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Work has been a welcome distraction in the last months of grief and all the different aspects of dealing with a horrendous, random accident – from game-playing in the legal system to press coverage.
When you are grieving and trying to support other family members who are grieving work can be a welcome distraction. So too can be all the administrative things that come from the process. Even the judicial process, inquests, sorting out finances and the like, though painful and exhausting, can give you a reason to get up in the morning when each morning you wake up to the same horrific realisation that this is not going to change, that you can’t turn back time and that, if there is some parallel reality, you can’t get to it.
However, there comes a time when what I will call the admin stuff stops you having the space you need to mentally be with the person who is no longer here physically. In the last months, we’ve been through an extended sentencing process and now we are going through other processes – an inquest that we’ve been told could take years, a failed press complaint, failed attempts to get past Apple’s ridiculous security policy where they smugly tell grieving parents that they can’t get into their child’s phone – where they spend a large part of their lives – because it is “against human rights’ and much more.
I am, I guess, a campaigner type. I don’t let things drop if I think they are wrong. And I think many things we have experienced in the last few months – first and foremost, the horrendous, random death of our daughter – have been deeply problematic. The legal process seems geared up for all manner of game-playing. The defendant gets a third off automatically for pleading guilty. In our case, he failed to stop when our daughter died and drove on in a reckless manner, went into hiding and only handed himself in, presumably on advice from his barrister dad, 48 hours later. At that point no test for drugs or alcohol is reliable. He had a previous conviction for drug driving. So he gets a third off and no additional charge. He played the game.
Then the sentencing was due on 23rd March – lockdown day. We travelled to court by car, worried about the virus. The defendant’s lawyer did not turn up. He had applied for psychological tests to be done to show the defendant’s “trauma” [they showed nothing more than that he was having flashbacks]. The lawyer should have done this in court, but because he wasn’t there the judge had no choice but to defer. Next the case was deferred to May, but then delayed again because the psychologist couldn’t get into the prison to do the psychological tests. The case was adjourned until June, but didn’t happen then because the judge was shielding. We were informed of all of this at the last minute, having geared ourselves up each time. And not just us – my daughter’s boyfriend and friend who witnessed her death had to do so too.
Both her boyfriend and I wanted to read out statements in court. For me, that was as important as the sentence – in fact, it was his sentence – knowing who my daughter was and what she meant to us. In July, the defendant refused to come out of his cell so the case was deferred again. He refused again the next time, but was sentenced in absentia. Not one member of his family showed up. He sent a letter of apology which I could only take to be yet another tactic to reduce his sentence. The only time we have seen the defendant is briefly on screen in March when he stared at his shoes. At the very least we ask that he acknowledges – to us and to himself – what he has done.
His sentence was 10.5 years, but was reduced by a third for pleading guilty and he will be due for release halfway through this so he is likely to be out by 2023. Journalists rang me up afterwards wanting the usual story of enraged family member calling for tougher sentences. As a journalist, I know the score, but as a person going through this process for the first time, the thing that I wanted to talk about was the game playing [if it’s 10 years call it 10 years; if it is effectively 3.5, call it 3.5] and the failure to turn up to court. In every process there is an element of game playing, but the whole legal process leaves you with a feeling that what actually happened has been lost in the middle of the game.
Then there is the press coverage. In the hours after her death, the Mail Online went to the shop opposite the spot where my daughter died and bought the CCTV footage. The police told them not to publish, but they said they would. The police asked them to at least give us, her family, a warning that it was going up. They asked for a few hours. The Mail said they could have one. In the event, I maintain that we were not informed. Besides it would have made no difference because they would have posted it anyway and what would we have been able to do in one hour when we were, that morning, just waiting for our children to wake up to tell them that their sister had died? Three of my brothers saw that video. What if my children had? One of my brothers rang the Mail and they took the video down two days after posting it, presumably after they had got all the clicks they required.
So I complained to IPSO – the press complaints body – under the intrusion into grief clause, Clause 4. I thought it was a clear case of clickbait. The headline on the article was “EXCLUSIVE: Shocking moment young woman is killed by speeding hit-and-run driver escaping police – as she is flung 20 feet into the air and lands in front of horrified onlookers at London bus stop”. I did not anticipate that I would be in for months of exchanges with the Mail Online, with them going off at a tangent about whether or not the police had warned us and presumably whether or not I – or my partner – was lying when I said they didn’t and that we would have remembered that, about how they had ‘sensitively’ edited the video to fade out just before the impact, how they had done it to bring forward witnesses and jog people’s memories [there were many witnesses, none of whom would have needed their memory jogging, given the horrific nature of the incident], etc, etc.
Part of me questioned my own reaction to this. As I say, I am a journalist and the police were involved – there is an independent police investigation. But I spoke to my brothers who saw it and I looked at the headline again and I know that the witnesses line is completely bogus. I have asked the Mail Online how many clicks they got on that story with the video in it compared with to without, how much did they get out of turning my daughter’s death into voyeurism.
However, the ‘justifications’ the Mail gave were enough to get it cleared of any breach of Clause 4 and so they will continue to do this with impunity. In fact, they cited a previous case to justify this one. IPSO added that the video was grainy so you couldn’t tell it was our daughter. This is despite it being in a story that was all about what happened, despite the fact they subsequently named her and despite the fact that anyone who knew her would have known it was her regardless of whether it was in high definition or not. My brother, who reported it, definitely knew who it was.
After the ruling was published, I stayed up late checking IPSO’s rulings on Clause 4 in the last five years. I had already been told that not many people come forward under Clause 4. I’m not surprised because the extended process of going through this while grieving makes it very distressing. In fact, I found only one case where a breach had been found under Clause 4 in the last five years – it again involved the Mail Online, only this time they admitted the video was included ‘in error’ and they could not justify it at all. It appears to me that Clause 4 is almost entirely pointless.
IPSO have written to me to ask if I can suggest ways of making the process less distressing and suggested I could potentially help train IPSO people in how to handle such cases. I have answered that they could make it clearer how long the process is to set expectations, but really the only way they could improve it is if they themselves were less weak and actually able to do their job and stand up for members of the public against the press.
I took this case out as a journalist because I want the press to be better. The gratuitous use of video in accidents has to stop. The police told me that they have been on the scene of accidents where people have been filming the last moments of a victim on their phones and have complained when they have been told to show a bit of respect. Surely clickbait press reports only encourage this? I know this has been happening for many years, but it hasn’t been happening to me personally so now that it is I intend to do my utmost to point out that it is wrong.
I am not a person to throw in the towel. Probably I should. No doubt it is better to focus on my daughter’s life and I am trying to do this, but all of these things get in the way. I can’t give up, but I also can’t let them dominate me. It’s a fine line, but I guess one of the parts of being a journalist that has always appealed to me is the campaigning part. In fact I started my career as a human rights campaigner, ironically for press freedom, but freedom comes, as we were taught at university, with responsibility. Some of my fellow journalism students used to roll their eyes over the journalism and society element of our course in which this message was embedded. It is at the very heart of a free press though: freedom to publish certainly, but to publish responsibly and to be held to account when you get it wrong.