While parents mourn, the nation watches

We are disturbingly used to seeing people in extremis on our TV screens. Perhaps we have even come to demand it. Bryan Appleyard considers the perilous issues involved in witnessing dignity under fire

On Tuesday Kevin Loughlin and Lynette Thornton appeared on television to reveal their feelings about the loss of their two children, Tom and Jodi, on a Norfolk beach on 18 August. They were dignified and frank, calmly recounting unbearably poignant details like the sight of Jodi's teddy when they returned to the holiday cottage.

It was gripping television and, in the next day's papers, gripping copy. Coldly, professionally one might say, it was good stuff. But it was also generic stuff. For, over the past few years, this news genre of the harrowing, on-screen confession of the most intimate, painful experiences has become routine. Scarcely a week now goes by without somebody appearing, and often breaking down, in public while recounting the details of some human experience of loss or horror that borders on the unspeakable.

The audience's reaction to these spectacles may always be roughly the same - a combination of ghoulish fascination and genuine compassion. But the instigators may have many different reasons. The police sometimes wish to stimulate a response to their investigation, the talk show host wants to pry as far as is riveting into private suffering, and the honest sufferer may want to help others. These have combined to produce a new phenomenon, something akin to a free national theatre of misery, offering a repertoire with a tonal range that runs from Sophocles to Cilla.

Why did Kevin Loughlin and Lynette Thornton go on television? At one level to warn other parents of the dangers of freak tides. At another, to pre-empt the arrival of a stream of journalists at their door. At another as some form of catharsis. But, at another level still, and this may be the most important one, they did it because, these days, it is done. People are almost expected to become public victims for the contemplation of the mass audience.

We think nothing of the florid emotionalism of the nuts 'n' sluts shows perfected by American stars such as, at the most respectable end of the scale, Oprah Winfrey, and, at the least respectable end, Geraldo. This, in turn, blurs truth even further. Clearly, if Geraldo defines some syndrome - say, children whose lives are crippled by embarrassment at the way their parents dress (a true example) - then impressionable people will decide that they, too, are afflicted. An essentially false world of suffering and victimhood is created.

The depravity of this becomes clear when it is set against the real thing. Gordon Wilson's saintly public statement of forgiveness directed at the IRA bombers who killed his daughter, Marie, at Enniskillen was, by any standards, the real thing, an extraordinary act by an ordinary man. But even then I heard people speculating cynically about his motives - they were so used to detecting falsity in media emotion that they could not stop themselves.

This knife was twisted further for Colin Parry, whose son, Tim, was killed by the IRA bomb at Warrington. Wilson visited him to help him over his grief. But, subsequently, when Parry's lucidity and dignity made him a minor television star, he was abused by neighbours for exploiting the tragedy. The emotional and moral confusions engendered by publicity create a lethal concoction of caring and brutality.

In one interview, Parry revealed, as did Kevin Loughlin when he spoke on television this week, another important aspect of the publicity process at times of intense grief.

"We lost Tim in a very public and political way," said Parry, "If Tim had been killed on the road outside our house I would have run out of people to talk to, because you burn your family and friends out. They can't constantly shoulder your burden. So the media things provide a rich source of people to talk to. I would have been a basket case by now if that had not happened." He added that he felt "lost" when the media finally left him alone.

This reveals the extent to which media emotional exposure has been weirdly normalised. Parry came to see his public conversations as therapeutic extensions of his private attempts to deal with his grief. The public world, precisely because it seems so full of intimate emotion, appears to be a kind of infinite family. And this is encouraged by the way ordinary people have now become so good at being on television. Look at interviews with ordinary people on TV in the Fifties: they appear tongue-tied, awkward. But now everybody knows what to do, how to appear "natural" when the camera rolls. The contrivance and artificiality of the situation has vanished to be replaced by an instant, relaxed intimacy. Whether this sharing in private grief is overall a benign experience one can but doubt.

On the other hand there are cases where asking the public to join in has practical motives and real results. During the inquiry into the murder of James Bulger, Merseyside police rapidly held no fewer than four press conferences, one including the boy's father and one his uncle. The idea was to keep public interest fired up and this, apparently, encourages a steady flow of information. So confident are the police in this tactic that senior officers are now all trained in how to work with the press. We have become as much a part of their armoury as truncheons or handcuffs.

Reasonable enough, perhaps, and probably it works, but, almost unnoticed, a line has been crossed. The press are no longer observers of the process, they are players, their appetite for sensation is being manipulated to further an investigation.

And what of the quite common cases when the relatives wheeled on to sob out their grief turn out to be liars? Derek Fleming killed his 23-year- old daughter Linda. He broke down at a press conference after the killing and left the room, not, apparently, out of a sense of guilt but in a state of denial. Somehow he really did not think he had committed the crime.

Dr Ian Stephen, the psychologist who advised the producers of TV's Cracker, has said this denial can lead criminals to go to extraordinary lengths to co-operate with the investigation, reinforcing their own sense that they weren't involved. Knowledge and meaning become strangely entangled in these public professions.

They become all the more entangled when, as often happens, the police who are staging the press conferences strongly suspect the confessor. This often happens simply because relatives of the murdered are often the murderers, and it was certainly true in the case of Fleming. It happened also in the case of John Tanner, the boyfriend who was finally charged with the murder of Oxford student Rachel McLean.

Recalling Tanner's press conference, Det Supt John Bound said: "Lots of people have said to me since that my body language suggested I thought he was guilty ... Subconsciously I thought he was guilty so I suppose that would be an automatic reaction."

Tanner's duplicity at the press conference was one element in his elaborate deceit. He faked anxiety in a phone call to McLean's flatmates and wrote her two love letters. It was, said one report, "a web of deceit", but the point was that our involvement in it helped reveal it.

All of this - public grieving and public lying - has become a normal aspect of everyday life. No wonder the murderer sometimes feel that he can ensure his getaway by conning the whole nation; no wonder victims of tragedy are made to feel we are all in this together.

But, of course, we are not. The spotlight's duration is brief and its intensity ambiguous. Ultimately, real victims will have to survive alone. And, meanwhile, their sufferings will be horribly relativised by the phoney tears of the guilty and the exaggerated complaints of those who would lay bare every trivial injustice before Oprah, Geraldo or Esther. The problem with making suffering routine is that it really makes it impossible.

For at issue here is dignity. Privacy is an essential aspect of dignity. Certainly the parents of the drowned children in Norfolk were dignified and so were Gordon Wilson and Colin Parry. But for others who parade their grief, dignity becomes an impossibility. Indeed, in the midst of the chaotic demands of the therapeutic, "it's good to talk" society, the limitless requirements of the public interest and the police's war against crime, the very idea of dignity can seem obscure, pointless, even petty. Only afterwards, when his dignity has gone, will the lonely victim realise what he has lost. The camera, as primitive tribes are said to believe, really does steal your soul.

The media and the victims' message

A weeping relative or grief-stricken victim seated in front of a wall of television cameras and journalists has become an essential ingredient in an increasing number of police investigations. The psychology behind the "victim press conference" has also become more complex.

The major reason for the recent proliferation of relatives suffering in public is the media. After decades of trying to obstruct and control television and the press, most detectives now view them as a valuable tool in their investigations. They also realise that fighting the media is usually a no-win situation.

The diverse role of the press conference is illustrated by two recent cases. At one extreme, Tuesday's appearance by Kevin Loughlin and Lynette Thornton seemed to have helped them with their grieving. They thanked the media for helping them to express their anguish publicly and spoke in great detail about their feelings.

A different motive emerged from the press conference held by Gordon Wardell in September 1994. Four days after his wife was found murdered, Wardell, seated in a wheelchair and wearing sunglasses, appeared at a press conference where he wept before the cameras and told the world of his terrible loss.

He told the police he had been knocked unconscious by a gang of men, who tied him up and forced his wife to help them rob a building society in Nuneaton before killing her.

In December last year Wardell was convicted of his wife's murder. He had attempted to use his public appearance as a cover, but it had backfired after his performance cast greater suspicion on him.

Before anyone is placed before the media, the police have to decide what they are trying to achieve from what can be a harrowing experience. Most often, it is an attempt to jog the public's memory and appeal to possible witnesses of crimes. In all cases a police liaison officer is appointed, who keeps the victims informed of all developments and helps with any arrangements. They are also automatically given access to victim support groups and specialist counsellors.

Det Insp Gennaro Varriale, the deputy senior investigator in the Wardell inquiry carried out by Warwickshire police, says that the media are regarded as a valuable asset. "The longer we can keep an inquiry in the public domain, the more chance we have to obtain information that could lead to a conviction."

The emotional impact of seeing a traumatised victim can be the vital factor in getting a witness to overcome a reluctance to come forward and contact the police. Sometimes victims ask to give a press conference because they are desperate to help in the investigation; talking publicly may also help them come to terms with what has happened to them.

The other reason for a public parade is to prevent hordes of press people approaching victims and relatives. The police realise that in a big crime story the press will attempt to contact all the people involved. "Giving someone a chance to talk in a controlled situation is far better than being hounded by half a dozen different newspapers and TV people," says a senior police press officer. "The unwritten deal is that by allowing the press access they should stop pestering them and allow them to get on with their lives."

With a growing number of publications, radio and television stations, the appetite for live pictures and instant reactions is vast. "There seem to be a lot more press conferences than there were in the past," says Det Supt Varriale. "There's a greater appreciation of how the media can be used to help and support investigations. The days of avoiding the media like the plague are long gone."

JASON BENNETTO

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