In the summer of 2010 two major shootings occurred in small communities in northern England. I visited these areas in the aftermath of the killing sprees of Derrick Bird and Raoul Moat and made a film examining the media’s handling of the stories. The following article was based on interviews made at the time and a version of it was published in the February 2011 issue of Media Magazine. My film was shown in April at the National Union of Journalists conference in Southport, UK.
Like many spots on the English coast, Seascale changes its aspect dramatically with the weather. When the sky is clear and the tide retreats to reveal its pristine white beach, arriving here feels like uncovering a hidden treasure. But on a grey day when the choppy waters of the Irish Sea reflect the dark skies, this Victorian era resort town can feel terribly bleak.
It was like that a Sunday this June. A damp squall had set in by the time the mourners had met on the strip of grass overlooking the pier. Banks of cloud were indistinguishable from the smoke of the cooling towers at the nearby Sellafield Reprocessing Plant.
Clutching orders of service headed “Gathering Together”, over 500 sang hymns and observed a minute’s silence for the victims of the Cumbria shootings. This was the first time they had met as a community since Derrick Bird’s murderous rampage a few days earlier.
They were not alone of course. At the centre of the sea of umbrellas cameras panned the crowd, and skirting its edges photographers circled, looking for private expressions of grief that might translate the pain of a community to a shocked nation.
Among the mourners was Dave Moore, a retained firefighter and local councillor. On the day of the killings Moore had helped a publican from the car where he had been shot at point blank range and draped covers over the dead. Born and raised here, the horror of the experience had left him dazed. But as he watched the news media this numbness gave way to anger.
“I felt our day had been hijacked. They’d hoodwinked people into believing they had a moral right to tell this story, that their concerns came first,” Moore said.
To get the best shots TV crews had set up their cameras between the clergy and the congregation. To observe the service, this meant locals closest to the front were looking past camera lenses frequently pointed straight back at them.
“We felt too intimidated to challenge them,” he said.
The media had arrived en masse on the Wednesday of the shootings. Many – including a Sky News helicopter – were already in the region for the funeral of a teenager killed in a school bus crash the week before.
By Thursday the car park by Seascale’s sea front, like Duke Street in nearby Whitehaven, was filled with satellite vans and news crews. Moore said their presence kept villagers indoors though “they wanted to come out and talk about what had happened.”
If much of the local populace was evasive faced with the glare of the cameras, they also remained tight-lipped on the subject of the killer. As one tabloid reporter put it: “You couldn’t find anyone to say a bad word about Bird.”
“Cumbrians aren’t insular but there’s a certain amount of tribalism,” said Jamie Reed, the MP for the Borough of Copeland. “They resent people coming in and intruding on their territory, especially when they so obviously have an agenda.”
Chequebook journalism was the most damaging aspect of this intrusion, according to Reed. A Seascale villager is still the object of scorn among locals after he is believed to have sold CCTV footage to The Sun that showed Bird’s car pass along the sea front. The daughter of Michael Pike, killed riding his bike through Seascale, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the footage contained audio of her father’s shooting. The Sun insisted the gunshots were edited out but removed the film from its website “as a gesture of goodwill.”
“Those practices have repercussions long after the media leave,” said Reed, who has outlined his concerns about the “dysfunctional and broken” values of sections of the media in a speech in the Commons. “Everyone knows who made money and no-one is in a hurry to forget. It’s very divisive.”
A month later another northern rural community found itself the unlikely focus of the nation’s attention when a second lone gunman ran amok.
In some ways the villagers of Rothbury in Northumberland were disinterested observers to the last days of Raoul Moat. Unlike in West Cumbria, Moat was an outsider and so were the people he harmed. All the same, the macabre soap opera that ended when the ex-prisoner shot himself on a riverbank in the centre of the village left a lasting impression.
Rothbury butcher Morris Adamson found himself recruited for vox pops by the 24-news crews who exhausted his stock of bacon with their demand for sandwiches each morning.
By his own admission he grew to like the attention, his mate’s teased him as a “media whore,” and after a week he was on close enough terms with ITN’s northern correspondent Emma Murphy that she dropped in a bunch of flowers for his wife on her way out of town.
“It was quite exciting,” he said. “There were 20-foot camera cranes pointing down the village, helicopters hovering overhead, police cars whizzing up and down. It was like waking up and finding yourself on the set of a Hollywood action movie.”
The sense of drama implied by a manhunt was added to by the large-scale police response. At one point one in 10 of all UK firearms officers were in the area and a two-mile ground exclusion zone forced the village into lockdown. The army even scrambled an RAF fighter jet to help out.
Villager Bill Kirkup said that when Moat was discovered by the riverbank after four days the critical mass of police and media led to calamitous scenes.
Kirkup, who has a toy shop a few doors down from the butchers, watched the tableau unfold from his window: “I heard a crash and saw two police cars had collided at the bottom of the village in their rush to get to him. The media got wind of what was going on and I saw a surge of cameras and journalists sweep past the shop.”
With the media kept at bay by police, reporters began contacting residents with views of the standoff, offering money to go on rooftops or for digital pictures of Moat.
Sue Ballantyne, who lives by the riverbank, was fielding phone calls from six a.m. the morning after the standoff: “I was doing interviews one after the other. Looking back it seemed sort of farcical, but I was running on adrenaline at the time so I kept answering the phone.”
There were reports of journalists trespassing through back gardens. A message posted on Twitter by Channel Four reporter Alex Thomson on the Friday seemed to confirm this: “Sorry lots of Bberry tweets in dark running thru peoples, gardens evading cops – some spelling may have gone astray.”
Adamson said he kicked out a radio crew when, without asking permission, they began investigating the back of his shop to see if there was a storm drain similar to one Moat was hiding in.
A broadsheet reporter said it was hard to avoid getting caught up in the mania: “After a few days the story had been done to death but the beast of the internet always needs feeding. In your desperation to find a new angle it’s easy to forget the gravity of the situation.”
After a report of a possible sighting in a farmhouse the reporter parked in country lane and rushing on foot round the corner was confronted with a posse of armed police clutching machine guns and screaming at him to get down.
In West Cumbria, where the media were dealing with the aftermath rather than a live news event, their behaviour was less boisterous. Even so, tabloids stationed paparazzi outside the homes of victims’ families for days on end, including the relatives of Bird and his murdered twin David.
Reverend Jim Marshall, the vicar in David Bird’s village of Lamplugh, faced the media a number of times on behalf of the family. He said his concern was to “give the family’s side, and point out distortions or untruths where they were being repeated.”
It was widely misreported, for example, that Bird’s elderly mother had terminal cancer. A teacher of 30 years, Rev. Marshall equated the experience to addressing a class of unruly third formers.
In spite of the excesses the Press Complaints Commission received 79 complaints in relation to the two stories, about average for cases of this magnitude.
Aside from the video footage in The Sun, half the complaints in West Cumbria related to an opinion piece by Carole Malone in The News of the World which diagnosed the Cumbrians reluctance to talk in part as a symptom of their own sense of guilt at not recognising the killer in their midst.
Mike Jempson, from the charity Mediawise, which helps victims of media abuse, said the low number of complaints reflected general ignorance of the PCC and its remit, more than it did public sentiment about the shootings.
A spokesman for Copeland Borough Council said a number of its councillors reported constituents unhappy with the media’s behaviour though neither Northumbria nor Cumbria Police knew of any criminal complaints against individual members of the media. The spokesman said that a second round of memorials organised a week after the first was meant to draw a line under the tragedy and that there was a tacit agreement with broadcasters that they would pack up and leave after they were finished.
In Seascale Dave Moore had shifted the position of this second memorial to the other side of the car park. When a TV reporter approached him beforehand and asked him to move it back to its original location to accommodate the camera setup, Moore was incredulous but steadfast: “I refused. As far as I was concerned that was a day for the people here, and the media had nothing to do with it.”
“The public need to be more assertive sometimes,” said Mike Jempson. “It’s not the job of the media to always be sensitive to people’s feelings. But faced with the pack in full flow, a community has a perfect right to dig its heels in and say no.”