Today is (or yesterday was, depending on when you read this) World Press Freedom Day. Now, normally I don’t keep track of every observance like this, but this one is an important one. People depend on their news to be accurate, and they depend on journalists to help ensure the transparency of what government and corporations do. So it’s important that the media be free to report on stories. At the same time, I think most of us would agree that there are good reasons for certain limits to press access. For instance, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the press to report on certain matters of national security (of course, we could debate on what belongs in that category; I’m speaking in generalities here). Most people would also agree that we have a right to a certain amount of privacy and the media should not violate that privacy. ‘Freedom of the press’ is a crucial concept, but it gets complicated when put into practice. And that’s what makes this kind of issue so interesting and such an appropriate plot point/theme for crime fiction.
Agatha Christie’s novels don’t generally paint journalists in a very positive light. I don’t know for sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if that has something to do with what she went through with the press during and after her famous 11-day absence during December of 1926. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, London hairdresser’s assistant Jane Grey is returning from a rare holiday at Le Pinet when one of her fellow airline passengers suddenly dies of what looks at first like a toxic reaction to a wasp sting. But it’s soon proven that this was murder. And it’s not surprising; the victim is Marie Morisot AKA Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender who used information she found out about her clients as ‘collateral’ for loans. The only possible suspects are the other passengers so although she’s not seriously suspected, Jane comes in for her share of questioning. That’s how she meets Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight and who is helping Chief Inspector Japp with the case. At one point, Jane is having tea with fellow passenger Norman Gale when a reporter interrupts them, asking for a story. Both of them refuse him, but the reporter unscrupulously writes a story about them anyway.
Wendy James’ The Mistake also takes a look at, among other things, the way the press treats a major news story. Jodie Evans Garrow has what most people would say is pretty much the perfect life. She’s in an enduring marriage to Angus, a successful lawyer and up-and-coming politician. She has two healthy children and she herself is in good health. Everything changes when Jodie’s daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and ends up in the same hospital where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child – a girl she’s never told anyone even existed. When one of the hospital nurses remembers Jodie and asks her about her daughter, Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption. But the zealous nurse can find no official adoption records. She feels compelled to report what she’s found and the media soon gets wind of a big story. What happened to this successful woman’s baby? If the baby is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with the baby’s death? Very soon, the media makes the lives of Jodie and her family members miserable. Certainly the stories fan public sentiment against Jodie and that makes her situation that much worse. In the end, we find out what really happened after Jodie gave birth; we also see exactly what damage the press can do to a family.
And yet, as we see in Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, journalists play important roles in exposing corruption, graft and more. In that novel, sometime-attorney Jack Irish gets several telephone messages from a former client Danny McKillop, who’s recently been released from prison. McKillop was convicted of the drink-driving killing of Melbourne activist Anne Jeppeson and now he wants to talk to Irish about the case. But by the time Irish tries to return McKillop’s calls it’s too late; McKillop has been murdered. Irish knows that he didn’t do a good job of defending McKillop and that, plus his guilt over not returning the telephone calls sooner, pushes Irish to start asking questions about his former client’s death. As he begins to look into the matter he meets journalist Linda Hillier, who works for Pacific Rim News. Hillier gets interested in the story because it’s looking quite possible that McKillop was not guilty of Anne Jeppeson’s murder and was framed. If that’s true then someone else committed both killings. Hillier uses her contacts and journalistic skills to help find out who the murderer is. The trail leads to some highly-placed people and a case of greed and corruption that Jeppeson was trying to fight.
Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red also brings up several issues of freedom of the press, its limits and the effects on people of a big story. Rebecca Thorne is a Wellington TV journalist whose Saturday Night is very well-regarded. But she’s reached a professional plateau, and she’s getting concerned. Saturday Night’s ratings are slipping and what’s worse, there are younger ‘hungry’ journalists out there who are all too eager to take Thorne’s place. So Thorne is looking for the story that will cement her place at the top of New Zealand television journalism. She thinks she finds that story in the case of Connor Bligh, who’s in Rimutaka Prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. The only survivor of that attack was their daughter Katy, who wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. During the initial investigation and trial, everyone assumed that Bligh was guilty and most people still do. But there are little hints that he may be innocent. If he is, then this story could be just what Thorne needs. So she begins to investigate. In the process of her search for answers, she gets very close to the story – too close, really. And we see in the way she goes about it how all-consuming the search for a story can be. As Thorne interviews friends, colleagues, neighbours, and finally Katy Dickson herself, we also see how devastating it can be to have something this painful raked up.
There are also of course plenty of fictional sleuths who are journalists. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Connelly’s Jack McEvoy and Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon. Of course, since they’re the protagonists we see the question of exactly what ‘counts’ as journalistic limits from their perspectives. But even so, they remind us of how important it is that the press be free to investigate stories. That said though, I think crime fiction also reminds us that with that freedom comes an important set of responsibilities, including accuracy, the protection of people’s privacy (especially the most vulnerable), and professional behaviour.
What do you think of this balance? Which stories have you enjoyed that treat these themes?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.