On Monday this week the Prime Minister of Malaysia announced that flight MH 370 had crashed into the ocean and asked the media to give families of the passengers “the dignity and space that they need now”. Immediately TV cameras homed in on the faces and grief of distraught relatives. We were shown these images and heard the screams over and over on our TV screens.
How does this incident relate to Oxfordshire? In at least two ways over a period of 25 years.
Recently the tragic death of 15-year-old Martha Fernback illustrated the problem. Martha had taken a dose of MDMA or ecstasy which was 91 per cent pure and died in Hinksey Park, South Oxford, last July.
A relative of Chinese passengers on board MH 370 breaks down as she protests outside the Malaysia Embassy in Beijing, China, on Tuesday. Furious over Malaysia’s handling of the lost jetliner a day after the country said the passengers must be dead, relatives of the missing marched to the embassy, where they threw plastic water bottles, tried to rush the gate and chanted, “liars!”
This story captured the headlines and there was a great deal of “public interest”. Some TV crews wanted to film Martha’s funeral, but her mother Anne-Marie Cockburn wanted to bury her only daughter in private.
TV reporters found out where the funeral would be and insisted they could film there because it was public property.
The cemetery administrators told Anne-Marie they would close the gates to keep the cameras out. Battle lines were drawn. It was so fraught and tense Anne-Marie told me she delayed the funeral of her daughter by several weeks to avoid TV intrusion.
She was eventually able to have the funeral she wanted for her daughter in spite of, not because of, the media.
Twenty five years ago Peter and Gwenda Dixon, from Witney, were murdered in Wales. I talked with their son, Tim, about how newspapers and television treated him and his family when his parents were missing and then later when they were found murdered.#
Peter and Gwenda Dixon, who were murdered on the Pembrokeshire coastal path in 1989
He said: “After I first raised the alarm and went down to Wales looking for my parents, the media laid siege to the house in Witney.
“They occupied the drive, paced up and down the road and surrounded the house, even the back garden.
“On the day of the funeral we were horrified half way through the Requiem Mass to find that TV crews had actually got a camera in the choir balcony of the church and were filming the whole thing.
“That’s going to stop people from showing their real grief. It’s one of the things that stopped me showing it. All of a sudden the media made it into a slightly artificial situation which is the last thing that should happen with such a serious ceremony as a Requiem Mass.
“Outside the church everyone was extremely upset. But here again there were half a dozen photographers and TV cameras and this stopped people grieving as much as they would do.
“I had decided, unfortunately as it turned out, that we would not have transport to the graveside. We would walk up.
“The hearses went off with my parents and we all set off as a big family group up the hill winding through the churchyard.
“You could almost see the look of glee in the photographers’ eyes when they realised we were not using the cars.
“They ran ahead of us and stayed about six yards in front – photographing and running back a bit more – and photographing us and running back again.
“It all made us angry and I asked them if they would respect our privacy. That had no effect on them until finally my sister screamed and broke down and that made them move – but not until the family was about three-quarters of the way up there in a walk that lasted five minutes.
“When we got to the grave itself a bit early ahead of the hearses there was a TV camera already set up.
“The graves were up against a Cotswold stone wall with the path on one side. Naturally everyone was going to stand on the path side of the graves.
“Immediately on the other side was a TV camera on a tripod set up by two people dressed very scruffily making them stand out as though they were not at all concerned about the fact that what they were filming was a funeral. The media are certainly not very caring members of society. They say it’s their job. But maybe it’s a reflection on the system which asked them to get such gory details.
“And that comes back to a society which has gained the habit of wanting to know the gory details of other people’s bad times.
“Everyone I know expressed their horror at the way it was covered and the detail in which it was covered. It told them more than they wanted to know.
“When something as horrid as this happens to you, you need time and space to heal – and time and space are two things the media just don’t give you.”
These two funerals stand as bookends to 25 years of television intimidation, and who drives this? I think it’s the viewers and readers. We buy the newspapers. We listen to the stories on radio. We watch the TV. We need to look in the mirror. It’s us.