Elton's Rigger pub made itself famous as the 'official Louise Woodward pub' during her original trial. But one week after her homecoming in June, punters of the lesser-known Wheelwright Arms were keen to stress the 'impartiality' of their local. 'That's why journalists didn't bother much with us', explained Paul, a local builder. 'They were only interested in people who wore yellow ribbons and got emotional in front of the cameras.'
But surely everybody wore yellow ribbons in support of the Louise Woodward campaign? No, according to Paul - the core of the campaign was 'five, six or seven women and the vicar'. His friend Russell agreed: 'It was a campaign for bored housewives, most of them didn't even come from Elton.' Maybe so, but who can forget those scenes of people holding hands and crying 'in solidarity with Louise'? This small British village put itself on the map by indulging in what the Americans would call a 'group hug'; something that Paul now claims was 'just embarrassing'.
The Wheelwright's customers have good reason to distance themselves from last year's popular Woodward campaign. When Elton became the 'capital' of post-Diana Britain residents were praised for closing ranks behind one of their own, for openly admitting how 'crying for our Louise' had helped forge a sense of community. Now the campaign is seen as a tired and dis-credited cause. Controversy over campaign funding, rumours about Paul Woodward's extra-marital affairs and doubt about Woodward's innocence have put the dampers on the town's fame. Elton has become divided; not only between the Wheelwright and the Rigger, but also between those who are embarrassed about what happened and those who look back with pride. Many of those we spoke to expressed this tension as they blamed somebody else for the 'Elton experience'.
Up there with the Queen Vic and the Rover's Return as one of the most famous pubs in Britain, the Rigger is an L-shaped room with a pool table and a television in one corner and drinking space in the other. How did the world's media fit into this small pub? 'They took the place over', said Andrew, with more than a hint of bitterness. Many at the Rigger talked about the role played by the media in 'blowing this thing out of all proportion'. They regaled us with stories about free champagne ('supplied by a tabloid, you know'), about reporters who had wandered the streets desperately searching for lodgings, of how one journalist tried to get off with local women 'to get closer to the community', and how the Rigger had made a fortune out of its connections with the press, 'but don't tell them I said that'.
'The media fell upon a bunch of very naive people', argued one regular. 'We were very malleable.' Of course the media played a pivotal role in the 'Elton experience', but the Rigger and its drinkers invited much of the attention by playing the part of concerned community on cue. Julie told us how women from the Woodward campaign argued over who should sit in the front row in front of the TV cameras on the night the verdict was announced, when their anguished faces were broadcast around the world. 'It was like they were more interested in being on TV than what might happen to this 19-year old Elton girl.' She explained that cameramen and photographers spent ages getting the 'right angles' and asking the women to shift their seats so they could get a better shot. 'It wasn't exactly a spontaneous pub scene', Julie laughed.
Julie's version of events summed up the relationship between the people of Elton and the media. Many residents had been happy to display their emotions for all to see and the media, for reasons of their own, were more than happy to capture those emotions.
The media's coverage of events in Elton turned a story into a moral crusade, with grave consequences for the objectivity of the coverage. Some journalists seemed to be more interested in ingrati- ating themselves with the local community and finding some meaning in what was taking place, rather than reporting the facts. Those we interviewed often referred to journalists by their first names and seemed to have got quite friendly with them; particularly a man called Gary. Almost every Rigger punter who answered our questions about the media referred to him. It turns out they were talking about Gary Cotterill of Sky News.
Sky led the way in the coverage of Elton and the Woodward saga. It was the first major news corporation to spot that there might be a story to be told from Woodward's hometown, and was the only channel in Britain to show constant live coverage of her trial. And not only did Sky supply champagne and a huge TV screen for Rigger punters to watch the trial and verdict on, it also ditched the pretence of objective reporting and reported the story in a highly moral way. One local journalist bemoaned the way in which national journalists fought to be at the heart of the 'Free Louise' campaign: 'They were supposed to be here to tell a story, not to make one.' But Sky News and Gary Cotterill were not alone. Reporters and commentators from around the country descended on Elton not, it seemed, to report what was happening, but to seek out some 'meaning' that could be shared with viewers.
Today, as the 'Elton experience' becomes a memory, sections of the media look at the residents with disdain, accusing them of pettiness and of messing up the Woodward campaign. Residents criticise journalists and reporters for blowing things out of proportion. But both sides played an important role in putting this town on the map. Elton may have gone from the headlines; but the next time a victim and some teary journalists offer a town's inhabitants their moment of fame, we will witness a familiar scene on our TV screens.
Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998