BRIAN CATHCART: Caroline Flack and The Dark Side of The Sun

Swarmed: Caroline Flack pictured attending Highbury Magistrates’ Court in December (c) Creative Commons
Swarmed: Caroline Flack pictured attending Highbury Magistrates’ Court in December (c) Creative Commons

COMMENT:

IN TABLOID newsrooms today there are three priorities – one, look sad about Caroline Flack, two, shift the blame for her death elsewhere, and three, find another victim, writes Professor Brian Cathcart.

The reporters don’t need to be told this and it almost certainly won’t be put in writing (in case it leaks out), but that is how it works, from Princess Diana to Jade Goody to Amy Winehouse to people you may not remember now, like Lucy Meadows. The feral beasts are pack animals; they move on.

Of course, they are not really sad. Some are probably jubilant – the hunt, after all, has ended as hunts are supposed to, in a kill. If they were sad they would be reflecting on their own role and not blithely denying responsibility and grasping at straws to justify their conduct.

Comment: Professor Brian Cathcart (c) PA
Comment: Professor Brian Cathcart (c) PA

As for shifting the blame, well, it’s true there are other candidates.

The Crown Prosecution Service will have to reflect on its decision to prosecute Flack for the alleged assault on her boyfriend, but any newspaper blaming the CPS would surely need to show that it had criticised the prosecution when that might have made a difference, and also that it did not to exploit the prosecution to milk the story. They can’t do that.

Then there are social media. Certainly, Flack experienced the familiar pile-ons of derision and hate, but who stokes this stuff? Whose intrusions, and whose half-baked slurs based on unnamed ‘pals’ serve to provoke the hatred? Mostly Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and its imitators.

TheSun.co.uk and the MailOnline have, as they love to brag, massive online “reach” and a much bigger impact on social media activity than any individual tweeter or platform host.

Fragile: Caroline Flack, appearing at Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court on December 19, 2019, where she pleaded not guilty to assaulting her partner Lewis Burton. The presenter was the subject of more than 40 individual stories by  The Sun  in the eight weeks leading to her death (c) Creative Commons/ Elizabeth Cook
Fragile: Caroline Flack, appearing at Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court on December 19, 2019, where she pleaded not guilty to assaulting her partner Lewis Burton. The presenter was the subject of more than 40 individual stories by The Sun in the eight weeks leading to her death (c) Creative Commons/ Elizabeth Cook

They were the ones who could not leave the story alone. They were the ones who, when there was no good reason, kept going back to poke around in the life of a troubled woman facing a criminal charge.

It wasn’t nobodies on Facebook and Instagram who turned trivia about Caroline Flack into ‘news’; it was The Sun and its rivals.

Take down: Within hours of Caroline Flack’s death,  The Sun  deleted from its website a story mocking the troubled presenter on Valentine’s Day
Take down: Within hours of Caroline Flack’s death, The Sun deleted from its website a story mocking the troubled presenter on Valentine’s Day

And yes, as they will point out, some of what they wrote was sympathetic. But that’s not the point. Most of it wasn’t, and all of it was dedicated to presenting Flack’s life, professional and personal, as a soap opera, an entertainment.

Screenshot 2020-02-16 at 14.25.33.png

Boy were they looking forward to her trial next month. 

Why do they do it? They are paid to, for one, by managements dedicated to cranking up the clicks and the print sales that deliver revenue. But that’s only a part of it. They also do it to assert power – in other words they do it because they can, and because they like to see the effect: how they can push people around, make them suffer, make them squeal.

And they do it because there is a journalistic buzz in it. They find angles that others don’t; they make headlines that people read; they lever themselves up into something resembling celebrity.

Can it be stopped? The Leveson report demonstrated, in the words of the senior presiding Judge, that they have been ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’ for many years and that there are relatively simple measures that can restrain this sort of behaviour without inhibiting bona fide journalists from doing the work they are supposed to do.

Tabloid targets: Jade Goody (l), Meghan Markle (top), and Ben Stokes (bottom) (C) Creative Commons/ PA
Tabloid targets: Jade Goody (l), Meghan Markle (top), and Ben Stokes (bottom) (C) Creative Commons/ PA

Anybody shocked by Flack’s treatment and her death might consider calling for part two of the Leveson Inquiry, cancelled by the Government to curry favour with the press, to be put back on track.

Given that the Johnson government is so close to the corporate press that the line between them can’t be detected, that may be a forlorn hope, but there are other things we can do. In particular, as the people of Liverpool have demonstrated, we can turn them into pariahs.

Don’t buy The Sun, or any other paper you see engaged in hate-mongering. Spread that message. The Sun’s sales are already falling like a stone – every single day a remarkable 500 fewer people buy it – but the process can usefully be accelerated.

The Man: Boris Johnson meets Rupert Murdoch at  The Sun’s  Baby Shard HQ in 2014
The Man: Boris Johnson meets Rupert Murdoch at The Sun’s Baby Shard HQ in 2014

Even more importantly, don’t click on anything to do with The Sun because if you do you give them money. Again, encourage others to do the same. Don’t fall for Sun clickbait or their provocations on social media because, frankly, that can be deadly.

And follow the example of the campaign group Stop Funding Hate (@stopfundinghate) by taking the message to advertisers. If you are a customer of a company that advertises in The Sun (and almost everybody is) then write to them politely and ask them to stop. That can work.

Is it worth the effort? Well, remember that third newsroom priority of the day: find another victim. The best escape for these papers is to distract us with some other half-baked soap opera about some other hapless real-life individual. It could be you.

It could be someone you admire. It could very well be a familiar victim dragged back into the limelight (think Meghan Markle, think Ben Stokes, think Gareth Thomas). It could also be someone you have never heard of. Whoever it is, it will almost certainly be someone who does not deserve it.

Make them stop. It might save a life.

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