Press vultures: the media’s troubling response to tragedy

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Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old British nurse, has been found dead, days after taking a hoax telephone call about the pregnant Duchess of Cambridge.

Headlines do not communicate complexities. A woman has died. Her family, her two children, her partner, will all have been launched into an unspeakable hell, and will suffer the sort of relentless pain that we cannot overcome so much as learn to live with.

Why the BBC and the national newspapers have led their bulletins and front pages with this private tragedy escapes me. It is not an important question of public policy or a far-reaching story of economic, environmental or social consequence. It is a matter only for the close circles of a grieving family.

This news does not touch in any way upon the general public to whom it is delivered. Yet delivered it still is, at the top of news bulletins in hourly doses. The notion that sometimes space must be made and compassion exercised has still not penetrated the press at large. The royal connection is enough to make it worth talking about, as if the whole thing were but the grim appendage to a celebrity culture.

Of course it is easy enough for a producer to justify its place on the news agenda, not least with regard to the ongoing arguments over the very press intrusiveness which now so dismays me. Won’t this case act as a great rebuke to all those who argue against limits being put on the media? How can intrusion now be justified when we see how much damage it can do to real people?

Undue prominence may be the first disturbing component of our media’s response to this story. But it is not the worst. It is when the self-righteous obsessives and limited intellects of social media begin to crawl over competing ‘tribute pages’ on the likes of Facebook that we find how low people can sink. The comments are thick with synthetic sentimentalism. So many post how ‘beautiful’, ‘caring’ and ‘intelligent’ a person the deceased was in life, yet hardly any of them ever knew her.

Grieving is a lonely process, for there are so few others who share the full bitterness of the loss. Well-intentioned they may be, but I fail to see how the sympathy of perfect strangers claiming to share in your sadness could feel like anything other than a vile simulation. Here too the entire matter is reduced to the stark black-and-white moralism of a children’s story.

The amount of hatred poured out against the Australian DJs responsible for the prank call is extraordinary. On Facebook, ‘I hope they rot and suffer’ was par for the course. Before they deleted their twitter accounts the abuse directed personally against the pair revelled in its own crudeness, ‘I hope you’re happy now…The receptionist you rang has COMMITTED SUICIDE! You have blood on your hands now!’

There are two main points to consider. The first is to what extent the presenters, who have enjoyed global fame and damnation in the space of a week, genuinely are culpable. The pair were stupid and high spirited. They probably do have a case to answer for insofar as they procured private information and wasted the time of overworked medical staff.

But as much disapproval as there was about their prank before today, so too was there amusement at their chutzpah. Their station delightedly promoted the controversy, relishing how daft the Aussies had made us pommies appear. Now that would be unthinkable. The terrible consequences have changed the moral status of the action from daring hijinks to destructive and malicious transgression.

But it is unclear whether the prank was really unacceptable simply because it unintentionally made someone feel stupid and inadequate. After all, life is full of such experiences, cruel and difficult though this is. Be it redundancy and shattered dreams, or guilt at failing to get things right, they are an inescapable part of the human condition. The pair didn’t mean to make a hard-working nurse look a fool, but she fell into a trap they had thought no one would take, and all this horror has followed from there.

If it is suicide, then rare is the suicide which is mono-causal. This was clearly a vulnerable person, susceptible to despair at the turn of events which followed. The pair were not to know this either. The whole thing was a terrible and unpredictable accident. The horrific responsibility they will carry for the rest of their lives is surely the very worst punishment. What is really striking about the venom being poured out online is the dearth of the very humanity or compassion which online commenters accuse the DJs of lacking. There is no recognition that these two young Australians will now in their turn feel desperately stupid and inadequate, and bear the irremovable and lifelong stain of guilt.

Secondly, there is a very real danger that the simplistic narrative of bad media and innocent nurse will be how we remember this. Such things have happened before. The death of Dr David Kelly cast a long shadow over Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell’s justifications for the Iraq war. Our society’s attitudes to suicide are remarkably naïve. It will happily load criticisms and pressure on someone’s back, but when they break under the load attitudes go into reverse.

Anyone can be made to feel terrible. But not everyone will react by killing themselves. Suicide normally arises out of a nexus of circumstances. The current pressures on a person are certainly one possible factor, but so too are personality, formative life events, and the propensity for mental illness. Families will search for years to try to understand why their child or sibling or parent did it, how someone could find it within themselves to leave behind their loved ones forever. In the general culture the understanding is cruder: ‘something made them feel really bad, so they killed themselves. Whoever made them feel really bad should be ashamed of themselves.’ But suicide is never so simple and rarely so intelligible.

It is often said that as a society we still do not properly appreciate the nature of mental illness. Perhaps linked are the ignorant attitudes to suicide betrayed by the responses on the social networks. In a less brazen way these notions are shared by the ‘traditional’ media. By so prominently leading the news agenda with the recent sad case, they are propagating the expectation that this death will have broader consequences, when it ought to have none. The headlines cannot convey the profound and confusing complexities of this most extreme of human decisions. Some things are better passed over in silence.

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