Deborah Hobson - The-Latest - EXCLUSIVE
When the violent death of a previously unknown person becomes headline news ownership of the subsequent cause célèbre passes from the grieving family to all of us. The sad story becomes a matter of “public interest”.
Understandably, this can be difficult for relatives to grasp. After all, it is the family and not the nation who has lost a loved one as a result of a murder, unexplained death or disaster and surely they should have control of how the narrative about the tragedy is told.
Yet news management is something even seasoned journalists can have trouble with; it can be a bit like riding a tiger in its unpredictability. Editor of The-Latest, Marc Wadsworth, had some experience of being a “spin doctor” for high profile causes, including the successful Labour Party Black Sections campaign for greater African Caribbean and Asian political representation, Anti-Racist Alliance and Stephen Lawrence Campaign for Justice.
So, when late one evening last week he was on Facebook chatting with a former journalism student of his and she told him about the death of a friend in Dubai, Marc keenly asked to know more. He was shocked by the story of 39-year-old British tourist Lee Brown being beaten to death by police in a squalid cell. Dubai police have denied this is true.
Lee Brown was arrested at the Burj Al Arab hotel on April 6 after being accused of trying to throw a female housekeeper off a balcony.
Dubai authorities say he was in a "hysterical temper" after he was detained, and that the Essex handyman kept beating a metal mesh barrier in the police car as he was driven away.
Marc's Facebook friend said the family needed help with handling the media and the building of a political campaign and would he mind if his name was put to them. That is what happened and the family did indeed say they would like Marc’s help. They asked if he would telephone the following day, which he did.
Su, 40, the partner of Lee’s younger brother Steve, 37, answered the telephone. A rock in Steve’s life, she had taken the lead role for the family, talking to journalists and others. It was agreed that Marc would meet the couple at the home of his ex-student who would introduce him. But, later in the day, Su called Marc to seek advice about a meeting Steve and her were having with Det Ch Insp Andy Redwood, of the Metropolitan Police’s Homicide and Serious Crime Command.
Marc said that, as the couple were neither suspects nor witnesses, they should go into the meeting with a “listening brief” to find out what the Met could do to investigate. Su phoned Marc afterwards to thank him for his advice which she said had been useful. Apparently, DCI Redwood had said there was nothing the Met could do because Dubai was outside its “jurisdiction”.
What Steve and her had wanted to guard against was DCI Redwood using the meeting as a fishing expedition to find out information about Lee that would help in a cover up by the Dubai authorities and their British government allies. (The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, and Qatar are the only two Arab nations to have given military help to Nato’s controversial attack on Libya). The-Latest is not saying that is what DCI Redwood intended the meeting to be about.
Afterwards, Su said there was no need to wait for a meeting between her Steve and Marc at a go-between’s house and that Marc should meet the couple at their Leyton, East London, home. He arrived at just before 9pm. Emotions welled up in Marc.
It was like his first visit to the Plumstead home of Doreen and Neville Lawrence the day after their 18-year-old son Stephen had been murdered by racist thugs in April 1993. Su opened the door. Inside the terraced house was Steve, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Lee, with his gaunt face, slim build and ice blue eyes.
Marc spent almost two hours with the traumatised couple. The detailed contents of the wide-ranging conversation are a confidence between Su, Steve and Marc. But, in broad terms, media, a public justice for Lee Brown campaign and legal help were discussed. Telephone negotiations between Marc and news executives he knew were held in front of Su and Steve.
Su said she had managed to make sure the story was “already out there” through an Australian journalist contact of hers who had been held in cell at the same notorious Bur Dubai police station as Lee. She had also been talking to Brian Flynn, of The Sun, the paper she said Lee liked to read.
The family indicated that, like the Lawrences before them, their story should be sold to a newspaper – not for profit, but to pay for the inevitable expenses they would face. Su said, ironically: “This is the 21st century.” Repatriation of Lee’s body would cost £4,000. A post mortem by an independent pathologist would cost £3,000. And, if Su and Steve went to Dubai, their flight, accommodation, keep and transport would have to be covered.
Marc signed an agreement with Su and Steve, though he said he would donate his fee from any media deal to their campaign, and he continued his work telephoning key contacts on national newspapers. The Sun, which until then had enjoyed a special relationship with Su, was put out that Marc was now involved and did its best to try and undermine him.
To Su and Steve’s credit, they held firm and a typically Sun manoeuver did not work. Frankly, the paper had got days of page lead coverage from the family for free so it had no reason to complain and did not need to resort to the skulduggery for which it is so notorious. That is not saying that, like all the other news editors and reporters Marc spoke with, their journalists were not genuinely moved by the apparent indescribably brutal treatment Lee had suffered that led to his lonely death.
Journalists wanted justice just as much as Lee’s family and recognised the role they could play in preventing a white wash by keeping the story in public view. But, since coverage in the Sunday Mirror and Observer last weekend and then The Sun the following day of April 16, and a short piece in the London free sheet paper, the Metro, on April 19, the day Su, Steve and the family lawyer, Kat Craig, came back from a quick trip to Dubai, the Lee Brown story has fallen from prominence.
Why? Because the family, suspicious and untrusting of journalists and their motives like many member of the public, would not open their home and hearts and do a sit down interview with a reporter for a full human interest spread in a paper. Even a prepared statement with, perhaps, unpublished photographs or video of Lee would do the trick. No photo has yet appeared of Su, Steve, or his mother, Doris, for whom Craig is acting as Lee's next of kin.
Fleet Street’s finest have had to rely on a few lines of quotes on the phone for their stories, though nine images of Lee from Facebook have been freely available. The story was becoming old news.
As a result of the information famine, interest was drying up. A potential big splash was orchestrated by Marc for last Sunday, to set the media agenda for the week, with a major newspaper agreeing to pay for Su, Steve and their solicitor to fly out to Dubai on the previous Friday night. The paper would also pick up their hotel bill. But, at the eleventh hour, the deal was turned down.
Marc, at Su’s insistence that he find the family a lawyer, had introduced her and Steve to a top human rights solicitor Louise Christian, an old political comrade of his, and they had spent six hours on Friday cosseted at the West End offices of her firm contacting the British Consul General in Dubai, senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office civil servants, the Dubai police and DCI Redwood.
The family wanted British Foreign Office help to get Lee’s body released to them and flown back to Britain for a new post mortem. Unsurprisingly, the two done by the authorities in Dubai found that Lee died as a result of allegedly choking on his own vomit; though the official version has now changed to a head injury it is claimed he caused himself.
In the event, Su, Steve and the lawyer did not catch the 9.15pm last flight to Dubai on Friday, as proposed. Later that evening Marc’s ex-student called him to say her friends Su and Steve were too tired to talk with him. The go between sent an email to Marc saying the family were grateful for his “excellent work” but rejected the newspaper’s offer as “too little”.
They wanted a few grand on top – something no Sunday paper was prepared to offer. In fact, the ex-student claimed The Sun had offered “19k” and asked if Marc could “improve on that”. A seasoned hack, Marc did not believe that sum of money was on the table and had sharp words with his former protégé about her having created a wildly unrealistic expectation of how much a story from Lee's family was worth.
The Fleet Street rumour mill was awash with talk of The Sun, the News of the World and Mail on Sunday doing a deal with the family. But still no exclusive appeared in any of the titles. No deal was struck by Marc or story supplied by him to any newspaper.
An example of a Fleet Street paper’s frantic efforts to get the story is a case in point. Pushy Daily Mail reporters, constantly telephoned the family, knocking on the door and putting notes through the letterbox and this had turned Su, who, as a progressive, was not a fan anyway, even more against the paper. She equated the Mail with its Sunday stable mate, even though the papers prided themselves on being separate entities; the latter the more cuddly of the two.
Louise Christian had told Su and Steve the Mail on Sunday had been helpful to her in publicising the stories of victims of tragedies whom she had represented and she understood, from journalists, that it was among Fleet Street’s best payers. That was Marc's experience too.
And it was, he recalled, the previously notoriously racist Daily Mail that had surprisingly championed the Justice for Stephen Lawrence campaign and paid Doreen Lawrence handsomely for serialising her book about the case.
A Daily Mail journalist complained bitterly to The-Latest that: “The Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday are the only papers who sent reporters and photographers to Dubai because we really care about this story on a human level, but the family have refused to talk to us so we have come back with nothing. Don’t they understand that we have huge circulations and if they want to avoid a cover up the best way to achieve that is to keep the story alive in the papers?”
Marc remembered the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela, the international icon he had managed to get to meet with Doreen and Neville Lawrence to boost their campaign, had cautioned him about relying politically on the families of victims.
The ANC, which recounted bad experiences with families of its activists on death row, had noted that they could switch at a moment’s notice because they were easily got at by unscrupulous authorities that threatened dire consequences if they did not do as they were told. Fear, paranoia and distrust are a lethal cocktail.
Media commentators know how fickle Fleet Street is. Its attention span is only a little better than that of a gold fish. Stories are flavours of the week or, in the case of the Royal Wedding, slightly longer than that.
Stories like Lee Brown’s must now compete for space with William and Kate. And, tragically, there is now a greater appetite for the royal soap opera. The-Latest is proud to have helped families in their fight for justice by publicising the cases of Scarlett Keeling and Stephen Bennett.
We hope that once the wedding pomp, ceremony and media hype has died down more interest in Lee Brown’s story can be revived. His death is a national tragedy and, for Lee's sake and that of all the voiceless, must not be in vain.
* Today's Mail on Sunday carries a story from an anonymous cell mate of Lee's whom the paper tracked down. He says Lee was savagely beaten by six officers and left to die.