Matthew Norman: Rest in peace, Gary – the tabloids have shut up

Even a month ago, the red-top papers would have gorged themselves on a speculative feeding frenzy

Matthew Norman
Wednesday 30 November 2011 01:00

Whatever the inquest process starting today eventually does or does not unearth about its cause, the wider significance of Gary Speed's apparent suicide may be sourced to a different judicial investigation. From the tabloid response to the first dramatic public death of the Leveson age, it is plain that we are living in a better world.

If the media reaction to his death has been muted, it has been so in two distinct ways. Those who knew and uniformly adored the Welsh football team coach are reduced to whispery splutterings of anguished incredulity that a friend with every apparent reason to relish his life chose to end it. Meanwhile, those who not long ago would have filled their newspapers with imaginative musings as to why, decline to speculate.

This is from more than respect for a retired footballer whose dignity, modesty and approachability throughout a very long career demanded nothing less. Even a month ago, the tabloids would have gorged themselves in one of those speculative feeding frenzies that used inevitably to attend so mysterious a death. Within days of Charlotte Church telling Leveson how red-top viciousness drove her mother to attempt suicide, their mortal fear of further scandal is tangible.

On Monday, in presenting a sports book prize to the biographer of a goalkeeper who killed himself, the TV presenter John Inverdale described the timing as "tragic symmetry". Doubtless, he was searching for an alternative to "irony", the most commonly misapplied word in football, but it wasn't that either. It was simply a tragic coincidence of timing.

Yet there is one blatant irony, or even symmetry, on view. The papers which for so long profited from spinning outlandish rumours about the newly deceased, such as those about Madeleine McCann's parents hiding her body in the freezer, are now the victims of wild rumour themselves. After gossip on social network sites, the Sun and Daily Star took to Twitter to state they had not been "investigating" Mr Speed in any way.

One understands the genesis of this gossip. When a man appears on a TV football showon Saturday lunchtime seeming relaxed, before passing the afternoon making holiday plans with Alan Shearer, and is discovered hanged by the neck early the next morning, the assumption in the Leveson age is automatic: at some point in the intervening 18 hours, a tabloid must have contacted him with the threat to publish a story so unutterably distressing that a man known for his commitment to his wife and teenage sons could bear to be with them no longer.

So far, there is no evidence to support such a theory. Not a damaging word about Mr Speed appeared in any Sunday paper, and it is unlikely that any executive, however cretinous, would, at this moment, have sanctioned any intrusiveness of the kind. But it is not inconceivable, and, as part of its minute analysis of his last hours, the inquest will examine every call made to his mobile phone.

Whether his family and friends would prefer such a simple, if gruesome, explanation to his death remaining forever unexplained is quite a Sophie's Choice. How can anyone glibly pick in abstract between the excruciation of learning that a loved one ended his life in panic and terror, and the unimaginable sadness of incomprehension?

Mr Shearer's bafflement when he asked why Mr Speed never talked to him about it – if there was an it to be talked about – encapsulates the general bemusement as well as the subconscious feelings of betrayal which suicide leaves in its wake. How could his friends have had no clue that he was in intolerable psychic pain? If so, was there any true friendship at all?

Perhaps, on balance, there is nothing so shattering to the human heart as the realisation that you didn't know at all someone you believed you knew intimately. If so, it may be less cruel for those who loved Mr Speed if something – a diagnosis or psychologically devastating combination of prescription drugs; a shocking discovery; even that hateful phonecall – is unearthed. Whether it is found or not, there must be a reason. There is no such thing as a random suicide. Something compelled an apparently happy and healthy, greatly admired and successful man to hang himself in his garage within hours of chattering excitedly about his boys' sporting prowess. But it will now be for the inquest to seek that explanation; and not, as was once, for the tabloids to take it on themselves to do so with the familiar cabal of hearsay, covert surveillance, blackmail and bribery.

For a sharp improvement in the conduct of public life, the parents of Milly Dowler and Madeleine McCann, among many others, have paid a grotesque price. This will be of no comfort to Gary Speed's widow, but the fruits of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry – an unofficial inquest itself into the suicide of the tabloids – ripened visibly when the red tops shut their poisonous mouths about what may have driven her husband to take his life.

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