(l-r) Lawrence Jones, Peter Kinderman, Chris Greenwood, Dee Anand & Emily Pannink - © nuj
4 May 2017
What would have happened if Prince Harry had punched someone at a Mayfair nightclub?
The pictures taken by press photographers and clubbers with mobile phones would have gone viral on social media outlets throughout the globe. The headlines and stories would have painted a picture of an over-privileged, young man behaving badly in a champagne-fuelled brawl.
Prince Pugnacious, as he was dubbed by one newspaper, is apparently "ever ready to take a swing at the paparazzi who have an unfortunate knack of catching him at his most undignified".
But is being a spoilt, young prince, just half the story?
In an interview with the Telegraph's Bryony Gordon, he offered another side to the tale. He admitted that he had only recently sought counselling following the death of his mother in a car crash almost 20 years ago.
“My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?” he said. “During those years I took up boxing, because everyone was saying boxing is good for you and it’s a really good way of letting out aggression; that really saved me because I was on the verge of punching someone…" he said.
The prince's example was used by Lawrence Jones, a consultant clinical and forensic psychologist working in a high secure hospital, and one of the speakers at an NUJ and British Psychological Society (BPS) event, Whydunnit? which examined crime reporting and the link between crime and mental health.
Lawrence Jones has studied serious offenders and the relation between the effect of trauma and abuse and their subsequent actions. Many serious offenders have long histories of trauma and abuse. He said:
"I am not saying that if people have trauma in their backgrounds this somehow excuses what they have done. I am not saying that people are not responsible for their own actions if they have had difficult childhoods. But, it is in the public interest to understand why people end up committing serious offences.
"This is something that journalists and psychologists could work together to address, offer explanations and understanding. This can play a role in persuading policy makers to look at the causes of crime, ways to prevent it and rehabilitate criminals."
It isn't simple: when recording a horrific crime it is not always easy to write, or palatable for many to read, about the perpetrator also being a victim.
Emily Pennink is the Old Bailey correspondent for the Press Association, and cases she has covered include
Stephen Port, who killed four young gay men, right-wing terrorist Thomas Mair, killer of MP Jo Cox, and that of Polly Chowdhury, a mother who abused, tortured and killed her eight-year-old daughter while being controlled by fake online characters created by her girlfriend, Kiki Muddar.
Talking about the coverage of the Chowdhury case, she said: "This story was stranger than fiction, it involved a host of scary characters, a host of fictional characters, spirit guides, scary masks, vampires and of course sex and violence."
Both were cleared of murder, but jailed for manslaughter.
It was Emily's job to follow every twist and turn of the trial and eventually try to make sense of why anyone would torture and murder a child in these extraordinary circumstances. She said:
"As a court reporter at the Old Bailey, I have to balance the competing interests in any story, then attempt to cram everything into 500 words at top speed. I think the media is cautious not to appear as if it is trying to excuse crime with psychology rather than explaining why it happened.
"However, as an industry, I think we are moving away from the simplistic 'mad or bad' categories of criminals into something more realistic. There is always a public interest in justice being seen to be done, but it is crucially important to understand why they did it so society can learn lessons."
Chris Greenwood, chair of the Crime Reporters Association and the Daily Mail's crime correspondent agreed. He said today's newspapers would no longer run anything like the notorious Sun headline Bonkers Bruno Locked Up, approved by Rebekah Brooks, after the boxer Frank Bruno had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
He said there was an enduring interest in crime, with Britain being a nation of armchair detectives. And newspaper crime correspondents often used to be as colourful as their TV counterparts, with the Mail's Peter Burden dubbed as the Pink Panther, because he wore a pink suit to stand out of the pack at press conferences. The former president of the Crime Writers' Association, in the tradition of Fleet Street, won many a scoop over a glass or two of wine (chilled Sancerre according to his Press Gazette obituary) and Dorchester dinners with top police brass.
Those days are long gone for today's crime reporters, but the competition to get the story is just as keen. Chris and Emily, during questions, agreed that, particularly online, there is pressure to sensationalise and include shock-value to crime stories because of "clickbait", the race to attract the maximum clicks per story.
Peter Kinderman, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool and president of the British Psychology Association, said that if journalists can make the link between trauma, abuse, poverty, bullying, social disadvantage, inequality and psychological wellbeing and offending and also learn to be careful with the language they use in respect to mental health, then it will make for more accurate, elegant journalism.
His guide, Mind your language!, says terms such as "psycho-killer" and "mad axe-man" are not very helpful and he asserts that giving people medical labels such as schizophrenic, bipolar or personality disorder is wrong. He said: "It is better to describe the person's problems in ordinary language. Instead of saying schizophrenia, say they heard voices or experienced hallucinations or thought someone was plotting to kill them. Instead of personality disorder, we should talk about self-harm, or problems with forming intimate relationships or mood swings."
Dee Anand, vice chair of the BPS's division of forensic psychology and chair of the event, had started the evening with a clip of the video of Kasabian's song You're in Love with a Psycho as an example of why such pejorative terms enter common parlance and how journalists can help re-shape the language. He said it was easy for people and newspapers to portray offenders as monsters and outsiders, because it made us feel safer that way. But, he said: "We have created the society in which these crimes take place."
The final panel member was Erwin James, a murderer who is now an award-winning writer and columnist for
the Guardian. He gave a fascinating talk about how the life of a happy seven-year-old changed forever following the death of his mother in a car crash, when he was left with a grieving and violent father. Erwin left home aged 10 and entered a children's home, later sleeping rough, living a chaotic life, drifting into petty crime and eventually the murders that resulted in a 20-year sentence.
In prison, with encouragement from Joan Branton, a prison psychologist, he took up writing, read extensively and wrote about prison life for the Guardian. He said: "I'm not saying I deserved a second chance, but we have a system that lets people even like me out."