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Monday 19th
posted by Morning Star in Features

The big media’s need to hold up profits drives them to increasing sensationalism and disregard for the lives of the people they report on, writes TIM GOPSILL

THE Sun stands accused of trying to get a reporter into the hospital ward of a victim of the London tower block fire by posing as the victim’s friend.

The accusation, if proved true, would be a return to the worst pre-Leveson days of the popular press, when there were no constraints on their journalists using any means to get the stories they wanted.

There were cases of reporters and photographers dressing up as doctors to get to celebrities’ bedsides.

King’s College Hospital is lodging a complaint with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) about the behaviour of the unnamed reporter.

Mario Gomes is a former resident on the 21st floor of Grenfell Tower  who was hailed as a hero after going back into the building to find his 12-year-old daughter.

According to the Sun, he agreed by text message to give an interview in hospital to a journalist who had been given his number by another survivor of the disaster.

The Sun said that a different journalist made the approach to staff at the hospital for the interview, which Gomes then declined because the reporter allegedly claimed to be a friend. It denies the reporter attempted to impersonate a friend.

The south London hospital said: “We have formally written to The Sun and will be informing the Independent Press Standards Organisation. We are unable to comment on the specifics until our complaint has been investigated.”

Ipso applies an editors’ code of practice, which includes a rule on how reporters should conduct themselves in hospitals.

Clause 8 of the code says: “Journalists must identify themselves and obtain permission from a responsible executive before entering non-public areas of hospitals or similar institutions to pursue inquiries.”

The newspaper said: “The Sun wants to make it clear that no reporter has ‘impersonated’ any family members. The Sun was in contact with one of the people injured in the Grenfell fire, who provided a detailed phone interview for the newspaper. We then visited him in hospital to get a further interview and photos.

“On arrival the Sun reporter and photographer made hospital staff aware that they were present and had been in touch with the contact. However we were informed the contact had changed his mind on the interview and The Sun promptly left the hospital. We completely refute any accusation that our employees acted inappropriately.”

There are reasons why the Ipso code — along with other media codes of conduct — has a dedicated clause on hospitals.  

One reason is that a hospital is a fairly public place in which it is easy to walk about unchallenged, where newsworthy patients are vulnerable and accessible.

But another is that there have been contentious cases of patients’ privacy being violated. The actor Gorden Kaye, who played a cafe owner in a sitcom called ’Allo ’Allo!, was badly injured in 1990 when a huge billboard crashed through the windscreen of his car during a storm.

A reporter and photographer from a tabloid called the Daily Sport put on white coats, walked to his ward and took photos of him in a distressing state, which were published after a High Court bid for an injunction to prevent publication failed.

This became a cause celebre because the press was itself on trial at the time. The previous year there had been an inquiry into press standards, rather like the Leveson inquiry 22 years later, as a result of tabloid intrusion, principally snatched photographs of royalty and other celebs.

This inquiry, by David Calcutt QC, had recommended statutory measures against the press, with the establishment of a tribunal with criminal powers.

The press was horrified and promised to clean up its act, and the Calcutt proposals were put aside to give them a chance.

The hospital incident shattered the truce. The Calcutt committee reconvened and again recommended statutory regulation, but the Tory government of John Major caved in to pressure from the press and dropped it.

The Press Complaints Commission, Ipso’s predecessor, agreed to tighten its code of practice, and the hospital clause appeared.

From time to time, when the going gets hot, the papers do restrain their reporters, to be able to claim they’ve changed for the better.

When the pressure is off, things tend to slip back again.

They had a torrid time again during the Leveson process, when years of intrusive and illegal snooping — and more years of bare-faced denials as the facts slowly came out — caught up with them. For a year or so they played it safe again.

But like addicts they keep slipping back. Newspapers are losing readers, sales and money, but the owners, bloated on decades of huge profits, need the money to expand their digital operations. Everyone knows who owns The Sun, but the other groups — the Mail, the Mirror and the Express — are just as bad.

Their need to hold up profits drives them to ever-increasing sensationalism and ever-worse disregard for the lives of the people they report on, whether they are hospital patients, Labour politicians, refugees, trade unionists, football fans or whoever.

The only way to stop this is to stop the big media corporations, with their insatiable demands for sales, controlling so much of the press.

No-one wants laws to control what they can publish but we do want media that is responsive to the sensitivities of the people they write about.

Tim Gopsill is editor of Free Press, magazine of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, and former editor of the Journalist, the magazine of the National Union of Journalists. He was a member of the NUJ national executive during the Wapping dispute.

*As of June 23, the complaint against The Sun newspaper in this case has been withdrawn.