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We wake again to plod through another family's grief

Original Source: THE AUSTRALIAN 10 OCTOBER 2011
by: Hugo Rifkind  From:The Australian
October 10, 201112:00AM

 I'M different, of course. No, shut-up. I am. There were people across the world watching, live, as an Italian court decided, again, if one pretty girl was still guilty of murdering another pretty girl, and they are all voyeuristic sickos who should be ashamed. But not me. I was stuck in the office; it was on; it's an entirely different situation. I'm not one of those freaks who reads up on this stuff. I'm one of the good guys.


But you'd probably say this, too, about yourself. Who wouldn't? Nobody is the problem, nobody is the person with the invasive, insensitive interest. Everybody is just piggybacking on the prurience of everybody else. Even the horrible TV presenter who so horribly asked his horrible audience whether they'd like to have sex with a woman who had just been acquitted of helping to kill another woman so brutally that footprints were left in her blood - well, even he was just tapping in to what others were saying, wasn't he?


Although not people like me. Or, I assume, like you. We didn't do that. Or if we did, then it was ironic. Because everyone else was. Because that was the mood. It wasn't us. It wasn't us.


I think we need to take a look at ourselves. I think this is one of those times when many of us, collectively, have been behaving in a quite appalling manner which, individually, we simply would not do.


A violent death in an Italian bedroom: whether there were two people there or four people there, whatever happened was no world event, but a small, gruesome, tawdry thing. There are people who have a right to know about its minutiae - the bra here, the bloodied pillow there - but they are not you or I. Yet here we are, clod-hopping through it all with the clumsiest and most tactless of feet. We should shrivel up, daily, at our own sheer, unthinking intrusiveness into something so personal, into which we have no stake at all. Yet we don't. Why?


Left alone with a confidential police file, none of us would sneak a look - or, at least, not without hating ourselves for it. Why is it any better to read a report in the paper or watch one on the news? Because everybody else is doing it? So what? This is the morality of a looter. It's no morality at all.


Yet this is the pattern. This is what we do. We might not all do all of it, but we all do some of it. Never mind the recent ones; Perugia, Soham, Madeleine McCann, Sarah Payne and Millie Dowler; go back through Fred and Rose West, Harold Shipman, Brady and Hindley, to Jack the Ripper and Burke and Hare. Why do we always feel that murder makes a victim public property?


The most heartbreaking thing I've read this week - because somebody mentioned it and I wanted to see it; because I'm no different from anybody else - was an old article by the murdered girl's father, John Kercher, in which he wrote about wanting to be able to remember his daughter, Meredith, as something other than a girl who was horribly killed.


Why do we make it so hard for him, when we must know we're doing it? Why do we find it so easy to put our humanity on the shelf?


The "we" in this context is not the media. Or, at least, it's not just the media. Something that has not been said enough these past six months - perhaps because people like me have been too embarrassed and frightened to say it - is that newspapers don't exist in a vacuum. The News of the World (spit on its grave) did not hack Milly Dowler's voicemail for fun. It did so because it had readers hungry for stories about the disappearance and possible murder of a pretty 13-year-old girl. Indeed, the stories hacked from her voicemail even mentioned her voicemail.


I'm not being preachy. Personally, murder genuinely isn't a thing I normally read about and medical disasters don't do it for me, either. You give me a brutalised, incestuous family held in a Germanic basement, though, and I'm gripped. It's dishonest to pretend otherwise; there's something in us that gets off on this stuff. And it's not even a necessity, but a treat. Look at the runaway success in recent years of misery literature. We tell ourselves it's therapy, but it's not. It's fun. We do not really need to talk about Kevin.


Many families of murder victims are actually surprisingly keen to speak to newspapers. I bet they're often less keen on what happens next. Newspapers are no longer tomorrow's chip paper. The words hang around, for ever. Through data trails and social networking, we all have a stake in what everybody else is saying about us. When the public takes ownership of a crime, those involved step on to a platform with celebrities. They don't belong there. Ten, 20 years ago, we'd gossip in a bar and the people we were discussing would never know. Today we do it online, and they'll have to work to miss it.


I have limited sympathy for the Hugh Grants and the Max Mosleys of the world, whether the press treats them fairly. They've entered the kitchen, it's hot in here, deal with it. But the Kerchers? The Dowlers and McCanns? What do we think we are doing? Public or press, what rights have we over these lives? Our eyes are open. We are awake. We know the effect on them we have. A criminal has taken their loved ones, leaving something that looks roughly the same, but has none of that person left inside. Then the rest of us come along, in a mob, and blithely do the same.


The Times


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