The titillation of catastrophe porn

'However indignant, angry and righteous a media outlet appears, there is rarely no element of febrile excitement'
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The Independent Online

A few years ago, when I worked as a magazine editor, there was a series of violent murders of prostitutes in Glasgow. The murders were not suspected to have been all committed by the same person, and consequently, as is so often the case with individual murders of individual prostitutes, there was no widespread interest in these violent, tragic, but unrelated crimes.

A few years ago, when I worked as a magazine editor, there was a series of violent murders of prostitutes in Glasgow. The murders were not suspected to have been all committed by the same person, and consequently, as is so often the case with individual murders of individual prostitutes, there was no widespread interest in these violent, tragic, but unrelated crimes.

One Scottish investigative reporter, Jean Rafferty, was interested in this rash of killings, however. She felt that the random nature of the crimes was actually more frightening and horrible than they would have been had they been perpetrated by one person. While a single killer was a freak - psychotic, disturbed, but aberrant - various killers taking out their anger and hatred on vulnerable women, seemed to her to say something broader and more significant about the corrosive state of Glasgow's street-life.

She investigated for months, winning over distrustful and embattled women to co-operate with her. The women, on the whole, were sad and desperate, driven to carry on taking risks they should not, because of their drug addiction. And the men, they were addicts too, with nothing left in their lives except anger against the world, anger they were unleashing on the only people they considered lower than themselves.

Ms Rafferty's article was long, about 8,000 words, and so it was some weeks before we could clear the space to publish it. The article was also extremely powerful, so it was placed in poll position in the magazine, as the cover story. This was not done without nervousness though. This was not a glamorous story, of the type that usually appeared on magazine covers. Nor was it a high-profile one, in which there was a great deal of public interest. Magazine stories about prostitution were usually titillating. This story was dark, and serious in its intent.

The day before we were due to go to press, I arrived at work to be told that another prostitute had been murdered the previous night.

"Oh," I said. "Great."

It took a moment for me to realise what I had just said. What possible excuse can there be for such a dereliction of humanity? Hours before, a woman had been viciously killed, having spent her last moments in desperate fear and pain. I didn't even know her name, let alone her story, but she had become for me, useful. She made the story topical, strengthened its thesis and underlined a growing feeling that something meaningfully awful was going on in Glasgow. Her death justified the story, so for a moment her death pleased me. No amount of excuses can change that.

But it is important to remember that these sorts of reactions are meat and drink to the media. They are what feeding frenzies are all about. Death, disaster, falls from grace, scandal, humiliation, and failure. However indignant, angry and righteous a media outlet appears to be about a big bad story, there is rarely no element of febrile excitement in the mix as well, or at least a desire to turn tragedy into general competitive advantage.

As the story of the Selby rail crash unfolded on television yesterday, there was an element of just such feelings. At first there were endless bulletins telling us that it was impossible at this stage to be certain what had happened, even though we had in fact already been told on quite a number of occasions. The message really was that blame apportioning was proving a little bit tricky, with none of the usual villains - Railtrack, sleeping drivers, operating companies, or vandals.

Gradually experts of all shades made their way into the television studios to give their opinions on a disaster that they knew little about. A survivor of a previous crash still blamed the train operator, because the carriages were too difficult to escape from after a crash. A transport expert suggested that passengers and freight shouldn't travel on the same lines. A presenter expressed surprise that roads were allowed to pass over high-speed rail lines at all, and reiterated that the great mystery remained that the crash barriers on the road bridge showed no damage at all.

At last Christian Wolmar, the man who has the best grip on transport issues in Britain, arrived in the studio to offer perspective. Discouraging freight travel on the railways, or demanding any other measures, was clearly bonkers in the wake of what seemed to have been a freak accident.

By about 11am on Tuesday, he was making it clear that this nightmare was not likely to be a political issue. Sometimes bad things happen for bad reasons. Other times, bad things just happen, and nobody could have foreseen or prevented them.

It was almost with reluctance that television journalists, in the face of overwhelming evidence, began to concede that this really was an accident in the purest sense. All that could be learnt here was that maybe crash barriers should be extended where roads passed over high-speed rail lines.

Maybe this would have saved the 13 lives lost in the Selby crash. But maybe it would have raised the toll from car accidents from last year's 3,423 deaths. This story had its share of death and grief and mourning, but there was not much else, nothing overwhelmingly in the "public interest", except the rush to look at the awe-inspiring smash-up.

Nevertheless, the papers have fallen on this opportunity with unseemly enthusiasm, even attempting to move on the blame aspect. The Sun carried the headline "Do not blame my son for 13 deaths", followed by a brief interview with the mother of Gary Hart, who had been driving the Land Rover that caused the smash. The Sun also repeated the oft-bandied fact that one of the engines had been involved in the Hatfield crash. Clearly an attempt to blame the Grim Reaper.

When the words ran out, the paper offered a centrefold poster of the "Slaughter at Selby", just in case there hadn't been enough detail in the photographs on pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ,7, and 8, all of which had carried crash pictures. What on earth does JG Ballard reckon to this lot? Surely it is little more than catastrophe porn.

Except that there is real mischief being made by these overblown headlines. All the papers ran stories about what a blow this accident was for the rail operators, so soon after Paddington and Hatfield. Public confidence, they predicted, would be shaken again, just as people were climbing back into the carriages (more pictures of carnage and horror on other pages).

I think that's possible but unlikely. Most people, I think, would have leapt to the conclusion that this was another Railtrack problem upon hearing the news, then greeted the fact that it was not with some relief. Who wants the railways to be in endless, fatal crisis? Only the overly politically motivated, and, it seems, the over-excitable elements of the media.

Anyway, if the newspapers are so bothered by the lack of enthusiasm for rail travel, maybe they could put on a spread like the one they managed yesterday for the nine or 10 people who die each day on the roads. Maybe this would decrease public confidence in motoring, a mode of transport so dangerous that it can even cause trains, let alone, other vehicles, to crash.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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