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Publication: Mixmag, 2000

Truth, Ecstasy and media reporting: why its time to let Leah Betts die

When it comes to mainstream reporting of club and drug culture in the UK today, there are myths and there are facts, and somewhere in between roams the ghost of Leah Betts, the ‘ecstasy girl’ who slipped into a coma after taking a pill on the night of her 18th birthday party. There are, furthermore, sections of society who refuse to let Leah rest in peace, even though she's been gone five years. Had she survived, Leah Betts would have been 23 today. The inquisitive, insecure sixth-form student from Essex may have done much in the intervening years. However, it's possible she wouldn't have achieved as much in life as she has done in her afterlife.

Leah's story has been many things. Principally, it's a tragedy to her fiends and family and a salutory yarn of unforgivingly bad luck. But it's also the tale of a girl sacrificed to her generation's fascination with MDMA, a gift to tabloid editors and a prism through which mainstream society has viewed the murky world of world of drugs and clubs. It may be that it's now time to move the story on before her tragic legacy completes its transformation into farce.

At whichever point the smokescreen of myth began to obscure hard facts, the basic details surrounding her death are well known. Seventeen-year-old Leah Betts was worried that her 18th birthday party at her parents' home in Latchingdon wouldn't go with a bang. She decided to take ecstasy and bought some from a friend. On the evening of Saturday November 11, 1995, her party went ahead. By the end of the next day, Leah was in Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford. By Friday November 17, her life support machine was switched off and Leah was pronounced dead.

When Paul Betts, a retired policeman, and his wife Janet, a nurse, allowed newspaper cameramen to the bedside of their comatose daughter that week, they were aware what they were doing. 1995 wasn't the first time newspapers had worked themselves into a lather over the E-culture that was deluging out of its youth-cultural periphery and gurning its way all over the mainstream. Initially, The Sun couldn't decide whether acid house was a really fun thing or society's greatest new evil. The paper eventually checked itself, decided on the latter and tore into acid house with its "Evils Of Ecstasy" campaign in 1998. Its tabloid counterparts followed suit

But this time around, the reactionary press realised it had found the object of an unrequited love affair that had been nurtured since 1988: Leah was young, pretty, from a good home and full of potential. But mainly, she was festooned with tubes in a hospital bed and she was almost dead.

As the newspaper-reading nation observed the grim tableau of an ecstasy death unfold on front pages, few were aware of submitting to the effects of an equally sinister controlled substances. Far better documented than the effects of E, the effects of hysteria - twisted minds, excitability, delusions paranoia, long-term loss of reason - are well understood. If you wanted an example of hysteria in action, Leah Betts was it. Her story was an anti-fairy tale of a kind upon which tabloid editors rarely chance and the details of which tabloid readers love to believe are true. To find their perfect drug death story, journalists didn't have to trudge through council estates, talk to people in tracksuits or travel too far from their London offices, because the story came straight to them. The "facts" of this rolling, dystopian soap opera were as follows: it was Leah's 18th birthday; her parents were ordinary, right-thinking folk from the conservative South-East; she had never before taken drugs; the pill which murdered her had been pushed on her by a dealer; and she's was dying innocently from the evil ecstasy in her parents' home.

Coverage of Leah's death was, consequently, emotive reporting at its most overheated masquerading as hard news. On Monday November 13, the Daily Mail accompanied a picture of a dying Leah with the headline, "The picture her parents want Britain to remember. How ecstasy wrecked girl's 18th birthday". The next day, the Mail's front page ran, "It Could Be Your Child: Parents of Ecstasy girl Leah pen a poignant letter of warning." Meanwhile, The Daily Mirror reported that a "spiked E" was responsible for Leah's death, and sub-editors just couldn't find enough "agony of ecstasy" variants to head up the acreage of print Leah was generating. For much longer than the week in which Leah's story was front-page news, a tabloid-reading nation collectively hallucinated a world populated with the stock imagery of drug scare stories: heartless drug pushers loomed large, as did "innocent" victims. There were bedside vigils, tears fought back and avowals to fight on.

"It was the first time Middle England woke up and realised what their kids were up to each weekend," says Matthew Collin, editor of the Big Issue and author of Altered State - A History of Dance Culture in Britain. "It also demonstrated how mainstream Ecstasy had become - even nice, non-rebellious suburban teenage girls were taking it."

Paul Betts' personal response to the death of his daughter was to embark on a campaign of firebrand anti-drug evangelism. With the ultimate prejudice-confirming experience on the drugs issue, a coalition of reactionary anti-drug campaigners, media and politicians formed around him, establishing Leah as a totem of the evil of drugs.

The nationwide "Sorted" poster campaign, fronted by Paul and Janet Betts, that followed finally confirmed that Leah's martyrdom. Even by the standards of its predecessor - the "Just Say No" campaigns -  "Sorted"'s anti-E message was unsophisticated to the point of brutalism: it merely read, "just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts", as posters were illustrated with the same picture of the comatose girl that had run on tabloid front pages. As quickly as Paul Betts's crusade had gathered momentum, his daughter had ceased to become a dead person and was quickly becoming a myth. And myths - unlike facts - are open to interpretation. 

Such was the tenor of reaction to her case, it would have been natural to assume that Leah was the first person ever to die after taking ecstasy. The fact that it represented neither the first, nor even the fifty-first UK ecstasy-related death had no bearing on the reporting whatsoever. Within weeks of Leah's death, others were feeling ecstasy's rare sting. In September 1995, Daniel Ashton had died after taking a pill in Blackpool, and ten days after Leah's death, 15-year-old Michelle Paul died in Edinburgh's Royal Infirmary after taking half a pill. Both cases failed to generate anything like the amount of coverage Leah's did. Nor was it reported that then, as now, that hundreds of people Leah's age die every year from alcohol poisoning. The fact that you're more likely to die riding a bike or eating a peanut than you are taking ecstasy mysteriously failed to make news.

What occurred next would have been every newspaper readers' nightmare, had anyone been reading, as the mythology that had been built up around Leah's death slowly began to unravel at its edges. Rather than being poisoned by a "spiked E", a "Super E" as early reports suggested, or, in fact, any E whatsoever, Leah had died from hyponatraemia - liver failure as a result of drinking too much water to counteract dehydration, the inquest into her death reported. Then, the evil drug pusher that Paul Betts had vowed to bring to justice shuffled out of his anonymity in the form of one of Leah's friends, rather than as a man in a shellsuits they'd hoped for. It subsequently came to light that the Apple that killed Leah wasn't her first pill. Her friend, Sarah Cargill, admitted at the inquest that they had together taken ecstasy, speed and cannabis.

These revelations arrived too late to count. In the national psyche Leah Betts was already a manifestation of the formless terror of encroaching E-culture, ranking alongside the smiley face, Mr C performing "Ebeneezer Goode" on Top Of The Pops and Keith Flint's scary Firestarter jumper. What's more, the national psyche would take much dissuading of the fact.

THAT was 1996. Since then, Noel Gallagher articulated the thoughts of half a nation and pointed out that taking drugs is a normal as having a cuppa and Brian Harvey was sacked from East 17 for admitting practically the same thing. Jack Straw's son was suckered into buying a bag of parsley from a journalist,  and several high-profile Tory MPs admitted to toking at university, solely to make a mockery of shadow home secretary Anne Widdecombe's proposals to have cannabis users publicly executed by firing squad (or something). Finally, the entire advertising, marketing and media industry learned to talk the language of youth and sell everything from spot cream to cook-in sauces to by tacitly associating products with E culture. How much more "sorted" could our culture possibly be these days?

Marginally less and less as time passes, in fact. A report by the government-funded drug research agency Drugscope notes that ecstasy use is now levelling off, with 10.7% of 16-24-years olds reporting that they have taken E. Current thinking suggests around 500,000 doses of ecstasy are taken every weekend and ecstasy related-deaths hold firm at around five to ten per year.

Whether or not any of that is attributable to the Sorted campaign is unknown. It did, however, produce a paradoxical series of consequences, the underlying theme of which was that Leah's myth was open for appropriation by any interested party, reactionary or radical. In late November 1995, Mat Southwell, spokesman for the Dance Drugs Alliance, was out clubbing. "I know people who took their first pill the week after Leah died," he says. "We were shocked shitless by the Sorted campaign, and some people rejected it. I remember seeing a guy with a T-shirt on saying, "just one E killed Leah Betts'. On the back it said, 'lightweight.' All the dealers were selling Apples, and calling them 'Killer Es'. People minimalised her death, rather than taking its seriously." Elsewhere, Sorted posters were defaced and made to read "Distorted," and there was a brisk trade in macabre "Leah" pills.

While clubbers where demonstrating great sensitivity and outdoing themselves to defile the myth, Tory MP Barry Legg took the Leah Betts story to its opposite conclusion. In 1996, he introduced a Private Member's Bill in Parliament which subsequently became law a year later as the 1997 Public Entertainments Licences (Drug Misuse) Act, which empowered authorities to remove licences from clubs where drugs are known to be dealt.

Has there been a shift in ecstasy consumption habits? As much as suggesting a decrease in use, the figures above could equally mirror an diversification into the use of other drugs - based on fearmongering rather than fact - that has been duly noted by drug agencies.

"'Sorted' raised the profile of ecstasy use far beyond anything the government has done, and it's difficult to know what the impact has been," says Harry Shapiro, director of communications at drug research agency Drugscope. "There's conflicting evidence. I recall talking to drug users since she died, and there's a group of people who think she was just unlucky, and another group who stopped using ecstasy, but switched to other things - usually amphetamine - because they thought it was probably safer."

'Sorted' may have changed behaviour. But it looks certain to have changed perceptions of ecstasy. According to a survey of 40,000 pupils by the Schools Health Education Unit, 78 per cent of 14-15 year olds of teenagers rated ecstasy as "always unsafe", while 70 per cent said the same for cocaine. The jury remains effectively out on the long-term effects of ecstasy use, but, as a consequence of the media-supported 'Sorted', ecstasy has been effectively rebranded a "killer" drug, alongside heroin and cocaine.

"Because of the massive amount of publicity it had, people thought ecstasy was far more harmful than it is," confirms Mike Linell of Manchester's Lifeline drug support agency. "A lot of young people perceived ecstasy as being more harmful than cocaine, which it clearly isn't."

"It polarised the debate," argues Mat Southwell. "It becomes, either drugs are good or drugs are bad. In fact they're neither: the debate should be over how people use them and the context in which people use them. Ecstasy is not a harmless drug, but the numbers of deaths compared to heroin and cocaine just don't add up."

Since 1996, Leah has remained the key motif in the vilification of E-culture, the imagery of her death constantly invoked in the right-wing press's faddish reporting on the dance scene. Etched in the public memory, Leah Betts has become a self-perpetuating story. With selling papers a more pressing concerns than objective reporting on the less newsworthy dangers of ecstasy, the chasm between what drug agencies witness at club-level and what newspapers choose to report looks unbridgeable. None of which is good news for those who consider harm reduction and drug education to be the best way to prevent ecstasy-related deaths.

"I think the story tends to obscure people's view of drugs," says Mike Goodman, director of Release. "It's almost unhelpful that the attention is on deaths with ecstasy. What most people working in the drug field are concerned about are the other health and welfare consequences of using ecstasy and ecstasy-like compounds. We know they may be causing problems: long-term serotonin depletion, effects on dopamine receptors, potential reduction in memory and cognitive abilities. They could add up to it being a not very safe drug."

Middle-America's blossoming love affair with ecstasy made a front-page splash last year. Time magazine in July 2000 reported how the drug has made the transition from underground secret to staple of the suburban US, estimating that nine per cent of young adults have taken it. A further several thousand miles round the globe, meanwhile, Australia's has had its own "ecstasy girl" since 1996, when on Saturday October 21, 1996, Sidney schoolgirl 15-year-old Anna Wood took ecstasy in Sydney's Phoenician Club and fell into a coma the next day. When she subsequently died, club licenses were revoked, parents outraged, newspaper subeditors put to work conjuring lurid headlines. "And the negative effect has been the same," points out Mat Southwell. "Some clubbers now call her Anna Fucking Woods, because they're so sick of the of hearing about her case."

Ecstasy-related deaths like Leah's aren't unique to Britain. Nor, it seems, is it uniquely British behaviour to manipulate the truth.

PAUL BETTS is a man who's had far more than his share of dead teenagers, but continues to live with the ghost of his daughter. The retired policeman remains the high-profile anti-drug spokesman he became in 1995, as often addressing schools on the danger of drugs as giving quotes on any drug-related topic to newspapers. For instance, on September 29 1997, the Guardian reports that Jack Straw brushed aside calls for decriminalisation. He was supported by Paul Betts. On January 12 1999, The Northern Echo reported that Paul Betts is astounded at proposals to set up "special recovery rooms" for clubbers in North-East clubs. On April 3 2000, the Daily Telegraph reported on Jack Straw's acknowledgement that there was "coherent argument" in favour of legalising cannabis. His stance was criticised by Paul Betts. Needless to say, Leah's dad remains fiercely opposed to liberalisation of drug laws of the kind proposed by the Police Federation in March last year.

Stonewalled by what he views as government inaction - "Nobody give a shit about young people using drugs," he says - he has given up campaigning in England, and he and his wife now live and continue their work in Scotland. In conversation with him, it's clear he is frustrated by having to trot out his arguments - which sometimes conform to no logic other than his own - and dismissing the same arguments as he has for the past five years.

Paul Betts admits that five years ago he was "as ignorant as the vast majority of the public" with regard to ecstasy. His hardline attitude to "killer E" remains as dogmatic as ever, and though he describes his campaign as providing "accurate, reliable information", that information itself sounds often questionable ("anyone who's used 20 or more tablets in their life will have destroyed more than 20 per cent of memory recall," for example). What's perhaps more questionable, is that he regards harm reduction measures as "A) defeating the object and b) giving false information." On the assumption that some people want to use drugs, should it be made as safe as possible for them?

"That's a very >bad< assumption," he says. "It's a fallacy that young people will all want to use drugs. Why have we, as the vast majority, got to step back and say, 'go ahead, do it'. Why are we scared to say, 'don't do it, it's bloody stupid'."

Aren't we more scared to say, if people are going to ecstasy it, let's help make it safe?

"How can you have safe places to use ecstasy?"

Many clubs are overcrowded, don't have free water or chill-out spaces...

"How many people have died from overheating? Nobody. I have my daughter's death certificate: on there, it's very simple, it says she died of ecstasy poisoning. You've probably read that she drank too much water or she had a bad tablet or that it wasn't the first time she ever took it. But those are lies put around to continue the sale of ecstasy. Because if people knew it wasn't safe, sales would drop off and the dealers don't want that."

"I think some people are sick and tired of the Leah Betts story," he continues. "But I would like to think that somewhere along the line, the media are trying to inform people about drugs."

At its root, Paul Betts's ceaseless campaigning is motivated by laudable concern. But in the pact he made with the media when his daughter died matures, who is now using who? As a moral authority to bolster the right-wing media's circulation-hiking drug scares, Paul Betts is permanently on call, his experience conveniently available to short circuit the debate around any vaguely drugs-tolerant message.

When it comes to acting as an media-friendly authority on drugs per se, his own simplistic stance - don't take drugs because they will kill you - may speak directly to worried parents, but it's an uncomfortable contradiction with the common experience of ecstasy use among young people, not to mention well as with expert opinion.

"Paul Betts's campaign focuses on one specific aspect of ecstasy use,' reasons Mike Goodman. "And the Leah Betts story bars a more sophisticated response to taking drugs. We're almost being guilt-tripped into toeing the line about the death, and that prevents some of ecstasy's other problems getting the airtime they deserve."

WHICH leaves the current reporting on drugs and ecstasy in particular where, exactly? The burden of defusing media-supported myths and widening drug awareness rests with drug support agencies. And the only consolation to their unanimous reports of a surge in the use of cocaine, heroin and crack is a more realistic media attitude towards ecstasy reporting that Harry Shapiro applauds. "You've got to pick your media," he confirms, "but ecstasy deaths don't seem to command the front page news the way they used to."

"The agenda is still about selling papers, not reducing harm," adds Matthew Collin. "That's why E is covered so little these days - it's unremarkable and mainstream. It's hardly 'news' any more. So far, it hasn't proved a major public health problem - unlike the massive increase in heroin addiction. There has been significant shifting in many papers' stance on the issue of drugs and there is more appetite for a serious debate on drugs now than ever."

Drugscope's Media Award from Balanced and Informative  Reporting this year went to Blakeway Productions' BBC1 documentary on Leah Betts, "The Girl Next Door", shown in March 2000. The award, believes producer Jenny Clayton, was given for the programme's portrayal of Leah as an 17-year-old student, daughter and friend, instead of as salutory example of the evils of drugs - an opinion it's hard to disagree with the.

The fact is that for much of the media, the Leah myth has exhausted is usefulness. A story in the Daily Mail on December 7 2000 ran under the truly 1988-vintage headline, "Dance Drugs Threaten Our Brightest Youngsters" and reported how the lives of "scores of thousands of bright young professional" are being ruined by drugs linked to dance culture. Mercifully, it restrained itself before sermonizing liberally on the theme of Leah Betts.

And as evidence of more tempered drug reporting mounts, tabloids newspapers are, at the very least, become aware of quandary they occupy. "Theirs is a hypocritical approach to drugs," argues The Guardian's home affairs editor Alan Travis. "They know some of their readership and journalists have experimented with drugs, so taking a moralistic approach damages their own credibility among that section of their readership. A lot of readers just won't believe what they say any more."

 Anne Widdecombe was practically laughed out the Commons when she proposed on-the-spot £100 fines for cannabis possession last year. When even prominent Tory MP take a soft line on drugs, it's clear that newspaper editors are catching up with the sophisticated response to drugs that much of the rest of society has shared for a long time.

But it's no more easy to defuse the potency of cherished myth than it is to alter the course of history, and short of running a government-supported nationwide cross-media campaign entitled "(Not quite) Sorted", the motif of Leah Betts will continue to colour the wider understanding of drugs. The final, regrettable result of her story is that she has become everybody's badge of convenience: propped up by Paul Betts in his crusade to rid the world of drugs, publicly knocked down by those seeking wider acceptability of ecstasy, and, most cynically, exploited by newspapers to maintain circulation figures.

There is no resolution to this: no amount of campaigning will restore Paul Betts' daughter to him, and just as people keep raving, people keep dying. Amid fearmongering and intent to supply untruth, what's in short supply is reliable information and reasoned argument. As lives stand to be lost if only doggerel is supplied instead of fact, Leah Betts must now be allowed to die.

© Kevin Braddock 2000

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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