A couple of days ago, Twitter and Facebook came alive with shocked linking to a bbc news article about an incident which by now you are tremendously au fait with – the horrifying murder of an English woman in Tenerife. Unfortunately, we no longer live in a world where the simple random murder of an innocent person in a supermarket is either shocking or surprising to us. ‘Did you hear?’ someone could ask of us ‘about that poor person killed in a supermarket in another country?’ and we would raise our eyebrows awaiting what exactly might be so interesting about that. Maybe if it happened in our own town we would be slightly more intrigued ‘Did you hear about the man killed in Sainsburys?’ ‘Which Sainsburys?’ ‘Heyford Hill’ ‘Wow, that’s not my local one but I’ve been there a few times. Wow. Someone killed in a place I’ve been’. But random murder is commonplace, indeed expected to a degree these days. I honestly doubt a day passes on this planet where someone isn’t murdered in a supermarket somewhere.
Of course, the reason this case was so widely reported was the grisly and depraved act which followed the murder. This appeals to a very certain part of the human experience. The part which likes to watch horror films, dipping our toes in to see our boundaries as to what our thresholds are, what we can deal with. It’s thrilling. Can we watch all of ‘Two girls, one cup’? are we brave enough to watch terrorist executions on the internet? How much detail of the Jamie Bulger case can we hear? Dare we pay our tuppence and enter the Freakshow? This testing of our boundaries is titillation. It’s entirely natural and we all do it to some degree.
There are people who exist in these shadowy areas, who make their livings there – novelists, film-makers, musicians, performers, artists whose job it is to take us to the brink and confront us with the darkness and I’d say, on the whole, they provide a good service. The standard human reaction to what they show us is at least mild disgust and at worst genuine trauma. When I was a teenager, I adored horror films, they were like a rollercoaster ride around the edges of my ability to cope which, like a rollercoaster, always let me off somewhere safe.
I can’t watch horror films now. It’s not that I’m a wuss (although I totally am and always was) – I can deal with the gore, I’m actually rather bored by it at this point, it’s other things that disturb me now – the wider implications. When I was 14 there was nothing funnier than seeing an 18 year old jock, dweeb or princess get their head stoved in or their throat slashed. They totally deserved it because they were dumb, arrogant or vain. At 35, the idea of seeing what I now realise to be little more than a child get murdered for a transgression which represents little more than the kind of insecurity-motivated display all teenagers make at some point is kind of repellant. Especially when the audience is laughing and cheering. I really can’t watch horror films now.
I understand the impulse to share videos and stories on the internet of shocking and unexpected incidents. I absolutely get it. I also understand the need to report such incidents. What disgusted me was the amount of airtime that UK television news devoted to it. The simple facts of the case are that a (non-famous) woman was randomly murdered by a man with known mental health problems. He was immediately detained. You can’t tell me that cases just like that don’t happen daily and go unreported outside of local news. Admittedly, what the murderer then did to the body was shocking. But that’s NOT NEWS. That detail is titillation. The reporting of that detail – the focus on that detail – is not only not of the public interest (this is not a serial killer we need to be on the look-out for) but immensely disrespectful to a woman who lead a good life and got to retirement age. But this is her 15 minutes of fame. This is what she will be known for. Yesterday evening, the breaking news was that the press were allowed to name her and show us a photo. A photo that nobody looked at and said ‘she seems nice’ but instead used to help fill in detail of the grislier parts of the story.
How incredibly disrespectful to her and her family and her friends.
To make it worse, BBC News screened footage of her body being removed in a bag from the scene. Why would we need to see that? To see if the bag is shorter than we might expect? To help us visualize. They show us eye-witnesses lapping up the attention of multiple camera. Crowds of tourists stood on balconies hoping for a glimpse of something red. They bring us back to the UK where a camera team have been despatched to the victim’s old home town and some poor bemused old lady who has been cajoled into letting them into her front room where the best she can offer is ‘she was very well liked’
This isn’t news.
News should inform us, educate us and warn us. This case is unimportant to a British audience. With the greatest sympathy and respect to the victim, I’m sure British ex-pats are murdered every day, all over the world. The only reason the whole country needs to be informed of one isolated murder would be if the victim were of public note, if the murder had wider political implications or if people needed to be aware that the killer were on the loose. The job of the BBC news is not to titillate or to attempt to swell viewing figures by doing so.
Amazingly in last night’s news bulletin, the follow-up story was that of an Iranian man who had been sentenced, owing to their retributive law system, to being blinded by acid after he had thrown acid into the face of a woman who had declined to marry him. The reporting of this story was absolutely intriguing. At no point were they defending the man (he is indefensible and though many of us think law should rise above barbarity, there is always a part of even the best-motivated person thinking ‘fuck him! that’s exactly what he deserves!’) and also at no point were they condemning the Iranian court. It was masquerading as one of those cases where a woman is stoned to death for adultery, except there was no righteous indignation. It was a horrible man who was – maybe uniquely to those of us in the west – being punished apropos the crime. There was no actual news to this case. They just, again, twice in one bulletin, wanted to tell us something disgusting. Something grisly. The case had no wider implications or narrative to us. Had this man actually KILLED the woman and then got sentenced to death, the case would never have been reported over here, let alone by the BBC.
But they got to tell us something grisly. And this time, they got to show us copious amounts of footage of his victim. Face ravaged and gnarled by the attack. Footage of her made up most of the case. Holding photos of her former self, stood talking on a mobile phone, sat in the courtroom.
It amazed and deeply saddened me to see these two cases get such wide and lurid ‘news’ coverage yesterday. Especially on the BBC which, in these days of ‘commercial news’ needs to lead by example in the worth and purpose of the stories it chooses to broadcast.