The Irish public was treated to a heavy
diet of vengeance and voyeurism last week when a notorious rapist was released
from prison. A
media feeding frenzy ensued when the gates of the prison opened to release
this apparently unrepentant criminal.
There were questions as to whether an early
release was justified, although all the relevant boxes had been ticked. But
questions are one thing. Mobs baying for blood, reporters and photographers on
motorcycles pursuing taxis taking ex-prisoners to their destinations around the
city and camping in the front gardens of their relatives are quite another.
By a remarkable coincidence, on the same day
as the media circus, Ireland’s
Press Ombudsman, John Horgan, was giving a lecture on the media’s tendency
to consider the unwelcome publicity which they could give to criminals as an
intrinsic component of the punishment for their crimes. He disapproved, reminding
listeners that the primary role in protecting society against criminality
belongs to the police and the courts, and should not be outsourced to the
the sentence passed by the media always life? Is someone who has been convicted
of a criminal offence and has served his sentence always a criminal, and not
entitled to basic human and civil rights?”
He contrasted favourably the “reticence” of
countries such as Sweden and Holland about publishing information on people
involved in criminal trials with the amount of media attention these cases
attract in Ireland. This reticence was justified, he said, because the public
shame arising from media publicity was arbitrary and selective, and furthermore
involved “collateral damage” to innocent parties and could even create a risk
to the life of the criminal.
The tabloids’ offence is not to be light,
entertaining, and crisp. The tabloids’ offence is to
distort, dissemble, and grossly exaggerate the
significance of events. Mr
Horgan also pointed out that the word “fury” had appeared in recent Irish newspaper
headlines in 14 out of 18 days. “Isn’t there a risk that if you cry wolf too
often, when there’s only a rather cross dog barking outside, that people will
become desensitised to real risks, injustices and scandals? Have we the energy
to be that furious, all the time?”
And now we have tabloid radio and tabloid
TV. Once upon a time I dared to hope that with an increasingly educated public
and an expensive publicly-funded broadcasting service – as Ireland and Britain
and most countries have – the presentation of news would not succumb to dumbed-down
These hopes faded long ago. The government
radio and TV were baying just as loud as the tabloids the other day. On Ireland’s premier radio channel’s
afternoon news programme, the rapist’s release got the full treatment –
featuring live outside broadcast, analysis, speculation and a vox pop. The
story held the headlines for the full day on every other channel in the
country. The afternoon news report on radio accounted for over 22 minutes of
the 45-minute bulletin with a graphic rehashing of his crime.
On the same bulletin less than two minutes
were devoted to a positive take on the Irish economy. The governor of the
Central Bank had given an important interview to the London Daily Telegraph,
helping to calm jangled nerves in the markets about the latest economic
indicators. It was an important story and of far more consequence for the lives
of Irish people than the story of a released rapist.
Did they really think the release story was
that important – or did they simply think they needed to pander to the voyeuristic
tendencies which they knew the next morning’s tabloids would be pandering to,
whipping up vengeful mob elements in the process?
One consolation for sensitive readers in
Dublin, of course, is that in London the tabloids are worse — “nasty and
extreme”, in the words of one Irish PR consultant. Perhaps they have bigger
fish to fry.
Last week the Guardian’s Marina Hyde (there’s
a journalist with a conscience!) penned a
withering condemnation of this slavering voyeurism after supermodel Naomi
Campbell’s appearance at The Hague. She was answering questions there about blood
diamonds Liberia’s former dictator Charles Taylor was alleged to have given
But despite testimony in that trial about
war crimes of the most sickening brutality, stories about countless executions,
about cannibalism, about incredible cruelty, what the media wanted was
celebrity goss, Ms Hyde lamented.
Um, whatever? Unless this
is about Mia Farrow I am way B-O-R-E-D. Clearly, then, the message from The
Hague today is simple: you can kill and rape and mutilate as much as you like,
but if you really want to gain a purchase on early 21st-century western
discourse and are not simply pissing about, you do need to have once had
contact with a celebrity in some incredibly minor way. Even now, let’s hope
that Janjaweed militia are making a pitch for posterity by sending baskets of
muffins to Lindsay Lohan, because if and when they are ever brought to justice,
they sure as Shirley aren’t going to make the major bulletins without that kind
of news peg.
Three cheers for Ms Hyde. She and the
Ombudsman go to the heart of the matter. The really corrupting thing about the
tabloid mentality is that we ignore wickedness unless it titillates. More than
making us superficial, it makes us heartless.
Michael Kirke is a freelance writer in Dublin.
He blogs at Garvan Hill.