This past week’s revelations about the News of the World have got me to thinking about the love-hate relationship we have with the media. On one hand, we’re appalled (well, I know I am) by the behaviour of some journalists and other members of the media. And when that behaviour is condoned – even encouraged – by those at the top of those organisations, that makes matters even worse. On the other hand, if those lurid stories, complete with information obtained through violations of privacy and through lack of respect, did not sell, there’d be less motivation to try to get those stories. Publishers and editors want to sell newspapers and online news subscriptions. If something’s considered not newsworthy, it doesn’t make the news. Many people do have a morbid fascination with the upsetting and tragic details of others’ personal lives. And it doesn’t just happen in one country. There are plenty of cases of the media taking advantage of this kind of morbid fascination all over the world. It’s rather like the case of someone watching a film who covers his or her face – while peeping through fingers.
The relationship people have with journalism is more complicated by the fact that there are lots of cases where journalists have exposed things that needed to be exposed. Journalists have broken many important stories and revealed plenty of cover-ups. So painting an entire industry with the same proverbial paintbrush doesn’t make sense, either. Just like much of life, there seems to be a balance that’s needed when one covers a story. There needs to be a balance between reporting news and capitalising on grief. There needs to be a balance between asking the difficult questions (i.e. getting to the truth) and invading privacy. I’m not a journalist myself, so I couldn’t tell you exactly where that line should be (I am curious about what those of you who’ve been in journalism think of that issue, though). But that love-hate relationship we have with the media seems pretty clear. And it’s just as evident in crime fiction as it is in real life.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who shot Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. Christow and his wife Gerda, along with some other houseguests, are spending the week-end with Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On Sunday afternoon, Poirot, who’s taken a nearby cottage, is invited for lunch. He arrives, only to find that Christow has just been shot. During that investigation, there’s some interesting discussion about how many of the lurid details (and there are several) of the story should be made public. On one hand the Angkatell family doesn’t want any invasion of privacy; neither do several other characters in the story. On the other, Lucy Angkatell is described as,
“…delicately enjoying the News of the World come from print into real life…”
There are several other Christie novels, too, where reporters and journalists take liberties with privacy. Several characters show their contempt for this, too.
But there’s more than one character who takes advantage of it. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot finds out who poisoned French moneylender Madame Giselle while she was on a flight from Paris to London. The details of the murder are considered sensational and several of Madame Giselle’s fellow passengers are well-known. So the story gets all sorts of media attention, including the unwelcome kind. Some characters are upset by it, but at least one, businessman James Ryder, sells his story to one of the papers.
In Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead, private investigator Michael West is hired by Oliver Randall to find out the truth about the death of Randall’s daughter Anne. Her husband Gordon Matthews went to prison on charges of killing her, but he and his attorney managed to convince the jury that the killing was provoked, and that Anne Randall Matthews was, in fact, a promiscuous, drunken shrew who made her husband’s life miserable. Randall knows that the opposite is true, so he wants West not just to clear his daughter’s name but also to find out what has happened to Matthews now that he’s been released from prison. West works closely with journalist Barnaby Duke to find out the truth. Duke wants an exclusive on the story, and of course, West wants whatever information Duke can provide. In this novel, Duke is portrayed as a very pragmatic journalist. He wants a big, juicy story and he wants to sell papers. His decision to work with West isn’t motivated by the strong desire to clear Anne Randall’s name. On the other hand, Duke is not portrayed as an invasive journalist who has no respect. He certainly does want the story, and that’s mentioned frequently. But he doesn’t go through trash, invent half-truths or listen in on ‘phone calls. He represents an interesting balance between going for the story and respecting boundaries.
And then, of course, there are fictional journalists who expose cover-ups, break important news and solve crimes. Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon, for instance, works for the Swedish newspaper Kvällspressen. Her job is to follow up and report on crime news. So in that sense, she goes for the story. That’s what she’s paid to do. And yet, she’s got a strong sense of ethics. She asks hard questions and gets beneath the surface, but she doesn’t sensationalise the details. In The Bomber, for instance, she covers the story of a bomb that goes off in Victoria Stadium, site of the upcoming Olympic Games, which are to be held in Stockholm. When the body of Christina Furhage, who was head of the committee responsible for bringing the games to Stockholm, is discovered, it’s assumed that terrorists are responsible for the blast. But Bengtzon goes beneath the surface, so to speak, and finds out that this wasn’t a “public” murder. And yet, she’s not interested in capitalising on anyone’s personal tragedy or grief.
There’s also Andrea Camilleri’s Nicolò Zito, who works for Vigatà’s Free Channel. Zito has strong political leanings, and gladly uses his influence as a journalist to expose corruption and other “dirty dealings.” Commissario Salvo Montalbano often works with Zito when he’s investigating a case. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, he and Zito work to find out the identity of a young woman whose body is found near a dry riverbed now used as a dump. The one distinctive thing about this woman is that she had a tattoo of a sphinx moth. Zito and Montalbano work with that and soon identify the woman. In the process, they connect her with some very dirty dealings and illegal human trafficking. Throughout the novel, Zito is what you might call “on the side of the angels,” helping to expose the corruption that’s uncovered.
In more than one of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti novels, he makes connections with journalists he knows who help him uncover the truth about underworld activity, corruption and other illegal doings. In exchange, he works with them, too. So it’s clear, at least in crime fiction, that not all journalists are unethical; nor do they all capitalise on grief and tragedy. Many in fact do not. On the other hand, enough do that we see plenty of sensational and lurid stories. There is a strong, complicated and sometimes unhealthy relationship among the media, consumers and those who find themselves the subjects of media hype. What do you think of this whole question? Where have you seen it in crime fiction?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Henley’s Dirty Laundry.