Mary Beith, who died last weekend aged 73, was responsible for one of the most memorable newspaper front pages in the history of popular journalism.
She was the undercover reporter who took pictures of dogs being forced to inhale cigarette smoke, resulting in an iconic 1975 People splash: “The smoking beagles.”
The animals were being used in an experiment to test a new (allegedly) “safe” cigarette.
The story behind the story was a classic example of investigative journalism – a mixture of determination, chutzpah, good luck and comedy.
Beith, then working for The People in Manchester, was asked by its investigations supremo, Laurie Manifold, to see if she could obtain a job in an ICI animal-testing laboratory.
She chose the Macclesfield lab for the simple reason that it was close to her home and, in spite of lacking insurance cards, managed to land the job.
Part of her work involved trussing the dogs into fabric slings, essentially straitjackets.
“Their heads were restrained by locking boards in place like medieval stocks,” she later wrote.
“The dogs were then lifted on to trolleys to the smoking platforms and the masks, valves and tubes were fixed to their faces.”
Some of the 48 beagles used in the experiment were expected to smoke as many as 30 cigarettes in a day.
Beith was equipped with a spy-style camera and snapped a number of shots of the chain-smoking beagles. But when she took the film back to the office the dark room staff laughed at her efforts.
One told her: “The next time you take pics of those beagles, Mary, please be sure to take your finger off the lens!”
“It was a very small camera,” she told me in an a couple of years ago.
So the following day she went back to the lab and got the shot that you can see above, the one that shocked People readers.
In all, Beith spent seven days at the lab in the summer of 1974. But, she said, “the paper then sat on the story for around six months.”
It caused a sensation when it was finally published in 1975 and Beith won an award as campaigning journalist of the year.
Though this was her best-known exposé by far, Beith carried out many other investigations, including the abuse of the elderly in psychiatric institutions. Her daughter, Alison, remembered her mother dressing in a nurse’s uniform for that assignment. She was also sent on several assignments to Northern Ireland.
Mary Beith was born in 1938 in London. Her father, Freddie, spent some years as a journalist before he became a civil servant.
She went to boarding school in Surrey and was briefly a teacher before taking a journalism course and initially working for the Bournemouth Times. While there she met and married a Bournemouth Echo reporter, Roger Scott. They later had three children.
After moving to Macclesfield, she took a reporting job with The People at its Manchester office.
In the late 1970s, following the break-up of her marriage, she moved to Glasgow and joined the Sunday Mail.
She then moved to the Highlands and began freelancing, mainly for The Scotsman, and much of her work was concentrated on archaeology and botany.
She eventually settled in Sutherland, at the mouth of the Kyle of Tongue, and in 1989 started to write a fortnightly column for the West Highland Free Press, mainly on the history of Gaelic medicine.
It led to he writing a book Healing Threads, Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands. She became immersed in Gaelic education and also wrote a couple of children’s books. One, The Magic Apple Tree, was published in Gaelic.
In view of the smoking beagles story it was perhaps, ironic that she was an habitual smoker throughout her life. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer, she managed to outlive the doctors’ original prognosis.
She is survived by her children – Alison, Andrew and Fiona – and eight grandchildren.
Mary Beith, journalist. Born 22 May 1938, in London. Died 13 May 2012, in Sutherland, Scotland
Sources: The Scotsman/The Herald/Personal communications Hat tip: allmedia Scotland
Stop listening to newspaper people, says John Paton of the Journal Register group. ‘We’ve had since the mid-90s to get this right and we are no good at it’
Viewers of the sumptuous new Guardian TV ad – featuring three little pigs and paeans for “open journalism” – may find the participatory ways of online exciting and life enhancing. But here, as with all things in life, you can play the mood music sweet or harsh – and my Canadian editor chums are still reeling from a brutal lecture from John Paton, currently America’s leading apostle of the surge from dead forests to digital (at his burgeoning Journal Register group). To begin with, he says, “crappy newspaper executives are a bigger threat to journalism’s future than the internet“.
See how easily they delude themselves? Print’s coming back, they say. Rubbish! “In America from 1985 to 2005 – the very peak of print newspaper advertising revenue – the average annual growth was 2.7%; [and] that was the golden era… It will be more than a quarter of a century before we’re back to 2005 levels. Though that’s not going to happen as advertising gets an ever smaller share of marketing dollars.”
So Paton moves into invigorating hymns about participation, digital democracy and open publishing. He wants us to acknowledge that “the print model is broken”. Look, “as career journalists, we’ve entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace and that value is about zero … ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone’ isn’t much of a business model.”
He wants community-building and the dialogue and inter-reaction that can make it live. He’s bored with top-down journalism and gatekeeper antics. He has seen a caring, sharing world and he knows it can work. “For God’s sake, stop listening to newspaper people. We have had since the mid-90s to get this right and clearly we are no good at it. Put the digital people in charge, of everything. They can take what we have built and make it better.”
And I’ll have some apple chutney with my barbecued pork, please…
■ It’s the problem Woodward and Bernstein couldn’t solve: is the Washington Post a local or national paper? Enter the formidable Sarah Ellison, reporting for Vanity Fair, and a quote from the Post‘s publisher that resounds. “One of our biggest problems is that we have three people at the top of the paper, none of whom care a shit about Sports, Metro or Style,” says Katharine Weymouth. And there’s the rub. If you range around Europe, looking at circulation trends, you know that British national papers – without regions to identify with – are falling fastest of all. Give them a big city to hang on to and they can gain more traction. But is that what supposedly national editors eager for glory and Pulitzer prizes want? There’s the most profound problem of the lot.
Instead of writing breathless press releases for the next iPad, journalists should be asking harder questions of the tech giant
It’s become the stuff of headlines lately when Apple announces a new product. But should rumors and content-free announcements of announcements also be considered news?
They are in the weird world of business and technology media, thanks to a combination of lazy journalism and Apple’s uncanny ability to turn otherwise sensible people into wind-up dolls. We’re seeing the latest example this week in a series of breathless reports that confirm previous rumors of an imminent announcement of what is probably the next version of the iPad.
Allow me to parse that last sentence, with some history.
Apple announced the first two versions of the iPad in each of the past two winters, and released them for sale in April 2011 and March 2010. Traditional and new media reports have passed along a variety of rumors guessing, reasonably, that the iPad 3 would arrive on much the same schedule, with the assortment of improvements that accompany the release of any new technology product. Much of that “coverage” has centered on: a) when Apple would announce the tablet; and b) what the improvements might be.
Then, earlier this week, Apple sent out invitations to an event to be held next Wednesday in San Francisco. (Needless to say, I am not invited; I’ve been on Apple’s invisibility-cloak list for years.) The picture in the invitation included what appears to be a portion of an iPad. The invitation text included this: “We have something you really have to see. And touch.”
This is media catnip – with predictable results, including another boost to Apple’s stock price. In the day since the invitations went out, hundreds of stories relaying next week’s announcement have appeared online and in print. The invitations themselves sparked a flurry of what might be called an Apple version of Kremlinology, including several speculative pieces the message Apple is sending with the partial-screen image.
There are, of course, some mitigating factors in journalists’ contribution to this endless charade. Apple is, after all, the most valuable company in the world, one of the most profitable enterprises of all time – largely because it sells technology and software that are world-class and, in several cases, the best, period. And it has enormous influence on popular culture. Moreover, a large segment of the journalism audience seems to devour all news about Apple, even rumors of announcements of upcoming announcements. Online page views of Apple stories are routinely higher than page views for many, if not most other, topics. Paying the bills is part of running a media organization.
But there’s also a strong element of journalistic laziness, if not worse. Just as covering the horse race is easier for political reporters than digging deep into the issues, lame write-ups about Apple’s latest quarter-turn of the proverbial screw are easier than investigating on Apple’s less-praiseworthy policies and acts. (Here’s some useful journalism relating to the working conditions at Apple’s foreign manufacturers’ plants: an article in Grist, which covers environmental topics, noting that labor costs for iPhones and iPads are a tiny fraction, per unit, of Apple’s overheads. In other words, Apple could still enjoy staggering profit margins even if it required its captive manufacturers to do the right thing.)
In the 1990s, Microsoft enjoyed much the same kind of treatment from journalists. The run-up to the launch of Windows 95 produced some of the most entertaining hyperbole in media history.
What was less entertaining – though it took the tech press many years to notice – was Microsoft’s growing monopoly and its systematic abuses of that market dominance. The most public evidence of the company’s most egregious anti-competitive behavior surfaced in evidence and testimony during the big anti-trust trial in the late 1990s, but the company’s activities were no surprise to anyone who’d been paying serious attention. Microsoft hasn’t totally reformed its ways, but it’s been a vastly better corporate citizen since being put on notice that its predatory actions were not acceptable.
Recent reporting about Apple’s manufacturers is the exception to a longstanding obsequiousness that has characterized most journalism about the company. I keep wondering when the trade and business press will focus, hard, on the company’s global patent war against Android and hardware competitors, or its overwhelming dominance in the tablet market; or its “our way or the highway” polices with app developers and users. Apple’s record of control-freakery is unmatched in the industry – and expanding. (The fact that I can link to these stories is evidence that there’s not total journalistic silence on these topics; but these pieces are distinct outliers amid the OMG-isn’t-Apple-wonderful? chorus.)
Sooner or later, the journalistic worm will turn on Apple. I hope, when it does, that the journalism won’t tip over into an antagonism that is as unbalanced as today’s bended-knee style. Apple is one of the most important enterprises on the planet, for some very good reasons, as well as less praiseworthy ones. It’s time for journalists to examine much more closely all aspects of the organization and its power.