The end of privacy
On the day of the Cumbrian massacre I was reading yet another book on the murder, in Perugia, Italy, in November 2007, of the English student Meredith Kercher. Two students, the American Amanda Knox and the Italian Raffaele Sollecito are serving lengthy prison sentences for their involvement in the crime. The book goes into harrowing details of the scene in Meredith's bedroom, a naked foot emerging from the duvet with which her body had been covered, her throat cut. An official police forensic film of the blood-spattered bedroom, with the duvet lifted aside to expose Meredith's bruised and semi-naked body, was broadcast by an Italian television station. I laid aside the book to look at the television programme of a corpse lying under a blanket in Cumbria.
Initially, with the Cumbrian gunman still on the rampage, the television and radio channels may well have saved lives through broadcasting warnings to shelter indoors. But after the killer took his own life, media coverage degenerated. They didn't dare lift aside a blanket to expose one of the corpses, but they began – like the international media at Perugia – an obsessive and unsavoury inquisition into the circumstances of the deaths.
The most inane question came from Martha Kearney in the World at One. It was addressed to a colleague of the lawyer shot dead: 'What was the reaction in the firm?' For God's sake, what kind of answer did she expect?
PM, Radio Four's news programme hosted by Eddie Mair, was not far behind in its obsession with interrogating witness after witness, those who escaped death, and those who witnessed it. In PM and other programmes comparisons were made with Hungerford, with Dunblane, with criminologists and psychologists interviewed to explain the mind of a multiple murderer. Since they had never met him and since he was dead, his motives unknown, at least at that point, it was idle speculation. It seems that there might have been two types of murders in Cumbria, one targeted, the other indiscriminate. If the targeted deaths are explained eventually by a family feud, a dispute with fellow taxi drivers, a large tax demand, that is the end of it. The indiscriminate deaths cannot be explained, except through mental unbalance, and further speculation is not possible.
What is the purpose of being told the gory details of the slaying, the blast of the shotgun in the face, the victim lying with her strewn shopping? How does a family member, a friend, feel when they hear these details repeated over and over in bulletin after bulletin? Is it really therapeutic for the wounded, and those who escaped the pointed barrels to keep repeating their terrifying experiences on air? Surely it is the duty of the police and not the media to amass evidence on each killing, to record the cause of death, and to search for any evidence of a connection between the murdered and the murderer, for presentation to the coroner at each inquest? Surely the police should be allowed to proceed with their harrowing duties, rather than being harassed by one of the many reporters dispatched to the crime scene? How can the remorseless investigation of the Cumbrian mass murder alert us to the next multiple killer, since these events occur usually without warning, anywhere, anytime, with the gun for shooting game turned on humans in crimes which are caused by individual instability?
The motive for the media's insensitive and intrusive behaviour in such cases is not sympathy for the murdered or the bereaved, but ruthless competition. Each television channel, each radio channel, each website, wants to be first with the latest information. 'You heard it first here,' Mair boasted on PM during the turbulent days when the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition was being formed. PM is a classic case of a programme that picks over the bones of stories. Its blog is a gimmick to hook its listeners and contributors because of the ephemeral nature of news, and lest you forget what you are listening to, Mair's repetition of the PM brand through each programme is relentless, sounding like a subliminal implant.
The broadcast media, with its round-the-clock bulletins, has destroyed privacy and modesty. The microphone and the lens intrude into personal grief, exploiting the fragile psyche. The events in Cumbria aren't chapters in a crime thriller, with broadcasters taking upon themselves the role of detective, but a tragedy. The corpse lying on the pavement may be covered in a blanket, but is stripped of dignity, in the same way as Meredith Kercher's exposed body was on the Italian television channel. Thank God we have off buttons.
Lorn Macintyre is a novellist, short story writer and poet