Petitions over Caroline Flack’s death are understandable – but they won’t lead to the change you’re hoping for

It is admirable that people want to see action, but we’re at risk of oversimplifying the details of a tragedy we don’t have all the answers for

Madeline Palacz
Tuesday 18 February 2020 12:03
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Love Island pays tribute to Caroline Flack

We watched Caroline Flack’s meteoric rise and we watched her tragic fall. And with it, the conversation about the regulation of traditional media, as well as social media platforms, has been ignited once again.

The intense focus from some sections of the tabloid press of a life lived under the celebrity spotlight has been widely criticised following the 40-year-old’s death. Such reporting has also been blamed for fuelling backlash from “trolls” on social media.

And the media is not the only industry in the spotlight.

Much has been said already about who, or what, is to blame for the former Love Island presenter’s death by suicide. While it is public knowledge that she took her own life while awaiting trial following an allegation that she assaulted her boyfriend, at this stage, it is important to emphasise that the circumstances of Flack’s death remain unknown. Crucially, at the centre of all this was a vulnerable young woman whose death should not be oversimplified by discussions of who should take the most blame.

Within hours of the news of Flack’s death, an online petition calling for it to be a criminal offence for the British Press to “knowingly and relentlessly bully a person, whether they be in the public eye or not, up to the point that they take their own life” began to make the rounds. In just a few days, the petition gained almost 500,000 signatures.

It is understandable that people want to see action, but knee jerk reactions like these are unhelpful.

Newsroom decisions aren’t easy. Each day, journalists are expected to balance the competing rights of individuals subject to media attention, and the equal right of the press to report on matters which they consider will be of interest to their readership. The petition for “Caroline’s Law” omits any reference to what it would mean for the press to “bully” a person. We should see such a law for what it is: a real threat to the media’s right to criticise, campaign and hold those in the public eye to account. Such rights are fundamental in a democratic society.

For readers, Flack’s death must also be a time for reflection. I wasn’t alone when I clicked on articles about the Love Island villa. A few months later, I read with fascination numerous articles about Flack allegedly assaulting her boyfriend in their home. I must have contributed to such articles being promoted to the top of a publication’s homepage.

Stories of this nature would have delivered significant reader traffic for these news sites. It’s possible that the number of articles which were written about Flack in the weeks prior to her death were fuelled by this reader demand; it has been suggested by some media commentators that the presenter was the subject of more than 40 individual stories by The Sun in the eight weeks leading to her death. It does not appear that public anger at the media’s scrutiny of Flack in life has resulted in a reduction in the demand for such stories in her death.

To what extent the traditional media caused or contributed to the backlash Flack received on social media remains unclear. In any event, big questions remain unanswered on the ability of social media platforms to effectively tackle harmful content on the internet. We must all do better.

Our obsession with celebrity is not new, nor is the media’s specific fascination with a woman’s fall from grace. Take Princess Diana, Amy Winehouse, Jade Goody. In Flack’s case, her “fall” came following an allegation of domestic abuse. Perhaps notably, it was Boris Johnson’s neighbours who were vilified by some sections of the press after they called the police when they heard a “loud scream and banging” from inside the flat next door.

Journalism is often shaped by the views of a publication’s readership, equally, journalism shapes those views. Journalists make choices every day in the selection of material for publication and the language used to tell those stories. That does not mean avoiding difficult issues, or preventing reporting of matters of public record, like an allegation of criminality. However, it must mean that consideration is also given to the people who are the subject of those stories.

The CPS has been condemned by the media for failing to take Flack’s mental health into consideration in its decision to pursue her case to trial. Of course, I expect that those same publications would condemn such a duty of care, should it be imposed on the media when scrutinising its decision to publish.

Perhaps accepting that it had gone “too far”, The Sun removed an “exclusive” piece which reported that a Valentine’s card was on sale which referenced the allegations made against Flack. The Sun explained that it had deleted the piece to stop it coming up in Google results for her name: “We would no doubt have been criticised if we hadn’t taken a recent story down following a tragedy.”

Of course, it was the media who informed me of Flack’s death, as I scrolled through Twitter. WhatsApp, which enabled me to share the news to my shocked friends and family; now, the press allows me to read about the life of a person I did not know but felt like I did. While the media is criticised for fuelling the abuse directing towards Flack, perhaps rightly so, it remains a platform through which we can voice emotions for someone we only knew from afar. Perhaps this makes us more human than ever.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

For services local to you, the national mental health database- Hub of Hope – allows you to enter your postcode to search for organisations and charities who offer mental health advice and support in your area.

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