The late Michael Jackson made an unscheduled public appearance last week. If he'd been around to witness it, I don't suppose the singer would have been surprised to learn that even death hasn't managed to guarantee him a degree of privacy that most human beings take for granted. But the widespread publication of photographs of Jackson's corpse on a hospital trolley in 2009 is a reminder that, in the world of the 24-hour media cycle, the grave is no longer a fine and private place.
It isn't the first time a public figure has been subjected to this final indignity. A stomach-churning photograph of Marilyn Monroe's corpse exists, taken after her post-mortem examination in 1962, but it hasn't been printed anything like as often. In May this year, the United States government rightly decided against releasing photographs of Osama bin Laden's dead body, although in that instance I doubt whether questions of taste were paramount; pictures of his damaged face would have enraged al-Qa'ida sympathisers, while conspiracy theorists would have screamed that the pictures were fakes. Hours after the Jackson photographs appeared, claims were already circulating on the internet that they'd been "doctored" to make them look worse.
What's instructive about this episode is that it comes at a moment when popular journalism is on the defensive, having to defend itself against charges of wholesale intrusion into private life. There's nothing new about this; tabloid editors are always swearing that they've got over their paparazzi addiction, only to carry on publishing photographs of famous people snapped from behind bushes with lenses that resemble drainpipes. Members of the public rarely suffer this degree of intrusion, although last week's pictures of a British man who'd just been attacked by a shark – one of his legs was bitten off as he swam on a beach near Cape Town – seemed an unnecessary exposure of private horror.
Editors who decided to blazon the Jackson photos across their front pages would no doubt argue they were already in the public domain, having been displayed during the trial in Los Angeles of the singer's doctor, Conrad Murray, for involuntary manslaughter. I don't know whether reporters covering the trial knew that the prosecuting authorities decided to show the pictures against the wishes of Jackson's family, who were in court and visibly distressed, but it might not have made any difference. One of the most egregious offenders was Rupert Murdoch's Sun, despite the fact that that proprietor is said to have vetoed corpse-photos in the past on the grounds that "stiffs don't sell papers".
That's hardly the issue, which revolves around concepts the popular press isn't terribly interested in: taste, privacy, and respect for the feelings of friends and relatives. I can think of circumstances in which relatives might choose to display photographs of loved ones taken after death – to reveal evidence of torture or a massacre, for example – but they're few and far between. The fact that Jackson chose to live his life in the public eye is a pretty pathetic excuse for publishing pictures of his corpse, while the heartless response to the photos on some websites confirms the numbing effect of such invitations to voyeurism.
Jackson was a very damaged human being, like Marilyn Monroe, and there's no doubt they would both have absolutely hated the idea of being exposed in this way. So would most of us: dead bodies speak volumes about our vulnerability and they shouldn't be turned into the kind of spectacle we've just witnessed. Forgive my cynicism, but these outbreaks of taste and sensitivity in the popular press never last long.