his daughter is 16 – she’s not on drugs, she’s not pregnant, not a tattooed death metal fan. She plays in a brass band for heaven’s sake, she is every dad’s vision of perfection, and here you have the Daily Post suggesting she kills elderly bandsmen with sex.

But, in typically civilised British fashion, he was polite with Eric and said that what action they took depended on how she reacted, she was at school and hadn’t seen the paper yet.

She arrived home, took one look at the Post…..and burst out laughing. She didn’t think anyone in the town would really think it was her, and didn’t think it would be taken seriously. So, they didn’t sue us. Nor did they want a correction, which they felt would just draw more attention to the story.

A close call, but a lesson that being straight with people and admitting your error, no matter how stupid it may make you look, can get you off the hook.

I’m not sure we would have been so lucky if it had happened now. Today as soon as it appeared on our website, her schoolmates would have Facebooked and Tweeted it to all and sundry, whereas we were just in print back then – chip-paper a day later – and I think that would put more pressure on the faily to take action and nail the lie of the story.

Oh, and the femme fatale? She was acquitted at trial.

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One thought on “Sex, death, brass bands and libel by photograph

  1. Pingback: Sex, death, brass bands and libel by photograph – David Banks | Inforrm's Blog

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