Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Michaella McCollum scoop is news at its best

Jailed: Michaella McCollum

There are three cast-iron ways a journalist knows they've filed a nailed-on sensational splash. The first is, of course, a circulation spike when the story rolls off the presses. The second is seeing a 'spoiler' in a rival newspaper. And the third is the inevitable outbreak of jealous mutterings, petty sniping and absurd posturing from other hacks. (When you've a bit of experience under your belt, the latter is by far the most enjoyable aspect of all – the sheer envy of it all.)

So, give it up for Patricia Devlin, a journalist on our sister publication the Sunday Life, whose two-week serialisation 'The Peru Two: The Inside Story' has scored just such a hat-trick. She managed to get inside the Virgin de Fatima prison to secure a raft of exclusive revelations from Dungannon woman Michaella McCollum. You'll know exactly who she is since, like the rest of us, you've been hoovering up every titbit you can read about her since her disappearance, arrest and conviction for drug smuggling.

Copies of the paper flew off the shelves, the rival Sunday World – in the best journalistic traditions – turned up a photo of Michaella wearing very little, and... the Twittersphere erupted in a wave of moralising, with seasoned, unshockable reporters and amateur pundits declaring they were so offended by the story they wouldn't be buying the newspaper. Oddly enough, the most shaken tweeters all seemed to be men.

And what precisely had caused them to reach for the smelling salts and The Sunday Post? No doubt after poring over every word, they decreed the story was 'glamorising' drugs. It was lowest common denominator journalism. It was 'making a celebrity' of Michaella McCollum.

All tripe. The only thing it was making was the name of Patricia Devlin, who secured the scoop.

To say her articles – for which McCollum received no payment – were making the occupation of 'drug mule' an attractive career move for the bloom of Ulster womanhood is as dense as claiming that reporting on drunk-drivers glamorises alcohol, or covering lapses in hospital hygiene only serves to make sought-after dinner guests of MRSA and C-Difficile.

Anywhere else on the globe, a story of such true worldwide interest would have news editors sobbing prostrate before their church altars in thanksgiving; not because it was an opportunity to climb on the pro-drug addiction bandwagon – is there even such a thing? – but because it's a chance to bring the global right into the heart of the local. And that, blokey begrudgers and bullies of social media, is the whole purpose and function of the media. Rather a dozen pages of McCollum over two weeks than the endless tedious diet of Troubles porn fed to us all from Stormont. That simply palls in colour when put up against a live story unfolding before our eyes.

Hence people clamour to buy the paper. And no amount of hand-wringing, faux-shock and slow head-shaking about the dubious taste of the reading public can make all that un-happen.

The news can be merciless that way.

Again, though, it's the older prejudices kicking in. Everything about the story is young and new – McCollum is a young girl, her crime, from our perspective in Northern Ireland, is relatively new, though it opens another window on the drugs trade here, which is mainly managed by paramilitaries.

McCollum herself is compelling because she is one of us – one of our children, if you like – and her values, such as they are, her behaviour abroad, her attitudes and her fate in prison map out the kind of life none of us ever imagined would lie in store for our youngsters.

But there it is. In black and white.

Patricia Devlin went out to Peru, did the hard work of gaining access to the prison and the even harder job of unpicking McCollum's psyche in a way that has been memorable and illuminating. Don't be surprised if her name turns up on the awards list when the time comes for the industry to recognise the achievements of much-maligned hacks.

Everyone – most certainly, top of the list Michaella McCollum – would prefer it if there were no such thing as drug mules, or Ulster girls in Peruvian prisons, or even drug-use in the first place.

But there is and there are.

When it also happens that there are gutsy young women like Patricia Devlin with the commitment and talent to tackle those issues and demonstrate there is a better, more productive, exciting and valuable way to make your mark in this world, it's time to stand up and applaud.

Not crouch behind your couch making snide remarks.

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