World media accept plea from folks of Dunblane to let them mourn in peace

March 22, 1996|By MIKE LITTWIN

The most amazing thing happened the other day in Dunblane, Scotland.

The media left town.

In the midst of the great tragedy, in the midst of great mourning, in the midst of funerals for the lost children, the press boys packed up and hit the road. There wasn't a minicam for miles.

All there was to see I watched it happen on CNN was a caravan of TV satellite trucks, heading out of Dunblane and back to London. It looked like the circus leaving town, which may be an apt analogy.

And so, the people of Dunblane, a small town in the foothills of the Scottish highlands, where small towns really are small towns, were left to mourn by themselves.

How could this be?

In the media age, nobody gets to mourn in peace. It's as if private mourning somehow defied natural law. It's more than that, too. If we don't see the mourning on TV, we can't be sure it even happened.

Here's the all-too-familiar drill: There is a tragedy. Mourners mourn as TV cameras roll and reporters stand uninvited on doorsteps of the relatives. The grieving sob into microphones. We watch and we grieve together. Well, they grieve; we grieve for a while and then get on with our lives.

The reason the media abandoned Dunblane leaving one pool cameraman to show tasteful long shots of mourners attending the funerals was heartbreakingly simple: The people asked.

Area police, who were coordinating the tragedy coverage, issued a statement following complaints from some of the families. Superintendent Louis Munn, the press officer, warned news editors to stop "all contact with the victim's families . . . forthwith." If they didn't, he said, "I will take the matter up personally at the highest levels."

The families, Superintendent Munn said, were told to pass the names of any offenders to him.

It was like the sheriff telling the bad guys to get out of town by sundown. And they did.

The press was shamed into leaving. It's as if it suddenly occurred to everyone that something was terribly wrong.

This could never have happened in America, but maybe not for the reasons you think.

It's true that the British don't enjoy the same freedom of the press that we do. For example, the British have an official secrets act that covers just about anything the government determines is secret. If you think that's good, try uncovering Watergate that way.

But the British government couldn't and didn't order the press out of Dunblane.

And it certainly isn't that the British press is less rapacious than ours. Although their TV news is determinedly low-key, Britain is home to the lowest forms of daily print journalism.

A typical London tabloid will offer topless Page 3 girls, four-letter words and any sex scandal it can uncover. Restrained? When the Dunblane killer was cremated, the 4-million-circulation Sun (of London, not Baltimore) ran this headline: "Monster Burns in Hell."

No, the British press is not restrained.

Neither is the American press. On the day of the killing in Dunblane, a newspaper reporter was interviewing an 11-year-old the school. The boy began to cry, and a U.S. TV guy began to yell at the print guy to leave the kid alone.

There's plenty of shame to go around.

It's easy to be repelled by this behavior. In America, we insist we hate the press. All the polls say so that the press is too invasive.

And yet, nobody is forced to watch Ricki Lake or the nightly network magazine shows or the 11 o'clock news, which has convinced us that part of the grieving process is to talk to some reporter who, though moved by your loss, is most concerned at the moment of getting a story. "Your son was killed in a drive-by shooting. Your thoughts?"

The media never left Oklahoma City. In Oklahoma City, the relatives of the victims gathered at a church for news. The media gathered at the same church, although in another wing. But there was a bank of microphones available to any griever who wanted to talk. Some did. Some must have thought it was a way to have their spouse/child/son/parent memorialized. Many must have thought it was what is expected of them.

As time passes, the drama at Oklahoma City became harder to find. One local TV channel actually arranged for the mother of Baylee Almon, the little girl caught in the famous picture, to meet with the firefighter who cradled her and the policeman who found her. On the air, of course.

It works both ways, too. One Marine who was in the federal building at the time of the explosion appeared on the "Today" show, wearing a golf hat because, he later revealed, he hoped the company would send him some free equipment. He even sent them a tape of the show.

Last Friday, "Today" was doing a piece on the restrained British coverage. Richard Tait, head of Independent Television News there, said he thought Americans had different expectations.

"If we were seen pursuing relatives," Tait said, "there would be outrage in Britain."

There would be in America, too. But it wouldn't stop anyone from watching.

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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