The tragedy of Caroline Flack’s suicide is not just the inherent tragedy of a young woman who felt she had no other option but to take her own life – it is also in the fact that it is unlikely any lessons will be learned from it.
In the days since, social media has quickly become flooded with a reeking sort of desperation – public figures from all corners are now frantically pointing fingers and shrieking blame. It’s riddled, as ever, with the toxic plague of merciless twitter trolls pouring out their ignorance and hate simply for the sake of relishing in their own antagonistic presence, like crocodiles thrashing around in a feeding frenzy.
And yet it is clear that there are those professing their grief who are “still” not listening to the overwhelming mood of the public. Two days after Caroline’s body was discovered, The Daily Mail considered it newsworthy to inform the public via Twitter that her grieving ex-fiancé Andrew Brady “appeared upset” by the news as he followed the developments on his phone from Sydney. To illustrate this to readers and Twitter users – who presumably needed to know what an upset ex-fiancé looked like – a photographer had helpfully been lurking around nearby obtaining photographs of Andrew Brady looking grief-stricken. To further assist the reader, The Daily Mail had added the informative caption: “Caroline Flack’s ex-fiancé Andrew Brady seen teary after her death.”
I mean… seriously? What the *actual fuck* are you people playing at? Firstly, leave the guy alone, and secondly, LEAVE THE FUCKING GUY ALONE!
They’re like vultures circling above their next target, knowing it has been weakened. It’s this kind of vile behaviour that people are furious about. Can’t they see that? Do they even care?
I’m not the only person who thinks that enough is enough.(Nearly 750,000 people have so far signed a online petition calling for a new Caroline’s Law on press bullying). Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sure as hell seem to think so too. Not content with hounding them to such an extent that they’ve decided to bugger off abroad, the UK gutter press is now hounding them for deciding to bugger off abroad. Personally, I’m with Harry and Meghan. The UK press has gone too far.
The problem, in the aftermath of Caroline Flack’s suicide, is that nobody will want to be tarnished with the terrible burden of responsibility. And the most sensible thing I can say about that is that it’s not one person, or one organisation which is to blame here. As I’ve previously said before, when someone takes their own life, it is society as a whole that has let them down. And the same is true here.
Currently, the blame is being dished out to four main groups:
The CPS, for proceeding with a prosecution against her in respect of the alleged assault on her partner Lewis Burton, even though Lewis Burton had withdrawn support for a prosecution against her.
ITV for failing to support her following her decision to stand down from hosting Love Island.
The gutter press, for hounding her and writing a constant flow of negative, invasive and disparaging articles about her.
Social media trolls.
Quite what was in Caroline’s head when she decided to kill herself only Caroline knew. But suicide is not usually a decision reached by a healthy, rational mind. Mental illness warps self-perception and the internal monologue to terrible extremes. Think of the scene in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Think of the decrepit King Theoden, wasting away on his own throne. Grey, shrunken and shrivelled. Milky-eyed. Incoherent. Then think of slimy, sinister Grima Wormtongue, slinking around behind him in the shadows, hissing and whispering poisonous, negative things into his ears. This is a bit like what mental illness does to you. It wears you down. It fills your head with negativity and your behaviour becomes sculpted by all that negativity in your thoughts. You may well find that a voice of reason stands before you, desperately trying to help – but it doesn’t matter. Because Wormtongue has been in residence for longer. He has long since poisoned your mind. That hissing negativity is closer, and louder and more persuasive. You trust it. So any external negativity that accords with the voice of Wormtongue simply serves to add credence to what Wormtongue is saying. You accept that the external negativity is right. You believe it. You KNOW it.
That is why the flood of vile negativity from the UK press simply has to be condemned. Reporting the facts of a newsworthy story is one thing. But when tabloid papers like The Sun pursue a course of conduct that amounts to harassment – when they bully and ridicule like a dog with a bone that just won’t let fucking go, then we have to start asking ourselves what these media outlets are doing, because it looks a lot like what they’re doing is abusing their power. Journalism should be about informing the public of events, not showing off in front of the public while they behave like playground bullies. They should be using their power to hold powerful people to account – not using their power to destroy the lives of those who are powerless. They should be telling us what’s happening, not telling us what to think.
In the case of Caroline Flack, it is not one group that is entirely to blame. It is all of them. It is all of us. It is everyone in society, because we all in some way create the conditions that allow for this kind of harassment and bullying to go on. Hell, I’ve done it myself.
These childish tabloid gossip merchants can basically get away with whatever the hell they like, so they churn out their filth into the world and it creates an emotive reaction. Social media provides a platform to those who seem to thrive on some perverse thrill derived from antagonsing others, and so the trolls invade the timelines of those the tabloids choose to demonise. Together, they create a situation where someone can pick up their phone and see thousands of messages telling them that they should die. If you’re in an already fragile state of mind, the power of such a pile on cannot be understated.
The CPS have likewise come in for criticism, for proceeding with a prosecution that wasn’t supported by the alleged victim. As an ex-criminal defence paralegal, I can confirm that this is common. Technically, the alleged victim isn’t in the driving seat. The CPS are. The alleged victim is merely a witness on behalf of the State, and there are ways to compel that witness to give evidence even if he/she does not wish to. But the CPS are under duty to constantly review their cases, and ask themselves whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. I cannot possibly comment on whether the CPS have done anything wrong here, and neither really can anyone else. The only people who know what drove the CPS onwards are the CPS, because they have a file of evidence that no one else has access to. People can point their fingers at the CPS, but ultimately, it’s futile because we’re only forming opinions based on gossip and guesswork. Suffice it to say, that should any of our loved ones allege that they were the victims of an assault, I’m sure we’d feel differently if the CPS made some arbitrary decision not to prosecute. Having a mental illness isn’t of itself sufficient grounds to reject a prosecution, and if it were, trust me… it would be open to abuse.
The claim that ITV didn’t put enough support in place is again, possibly true. But I don’t know because I don’t work for ITV, but mental illness is STILL not entirely understood, and so it strikes me as quite plausible that she was cut adrift.
My own feeling here is that society is in a dark place right now. One aspect of this is the freedom of the press to create scandalous gossip and feed the conditions that whip up social media pile-ons. Jon Ronson wrote extensively about the psychological effects of social media shaming in his book “So You’ve Been Publically Shamed”. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do. The destruction caused to these people’s lives is no small thing. And yet it is incredibly tempting to take part in a social media shaming event. It’s tempting to add your voice to the shrieking vortex of condemnation.
So, I will finish by saying this: As users of social media we really should be thinking about the effect of the power we have at our fingertips, and question whether it is a good use of that power to join a ravening mob of bullies in tormenting someone. Employers should be thinking very carefully about their responsibility to their employees and how better to protect them from the kinds of conditions that damage mental health – particularly in the media environment where famous faces are more likely to receive abuse. The justice system needs to think carefully about the manner in which it proceeds against vulnerable defendants. And most of all, the press in this country needs to step back for a moment and take a good long look at itself and ask some searching questions.
First on the list should be: “Is it really the best use of the power we possess to hound a vulnerable celebrity? Is it really the best use of the power we possess to bully and ridicule and add to the conditions that already exist in society to make people’s lives a misery? Is it really the best use of our power to punch down and crush vulnerable people, instead of holding even higher forms of power to account on behalf of those who are powerless?”
When someone has stumbled into the sight line, it feels as though the gutter press are there, standing over hordes of ravening trolls and the angry and the aggrieved, as thunder rumbles above and the skies darken before bellowing: “Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war!” We all need to learn a lesson from this. Unfortunately, I fear that in a week or two, it will simply be business as usual.