Regular readers will know that I had an interview with a journalist some years back that screwed (or certainly hastened the demise of) my career as a novelist. I will never know if my third novel would have been published without his hammer-blow sound-bite that destroyed my relationship with Hodder & Stoughton. Perhaps it just wasn’t worthy of publication, although I beg to differ.
I’m not sure what made the man so praise my work to my face and in print, only to close his article by distorting the one thing I had clearly said should be off-the-record. Perhaps it was professional jealousy between one freelance writer and another. There are a good few frustrated novelists out there; perhaps he was one of them. (I was certainly naïve.)
I don’t think so, though. My feeling is that some journalists believe an article isn’t fully born until they’ve stirred in a good dollop of sensationalism. The news doesn’t quite cut it. The facts don’t speak loudly enough on their own. Maybe the journo’s poor writing skills will be exposed for the lack of such distracting tactics.
Journalism when practiced properly is a mighty and noble profession. Journalists around the world every day place themselves in harm’s way; some even die in their quest to expose the truth. We have a lot to thank them for.
But the bad apples … the sensationalistic crap that some of them purvey … sometimes it just incenses me.
Last June in the Lake District in England, taxi driver Derrick Bird shot dead 12 people and wounded 25 before killing himself. The inquest into the tragedy is currently underway.
Bird had had an argument with his fellow drivers at the taxi rank the night before, then drove away vowing “a rampage”. A quiet and gentle man, by all accounts, who’d have believed him?
The next morning he shot dead his twin brother, then the family solicitor, before returning to the taxi rank with a shotgun and a semi-automatic rifle and opening fire on the drivers. For the next five hours he prowled from town to town in his taxi, shooting point-blank at complete strangers on the street, and at other drivers. As the police finally closed in, he drove into the woods and killed himself.
Was this newsworthy? Undoubtedly. But there is a limit to how much reporting is strictly necessary in such cases. I’m not talking about TMI – Too Much Information. I mean quite the opposite. I mean it got to the point where there was nothing pertinent to add, but the story was perpetuated purely for the sake of keeping it in the news. Journalists asked stupid questions of people who should have known better than to even attempt to proffer answers. TV shows broadcast this non-news, and newspapers printed it.
Initially, it was only right to ask what problems this man had in his life. It was reported that he was involved in a dispute over his mother’s will, he’d been duped and dumped by his Thai girlfriend, the Inland Revenue was looking at him over tax matters, and – the final straw, for him - he’d argued with his work colleagues.
A lot to cope with perhaps, but millions of people experience similar problems every day and don’t react as he did. Sure, there are crimes of passion committed against loved and ex-loved ones, but this wasn’t one of those. It wasn’t a heated, spur-of-the-moment reaction – it was a sleep-on-it, cold-blooded mass murder of innocent and mostly unknown individuals.
For a freelance writer, there may be plenty of material in there for a novel, but there was surely nowhere to go with that information for a journalist. You can analyse it all to hell and back, but Bird’s problems were not the core cause of his killing spree. The guy was quietly nuts. He had a latent insanity. He had a vein of evil a mile wide running through him, and on that day it got well and truly tapped.
The Boomtown Rats wrote a song in 1979 called I Don’t Like Mondays, which included the first line: “The silicone chip inside her head gets switched to overload.” The song concerned the shooting spree of 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer, who had fired at children in a school playground earlier that year. She killed two adults, and wounded a police officer and eight kids. When asked why, she said: “I don’t like Mondays; this livens up the day.”
Derrick Bird was one of those – thankfully rare – people who are hard-wired with a kill-chip in their head. There’s no explaining why. There’s no sense to it. And there was no serious mileage in journalists asking so-called professionals their opinion on Bird’s state of mind. It was needless sensationalism – unscrupulous writers and reporters squeezing every last word out of a tragic tale that should have been allowed a respectful retreat from the blazing arc lights and open notebooks. What had happened? Bird’s kill-chip had switched to overload. That’s it.
A terrible waste of life, made all the more unpalatable by the disgusting journalistic feeding frenzy that followed.