A pity the dead can't sue for libel

Share
Related Topics
A British woman was murdered in Majorca last week. The killing was unusually brutal and Spanish police are urgently seeking her killer. Yvonne O'Brien moved to the island three years ago or five years ago, depending upon which newspaper you read. Either way, her connections with Britain were not that close and there seems to be little chance that anyone here has information vital to the capture of her killer. Yet the "story", which is what the dead woman quickly became, has received extensive coverage in British newspapers: a third of a page in Wednesday's Daily Telegraph; page leads in Thursday's Daily Mail, Mirror and Sun; and billboards all over London, announcing further revelations in the Evening Standard.

So why has the death of someone who was not a public figure and who died abroad, become such big news here? The answer lies in the headlines, which quickly moved from the factual "Briton stabbed to death on holiday isle" to "Majorca mum tortured for hours by sick killer". By Wednesday lunchtime, when details of Yvonne O'Brien's life were still sketchy, I knew perfectly well what was coming; it was only a matter of time before we were informed that the murdered woman was sad and lonely. She was, after all, in her mid forties and divorced, and went in for casual sex to keep her demons at bay.

On cue, the next day's Sun announced "Life on the edge: Yvonne's nightmare of booze and sex ends in bloodbath on sunshine island". She had had "a succession of lovers on the sunshine island", the paper added, apparently concerned that its readers might not have clocked the first reference to Majorca's geographical status and fine weather. "Yet she was tormented by loneliness and her inability to kick the bottle, said locals." These locals featured prominently, talking freely about the dead woman's alcohol problem and her habit of sitting alone in bars. One of them observed that she was sorry to hear about the murder but not surprised. "She knew and hung around with some funny people," she said.

Some of this may be true. Some of it gossip, the kind of wild rumours that circulate when something as shocking and exciting - and I mean exciting - as murder happens in a small community. Yvonne O'Brien is in no position to tell her side of the story, and the fact that there might be another version has been obscured by the readiness of journalists to publish anything they have been told, regardless of the source. But what has happened to this previously unknown woman in the last few days is worse even than I have suggested so far. The manner of her death has provided a licence to strip away every shred of dignity from her memory.

The early accounts established that she died as the result of a frenzied attack, although some of the reporting was sloppy from the start; references to a mysterious "hippy" peace sign, daubed on the wall of her bedroom in blood, turned out to mean nothing more than the CND symbol. But I listened in astonishment to an interview on the Radio 4 PM programme, when the editor of an English-language newspaper in Majorca revealed with gruesome relish that the dead woman had been "hung, drawn and quartered". What we have been exposed to since then is a sadistic, pornographic discourse, masquerading as news, in which horrific details of Yvonne O'Brien's ordeal have been described to readers who cannot possibly need to be made aware of them.

It has become commonplace for celebrities to complain that their privacy has been invaded when publicity does not suit them. But what about Yvonne O'Brien's privacy? What about the feelings of her son? Because she has had the misfortune to be murdered, and dead women cannot sue for libel, her reputation has been torn apart and the circumstances of her death turned into cheap entertainment. Popular culture has long been infected with a morbid interest in sexual violence, from the opening scene of Richard Marquand's Jagged Edge, when a beautiful woman is tortured and murdered in bed, to a rash of similarly nasty depictions in contemporary detective novels.

It is bad enough that this sort of material has become commonplace in fiction, but Yvonne O'Brien was a real person, and the lack of respect shown to her since her death diminishes our humanity as well as hers. ("She was an individual and did her own thing", her brother Philip Graham said, introducing a note of feeling into this callous narrative.) Unless, of course, you believe that what happened in Puerto de Alcudia last week was just another version of the oldest story of all about women: she was asking for it, and that justifies every nasty word that's been printed about her.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions