A Sort Of Murder
Saturday, 21 March 2009
When will the press stop wanting people to die?
Last Wednesday’s Daily Mail front page said “Natasha Richardson goes home to die”. How did they know? They hadn’t spoken to her doctors. They hadn’t spoken to the family. They didn’t even know that her children had been with her on the skiing holiday; they reported that the children were in New York with their grandmother. They knew nothing about anything. They quoted an unnamed “friend” who said that she was probably going to die. That isn’t good enough to print as fact on a front page. The Times reported that Natasha Richardson was “brain dead”. Despite having a reporter in Canada, this was based on internet gossip and rumours in a New York tabloid. Don’t say that somebody’s “brain dead” if you don’t know for certain. Just shut up.
Meanwhile, have you seen OK magazine this week? The front cover is edged in black. The big cover picture is of Jade Goody and her children. The strap-line is “In Loving Memory: Jade Goody, 1981-2009.”
BUT SHE ISN’T DEAD. SHE ISN’T DEAD. She might be dead by the time you read this, but then, so might I. She wasn’t dead when they printed her life-and-death dates on this horrible, tasteless, meretricious, repulsive cover, and she wasn’t dead when they hurried it out to newsagents all over the country.
Let’s be honest: the Mail won an even money shot, and OK lost one. With Natasha Richardson, it was a 50/50: either this “friend” was right and she was going to die, or it was going to be a Richard Hammond / Rik Mayall / Keith Richards situation, where a celebrity suffers a head injury and miraculously survives. Tragically, the Mail won the bet.
OK magazine got unlucky. Even Jade’s doctors seemed to say that she was “going home to die” and, not quite understanding how cancer works, the newspapers got very excited as they imagined it would happen immediately. They all ran with “HER FINAL HOURS”, “THE LAST VIGIL”, “IT’LL BE GOODBYE BY THE TIME YOU’VE HAD YOUR TEA” etc. They ran those stories all week. “NOT LONG TO GO…”, “JADE’S FADING AWAY…”, “SHE’S ONLY ABOUT 1% ALIVE NOW…”, “BLINK AND YOU’LL MISS IT…”. And OK panicked, rushing out their specially-prepared tribute issue on the assumption that she’d have croaked by Friday. But she didn’t.
They’ll have to get very unlucky for Jade not to die in 2009, as promised by the cover. But you’re not meant to gamble on this stuff. And you’re definitely not meant to pre-report; not with death. It’s a sort of weird murder.
For the last couple of years, it seems that newspapers - probably unnerved by the speed of news delivery on the internet, and frightened for their lives - have been trying to print the news before it happens. I remember, during those floods in Gloucestershire, a bizarre story in one of the papers about what the police would do if people started looting the flooded high streets. There hadn’t been any looting. But the papers were not satisfied just to report the thing that had happened, ie. the floods. They wanted to print the next thing, in advance, just in case.
So stupid. So stupid. Newspapers can never compete with the internet and TV for speed of news delivery, even if they make it up. The way to compete and survive is to deliver deeper analysis, sharper comment, better writing. But when they actually start killing off celebrities while they’re still alive - a twisted enactment of the old joke, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” - they’re moving from stupid, through tasteless, to immoral.
And where does it stop? Maybe next week’s Telegraph should include a tribute to the late Prince Philip? Come on, the man’s 87, it can’t be long now. If they report his imminent death on Monday morning, they might well get lucky! If Jade is even money, Prince Philip is surely no more than about 4/1.
What about Amy Winehouse? Sure, she’s been having that nice healthy break in St Lucia. But she might be back on the smack at any moment. And it could kill her, it could kill her! Why not announce, now, that she’s had a drug-related seizure and died? Shift a few units. Beat the internet. Just in case.
I’m really sad about Natasha Richardson. Really properly sad. She was at my school. People in Vegas used to say I reminded them of her. I would laugh about how she was decades older than me, secretly delighted by the comparison. I wrote about it on this blog, 30th July 2008. Her death is so shocking, so awful.
On Thursday, the Mail headline was “Natasha loses the fight for life” - a fight that, on Wednesday, apparently hadn’t existed. That’s because on Wednesday they were in such a desperate hurry to “move the story on”. The fact that she had been in a serious skiing accident: that should have been news enough, for Wednesday morning. If you want to report her death, wait for it to happen. If you want to print Jade’s life and death dates in a black-edged box, wait til they actually exist. Have some f***ing respect.