Victoria Coren Mitchell - Writer, Broadcaster & Poker Player

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.

Facebook Google Digg Reddit Yahoo! StembleUpon Newsbine LiveJournal BlinkList

Add Comment


Kenn at 11:15 pm on March 21st, 2009

Firstly let me say i wish our reply boxes had more character space.
Secondly i agree with you, i think it’s a horrid horrid thing to. Publishing news about people’s deaths before they have actually happened, or been confirmed. What if Natasha’s children had seen the headline before they were even told, how fu**ing bad would that have been.
I don’t like most of the modern media (harsh general comment there, i apologise) but the thing is they have become the monsters that they are due to the public who lap this sh^t up. If we didn’t, as a nation, stand for this, it wouldn’t happen. I think Jade should sue as should Liam. Can’t some things like death for example be given a certain bit of time before the papers slap it everywhere?

Agne at 9:42 am on March 22nd, 2009

I could not agree more. I would expect the media to express concern rather than anxiety at times like these. It’s just terrible…
I think OK should reconsider their existence.

About Natasha Richardson…she was one of my favourite actors. Her death is just devastating and my heart goes out to her family.

Rainbow at 10:51 am on March 22nd, 2009

“When judging age,”
A wise old sage
Was once heard to declare,
“Be politic and generous,
Though temperate and fair.
If arithmetic’s a sore point,
The sum of all your fears,
Just remember that a week’s a week,
But a decade LASTS TEN YEARS!!!”

David Young at 9:33 pm on March 22nd, 2009

are you familiar with this incident from the pre-internet age?
I do agree that it’s really tasteless to run tributes before someone’s death.

David R at 12:55 am on March 23rd, 2009

The American actor Abe Vigoda was some years ago wrongly reported as being dead, but he took it in good humour:

There’s even a Twitter page giving updates:

R at 10:01 am on March 23rd, 2009

Laaaaaaaalaaaaaaa, nanananaaaaaaaaaaa, laluuuuuuuuuuuu, naaaaaaaaaaa ...... lalaaaaaaaaaaa .... und dann nahm ich Dich in meinen Arm ...  lalaaaaaaaa .... jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

AndytheDealer at 1:03 pm on March 23rd, 2009

The only way to beat these Scumbags is to not buy or read their drivel and encourage your friends and family to do likewise.  I try not to and my ignorance is bliss.

So, if there’s anything in them you think I should be aware of, e.g. Amanda Platell solves ‘Climate Change’,  don’t hesitate to let me know.

Call me a shocking cynic, but I don’t think that Jade is dead at all and she will be spotted, much like Elvis, for years to come, strolling up and down the aisles in supermarkets all over the world.

David Bodycombe at 3:59 pm on March 24th, 2009

This has also irked me for quite some time. You can map anyone’s last moments on the patented “How ill is Bob Hope Today?”-ometer, ranging from “got a bit of a sniffle” to “wormfood”. It also happened to poor Richard Whiteley.

Now that the trend of online-only newspapers has begun (such as the catchily-titled Seattle Post-Intelligencer closing) maybe this silly game will be over soon.

Michael at 9:51 pm on March 24th, 2009

I agree entirely, a particularly distasteful example of the crap newspapers produce all the time.  I don’t read them anymore,  although the local paper’s headline today did make me chuckle, (Half page headline) - ‘Drug Yobs almost killed my cat’.  No real news I suppose. At least they didn’t make something up.

David Young at 4:36 am on March 25th, 2009

Well as long as we buy newspapers that misinform us and appeal to crude fear and bigotry we deserve nothing less.

I mean, would you go to Cardiff after reading this?

Can it really be that bad?

Fitch at 12:25 am on March 26th, 2009

I only get the Telegraph for the crossword, and thank God that’s on the back page so I don’t have to open it!
But I’ve decided on the best way to fool ‘em. I’m not going to die!

John at 2:34 pm on March 26th, 2009

I’m determined to squeeze the word ‘meretricious’ into a conversation before the week’s out, but I may have to secure the help and support of Dr Johnson/Blackadder from dictionary corner.  And it’s Thursday already… and I blame the education system.

Neil Tipton at 9:47 pm on March 26th, 2009

As a former journalist, I wholeheartedly agree with your comments.  I left the industry four years ago having become completely disillusioned with the way newspapers were headed.  I ended up turning gamekeeper, working until recently in a busy press office, fielding daily enquiries from reporters of all types. There are still some good ones out there, but sad to say they are a dying breed; the “print now, worry about the facts later” brigade seem to be much more commonplace.

For me though, the saddest aspect to all this is the disturbing way the public keeps lapping this rubbish up, thinking it entertainment.  It fills me with anger and despair in equal measure, but sadly no longer with any sense of surprise.  It probably won’t astonish you to know I no longer buy any newspapers…

Victoria Coren

News: September 2017

September 7th is a big day!

Click here to read more »

Switch Theme

Click here to change colour scheme

RSS Feed

Subscribe to the RSS feed here