Joan Smith: Front-page Jacko pictures show red-tops' true colours

Even dead stars deserve some dignity


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.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Recruitment Genius: Chef

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Chef is required to join one of the largest ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is required to jo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The 2010-formed Coalition was led by a partly reformed Conservative Party, checked and balanced by Nick Clegg  

How did the Coalition ever manage to work together so harmoniously?

Isabel Hardman
There are around 250 species of bumblebee in the world  

If you want to rumble a bumblebee, now’s your chance

Michael McCarthy
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor