Decades on from Princess Diana’s death, the public is once again discussing how the British press destroys the young women it exploits for its stories.
Caroline Flack was just 40 when she took her own life this weekend, and for all the particulars of those tragically few decades, her death tells an age-old story. Be it Amy, Judy, Tulisa, Whitney, Britney, Lindsay, Amanda and so on, women’s complicated lives are glorified then condemned by an avaricious press. On a whim, their pedestal becomes a witch’s pyre, a cautionary tale to any woman who tries to rise above her station.
A petition, set up by Stephanie Davis, an ex-Hollyoaks actress aims to put an end to this. With over 525,000 signatures, this petition demands that the government introduce laws to “stop exploiting people in the public eye”. It is well intended, but it will never work. For example, a ban on the press sharing private medical details already exists. Other demands, including a ban on “sharing private information that is detrimental to the celebrity” could halt any #MeToo stories about, say, a famous TV star, and an outright ban on revenge porn stories would mean no scrutiny of the laws aiming to prevent it.
I understand why Stephanie, who has been the centre of many gossipy stories, willing or not, for years, is impassioned. The press, alongside many other institutions, will doubtless be discussed at the actual inquest into Caroline’s death. Their enduring sexism must be taken into account, too. But I have no idea if anyone involved in this petition, which has had more hits than most news reports today, is aware of Samaritan’s code of reporting. The suicide prevention charity advises “Over-simplification of the causes or perceived “triggers” for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide.”
If Caroline received a trial by media, I’m not sure why it’s then appropriate to conduct a hasty inquest via social media. But of course, we always like to smash the mirrors that most reflect our worst selves.
Because while all these stories of women falling from grace remain so similar, the big change is how close the public and press have grown. Every day, they come together in a grotesque dance of misery and bitterness.
Before, a tabloid editor could see salacious stories boost circulation but never quite tell if it was the item on Diana, or the piece on the Tory sleaze scandal that had sold it. Today, in a 24/7 digital news cycle, editors can see precisely what viewers are clicking on and reading and searching for and shape their reporting accordingly. Similarly, they can gauge public mood on social media, reflecting and amplifying the memes and jokes in their stories. Their defence can and always will be: “Well, we’re not saying that so-and-so is this-that-and-the-other, we’re just telling you what Joe Public thinks of them!”
Why don’t these publications get on with serious news, you might wonder, writing instead about starving orphans in Yemen or domestic violence in Bury? They would, if the public cared. But in an age of pay-per-click journalism, when writers vie for the attentions of readers who prefer to get unverified news on social media sites, why produce stories that they’d simply scroll past?
The truth is, websites only make stories that people want to read. And it doesn’t matter to the analytics processors if users are reading out of titillation or revulsion. A click is a hit, and a hit means ad revenue and that means a job.
I knew this when I wrote a story about Caroline Flack on a slow news day nearly a decade ago. Using a tone that I’d felt emboldened to use because it was all over social media, the piece was unnecessarily mean. Caroline had been upset by it, my editor later told me after having deleted the story.
That same editor sat me down and assessed – correctly – that I was only so mean because I wasn’t feeling so great myself. We worked on getting me somewhere better, and these days I try to punch upwards, not down. I take full responsibility for contributing to Caroline’s distress, in a story that I don’t doubt helped chip away at her self-worth. And I’m so sorry to her family and friends.
As a member of the press, I’m thinking hard about how to no longer exploit celebrities. And rather than signing a petition and thinking the hard work is over, I’m going to keep thinking of how my words can carry. We all have the power to stop allowing cruelty to be the tabloids’ best option. We can all encourage the press’s very human writers with very mechanical targets to do the right thing.
After Princess Diana died, Private Eye’s cover featured a banner reading “MEDIA TO BLAME” above a crowd of onlookers/well-wishers outside Buckingham Palace. One says: “The papers are a disgrace”, to which another quips: “Yes, I couldn’t get one anywhere”. The sucker-punch is a third person, offering: “Borrow mine. It’s got a picture of the car”. It still resonates today, and I know we all – social media users and press alike – wish it wouldn’t.
Sophie Wilkinson is a freelance journalist and associate lecturer in multimedia journalism at London Metropolitan University.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.