So much for Leveson

The Guardian, 19 March 2014

The lurid coverage of L’Wren Scott’s death shows that press ethics are being forgotten

It didn’t require much imagination to work out that Mick Jagger wouldn’t be looking great after he was told about his partner’s shocking and unexpected death. The singer had not long arrived in Perth for the Rolling Stones’ Australian tour when he got the news, which was broken to him while he was in an ‘upscale’ restaurant on Monday evening. But anyone who couldn’t quite picture what the singer looked like at this moment of profound shock needed only to turn to the front pages of the UK’s biggest-selling newspapers.

Yesterday morning, several of them actually boasted about the fact they had obtained photographs of Jagger as he was told of L’Wren Scott’s death. The Daily Mail’s front page showed Jagger, his mouth set in a rictus of grief, alongside a headline declaring ‘Moment Mick heard L’Wren was dead’. What looked like the same picture appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror (’The moment Jagger heard girlfriend of 13 years had hanged herself..’) and the Daily Star (‘Moment Jagger was told of lover’s suicide’).

Whether this was the precise moment that Jagger heard the news or a short time afterwards hardly matters. When news of Scott’s death flashed round the world, a picture of her grieving partner became the next tabloid ‘must-have’. Did it really come as a surprise to anyone to discover that Jagger was ‘pale and shaken’ and ‘utterly shocked’? There may be a universe in which people take the unexpected death of a partner in their stride, but I have yet to come across it.

It’s as if the intense public debate about media ethics over the last three years never happened, Fourteen months after the Leveson report accused sections of the press of wreaking ‘havoc’ with people’s lives, some editors are behaving with the same callous disregard for grief which was highlighted during the inquiry. They haven’t even abided by the editors’ code of practice drawn up by the toothless Press Complaints Commission, which states that cases of personal grief should be handled ‘sensitively’. Today’s front pages show that the popular press has reverted to its pre-Leveson position: people who venture into the public eye for any reason give up their right to privacy in perpetuity. They are public property, even when a close friend or relative dies in the most distressing circumstances.

Initial reports describing Scott as Jagger’s girlfriend, rather than a fashion designer with A-list clients, were bad enough. But as details of Scott’s financial difficulties began to emerge, The Sun took to describing her with crass insensitivity as ‘hanged Mick lover’. What kind of person, I wonder, is capable of writing those words for publication? Even in death – and what a cruel death this seems to have been – the most important thing about a woman is the name of her male partner. I wonder how many 49-year-old men (Scott’s age) would like to appear in headlines as someone’s boyfriend.

There is a line in the editors’ code about reporting suicide, which says ‘care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used’. But some editors clearly feel that publishing a link to the Samaritans at the end of an article leaves them free to speculate about how and why someone has taken his or her life. The Daily Mail reported that Scott ‘appeared to be enjoying success’ but suffered from depression and had recently ‘self-harmed’, invoking a classic stereotype about ambitious women.

Scott was understandably reluctant to be known as a famous man’s girlfriend when she was alive. In the wake of her death, the casual discounting of her achievements has offered a chilling insight into the pressures well-known women have to contend with. And the temptation to publish a story about a ‘celeb’ has once again over-ridden decency, compassion and the editors’ own guidelines about intruding into private grief.

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