AMONG the dark arts of journalistic innuendo, the placement of the word “after” is one of the more insidious. In 2015, the 92-year-old poppy-seller Olive Cooke was found dead at the bottom of a gorge, “after” receiving hundreds of begging letters from charities (News, 22 May 2015). The news stories had originally used the word “because”, but when it became apparent that Mrs Cooke’s situation was more complicated than the reports initially claimed, causation was replaced by implication.
The death of Mrs Cooke was the first case-study for The Corrections (Radio 4, Friday), in which Jo Fidgen and Chloe Hadjimatheou examine news stories whose initial assumptions do not hold up to scrutiny. In this instance, the torrent of charity appeals that Mrs Cooke received, after having been awarded a citizenship medal by her local paper, was never cited by Mrs Cooke herself as a cause of anxiety.
Her granddaughter never heard her mention it, and the journalist who launched the story tried, with little success, to steer her counterparts from the nationals away from such a simplistic explanation.
But, as the programme’s presenters kept reminding us, we love a good narrative. We heard from John Yorke, a “narrative consultant” who told us how journalists love to work with plot archetypes: heroes and villains, journeys and goals. And, in case we didn’t get it, the programme dabbled in the “meta” by examining its own storytelling constructs — at one point maddeningly abandoning a detailed exposition of the principles underlying General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) legislation for a simplistic version.
In fact, this is one of the most important parts of the story: how the tyranny of GDPR was created from such stories as this. We heard about one charity whose database shrank from 6500 to 750 because of the new requirements imposed by GDPR. Myths such as the Olive Cooke story make for bad laws and blunt regulatory practices; regrettably, the correction has come too late.
On Monday of last week, Radio 5 Live’s Your Call (released in podcast form as Live Wires) was devoted to AIDS awareness: a topic that but for the recent revelation of Gareth Thomas’s condition, would have seemed rather unfashionable. The “Don’t die of ignorance” era is long past; now, the talk is of access to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) medication. The callers were generally chirpy, and referred to AIDS as just another virus, requiring the same amount of medication as a headache.
So, where is the stigma? Some comes from within the gay community itself. But the most affecting contribution to the show came from an anonymous HIV-positive immigrant who feared returning to a homeland far less tolerant of the condition. As a result, his visa had expired, and he was residing in the UK illegally. By comparison, the prurient “outing” of a celebrity rugby player seems a parochial affair.