What a difference a royal connection makes. And no, we’re not talking about a wedding – sadly this story ends up with three funerals.
Yesterday London’s Evening Standard newspaper carried a short story, buried away at the bottom of page eight, about three suicides on the tube the previous evening. The angle of the story – astoundingly – was the disruption it caused commuters.
There was even a quote from one such delayed passenger: “We were stuck in the cold for two hours. The driver said we were only three train lengths from the platform and they were waiting for permission to walk us along the tracks, but it never came. There was no information. It was very frustrating.”
Frustrating indeed – though that word probably doesn’t quite do justice to the feelings being experienced by the families and loved ones of those left behind.
And then today the Standard did its investigative best and discovered that one of those who took his own life, Paul Castle, was in fact a property developer who had once played polo with Prince Charles. Now he was no longer just a source of frustration – he was the source of an ‘exclusive’ front page splash.
“Tube Suicide of Charles Polo Pal” screams today’s front page headline, above the obligatory picture of Mr Castle receiving a polo trophy from the Queen. The story, continued over three quarters of a page inside, lists a series of reasons why Mr Castle’s life had been in trouble. And it also reveals that two children, a fiancée and two siblings are among those “struggling to come to terms with his apparent suicide”.
Now I’ve worked in quite enough newsrooms over the past two decades to know why a story about someone with royal connections – albeit, I suspect, not quite as tight ones as the paper implies – is deemed more newsworthy than one about three anonymous deaths. But there’s something about this that makes my stomach turn.
Worst of all is the sheer, crass insensitivity of the original story’s suggestion that suicide should be treated as an inconvenience rather than a source of tragedy for all those affected. And this was then compounded by the shift in the story today.
As one of the dead is given a name, the story is expanded to include those around him – including the girlfriend Mr Castle was reportedly due to marry and whose photo was included – with scarcely a thought as to how they may be feeling at this moment. By attempting to outline Mr Castle’s recent life story (as told through ‘friends’) the story effectively explains away his death. Just as with most of the reporting around Alexander McQueen’s death, suicide is once again presented as somehow tragic yet inevitable.
The less convenient truth is that suicide is not inevitable. And when it does happen, its impact on the lives of all those it touches is immense – and generally forgotten. The deceased’s friends and families, their colleagues, their employers or employees, those who witnessed their deaths from the platform, the tube drivers, maybe even some of the Standard’s readers – all will be left reeling in the aftermath of this week’s tragedies. For many of them their lives will never be the same again.
Since its change of ownership and under the editorship of Geordie Greig the Standard has rightfully won plaudits for its more campaigning tone and its coverage of some of the previously unreported stories about the plight of London’s poor. But this time it failed.
Would it be too much to ask for it to think again about how it reports suicide next time someone jumps under a train? For there will be a next time – next week in fact. And that event will scar the lives of all those closely affected, long after the ‘frustration’ of a few delayed commuters has faded.