Reporters stalking their victims need to be ruthless and persistent. The techniques are varied and ubiquitous. Today, INQ pulls back the curtain on those techniques.
Sociology professor John Tulloch was propped up in a hospital bed, his face a mess of bruises, shrapnel embedded in his head, after barely surviving the 2005 terrorist bombings that killed 52 people on the streets of London. A young woman carrying a bunch of flowers walked into his room. Initially, he thought she was one of his students. But when she started interviewing him and taking pictures with a digital camera, the Australian professor realised she was a reporter. Her name was Sharri Markson. She worked for Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph.
Anne Voss was incredibly lucky. She survived the 2011 Christchurch earthquake that killed 185 people, spending nearly 24 hours buried in the rubble of a downtown office building listening to the sounds of her trapped co-workers calling for help. At 8.30 the next morning, while she was sedated and recovering in Christchurch Hospital, a man appeared at her bedside and started asking her questions. He had walked straight through the hospital reception without being stopped or questioned. His name was David Eccleston. He worked for the Seven Network’s Today Tonight.
John Tulloch and Anne Voss — and hundreds of others who never asked for it — are media roadkill. They’re the people who, for an instant, become “the story”, then have to pick up the pieces of their lives after the reporters, producers, cameras, microphones, helicopters and news organisations move on to their next targets.
According to British reporter Greg Miskiw:
That is what we do — we go out and destroy other people’s lives.
He should know, after listening illegally to private voicemails at the now-defunct News of the World newspaper — the epicentre of News Corp’s vast phone-hacking operation, which invaded hundreds of people’s privacy on an industrial scale.
“Having for decades impersonated doctors, police and funeral directors; having stalked so-called celebrities and their children; having rummaged through garbage bins and staked out private residences, it was just one more (inexorable) step for the company to start phone hacking,” former Labor leader Mark Latham wrote of News Corp — one of the biggest purveyors of intrusive tabloid journalism, but far from the only one — in 2011. “This is Murdoch’s legacy: personal responsibility for creating the world’s most unethical media culture.”
The power to invade private lives, including those of ordinary people, was explained clinically by David Yelland, a former editor of The Sun. He described how there was a “big red button on my desk” and when he pressed it there would be a giant explosion somewhere — bang goes a career, bang goes a family, bang goes a life.
Intruding on personal lives is a ruthlessly commercial activity — and here are the basic rules of how it gets done:
The Scoop: be first with the story, no matter what it takes
Being first with the news is everything in tabloid journalism. Almost nothing else matters.
Within an hour of the death of 13-year-old Molly Lord in a quadbike accident on her family’s rural property near Wollongong in July 2012, Channel Seven’s news helicopter was hovering overhead, shooting footage of Molly’s body wrapped in a white sheet. When her devastated mother Linda Goldspink-Lord went outside to be with the body, she was also filmed from above. “… Footage of myself sitting with my deceased daughter was put on the WIN website for the world to see before I had even told all my family,” she later posted on Facebook.
Jason Staveley was another victim of the media’s rush to publish when a brief item appeared on Channel Nine’s morning newsbreak in early June 2014:
Good morning. A woman has been found stabbed to death on the Gold Coast. A man was also found at the home with serious injuries.
Around 800 kilometres away, at his home in Sydney, Staveley happened to be watching as this breaking news went to air. He was shocked at what he was seeing: the house, which was surrounded by police cars and an ambulance, belonged to his mother Beth. She was the unnamed murder victim. “I think it’s offensive it’s on national television before my brother, myself, our family had been told,” he told INQ.
The Non-Lie: whenever possible, don’t mention you’re a journalist
When News Corp reporter Sharri Markson sneaked into that London hospital to reach John Tulloch’s bedside she avoided attention by buying a bunch of flowers, looking sad, and strolling straight past the media pack gathered outside. “I just saw this massive pack of media out the front and I thought there’s no way I’m going to get an interview if I just join that pack, so I bought a bunch of flowers and I walked straight into the hospital and no one would ever think I was media,” she told The Australian’s podcast Behind the Media last year.
Markson had been on vacation in Europe, and was dressed like a holidaymaker:
I was 21, looking even younger, in casual clothes because that’s all I had, holding a bunch of flowers. So I just went in and said, ‘Oh I’m here to visit [John Tulloch]’, and I didn’t lie, I was very careful, I just said I was here to visit John Tulloch and I went up there and when I got in with him I gave him my card immediately … The hospital was furious because a journalist got in but at no time did I lie and he agreed to be photographed so I got the exclusive interview with him.
Note Markson’s words: “I didn’t lie, I was very careful.” This circumlocution meant that when the dust hit the fan after the interview was published, News Corp UK’s then-head of corporate affairs was able to confidently assert that “I am told Ms Markson was never once asked where she was from and she never misrepresented herself”.
According to the hospital, Tulloch was on strong painkillers, didn’t have his glasses and was suffering from hearing problems when he gave the interview. The hospital’s press officer later told the UK Press Gazette: “In the 13 years I’ve worked in PR, I have never once come across such outrageous reporting practices … she duped a nurse; I’ve had that from the nurse and I’ve had that from [Tulloch].”
As Markson proved, flowers can be a useful subterfuge for reporters plying their trade in hospitals. The tactic was also used in 1999 to infiltrate the hospital room of former Australian Democrats leader turned Labor frontbencher Cheryl Kernot, who spent a large part of her political career being chased by journalists. When Kernot — who had controversially defected from the Democrats to join Labor in 1997 — was admitted to hospital to have tests for glandular fever, one reporter tried to get into her hospital room by posing as a florist.
Markson applied her below-the-radar techniques again in October 2014 to pose as a “university student” who “attended some lectures on an undercover basis” for a story in The Australian. The piece breathlessly revealed that “first-year media students at some of the nation’s most prestigious universities are being taught the federal government’s media policy process is ‘corrupt’”, and that “the 18-year-old students are also being told repeatedly that one of the world’s biggest employers of journalists, News Corp, uses ‘naked political pressure’ to the detriment of democracy”.
The Death Knock: tragedy (and a great story) lurks behind that door
For many journalists, the death knock is a rite of passage. They’re sent out, armed with deeply sympathetic offers, to the homes of families who have just lost a loved one: “would you like to pay tribute to Mary?”… “You should make sure Jack doesn’t just become a statistic”… “Would you like some help to write Amy’s obituary?”
The techniques of the death knock have been honed for more than a century:
- Try not to call ahead (people are more likely to agree to an interview if there is someone on their doorstep than if they have time to think about it).
- Empathise and endear yourself to the bereaved (try to convince them that cooperating with the media will make that lost life count for something).
- If you’re turned away, try again (because you competitors surely will).
- Trawl through the social media of the deceased or their relatives (“Someone might post somewhere RIP to Jenny, and you might contact that person and ask them did they know them and you try to do that with empathy and get a rapport and things begin to unravel,” Channel Ten crime reporter Steve Hart told INQ).
- Believe in what you’re doing (“You as a reporter, will be accused of all manner of despicable behaviour,” notes Journalism Tips. “You will, for your efforts, be accused of intrusion, of being scum, of being a vulture, of preying on grief, of only being interested in selling papers, of being uncaring, of being these and many, many more things. Which is why you have to believe in what you are doing, in why you believe their story could make a difference. Not only for the family, in the short and medium term, but for others in the long run. And it can make a difference.”)
The pressure from your editor or chief of staff to get the interview is always intense and relentless. A former commercial TV news reporter told INQ she was instructed to film and interview a grieving family at a house fire despite their intense distress.
There were family members crying and vomiting in the street, it was like there had been a terror attack … They ended up spitting on me, it was the worst experience ever.
Ten reporter Candice Wyatt has described how “people have chased me down the street and sworn at me until I’m off their property”, but “at the same time I’ve got my boss telling me to door knock again.”
Former UK news reporter Geraldine Hayward stopped doing death knocks after she was sent to the home of a family whose baby had died in a cot death a week after birth. “I’d invite myself into your grief, trample around your tortured soul, grab a photograph, and zip back to the office to bang out 300 words of tastefully titillating obituary,” she wrote in the Press Gazette.
The death knock “has no friends”, reporter Benjamin Millar wrote in Meanjin last year. “It draws shudders from journalists crotchety or fresh-faced alike.” In the article, Millar described his visit to a Melbourne suburban home in 2011, where Ayen Chol, a four-year-old girl, had been mauled to death by a pitbull in front of her mother Jackline Ancaito:
Ancaito had just rescued another young girl from the dog, only to have her own daughter ripped away from her.
I can’t even begin to comprehend what she was going through. As a father of two young boys, one the same age as Ayen, I can imagine no personal horror approaching the loss of your child, let alone such a violent end.
I reached the gate to find two men talking. I identified myself as a journalist and explained the purpose of my visit.
They ushered me into the kitchen, where a dozen or so men were gathered, preparing and cooking food in large pots.
I again explained who I was and why I was there. One led me through a door off the kitchen into a lounge room, pointing me towards Ancaito.
She sat with her arms clutched around her, rocking. I’ve seen a lot in my role but the look in her eyes will never leave me. Around her, spread across blankets, about 20 other woman sat in support, stitched together by love and sorrow. There was a low murmured singing, cut through by a wrenching mournful keening.
This was no place for me. This was not the stuff of performative public fodder; I could see only hollowed-out fragility and an intensely private process. I left.
The Stakeout: hang around until someone cracks
When a 2008 Sydney gallery exhibition of photographs that included nudes of young girls created a media-driven public furore, the artist, acclaimed photographer Bill Henson, found himself holed-up inside his suburban Melbourne house. “I was just here, working away,” Henson later told The Guardian. “But the TV crews were on the streets for two weeks. It was on the front pages and the news every day.”
He later revealed he had an escape route through a gate at the rear of his garden that led to a backstreet. And his neighbours helped as well: “When they saw one of the media’s white station wagons in the street, they phoned him: ‘Incoming!’” reported The Sydney Morning Herald — “also, they were going for pizza, did he want one?”
When Daily Telegraph photographer John Grainger shot his paper’s front-page photograph of a very pregnant Vikki Campion, carrying then-deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s baby, he wasn’t the only person in Tamworth hunting for an angle. Just down the road, a photographer and journalist from another publication were trying to get a similar photo. Snappers had been trying to find and photograph her for months, trying to get the “money shot” — a picture of her visibly pregnant — while rumours flew around the Canberra press gallery and beyond.
Reporters stalking their victims need to be ruthless and persistent. The techniques are ubiquitous: stake out people’s homes; follow them through the streets; try to reach their hospital beds; call their phones, pepper them with texts; trawl through social media for traces of a victim or their family; slide sweet letters under their doors; infiltrate their workplaces, gyms, churches, mosques, friends, neighbours, family; be so visible they feel like you’ll never go away.
The Lock-Up: the price of keeping your talent under wraps
Secure your “talent”. And once you’ve locked them up, never let them go. Among tabloid TV reporters, it’s not uncommon to pay for the exclusive interview that keeps competitors away. Payments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars are rare these days — they only come up once or twice a year — but network television’s flagship current affairs programs, 60 Minutes and Sunday Night, regularly make small payments of up to $10,000 for interviews. And everyone who can shed light on a tragedy or controversy is fair game to become talent-for-hire.
Ordinary people in the small northern NSW city of Grafton were given a textbook lesson in tabloid tactics earlier this year in the wake of the horrific Christchurch mosque shootings in which 51 people were killed. As the hometown of alleged perpetrator Brenton Tarrant, the son of a local teacher, within hours of the shootings Grafton was beseiged by Australian and international reporters, some of them with chequebooks out. One local, who asked INQ not to be identified, described “being hounded by news people”.
A commercial TV news broadcaster offered her and a family member $5000 each for 20 seconds of television, but she refused: “Why would we make money out of somebody else’s pain and misery?”
Teams from A Current Affair and Today Tonight are “always” crossing lines to get an exclusive, a former breakfast TV producer told INQ. He described arriving at a Christchurch survivor’s house to do an interview agreed to over the phone, only to find a rival producer at the door. “He told the woman not to come to the door and said she wasn’t interested in talking to me,” he said. “I later found out he’d promised to make a donation to her chosen charity and told her if she spoke to anyone else, the donation would be cancelled.”
“[It takes] a special type of person to work at one of those shows,” he said, “presumably one without a soul.”
Craig Sullivan, who worked in the Seven and Nine newsrooms for 20 years before becoming a media consultant, explained one popular technique to “lock your talent” is to book a hotel room and keep them in that room — “not against their will of course”. Another method is to “keep moving them around so other TV stations can’t get to them”. “You come to a commercial agreement and say, ‘look, mate, we want you to talk to us, we can give you a cab fare home … or … we can pay for a hotel’,” he said. Of course, he added, “it’s not like you’re kidnapping someone”.
Ten Network crime reporter Steve Hart* said he leaves the scene when it’s clear someone doesn’t want you there — but sees other reporters crossing a line every day. “I feel like some of these younger journalists at certain networks are under enormous pressure to deliver no matter what. It’s a combination of their ambition and the pressure from where they work,” said Hart. “You’ve only got to look at television news and various current affairs programs to see that there are journalists who really don’t show much empathy towards the people that they interview. And if they’re bad people, fair enough … I have a different line for victims than I do for perpetrators. So if it’s a bad guy I don’t really care what they think or feel, and I’ll just keep going after them. If someone has raped a child or broken in and bashed a family… there is no line there. But I always try to be a person first and a reporter second.”
Dangling a Carrot: how to convince people to talk to you
Getting victims or their relatives, friends or colleagues to talk is the holy grail of roadkill journalism. The techniques to do so range across a spectrum, from sweet-talking at one end to outright bullying and even blackmail at the other.
According to one major daily newspaper reporter INQ spoke to, pushing for an angle from someone involved in the personal drama of breaking news is, by its nature, a “form of exploitation”.
“You fully expect to be told to fuck off, but there’s a certain sense that when something is very new, just breaking, the shock factor means people are willing to speak,” they said. “It’s a way of processing it … What I’ve done, what hundreds of other journalists have done, in a terror attack or other breaking news, is a form of exploitation. It’s almost never in someone’s interest to talk to a journalist, but on a macro scale there’s something noble about it. It’s telling the first draft of history, so the saying goes. It’s documenting things that will later be digested and analysed by those in positions to change things, if things need to be changed.”
Technology is making it harder for reporters to bludgeon people into talking, explained Rohan Wenn, a former Today Tonight producer and staff member at A Current Affair and the ABC, who is now an adviser to federal MP Andrew Wilkie. He knew of tabloid TV producers who bullied people into interviews by threatening them in ways they wouldn’t get away with any more — “Now people can video you or record you [with their phone], or run a social media campaign,” he said.
We’d occasionally lose stories to the other mob … they would bully, cajole, tell the talent if they didn’t talk, they would tell another [negative] story … It really was the wild west and we deserved the criticism we got.
Steve Hart described similar tactics in his time on the road.
“I’ve seen some almost blackmailing type tricks,” he said. “Say a music tuition centre had a teacher [who] was doing some inappropriate things to the students. In order to get the interview with the head of that school, I’ve seen this tactic used where [journalists] say: ‘Listen, if you do the interview with us, we won’t name your school’ … that’s the dirty side of it, and I think it’s up to the individual whether you want to do it the dirty way or the nice way.”
However he takes a moral stance against locking interviewees down exclusively, “I try to get to something early, I try to get a rapport going early and I try to do it in a more positive way. I really do try to genuinely care, and explain to them that while I do care I have got a job to do and I want to tell the story of what happened to their loved one.”
*some quotes from reporter Steve Hart have been added since publish.