A pity the dead can't sue for libel

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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.

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