So editors up and down the land practically came in their pants with excitement when"real-life James Bond" Gareth Williams was found dead in his Pimlico flat earlier this week. Spies! Intrigue! Gayness! It's a story that has pretty much everything, which is why the press covered it all with such sensitivity.
Did Al-Qaeda bump off suitcase spook?Asked the Sun website yesterday. Probably not, said the front page of, err... today's Sun:
Murdered spook was a cross-dresserAh, those pesky transvestite Al-Qaeda agents! A well-known issue among the Islamist extremist terrorist community. Incidentally, the "evidence" that proves the deceased was a transvestite is the claim that "women's clothes that would fit a man" were found in his flat. Well that settles it, then. By the time we get on to page seven the paper has decided to hedge its bets and created one of the most tabloid friendly headline-and-intro packages of recent months (which, unfortunately, is not online):
"MURDERED MI6 worker Gareth Williams was a secret transvestite who may have been killed by a gay lover, detectives said yesterday."
MI6 Gareth... Murdered by a gay slayer or a foreign spy
"Police believe transvestite MI6 intelligence expert Gareth Williams was killed by a gay lover - or a foreign spy."
Or, as the Mirror claims, one of his colleagues. Or maybe one of his friends:
"Detectives are investigating whether colleagues of codebreaker Gareth Williams, 31, are linked to the puzzling death ... Dismissing suggestions of an assassination by foreign agents as fantasy, security sources said it was possible he may have been attacked by a friend."Or maybe a fucking Moomin, for all they know. The Star preferred to take a more mature, grown-up attitude to the case:
MI6 spy stabbed to death and stuffed in sports bag to rotClassy. I'm sure his family were delighted to see that on the newsstands this morning. Plus, as the Mail points out:
"Toxicology tests have been ordered to see if Mr Williams had been poisoned. Lurid speculation that he had been stabbed or even dismembered was discounted by police sources."It's little wonder the Mail has such disdain for "speculation", as all their coverage is totally rooted in confirmed facts:
Did spy's killer steal secrets?Er, probably not. As the Mail's sister paper Metro points out:
"Nothing had been stolen".However, the Mail has some lurid speculation to be getting on with:
"Police fear that his murderer could have taken classified material - possibly held on a laptop or MP3 player - which could be sold on to Britain's enemies."And that's not the only thing the Mail is fearful of:
"One fear is that an area used by MI6 to house operatives ... had now been compromised."Ye gads! Which treacherous organisation could be responsible for compromising national security in this way?
"The maze of streets around London's Victoria and Pimlico districts ... provide the ideal cover for safe houses used by MI5 and MI6. Dozens are owned by the Security and Intelligence agencies."That little security titbit comes from, you've guessed it, the Daily Mail. The paper really goes to town on the issue, including helpfully telephoning the mother of one of Mr Williams's colleagues to ask if her son had been involved in a gay relationship with the victim - no room for lurid speculation here. It has also commissioned a piece on "the intriguing truth about life as 21st century spook". It notes that said life is "surprisingly mundane", with workers "spending their days in an office trawling through emails".
So, in summary, Gareth Williams was a real-life James Bond whose life and work was pretty mundane. He was stabbed, poisoned and strangled to death by a gay-slaying Al-Qaeda agent who was a colleague and a friend and police fear that secrets that were not stolen from his flat could be sold to Britain's enemies.
It's a classic example of the media having no idea what's going on, but having pages to fill nonetheless. In any high-profile murder case getting to the facts can be tricky for journalists, but when the victim works for Britain's most secretive employer they come up against a brick wall. At which point all they can do is guess, speculate, talk to sources who aren't actually connected to the case and copy what other journalists are saying, because if something's been said on Sky News, well, it must be true. Being accurate is no longer important. All that matters is being first with something, anything, so that a year from now when the case comes to court the paper can run a little picture of today's front page alongside a boast about how they "were first" with the news.
The result is a mess like this story. When you cross-check the stories against each other they quickly become ludicrous, but how many of each paper's readers will also look at the coverage in other outlets?
Quite aside from the factual inaccuracies, how traumatic must this be for Mr Williams' friends and family? It's bad enough that they've lost a loved one, now they have to put up with "lurid speculation" about his private life, ill-informed gossip spread across the newsstands, and disturbing headlines like that employed by the Star.
All hacks and hackettes on journalism law courses are told that you can't libel the dead. However, that doesn't mean you should go out of your way to piss all over their memory in order to stand up a sensationalist headline.