For the past couple of days I have been drafting and redrafting a post about the email to the pseudonymous writer of a sex diary from the news desk of the Sunday Times which was about to reveal her real identity. I just could not get the tone right and now Martin Stabe has beaten me to it. Jemima Kiss at the Guardian’s Organ Grinder blog too.
The story has been flying around the blogosphere since January 1 when Abby Lee, the Girl With a One Track Mind, posted an unpleasant email she had been sent by Nicholas Hellen, acting news editor of the ST.
It all goes back to last August and the day before the paper “revealed the identity of the erotic diarist behind summer’s hottest book“. Hellen sent his email telling her that she was to be outed and crassly attempting to get her to pose for pictures wearing “colourful eveningwear’. Otherwise they would use a “not particularly flattering” picture taken outside her flat.
The threatening tone is made worse by saying that they intended to publish the name, address and occupation of her mother. Not surprisingly, if you Google Hellen’s name now you will find a lot of references to “blackmail”.
Pressuring subjects of stories to co-operate is not an uncommon technique. But it is not one journalists like to talk about in public. Occasionally it can be justified on the basis of “public interest” and sometimes “doing a deal” works to the advantage of the paper and the subject.
I cannot believe Hellen had much experience of this kind of story. His technique stinks. In my experience most news desks would have sent a reporter back to doorstep the house and talk directly to the subject.
Coincidentally the Guardian today has a leader on the media attention being given to Kate Middleton, the girlfriend of Prince William, and the threat of privacy laws which would also limit serious reporting. It concludes: “Those of us who stand firmly behind press freedom need to remind ourselves that there is a difference between liberty and taking liberties.”