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

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

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little