Emma Barnett on why we need a media prepared to finish a story
On her new radio show, Eye of the Storm, the journalist speaks to everyday folk who relive a time in the headlines that permanently changed their lives
Imagine being at home a week before Christmas, perhaps doing some present-wrapping with a large glass of red. Then the door goes. It’s the police. And in a split second your life changes for ever.
Welcome to Simon Warr’s reality in 2012. What followed were 672 hellish days. A well-known teacher, who regularly appeared on radio and TV, he was accused of sexually abusing former pupils he says he’d never even met. Despite his denials and a lengthy bail period, the case went to trial and Mr Warr ended up facing seven charges involving three complainants.
It took a jury 40 minutes to make their decision; Mr Warr was cleared on all counts. Forty minutes versus 672 days – during which time a version of this man’s life hit the media, and he thought about ending it all.
Now rewind to 1995 and remember an image that defined the 90s: 18-year-old Leah Betts hooked up to a life-support machine after taking an ecstasy tablet and drinking copious amounts of water. She died soon after that picture was snapped. But what of Paul and Jan Betts, Leah’s father and stepmother, who took the brave decision to release that photo to the media, to deter other young people from taking drugs? You don’t know, do you?
And neither did I – until I spoke to them a few weeks ago on my radio show, during a new regular feature called Eye of the Storm, in which everyday folk generously relive their time in a public tempest that permanently altered their lives. I didn’t know how these people’s stories ended, and yet I felt like I knew them. Such is the single-mindedness of the media machine that one event can dictate the public’s knowledge of a person for ever. Then they find themselves frozen in time, unable to move on, as the circus decamps elsewhere. They may never do anything worthy of press attention again, and consequently their public script is written.
Even though Mr Warr was cleared of all charges, people still know him as “that teacher accused of sex abuse”. He has just written a book hoping to exorcise these demons, aptly titled Presumed Guilty: A Teacher’s Solitary Battle to Clear His Name.
Amazingly Paul and Jan Betts were forced to relocate after local drug lords made several threats on their lives. Where was the public outcry about that? Now, 22 years on, they tend a remote croft in Scotland.
And when I asked Mr Betts if he would release that image today? He swiftly said “No”, because he doesn’t think he could cope with cruel comments on social media – which, of course, weren’t a feature of the 90s.
I was blown away by these insights into Mr Warr’s and Mr Betts’s realities today. That’s when it struck me – too often the media simply doesn’t finish the story. And because of the amplifying effect of the internet, non-celebrities’ stories go more viral than ever before. Being a professional storyteller of sorts, I’ve always been fascinated by the end of the tale. How did these people cope, and what, if anything, did they learn?
The internet never lets us forget why we know someone’s name or face. Algorithms being what they are, we simply don’t have a “right to be forgotten”, regardless of what a 2014 EU law stipulates. But people do have a right to be more than a headline that never changes.
As our offline and online selves grow closer, we should be more mindful of what folk have been through since they hit the headlines. These people are more than a freeze-frame of the most dramatic moment in their lives. But to learn that information we need media prepared to finish the story, and an audience who are receptive to letting people move on. So how about it?
Eye of the Storm is a new podcast taken from 5 Live Daily, presented by Emma Barnett, Wednesday to Friday at 10am