Hugh Grant, Press Intrusion and Beeston

Question: What have Hugh Grant, Milly Dowler’s parents and Beeston got in common? Answer: Press intrusion.

All the coverage of the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking and other tabloid bad practice has taken me back to those awful days in July 2005 when the world’s press descended on Beeston. The London bombings was a very important story that was rightly covered in depth by the press and there was an undeniable Beeston connection, but many of the press came to trash us as a community. Here are a few of events that I witnessed that week:

  • When community leaders came out of a Police briefing about the identity of the bombers there was a helicopter flying overhead. It turned out not to be the Police helicopter that most of us imagined, but the BBC’s helicopter – who tipped them off before the press announcement?
  • Hillside Primary School had once employed Mohammed Saddique Khan and was in the process of closing ahead of it’s merger to form New Bewerley Community School. The press descended and refused pleas to respect the children’s privacy. There was only one playground at Hillside, at the front of the school and the staff were forced to line up along the railings so that the children could play at break time without being photographed or filmed.
  • At the end of the school day journalists offered children cash to go back into school and remove photographs that might have Khan in them.
  • With some roads closed and journalists not knowing their way around our streets I came across people jumping over park railings to take short cuts. This might sound trivial, but we had only just secured the park – against “twoked” cars rather than journalists, but the principle is the same.
  • “Respectable” broadsheet papers sent undercover reporters – one “volunteered” at the Hamara Healthy Living Centre. The resulting descriptions of our community were sensationalist and bore little resemblance to reality. Like many reports they talked about a “Muslim slum”, ignoring the fact that the majority population in Beeston is white.

What was the effect of all this coverage? Beeston became infamous around the world. Interestingly, Holbeck, Dewsbury and High Wycombe didn’t get the same attention, but then “Beeston Bombers” has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it? The community rallied brilliantly, I think partly galvanised by unfair press coverage. We came together to say that the bombers did not represent the Beeston community, that we were much more than that, that the causes of the 7/7 events lay outside our community.

Did anyone listen to us? Well the Yorkshire Evening Post started to defend us – I don’t think they liked any part of Leeds being rubbished by a Canadian newspaper (was it the Toronto Star?). But a year later they were still ending any news story about Beeston with a paragraph reminding readers that the 7/7 bombers came from Beeston – just in case anyone had forgotten.

My overriding impression looking back is that the journalists were lazy rather than corrupt. They came with a preconceived view of what the story was and then only saw things that backed up their view. I’m sure their deadlines played a part in this, we have a 24 hour news culture and journalists don’t have, or don’t think they have, time to investigate fully and reflect on what they’ve discovered before filing their copy. What upset me was that we were all over the front pages in a negative, sensationalist way. Any balancing pieces, when they finally emerged, were low key and tucked away on the inside pages. This, I think, is what we have in common with Hugh Grant.

I’m not sure that there’s a simple answer to this. Like most people, I want to hear the news as soon as possible. Perhaps the best advice is to be aware that the first reports of any given event might not be the best informed and to expect the story to be refined and to change over time. And I hope that South Leeds Life, in a small way, is improving news coverage. There are “hyper-local” blogs dotted all over Britain being written by local people who know their area much better than the official press. Why not join us and make our coverage even better?