Editors were right to use Jagger grief pic, but there was much else wrong with L'Wren Scott death coverage

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The Twitterati were in full cry over newspaper coverage of the death of L'Wren Scott. The Mail, Star and Mirror were all under fire for "intruding into Mick Jagger's grief" with their page one pictures of him leaving a restaurant in Perth.

The pages were pretty stark. But it was the headlines rather than the photograph that made them so. The three tabs all produced a variation on the same theme: that the picture was taken "the  moment" that Jagger was told that his girlfriend L'Wren Scott was dead.
 

 
Except it wasn't. Jagger had been given the news in the restaurant and, unless she had spectacular contacts, the Splash photographer Faith Moran almost certainly didn't know what had happened –  Scott's death wasn't announced for another hour or so. The snapper was there because the Stones had just arrived in Perth for the start of the Australian leg of their world tour and someone had spread the word that Jagger was dining at Coco's. She was waiting outside with fans. They were hoping for autographs, Moran was hoping for a picture; the fans were disappointed, Moran secured a scoop.

Yes, but even if the photograph was taken in ignorance, surely to use it was in bad taste? 

We-ell…not really. A famous man looking sombre in a public place, it was no more distasteful than the photographs of bereaved families we see after every disaster or the funeral shots of  widows and infants after a young soldier has died in Afghanistan. These are not to SubScribe's taste, but they have long been accepted.

Again, it was the presentation rather than the picture itself that was wrong. The headlines were both deceitful and sensational. The Sun used the picture on the front only as a little  inset,  but its front was just as objectionable as the other three if telling the story with brutal clarity is the issue.

 
What about the editors' code of practice? Doesn't this sort of thing prove how hopeless it is – after all isn't Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, head of the code committee and he's one of the biggest sinners?
 
As far as intrusion into private grief, the code states:
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.
There is no suggestion that any approaches were made to Jagger about Scott's death, so the first half doesn't apply. Publication handled sensitively? I think we can count that as a big No – although Jagger has seen a lot worse written about him, has other things on his mind and was last night saying that he was not minded to complain (not that that makes it right).
 
Then there was the camp, led by Clare Balding and Alice Arnold, who were agitated about the way Scott was being described as "Mick Jagger's girlfriend". Wasn't she a successful designer in her own right? She was a person, not an appendage.
 
Quite. SubScribe has been beating this drum for years. Except, except…when I first saw the flash saying "L'Wren Scott dead" my first thought was "wasn't she one of Mick Jagger's girlfriends?"
 
She had some big-name friends and admirers, to be sure, but how much notice would anyone have taken of her death without the Jagger connection? She certainly wouldn't have occupied the first five pages of our best-selling papers – or, indeed, wanted to. 
 
Nor, it would appear, was she that successful: her business was deep in debt and she'd had to throw away six months' preparation for her London Fashion Week show because of "production problems" that would not have stopped a real player.
 
So SubScribe is defending the tabs as though they did nothing wrong? Not a bit of it. They did a lot wrong. And so did the heavies.
 
The second pointer on intrusion in the editor's code stipulates
When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.
The Samaritans go further in their guidance to journalists on reporting suicides. It has a page on its websitedealing with what responsible media should and should not say. The organisation is concerned that extensive reporting, especially if it is sensationalised, can trigger copycat suicides. Scott's death prompted it to reissue key points of the advice yesterday. Almost every paper fell foul of this guidance in at least one respect, the only one to come out with a clean sheet, apart from a couple of tiny slips – was The Independent.
 
The Mirror, by contrast, broke just about every rule in the book. It was the only newspaper to say exactly how Scott had killed herself (the BBC also failed in this respect) – going so far as to make the detail the screaming headline on its first spread. 
 
Every paper, apart from The Independent, said that Scott had hanged, that her business had debts and that she had pulled her London Fashion Week show last month. To be fair, I think that all three were key elements of the story, although they could have been presented rather more tactfully than the Mail's headline:

"Did L'Wren hang herself in despair over crumbling fashion empire?"

A couple of papers hinted at difficulties in Scott's relationship with Jagger's family and reported that she had not been invited to the double baby shower organised by Jerry Hall for Jade Jagger and her daughter Assisi, who are both expecting.
 
The Independent's main lapse, along with the Express, was to employ the outdated phraseology that Scott had "committed suicide". It also omitted to include helpline details – for the Samaritans or anyone else. The Mail, Sun and the Express were the only three to give a number at the end of the copy.
 
Does any of this matter? We're producing newspapers for readers, not pamphlets for charities and do-gooders. 
 
Well, yes we are, but we don't want further deaths on our shallow consciences do we? As a community, the press is very good at writing about the latest mental health thinking and absolute rubbish at putting it into practice. 
 
We pay too little attention to the language we use in reporting stories, we allow columnists to spew out opinions formed in ignorance, and we utterly fail to practice what we preach in our leader columns, taking pride in macho newsrooms that are breeding grounds for stress.
 
Away from the general failings in reporting deaths like this and back to the specific, the key issue newspapers had to decide was whether this was a story about a fashion designer or about a Rolling Stone. Without the latter, it would have made something modest in the foreign pages and perhaps a little obit. The death  of Clarissa Dickson Wright, for example, was of far greater general interest. Yet, as many have pointed out, to go all out on the Jagger angle jarred. 
 
The Sun, Times, Express, Mail and Telegraph all started their main stories with a variant of "Mick Jagger was shocked and devastated last night…" The Star had him weeping on the front and breaking down in tears on the inside, while the Mirror splashed on a picture, saying: "This is distraught Mick Jagger…" The  Guardian opened its page 3 story with the clumsy construction "The fashion designer L'Wren Scott, the girlfriend of Mick Jagger, was found dead.."
The Star had little time for Scott on any of its five pages: Mick was being shocked and devastated on pates 4 and 5, and playing Jumpin Jack's flash harem on 6 and 7 in what must have been the most distasteful spread of the day.
 
 
Not that the Star was alone in taking the opportunity to run through a bit of bedroom history. The Mirror told us about the rock god with 4,000 notches on his bedpost; the Sun the "history of idol's girls", with photographs of him with the four mothers of his seven children; the Telegraph wrote about the women who couldn't tame Jagger – and inexplicably ran a photograph of Jerry Hall slap bang in the middle of its half-page spread. 
 
The Mail reported that Scott had been "frustrated at being consigned to the role of girlfriend rather than wife – not that she ever let on…" 
 
But if she never let on, how did the Mail know? 
 
Worst of all was Philip Norman's effort on the same spread. Headlined "Overdoses, broken hearts and troubles of Jagger's women", it gave the impression that every woman in Jagger's life was a troublesome burden – when the evidence (if we can call it that) suggested the reverse; that being with Jagger was a potential health threat.
 
Pictures across the board were Mickcentric, to the extent that the Express preferred an apartment block and a picture of the Stones after disembarking their airliner to anything that might have illustrated Scott's career.
 
At least the jolly beach picture tweeted by Jagger before Scott died had a poignancy about it. Scott was a model and a designer, where were the catwalk pictures – of her wearing others' creations or of others wearing her clothes? 
Only the Sun showed any  interest, with pictures of Scott in her youth plus three cameos of Kim Kardashian, Madonna and Princess Beatrice in her designs. The Telegraph and Independent did at least wheel out their fashion eds to offer (favourable) opinions on her work. 
 
The Times meanwhile produced the most bizarre image/head combination with an obit describing Scott as 'model with legs of a gazelle' and a picture cut off at the thigh. 
 
 
And so a final hurrah for the Independent, which showed that this story was compelling even without the melodrama and the overemphasis on 70-year-old sex gods. Its front-page picture was a stylish portrait of Scott on her own, without a grinning man gazing up from her waist. Inside, Jagger's place was acknowledged but not over-egged; there were no salacious details, no speculation. Just straight reporting of the facts as known. The indebtedness of Scott's business should have been mentioned, but the overall result should convince the doubters that there are still people putting national newspapers together who are capable of thought and responsibility.
 
The Samaritans guide to reporting suicide:
  • Avoid explicit details of the suicide method e.g. do not state where and how an individual took their own life or what material was used (ideally, don’t report the method of suicide at all)
  • Suicide is complex and seldom the result of a single factor, it is likely to have several inter-related causes
  • Avoid the placement of stories on the front page or in large headlines to guard against sensationalising the story
  • Do not portray a suicide as quick, effective, painless or easy
  • Remember that family, friends and colleagues who have been bereaved by suicide can be particularly affected by the reporting, as it may exacerbate their feelings of loss
  • Where possible sensitively focus on the life achievements of the person and the wastefulness of their death
  • If a suicide note is submitted as evidence, avoid disclosing its contents: suicide notes can provide details that sensationalise suicide and can encourage further identification with the deceased 
  • We would be grateful if you could include details of our helpline service.
Samaritans is available around-the-clock on 08457 90 90 90 or email  jo@samaritans.org.

 

 

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