Stephen Lawrence: Shouting the news

OUTSIDE the chest-beating world of journalism, in what I hope are just normal offices with normal people there is still, more often than not, somebody who SHOUTS THE NEWS. This character, whatever the duties they are actually paid to do during their working day, will hover over the BBC news website just in case something earth-shattering happens and they can be first to SHOUT THE NEWS.

Presumably, this is in the hope that their colleagues will look across and see in them some sort of genius Gandalf who knows important stuff that they won’t understand before anybody else. If everybody is out to lunch, they may even send a text.

THE NEWS OF THE WORLD IS CLOSING. LIZ TAYLOR HAS DIED. JOHN TERRY HAS BEEN CHARGED. The only dread for office workers who SHOUT THE NEWS is somehow misjudging the potential interest in what they are bellowing and in return see only desks of indifference once they have unleashed. TWO PEOPLE HAVE DIED, ERM, BY FALLING OFF A SKATEBOARD. IN COLOMBIA. IT SAYS HERE.

If most of the journalists you read or watch every day weren’t journalists, they would probably be people in other jobs who SHOUT THE NEWS when they should actually be creating line graphs and databases and spreadsheets or whatever normal, sensible people do with their careers.

We expect more from trained, skilled, talented journalists, but there is a little danger that Twitter and other internet devices which market speed over depth will reduce all of their qualities to these one-sentence relays. SHOUTING THE NEWS. It certainly seemed to infect the coverage of the Stephen Lawrence court case this week, a truly momentous story which so many journalists seemed to want to write themselves into. Anybody who had ever written a line or two about the case over the years were busy recalling this week about The Day I Met Doreen Lawrence or telling how I Went To Eltham Once.

Hundreds of journalists, possibly thousands, at some stage were put on the Stephen Lawrence story over the years. This wasn’t a one or two journalist scoop, it was a universal story, covered by all, the press were united in the anger we all feel for this case.

And yet, in the week of reckoning, this week, for all the thousands of words that have been written on the case, it felt there has been more chest beating and SHOUTING THE NEWS than any really serious analysis.

This came to a head during the sentencing hearing when journalists on the same press bench at the Old Bailey pulled hamstrings trying to be the first to tweet the jail terms the killers would serve. The difference was hundreths of seconds, a heady race that ultimately counts for little. It’s like newscasters who think they break stories on air by simply reading wire copy from an autocue. That mood was contagious this week. Reporters tweeted. Desk editors tweeted. Office news shouters added their tweets. Twitter became just one long column of the same jail sentence repeated again and again. On the actual news sites, the rush was just as manic. The Guardian published the verdict marked with a date from the past; they are not mystic, they were just hurrying with their cut and shut.

And people didn’t seem to know how to react to being repeatedly told the news over and again. That’s the only explanation surely for some normally level-headed writers starting to send reactionary messages about their hope that the defendants would be roughed up as soon as they got to jail. Somebody uploaded a curious ‘Ballad Of Stephen Lawrence’ to YouTube. People felt they needed to comment as if they would be letting the memory of Stephen down if they didn’t.

The most bizarre chapter of this 60 minute mayhem was the rolling news channels. There was Phillippa Thomas, an adept, skilled television journalist, on the BBC at an awkward crossroads of what journalism and court reporting has been in the past and what it might look like in the future, a soon-to-come time when agreed rules of court reporting are ironed into some sort of sensible code. There she was, covering the sentencing live from outside the Old Bailey, reading out tweets from people inside and notes from colleagues. She was great. The format wasn’t. We are all thinking about how we can make it better.

Even if you disagree with cameras in courtrooms – personally I’m not sold on the idea when you see some of the gawpy American coverage – the judicial process wouldn’t be compromised at all if just the judge reading his final ruling could be at least relayed in audio form.

I don’t say that there should not be competition between journalists but when you are sitting on a press bench watching the same thing unfold, there is no 1st, 2nd and last. But a haze did descend this week. We are in danger of all creating the setting which turns Diane Abbott’s tweets into a shitstorm they don’t really warrant. ‘The news’ spent more time on Thursday clumsily analysing whether obviously-not-racist Diane Abbott was racist or not rather than thinking about what her questionner was actually saying on Tuesday. Less time even still was spent as to how a killing like the murder of Stephen Lawrence could be avoided in the future.

There is a genuine problem in that the black community is only represented on TV news and newspaper reaction by a handful of people. Short on time, reporters rush to ring Darcus Howe or Gus John or Lee Jasper or Kwame from Casualty. It’s not the fault of those being called but they are often the same commentators brought on every time there is a ‘black’ issue to report on or discuss. It is fact that newsrooms have a small contacts book and are used to calling the same people they have always called. We all need to make more contacts, speak to more people, look deeper and wider than the established talking heads, however sensible their thoughts.

And we all need to do more than tweet… this from somebody who tweets every day. We need to do more than SHOUT THE NEWS. In the days after the Stephen Lawrence sentencing, there were few really considered articles. There were stitched together cutting jobs explaining the complex, law-changing history of the case but headlines like ‘justice at last’ didn’t really work when other suspects are yet to face trials.

Panorama aside – Panorama was excellent – the reporting was often superficial and one of the main missing links is the question as to how Stephen’s killers reached the stage where they were out of the control, beyond education. The narrative was told as if they were somehow born racist, hating black people from their first gurgles. Nobody really asked at what age their hate had set in and why, and whether they could have been turned in a different direction before taking up weapons. This is largely, I suspect, because writers fear being called apologists for two of Britain’s most reviled killers. Nobody wants to excuse them, but if we don’t at least try to understand how racism thrived in Eltham and sprouted elsewhere, we will always be at loss as to how to treat it.

And when we, journalists, are all reduced to people who just SHOUT THE NEWS, we lose a campaigning, investigative edge. The story of Stephen Lawrence, thousands and thousands of words later, somehow remained untold this week.

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