The serial killings of Fred and Rose West was a case that dominated the early part of my career in newspapers.
I didn’t cover the story on a day-to-day basis but I knew several journalists who did – and working down the road in Swindon, it was close enough to be both macabre and fascinating.
Knowing some journalists who covered the case day in and day out, I do know that many details of Fred & Rose West’s perversions were never made public. Many journalists formed a pact not to reveal some of the more awful details.
I was therefore very interested in the ITV drama Appropriate Adult. I found it quite difficult to watch and difficult to understand the odd relationship between West and Janet Leach. However, having looked a murderer in the eye myself, it can be hard to relate that person to their actions.
Today I’ve listened to the main police officer being critical of the programme and its makers.
Janet’s role in the case was grossly exaggerated, they didn’t stick to the facts.
Such a reaction was predictable – but let’s not forget that this was a drama. It was not a documentary or a drama documentary – nor was it billed as such.
It was also very specific in that it looked at one very particular aspect of this gruesome and awful case. It was a relationship based in fact – Janet Leach is a real person, she did sit with Fred West during police interviews and she did lie about her involvement with a national newspaper.
But should history be harsh on her for that? During the Fred & Rose West trial, many, many people made money out of this case. There were even rumours at the time that T-shirts were even being sold in the street where it happened.
Also many journalists paid money to nearby properties in order to erect scaffoldings etc from which to film activity around the home occupied by the murderers.
Detectives who worked on the case are, understandingly are very passionate about the role they played.
But it remains true that this couple practised their perversions almost in plain sight for many, many years. Was there joined up information around this couple? Who knows? It seems unbelievable that no one at any time raised any concerns about them, about children who were there and then were not…
The drama did two things for me which were powerful – it showed the delusion that the murderer Fred West could have hidden behind.
I’ve experienced it once myself when I visited a convicted killer in prison. Even after ten years inside he still talked about the offence as if the victim was somehow to blame – her behaviour was such that it brought about a fatal chain of events.
The fact that his response to her behaviour was to shoot her dead – he just couldn’t see that that wasn’t a normal response. I felt, sadly, that this man would never be able to see the horror of what he’d done, the pain he’d caused.
The dramatisation of Fred West demonstrated that self-delusion – talking about dead victims with love and compassion while ignoring the elephant in the room – the fact that he or his awful wife had killed that victim.
The other powerful thing for me was the representation of Rose West. As the trial progressed with Rose West in real life, I began to see her as a mastermind rather tha
n a deluded follower of her husband’s perversions.
The web spun by Fred & Rose West - prepare for more dramas around this story
There’s another thing that rings true from the drama. People like the two Wests don’t just stop such awful acts – paedophiles don’t suddenly stop and start. I believe, as perhaps Janet Leach does, that there are more victims out there. We will never know the full extent of their actions.
My thoughts go out to the relatives of those individuals – a stain on that family that could leak down through the generations.
So the hacking saga goes on with resignations and revelations galore – with all other news disappearing out of sight.
It’s a shame that everything hinges around this, even though it is important. It just feels like it completely obliterates other news.
Be aware you won’t get away from it tomorrow – Five Live is covering it all day as is BBC TV to name a few.
I’m interested but, let’s get some perspective. This story appears to be so London-centric – there’s a whole nation out there with things to say.
Here in Swindon, a young girl was buried, a girl who went off the rails through drug addiction, left her family home and years later her remains were found. A man is awaiting trial charged with her murder and that of another Swindon girl, Sian O’Callaghan. I doubt the phone-hacking means much to these two devastated families.
There’s also some good news about you know – in Wiltshire RAF Lyneham is going to be give a new lease of life. The little town of Lyneham was poised for devastation as that magnificent air base was due to close.
It’s a place with many great memories for me – I was lucky enough to be one of many journalists who covered the return of hostages Jacky Mann and Terry Waite to this airbase. I also went up in a Hercules once which circled over Bath, opening the doors so we could take fantastic pictures of the city from the air.
But I bear in mind that other areas on the UK have not been granted this type of reprieve and will see bases near them close. Often the effect of such closures is so overlooked – local economies can literally die overnight.
We’ve raised more than £20m as a nation for the crisis in Africa – astonishing given the economic climate but it shows that many people really do care.
But as for charities, a curious thing happened to me today.
I had a call from a lady representing a national charity, Sue Ryder, reminding me that I’d given a bag of clothes to their shop in Swindon. It was true, several months ago.
Why did I choose that shop? I gave the answer. A couple of other questions – the woman then entered this long spiel about what the charity does and would I consider giving £15 a month?
I said no, I didn’t like cold-calling, I would make my own choices about what charities to support and not to ring again.
I even said I was a journalist and didn’t appreciate being misled with the suggestion this was some sort of survey – when in fact it was a pushy sales call.
But this woman was not daunted, she said if I was strapped for cash, I could put off a donation for a couple of months and could give just £8 a month. I repeated my previous comments.
I told her I had been polite but was now going to end the call – whereupon she spoke really fast giving the name of the private company she worked for which would earn about £72,000 for doing these cold calls but the charity would raise hopefully around £190,000 from this sales push.
Times are tough for charities – but that one call alone put me off this charity – it plays on people’s sympathy and pins them down.
Don’t make me feel obliged, don’t cold call me and never continue the sales pitch
We've raised millions for needy in Africa so far....
when I’ve clearly said I’m not interested.
I do give, I will give and I have given but in my own time, at my own pace, when I feel I want to and can afford to.
A new charity shop has opened in Swindon raising money for children whose families need respite care. Guess where my next charity bag will be going?
I cannot help but write about the phone-hacking scandal which continues to rumble on – it’s there in the background for most people but for journalists it’s still the main topic of conversation.
As I’ve intimated previously that’s because we’re feeling that we’re all being tarred with the same brush as the few who either broke the law, or who got others to do it for them, in pursuit of a big story and the subsequent big bucks.
Some have raised eyebrows that an editor cannot know what his/her journalists are doing? But it’s possible, especially if you are not asking too many questions and your budget is so big that
Journalists can tell good stories without breaking the law
invoices adding up to £100k don’t register.
For most of us in the regional world of journalism that doesn’t happen. Money is so tight that such a spend would stick out like a sore thumb.
Another issue that’s worthy of consideration is the suggestion that police officers in the Met (and possibly elsewhere) may have taken money from journalists.
It’s amazing how many people think that journalists carry around a chequebook from their employer to wave around at potential interviewees.
Such a practice may be common place for national journalists but I’ve not come across it in local settings or even national television.
The only things I’ve ever paid for are as follows: travelling expenses, child care costs, loss of earnings which can be proved, payment of a telephone bill for a low income family where we needed regular contact over number of months, occasional donation to charity for use of facilities, occasional location fees for businesses.
When working on an antiques programme a few years ago I used to pay cash to traders/stall holders to use their space for a period of filming if it was going to disrupt business for more than ten minutes.
I’ve been asked for money many, many times by possible interviewees and have said no. As journalists we’re not allowed to pay anyone with criminal convictions, and I’d never dream of giving cash to a police officer. I may be naive, even after 20 years, but I’ve always been suspicious of anyone who’s first thought is to ask for money.
There are still many, many good people out there who tell their personal stories in order to spread the word, heighten public awareness alongside my need to make a good tv programme. Indeed, people will often take days off work just to take part in filming and never ask for a penny.
Tomorrow I’m filming with a family where the father suffers from severe OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Mum is taking a day off work to be with us (something we did not request). This is a sign of how important this family feels it is to highlight the issues around this mental disorder.
However this phone-hacking saga develops in the next days and weeks – remember this, there are good people around with relevant stories to tell and share.
This is a mantra I hear frequently when people talk about the traditional media and it always shows me how little we consider where news comes from.
News comes from human beings who are doing things – journalists have no magic wands, their job is not rocket science, it’s about dealing with and spreading information – and that’s all.
It’s so easy to blame things on the ‘press’ or increasingly on ‘social media’ as a convenient get-out clause without considering how news gets to us journalists.
The truth is bad news reaches the public domain very quickly in the UK and it’s easily accessible.
Often a bad news story will involve a public body at some point – public bodies are publicly accountable, spending our money and they have to be seen to be doing their job. So bad news comes via the police, the ambulance service, the local authority, industrial tribunals, courts, etc etc.
Bad news is also quite unusual and that can make it appealing. If you look at a newspaper, for example, how many of the lead stories are negative rather than positive?
Good news is much harder to sell because it’s so commonplace. There are good news stories all around us. Did someone smile at you today? Were babies born at the local hospital today? Was it someone’s birthday today? Do you expect all of these ‘good news’ stories to make headlines? The truth is a lot of good news is so common in any village, town or city that it’s mundane. You cannot full a newspaper with stories about people’s birthdays – who would read it?
So if you are building a brand, publicizing an event, you have to make it stand out from the crowd, make it easy for the journalist to use your story and trust the information. Like anything else it needs to be packaged correctly to have a chance of making it out there.
That involves not only the story but timing – if it’s a slow news day you might stand a better chance of publicity. Timing is as important as anything else. We can’t control what goes on in the world on any given day but we can play the odds – it’s likely that a local newspaper will not have a big news story every day of the week. And with social media, get the news out there, several times if necessary.
Why do the press seem to like 'bad news'?
Tip: There are no guarantees with PR – it’s about playing the odds, knowing the individuals, hitting the right note at the right time and acting quickly when opportunities arise.
Why do we care about footballers’ celebrity status and private lives so much?
Where are the millions of people who find this stuff interesting? They must be out there otherwise there’d be no commercial reason for chasing down this kind of information.
As a media person who finds this kind of personal information boring and of little interest, I do see it from a slightly different point of view.
I don’t find it boring because I’m trying to be too intelligent or anything highly moral. I have, in the past, looked into someone’s private life because I believe it serves the public interest to do so.
I’ve told a presenter to challenge a married MP on air about his love affair because it was directly affecting his work in his constituency. That was not pleasant, it felt uncomfortable but I could see the point. However, I’ve known several other MPs who’ve had extra-marital relationships but have considered it irrelevant to their professional standing.
Any journalist who works around politicians, celebrities or footballers knows far more than he/she will be in a position to publish.
I've interviewed many famous footballers
I’ve also interviewed footballers, some very well known, and have found no reason to talk to them about their private lives.
Frankly some of them might be able to kick a ball around and show astonishing talent on the pitch – but they can barely string two sentences together.
Some have been astonishingly rude – treating journalists who turn up week in, week out to watch often second-rate games with complete contempt. (A dangerous tactic to employ when you consider how quickly bad news becomes public).
Some have been so lecherous that it’s nauseating – I can think of one very famous former footballer who was well known for making a beeline for the young 20-somethings in the studio. He’s married.
But one thing that has astonished me about the football world is this – there are a group of women, often very beautiful and very intelligent, who follow footballers around trying hard to hook one. They form a kind of clique, football groupies, who will throw themselves at footballers at every opportunity. I’ve seen these women in action and it has always amazed me.
- Is it the money?
- The life-style?
Even if I’d had the looks, the body and the balls – I could never have been one of those women. There’s something so cheap and desperate about it.
If you’re the footballer, away from home, feeling down, had a row with the wife/girlfriend, feeling weak – these girls are waiting to pounce.
I’m not condoning any footballer being unfaithful to his wife/girlfriend but I do understand that temptation is thrust upon them in a way that us ordinary mortals can barely understand.
So although I think resorting to a super injunction is sheer cowardice (man up for goodness sake!) I do have some insight into how this kind of thing can happen.
Tip: Avoid being a football groupie, you’ll be given a fairly unpleasant label. As for the footballer, if you succumb to temptation, don’t blame the press, blame yourself and sort it out.