Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tragic death raised questions for our reporting

The fall-out from the tragic death of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter raised a couple of important questions for the Mercury news team yesterday.

The first surrounded the identity of some of the youths accused of being involved in the harassment that led to Ms Pilkington killing her daughter before committing suicide. As a rule, the Mercury, in line with the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct, does not name children under the age of 16 involved in crime. The law itself gives protection to juveniles appearing in court and they are rarely named. However, there are occasions when a magistrate or judge will decide that a child should be named, often as part of an attempt to protect the public.

The issue here was that there was no court case, but two boys and their older brother were named in national newspapers - one of them branded 'Street Rat' on the front page of the Sun. A local councillor was also raising a petition to have the family evicted.

You may be surprised to hear that our first reaction was not to name the family and particularly the two younger boys. But after some discussion we decided to do the opposite - to name the boys and use their photographs. What was behind the decision?

Primarily, it was because any pretence that these boys had anonymity was ridiculous. Everybody in the area knew the identity of the boys even before the national papers got involved. It was clear from our discussions with neighbours that they were well-known in the area and their links to the Pilkington case were common knowledge - not naming them would have made our article look very odd and would not have 'protected' the boys in any way.

The other question we faced was more difficult. Three other vulnerable families contacted us to say that they had been harassed in a similar way and felt that they had been left to suffer with little or no protection from the police or other authorities.

The issue here was that these cases are always much more complex than they look and there was no time for the authorities to go away and investigate what was being claimed by the families and give a reasoned response or challenge the 'facts.' For example, one of the families said they had called the police 'hundreds of times.' I'm guessing, but that's probably factually inaccurate and may be no more than a figure of speech.

So the question was: should we run these claims based on nothing other than what the families said?

We decided we would because it was important to point out that the Pilkington case was not an isolated incident and although we had nothing to corroborate the individual claims of each family, in a way they corroborated each other. In a general discussion about the way the police and social services should respond to such incidents, the detailed facts are largely irrelevant - what's important here is that there are several families who felt harassed and felt that they dud not get the support they needed.

The police themselves have admitted that they have changed the way they react to claims of anti-social behaviour. The Pilkington family's calls for help were dealt with as individual complaints of anti-social behaviour and received a fairly low-level response but since their deaths, the police have changed their policy to categorise repeated offences against vulnerable people as hate crime, which receives a much more serious response.

As is often the way in these cases, the inquest has taken some years to be heard and the response of the police and councils is invariably that they have changed. So while the coroner is very critical of the way they responded to Ms Pilkington's plight they say that they have learned the lessons.

That's why we not only decided to highlight that other families suffered at the same time as the Pilkingtons, but added a line to our article asking whether anybody is still suffering.