The press has always had a macabre interest in murderers and their victims. Since at least Jack the Ripper the gruesome details of murders have been reported in some detail. The public of course love a good murder, its one of the reasons Albert Square is more dangerous than Basra, and the press haven’t shied from giving them what they want.
It is not an entirely reprehensible hobby either. Death is fascinating and usually terrifying and thus makes fantastic copy for hacks who need a good story. But sometimes giving the public what they want can have negative side effects.The reporting of Derrick Bird’s murders may have been a contributing factor to Raoul Moat’s actions last week.
Johann Hari asks if the media helped to pull the trigger on Moat’s shooting spree? Whenever killing sprees are widely reported, the chances that a copycat killing spree will occur rises. The same happens with widely and vividly reported suicides, whether real, like Marilyn Monroe, or fictional, as on Casualty.
As Charlie Brooker tells us and as these scientific studies show, the Press can help cause murder. There’s no way to know if the press inspired Moat, but on average the evidence suggests that if they didn’t inspire these actions, its only a matter of time until they do.
The obvious answer is special powers to restrict reporting during a killing spree. Force a focus on the victims, don’t show the killer’s face, don’t turn coverage 24/7, don’t turn the killer into an anti-hero, make the story boring. In short, stop the press doing what they want, because the result is very often not what we actually want.
Sadly, the power to censor the press during a spree killing is the power to censor the press, period. This is not acceptable and, to be somewhat intentionally provocative, I am prepared to say a few extra deaths a year are worth it. There is of course an alternative to the state regulating the press, the press can regulate the press. This is of course no easy feat. Just look at the laughable incompetent Press Complaints Commission.
But there is one area where the Press regulates itself rather well. Dog does not eat Dog. Although there is a sizeable market for articles criticising the Daily Mail for its illiberalism (to which I cater) and a possibly bigger audience that loves to mock the Guardian (many blogs do this too) these sorts of stories do not appear in the pages of our papers.
Desperation is not the answer; papers are desperate for readers and revenues as few of them make any money. Fear is more likely; all papers are aware of how full of holes their operations are. They all plagiarise wirecopy from the Press Association so none of them can report each other’s churnalism for fear of being exposed.
Likewise, the fact checking to which blogs expose our Press is absent from our press precisely because the need to fact check exist. If one paper began to criticise its rivals its circulation would rise somewhat but would soon collapse as each newspaper began to turn on the rest. Soon everyone would realise what we bloggers are aware off; our newspapers are full of press releases, selective quotations, bad science, misleading diagrams and lies.
What this says to me is that when the stakes are high enough the Press can regulate itself. The press may not seem capable of regulating themselves but they can and do. If the dozen or so editors of our press can be convinced its in their interests not to cover each others mistakes, lies, distortions and fuck ups, then they can be convinced, perhaps with a little arm twisting, not to contribute to mass murders.