The death Monday of Margaret Thatcher has generated a huge amount of ink from newspapers on both sides the Atlantic. Opinions about the “Iron Lady” vary sharply — and some of these opinion pieces have found their way into the news reports of recent days.
This Los Angeles Times article reports the funeral arrangements – but it has been crafted less to tell the story about the funeral than to offer its opinions about Margaret Thatcher. Save for a few knowledgeable insiders most reporters covering these sorts of affairs work off of the same press releases and from the same press conferences. The Home Office, Foreign Office, Downing Street, the Church of England, the Metropolitan Police, Buckingham Palace, the Ministry of Defense, and other government offices have been busy telling reporters of their role in the memorial service.
For example, here is the press release from the Ministry of Defense:
The Ministry of Defence has announced details of the Armed Forces’ involvement in the Funeral of The Rt Hon The Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven LG OM PC FRS, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.
The Funeral will take place on Wednesday 17 April at St Paul’s Cathedral, involving more than 700 Armed Forces personnel. The Coffin will be drawn on a Gun Carriage of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery from St Clement Danes Church (the church of the Royal Air Force) in the Strand to St Paul’s, with the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force lining the route. Outside the Cathedral a Guard of Honour and Band of 1st Battalion Welsh Guards will be formed up. While the Ceremonial Procession takes place, the Honourable Artillery Company will fire Processional Minute Guns from Tower Wharf, HM Tower of London.
Carrying the Coffin of Lady Thatcher into the Cathedral will be a Bearer Party made up of all three Services, including those from ships, units and stations notable for their service during the Falklands Campaign. Positioned on the steps will be a Step Lining party made up of 18 tri-Service personnel and a contingent of In-Pensioners of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Senior military representatives will attend the service.
The reporter’s task is to distill these press releases into a single story. A good reporter seeks to add value to the story by finding a particular angle that would interest his readers and perhaps a first-person observation from someone or some institution mentioned in the press release. Working from the MOD statement, a knowledgeable reporter could develop a unique angle based on the type of funeral (military v. state), the place of the funeral, the procession through the city, or some of the military aspects. What he should not do is offer unfounded speculation.
Let’s look at the Los Angeles Times.
LONDON — The funeral of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest-serving leader of the 20th century, will be held in St. Paul’s Cathedral on April 17, officials said Tuesday. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, are expected to attend what will be the most elaborate funeral to be staged in London since the death of the queen’s mother in 2002. It will be the first funeral of a prime minister that the queen will have attended since Winston Churchill’s in 1965. Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87 after years of declining health, will be given a ceremonial service with military honors, a service almost indistinguishable from an official state funeral.
Further facts are reported before it moves into its particular angle.
The expected presence of the queen at Thatcher’s funeral is an indication of the impact Britain’s first female prime minister made, even though the two women, who were born six months apart, are believed to have had a frosty relationship.
Thatcher raised eyebrows with her increasingly regal style toward the end of her 1979-90 premiership, particularly her announcement of the birth of her first grandchild: “We have become a grandmother.” Elizabeth is said to have disliked the social division that Thatcher’s policies exacerbated among her subjects.
The reputed edge between them is on show in a new play in London’s West End. “The Audience” depicts imagined accounts of the meetings the queen holds weekly with the prime minister of the day. Oscar-winner Helen Mirren portrays Elizabeth and actress Haydn Gwynne takes the role of Thatcher in a fraught but fictionalized encounter.
These three paragraphs are problematic. It asserts the Queen and Mrs Thatcher did not care for one another. No facts are presented to support this statement nor is a second source offered to substantiate the claim. Instead we have the verbal phrasing “are believed”. Believed by whom?
How does the LA Times know the mind of the Queen? Is it the royal mind of the monarch or the royal mind of the Times editorial board who believes dislikes the “social division that Thatcher’s policies exacerbated among her subjects”? And where is the evidence for this? Conventional wisdom among the liberal establishment does not count.
Perhaps I have been at this game too long but the only news value I can see in mentioning the West End play “The Audience” is that it allows the author to put his ticket on his expense account.
Now I am not saying that the claims of friction between the two women do not exist — but they are merely claims and not fact. If the Times wants to mention them it needs to put these words in the mouths of others because the Times is not an insider or a knowledgeable source — they do not have the necessary credibility to get away with it. This is gossip not news.