by KATE LEAVER
If you’ve ever heard the sound of a mother who has just lost her child, you’ll never forget it. I’ve heard that sound – primal, harrowing, hollow, desperate, unlike anything I’ve heard before or since – on several occasions in my life. I can hear it, as I write this.
In my final year of school, a friend of mine died. Klara – who was sweet, ambitious, funny, and almost impossibly gorgeous – was crushed by the only tree that fell in a 500km radius during a storm, while we were supervising younger students on a school camp. I was wearing her flip-flops when we were told she’d been killed; I’d borrowed them to totter along in my pajamas for an emergency meeting.
We were bundled on buses and hurried back to school, where bereaved parents waited – uncomfortably, next to a mob of TV crews. An always-composed teacher boarded the bus on our arrival, coaching us urgently in how to deal with the media: “Keep your heads down, don’t say a thing, don’t make eye contact, walk quickly.”
How perverse, I thought, to be so abruptly in the gaze of the news. Why was my grief newsworthy? What right did these reporters have, harassing a group of terrified teenage girls – most as young as 13, a few of us 17? Surely it wasn’t right, it couldn’t be legal, for news crews to bait us and call out to us as we hurried towards our anxious families.
There was footage that night of me descending the bus steps, sullen-faced, eyes downcast, bewildered by the presence of the media so soon after losing a friend I’d known most of my life. There were photographs of my friends, distraught, crying without stopping to breathe, huddled in small groups for support. Photographers had chased them up a hill, trying to best capture the worst moments of their teenage lives. It was perverse, and disturbing. It was scary, and uniquely intrusive.
I later found out crews had been to the campsite too, a few hours outside of Sydney. They’d climbed up to where her tent had been – quite a walk – to film close-ups of her discarded sneakers. Why were they there, why was this necessary, who had commissioned these people to scavenge around in the bush for emotive footage?
Thankfully, no media were in time to film the impromptu vigil ten of us had, holding hands in a circle, trying to find the words to say goodbye. For that, we were very much alone.
That same year, in a “What do you want to do when you grow up?” conversation with the principal of my school, I vowed never to be a part of that mob, waiting to pounce on tragedy in the name of News.
Yet, here I am: a journalist. I’ve had nightmares, woken up sweaty and confused, playing out an unconscious scenario in which my job requires me to chase an ambulance. It troubles me, more often than I can say, that the privacy of the bereaved is not protected or enforced.
I thought of Klara’s exquisite, warm, wonderful, kind mother (who I still keep in touch with, and think of most days) when I read about Linda Goldspink-Lord’s experience with reporters the day her daughter Molly died in a freak quad bike accident.
In a Facebook message to Channel 7, Linda Goldspink-Lord’s shamed journalists for hovering in a helicopter and trespassing on her property with cameras, despite being asked to leave five times. The post was removed from Channel 7’s Facebook page (a rookie error in dealing with social media – it’s an implicit media rule: remove a social media post and feel the wrath of a public very quickly, and rightfully, defensive about their right to speak).