Becoming part of the story is the last thing…

Sky News’ coverage of the apparent suicide of a woman, it claimed last week had sent abusive messages to the parents of Madeleine McCann, highlights the question facing the media of how to report news when they – or their employees – have played a key role in a story.

You can only imagine the reaction in the Sky newsroom when reports emerged last night that the body of Brenda Leyland – who was confronted by one of its reporters in a much-heralded investigation – had been found in a Leicester hotel. Normally, Sky being Sky, the story would have received the full breaking news treatment. But from what I saw last night and this morning, there was very little coverage. It seems it was only put up on Sky’s online site at 9.10 this morning. The BBC, on the other hand, was leading on it during the 5 Live Breakfast show and the story was reported prominently on BBC news online.

Under the circumstances you can understand why Sky has been uncharacteristically cautious in its reporting. The BBC is, of course, well versed in reporting stories about itself – most notably the Jimmy Saville scandal and the seemingly regular departures of its top executives. I was working at BBC News 24 (now the News Channel) in 2004 when the director-general Greg Dyke resigned in the wake of the findings of the Hutton Inquiry. My role that day was to write the presenters’ links for the top stories – and it was all about the inquiry and its aftermath. This, I thought, was proper grown up telly. To make it even better the famous Huw Edwards had been brought in to lead the coverage. It was quite unusual then for the BBC’s big hitters to appear on News 24. The moment was slightly undermined by the distraction – for staff and viewers – of a conga-like procession following Greg Dyke as he said farewell to staff at Television Centre. A bit ironic when the question of the BBC’s professionalism had been at the heart of the Hutton Inquiry.

Thirteen years earlier I had been a junior producer at the BBC in Newcastle when a reporter and crew were despatched to cover the latest development in a story of man called Albert Dryden who had built a bungalow without planning permission. The BBC was short-staffed that day because the majority of the senior journalists, crews and management were attending the funeral of one of our colleagues – cameraman Bobby Armstrong – who had just died. Under normal circumstance neither the reporter, Tony Belmont, or his crew, Phil Dobson and Simon Forrester, would have been sent on the job. Tony Belmont was shot in the arm, the crew had to flee for their lives and a council planning officer was killed by Albert Dryden. I was the first person to see the pictures when the tape arrived at the BBC and, from memory, spent a great deal of the rest of the day speaking to BBC lawyers or liaising with my editor who was returning from the funeral in Cumbria.

Becoming part of the story is normally the last thing any journalist wants to happen. But, when it does, normal judgement and professionalism must apply.

Reaction to the death of Brenda Leyland is growing.  This story has just appeared online on Guardian Media News.