I’ve recently started watching the BBC series Press, an enjoyable and polished drama which follows the adventures of the staff on two fictional daily newspapers.
While certain shortcuts are taken or cliches pursued for dramatic purposes, there is enough in there which is familiar to pique the interest of an old newspaperman.
The conflict of the approaches of a left-leaning liberal publication which flounders while it attempts to maintain strict editorial principles with the thriving tabloid where the editor demands his reporters dig up ‘dirt’ is a quandary many journalists will have wrestled with.
Similarly the struggles of a diminishing industry dealing with the new commercial challenges of a digital age is well observed. The scene where the editor of the Guardian-like Herald explains to her groaning staff how the following Monday’s edition is going to have an advertising ‘wraparound’ covering the front and back pages is accurate. I’ve been in the room on more than one occasion while that very conversation has taken place.
Also the underlying theme of how being at the forefront of driving the news agenda requires sacrifices which can destroy family life or good mental health is a little too recognisable for me to properly enjoy.
But it is another scene altogether which I perhaps found most impactful. The first episode of the drama is called ‘Death Knock’ and part of the story surrounds a young reporter on the tabloid Post agonising over having to rap the door of the grieving parents of a young footballer who has taken his own life. Just watching it made me uncomfortable.
For several years I was the crime reporter on a daily newspaper. In far distant days the paper produced an evening edition. This meant that the reporters started work very early in the morning to meet the deadlines of a PM print run.
As the crime reporter my first duty was always to check the overnight police notes. Then, not always but often, while the rest of society was just waking up I would be on the road to do a death or crime knock.
I would be reasonably confident in stating that for several years back near the start of this millennium I had at least as many of these difficult encounters as any other journalist in Northern Ireland.
But despite the multitude of death knocks, the ritual never seemed to get any easier. My stomach never quite settled, my nerves were always raw. I could never shake the persistent feeling that I was doing something quite awful.
Yes there was and is a clear and genuine public interest in allowing bereaved families to tell their stories, but I always felt mercenary. Newspapers peddle in grief and anguish and I knew a strong human interest story would always make the front page.
In addition I had to balance the guilt over talking to a victim’s family with the fear of having to go back to the office to face my editor empty handed.
Often I thought about how I would react if I had been bereaved and a young journalist came calling at my door reeking of desperation to get the story.
Techniques evolved through practice. Most people’s original reaction is to tell you to fuck off. But if you can just get them talking first, just a little opening before the door slams in your face, the smallest of human connections, then you know you’re in with a much better chance of getting the interview.
And all people are different. The death knock demonstrated the hugely varying methods that the human nature uses to cope with great adversity. Often I was verbally abused and described as ‘scum’. On a few occasions I was advised to leave property for my own health and was pushed and shoved more than once.
But then there were the people who just wanted to talk, who found something cathartic in sharing at a time when their grief must have been overwhelming.
I’ll never forget the family of one high profile murder victim in Belfast. I was the first journalist to find their house and knocked on their door less than six hours after their son had been killed. The parents invited me into their home and were unfailingly generous and open with their time. The tearful mother asked me if I’d had any breakfast and then insisted on making me tea and toast. A more compelling example of human strength and dignity I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed.
There were disasters too. Hours spent unsuccessfully knocking on doors asking if this was the right house, cases of mistaken identity or where incorrect information which had been passed on. I remember once waking a middle-aged gentleman from his sleep to ask him if it was his son had been lost the night before. It was the wrong house but the momentary look of fear and horror on his face disturbed me greatly.
It never happened to me but I’ve heard of occasions where journalists or photographers found a victim’s house so quickly that the family had not yet been informed of a tragedy.
In my later years in journalism things changed. I was on the newsdesk so became responsible for sending other reporters to do death knocks rather than carrying them out myself.
But the routine was always the same. The reporter was loathe to leave the office, often hanging around or killing time until I firmly told them they had to do it. Several times journalists informed me they were uncomfortable. I told them that was the natural reaction, the day when they were not uncomfortable was when they should begin to worry.
In more recent times social media and the dwindling resources of newspapers changed the situation further. Rather than knocking on a stranger’s door and asking them for a picture, photographs can often be found online. Rather than needing to get live quotes from a family member, there is usually a flood of online tributes which can be harvested. Doors are still knocked but perhaps not quite as often.
But this new situation presented a new series of problems. On occasion I received angry phone calls from grieving relatives who demanded to know the source of our photo or quotes. When I told them that they freely available online it rarely placated their hostility.
The truth is that there is just enough grey area about the rights of information publicly accessible on social media that newspapers are able to charge right through the vacuum and hoover up what is available. It is a rare and brave journalist who will decline the chance to lift a photo from social media when he or she is aware that all of the competitors have almost certainly already done so.
There is no doubt that much of the most powerful journalism comes from families telling their story of facing grief or adversity. I know personally of instances where families have channeled the story of their tragedy through the media to push for justice or vital societal change.
The death knock will always be part of journalism. And it should be.
But that doesn’t make it any easier to perform.
As a former hack now there are still many parts of the game which I fondly remember and miss. The early morning rap on the door is not one of them.