Skip to content

Guest blog: Andrew Graystone on the duty of care the media needs to shoulder

Church and Media Network director Andrew Graystone on the media's duty of care, in the light of the Philpott case

Church and Media Network director Andrew Graystone on the media's duty of care, in the light of the Philpott case

The front page of today’s Daily Mail is devoted to the story of Mick and Mairead Philpott and their friend Paul Mosley, who are awaiting sentence for the manslaughter of six of their children. The paper carries a large picture of Philpott surrounded by the six children under a banner headline reading VILE PRODUCT OF WELFARE UK. 

The headline immediately provoked an angry reaction on Twitter. It seemed to imply that the dead children were a “vile product” of the benefits system. Many people were enraged that the paper should use the death of the children as an opportunity to advance its politically-motivated attack on the welfare state.  

Of course anyone who really objects to the Mail’s headline could complain to the Chair of the Press Complaints Commission's Code of Practise Committee. He's Paul Dacre. He happens to be the editor of the Daily Mail. If ever there was an argument for independence in the regulation of the press, this is it.
But my anxiety about the coverage of the Philpott family doesn’t start with their conviction yesterday. It goes back much further than that.

Over the last 10 years Mick Philpott has been a frequent guest on reality TV shows.  In 2007 for instance, he spent a whole week with Ann Widdecombe filming a documentary for ITV. The previous year the Philpotts were guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show. Two of their children were still unborn, but the audience was invited to whoop and wonder at the fact that Philpott had 15 already, and that he had persuaded (manipulated) his wife and girlfriend into sleeping with him on alternate nights. 

Sometimes The Jeremy Kyle Show covers its shame with a thin veneer of caring by pretending that it is actually a sort of public counselling service. Psychologist Graham is on hand to provide support after the recording, mopping up any lingering emotional issues that Jeremy can’t resolve on air. But when the Philpotts were on the show there were no issues to resolve. They were just there to shock and entertain the audience. Jeremy Kyle’s shtick is to simultaneously celebrate and humiliate poor people for public entertainment.

It wasn't reality TV that turned the Philpotts into killers, any more than the benefits system. But in retrospect Mick Philpott's obsession with self-publicity was feeding a life that needed a quite different kind of intervention. Whenever we make a programme or write an article, we intervene in the lives of people we barely know and may not understand. We owe them and the audience a duty of care, lest we contribute to making hard lives harder or twisted lives more corrupt.  

Last week I was at MediaCity in Salford. Outside the studio there was a small huddle of people smoking. They wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Philpotts’ Derbyshire council estate but they looked decidedly uncomfortable in the chichi plaza of MediaCity. The Jeremy Kyle Show was filming its next series in Dock Ten.

The production team were there too of course, as busy as you would expect, in matching polo shirts, headsets and clipboards. I wish I could have stopped them to ask the questions that were troubling me – questions that I asked myself continually when I was the one wearing the headset. But they were too busy  So I’ll ask them here.

They are good questions to ask, I think, whether you are making a TV programme, conducting a radio interview or writing a story for the front page of a national newspaper.  

Are you confident that you have made the effort to fully understood the lives of the people you are working with?  

Are you sure that it’s right to use their stories as material for the production of your programme?  

Are you sure that when they agreed to take part, they fully understood the impact of being in the media spotlight?  

Do you think your guests will be helped in any way by being on the programme?  Is there a risk that they or their families might be damaged by taking part?  

Will working with them change you in any way – or will you forget about them as soon as you’ve finished making your programme?

Get more inspiring reading

To find back issues of the INSPIRE mini-mag - seasonal and themed issues - go to