Editor-At-Large: The media have turned a tragedy into a spectacle

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The Independent Online

The killings in Cumbria resulted in a tidal wave of voyeurism fuelled by modern media driven to fill airtime. Is there a criminologist, forensic or investigative psychologist in the UK who hasn't penned a few thoughts in the press or offered their snap reaction?

These misery experts all seem to end up saying more or less the same thing – that for now it is way beyond our understanding. David Cameron offered a considered response, observing, "You can't legislate to stop a light flicking in someone's head."

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary were right to visit Cumbria and talk to those directly involved, to give them our support and thanks, and to comfort survivors. Now, the reporters, and the photographers need to pack up and leave the devastated community to grieve in peace.

When I see a nine-year-old boy being interviewed on Sky News about witnessing a man shot dead, I know we have gone so far beyond reporting and digesting that our values are warped. Jordan Williams, out walking with his mum and baby sister when he saw Michael Pike being blasted in the face with a shotgun, surely needs counselling, not a microphone thrust in his face by a gormless reporter.

And what about Mr Bird's own family and his former partner? His mum would have gone to bed on Tuesday evening knowing she had two sons. Thirty-six hours later both were dead and she was trapped in her house with the curtains drawn, surrounded by cameramen and reporters. His neighbours would have had to put up with reporters standing outside Mr Bird's terraced house, describing it as "shabby" and letting the world know he had a satellite dish, as if that proves anything.

At the time Derrick Bird was killing people, I was walking a few miles away on the beautiful sands of Morecambe Bay in glorious sunshine – the scene of an equally shocking loss of life. In February 2004, at least 21 illegal Chinese immigrants, picking cockles for just £5 for 25 kilos, were swept to their deaths. On that occasion, thankfully, no psychologists appeared on television telling us what they "imagined" had swept through these poor soul's heads as they were drowned by the incoming tide. In the sun last week, it was hard to imagine what a horrible death that must have been.

Another day, more pointless deaths – but this time the unanswered questions must be repeated and dissected ad nauseam. Is it because Derrick Bird was white, male and local, and his victims were not immigrants? Who wants all this forensic analysis? Why are reporters standing in Whitehaven's main street at 10pm at night delivering platitudes about "a sense of loss"?

Even well-respected programmes such as Radio Four's World at One were guilty, reduced to enlisting crime writer Zoe Sharp (author of the Charlie Fox series, who lives in Cumbria) and who just happens to have had her latest book out last month. Nice bit of promotion. She observed that crime novels were the "most borrowed" library books and that they provide "escapism ... and offer closure ... it seems we want to know why ordinary men do extraordinary things". A waste of air time.

On the BBC's This Week, Andrew Neil sought illumination from popular psychologist Dr Linda Papadopolous. We were treated to a double dose of the glamourous Dr P – first filmed in clinging black in her west London home, and then suitably coiffed and heavily lip glossed for the live programme. I am sure Dr P had something valid to say but, packaged like a glam bird Mr Neil had just met at a party, it all had the gravitas of a sanitary pad advert. I know she has qualifications up to her ears, but to me she comes across as weightless, the Sarah Palin of psychobabble. I recall something about taking "a long hard look at our health services" and "men are more likely [than women] to suffer depression, commit suicide and behave in a violent way". Well, that's a major insight.

By Friday evening, BBC reporters were telling us that Mr Bird's fellow taxi drivers were "clamming up" and locals were refusing to talk. Who can blame them? I am perfectly sure that most of the public have heard quite enough about Mr Bird, his potential motives, mental state and self esteem. Whether news editors will agree is another matter.

Swalk: Burton called Liz his Twit Twaddle. Enough said...

Why has Elizabeth Taylor decided to release the texts of gushing love letters she received from Richard Burton to Vanity Fair magazine?

They certainly prove he was capable of extraordinarily flattering drivel. In one of them he writes: "First of all, you must realise that I worship you ... you are probably the best actress in the world, which combined with your extraordinary beauty, makes you unique."

In another letter Burton (a huge drinker) claimed he would kill himself if she left him – and his terms of affection for her included "my lumps" and "Twit Twaddle".

Elizabeth Taylor was extremely beautiful – and totally captivated by this randy Welsh windbag, continuing to return to him over and over again in spite of his appaling behaviour. Now she is older but is she any wiser?

Burton was the love of her life, but revealing such intimate details is creepy and makes the magnificent Liz seem more needy than perhaps she is.

When in love, don't put pen to paper – it will always be held against you.

But I look down on him...

Posh is a modern term of abuse. Labour thought they were onto a winner deriding David Cameron as a "posh boy". Cameron is so concerned he let it be known he likes to be called Dave, and turned up at his sister's wedding in an ordinary lounge suit. We all aspire to a bit of poshness though. A new survey shows that three-quarters of us would love to be married to someone further up the social scale. But how do you spot a toff in modern Britain? Forget titled relatives, it's all about what you eat and where you shop. I've just completed the "posh" survey: I own an Aga, shop at Waitrose, eat hummus, go to the opera, drink Earl Grey tea and swig prosecco. That makes me posh, even if I attended state schools and have an Estuary accent. Dave hasn't got an Aga and doesn't go to the opera. Am I posher than him?

It's Mars, you idiots – not cars

In these frugal times there's a need to think creatively – which is why, presumably, six men are spending 520 days in a sealed container in a car park in Moscow, pretending they are on a mission to Mars. I grew up listening to Doc, Mitch and Lemmy in Journey into Space on Sunday night on the BBC's Light programme, going to bed terrified that aliens might land in Fulham during the night. Now I know it was all concocted in a radio studio with props, and the sound of their rocket was a recording of a plane at Heathrow.The European Space Agency says its mission will monitor how astronauts will cope with solitary confinement on long voyages to the galaxy. But if the crew know they're in a car park, a huge quota of stress is removed. They won't be dealing with unknown life forms or with engine burnout as they re-enter Earth's gravity. Sounds like a waste of money.