The news that a 45-year-old father of two has moved out of a coma, a coma in which he has been for nearly six months, should be cause for celebration. Indeed, it was a cause for celebration for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, because this particular 45-year-old father of two is Michael Schumacher, the seven-time Formula One world driver's champion and hero to many who love motor sports, including, I should say, myself. Some of my earliest sporting memories are of F1 and of Schumacher - seeing him return to the racetrack following a broken leg during the 1999 season, watching him win the title in 2000 for Ferrari and end the team's two-decade-long wait for a driver's championship, then the subsequent racking up of trophies until his final world title in 2004.
During this period, I loved F1, I loved Ferrari, and I loved Schumacher. Therefore it was extremely disheartening to learn of his ski accident last Christmas. And it was even worse, over the following months, to observe a media circus gather around his hospital bed in Grenoble. I know these things are unsurprising, and I shouldn't really get too aggravated about the grim, murky depths to which the media will sink. But hell, everybody has a line, and this was mine.
Let me remind you of the highlights of this particular farce. We were treated to close-up photographs of Schumacher's wife, Corinna, as she arrived at the hospital. We were also told that she was building a £10million medical centre at the Schumacher family home, and that she had spent, in the words of the Express, the 'saddest birthday of her life...sitting at the bedside of her stricken husband with her children'. We had a whole parade of doctors and medical specialists rampaging around the news networks and the papers, solemnly informing us that Schumacher would never wake up, that he would spend the rest of his life in a coma, that he was in a permanent vegetative state. And then, of course, the piece de resistance, the scumbag excuse for a journalist who dressed as a priest and tried to sneak into Schumacher's hospital room. (I'm not linking to any of these articles, by the way, purely because I don't want to give them any more hits. If you want this rubbish, then find it yourself.)
None of this coverage was necessary. A great deal of it was not based in fact. Yet more of it was not authorised by the doctors treating Schumacher - liken it to a rubbernecker at a motorway crash, hanging their head out of the window and suggesting what might happen to the driver. The attention given to Corinna Schumacher was particularly disgusting, as she has done nothing at all to encourage press intrusion into her life, other than by being married to a famous racing driver - indeed, the Schumachers are well-known for the value they place on their privacy. If the newspapers want to write about Corinna's pain, perhaps they could write about the systematic destruction of the boundaries that she, along with her husband, fought to establish between his public life as a sporting champion and their private life together? I bet that whole process has been rather painful for her.
The coverage on Schumacher was one long pointless howl into the darkness, a desperate attempt to generate clicks, hits and attention in a void of emptiness. The news media knew, as did anyone who followed the story, that updates on Schumacher's condition would be provided by his loyal and long-serving manager, Sabine Kehm. She told us so herself, explicitly and forthrightly - if it didn't come from Kehm, then it wasn't news on Schumacher. You can count the number of updates that Kehm has issued since the spring on the fingers of one hand, but that didn't stop the persistent spew of sewage from the news pit. It didn't stop the articles proclaiming Schumacher's recovery as an impossibility, telling us that he was a vegetable, that he would never be the same man again. Click the links, open the articles - no matter that it's not news, that it's intrusive, that it revels in the misery of a woman whose husband is in grave danger, and in the misery of two children under the age of eighteen who find themselves with a father fighting a horrendously difficult battle.
What does it say about the media that this is the coverage we got about a middle-aged man fighting for his life? Often, when we debate media ethics today, there are a lot of grey areas, but personally I think we can be fairly black and white in this particular case. It tells us that the media places little to no value on fact, on privacy, on respect and on basic human dignity. It depresses me especially, not just as a Schumacher fan, but as a student blogger hoping to one day work full-time in the news industry. Who on earth would look at this kind of coverage, filled with sickening untruths and distasteful impositions, and think, 'Yes, I'd love to do that'?
In the short-term, invading the private life of a man in critical condition probably did generate a lot of attention for the sites and newspapers that decided to go down that route. They probably sold more copies and got more hits, and were almost certainly very pleased with the decisions that they made. In the long-term, though, I'd happily bet a lot of money that the way in which these outlets invaded the privacy of Michael Schumacher and his family will be seen as symptomatic of a shallow, grubby industry that, while chasing the lowest common denominator, busily dug its own grave and clambered inside.