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Thursday, May 27, 2010 

Yellow journalism and history repeating.

There's very little that shows up the true colour of our own yellow press than even the slightest gleam of the emergence of a potential serial killer. You only have to take a look back at the press coverage of the murders in Ipswich to see a media delighting in the opportunity to speculate as wildly as it possibly could, first slurring the character of a man who was completely innocent and then all but committing contempt of court in the form of the Sun publishing a front page of Stephen Wright pretending to strangle his ex-wife. To add insult to injury, Richard Littlejohn felt he simply had to strike out at the stultifying tyranny of grief he decided had descended, telling the nation the death of 5 women was "no great loss", that the only missionary position they were ever going to take was in the back of a car, and that some men are actually turned on by "disgusting, drug-addled street whores".

Marx's dictum was that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. While historians will disagree about whether history actually does repeat itself, it would be churlish to completely dismiss the similarities this time round with that of the events in Ipswich four years ago. If anything, the speculation, especially from the Sun, which always seem determined to outdo its previous reporting of shocking crimes, has even been even more lurid and distasteful. With absolutely no evidence whatsoever, it screamed on its front page today about "crossbow cannibal killings", claiming that the entire murder of Suzanne Blamires had been caught on CCTV, with every single gory detail felt worthy of salivating over and repeating. As usual with the Sun, it seems the police have been surprisingly open with them regarding what they believe to have happened, which often turns out eventually to be completely inaccurate, as it was in the cases of Rochelle Holness and Janet Hossain to name but two. Then there's the not quite equally offensive, but still dreadful quality of writing, treating readers like the complete idiots they quite obviously must be:

And shocked detectives are investigating whether some body parts may have been EATEN cannibal-style.

Presumably as opposed to any other sort of style?

At the same time, its reporting of another parallel with the Ipswich murders has been remarkably coy. The first suspect then had his MySpace and Friends Reunited pages quickly mined for any sort of details, and exactly the same has happened this time round. Stephen Griffiths kept exactly the sort of MySpace page which the tabloids couldn't of wished for, containing pictures of past serial murderers, while also describing himself as "
the misanthrope who brought hate into heaven". It also had the photograph of him shirtless, which was deemed to be the one most likely to show him as a weirdo, unlike the actual one on the main profile page where he looks completely normal, although we are having to rely on the Google cache as the actual profile itself has been swiftly removed. Strangely, despite reporting all of this and more, the Sun couldn't actually bring itself to name the social networking site on which all of this was found, doubtless absolutely nothing to do with MySpace being owned by the same parent company as the newspaper.

Not, I should be clear, that the Daily Mail has been much better. "TERROR STALKS RIPPER'S CITY", screams the front page. This terror must have set in after Griffiths was first arrested, as prior to that no indication that there was anything going on that was untoward appeared in the pages of the Daily Mail. Search for either of the first two women to go missing and you will find precisely nothing prior to yesterday, neither of whose disappearance seems to have caused any ripples outside of the local area whatsoever. The Guardian reports on the appeals made by Susan Rushworth's family for information, which only must have made local media (such as the Telegraph and Argus), as not even the Yorkshire Post has any details on her disappearance, or at least not archived. Compare this to the coverage the Daily Mail has repeatedly given to the disappearance of Claudia Lawrence, who wasn't, in Richard Littlejohn's parlance, a "disgusting, drug-addled street whore", but has been reported on almost as if she was, with the Mail repeatedly delving into her sex life. The Mail's map of the area, for reasons known only to them, has Peter Sutcliffe's former home marked on it, as if it had any relevance whatsoever to events in the city over 30 years on. Jim Greenhalf, a journalist from the time who interviewed a prostitute in Bradford's red light district notes that modus operandi behind the murders is completely different, and that the fear then was real and palpable, in completely difference to today.

Now that Griffiths has been charged, we can of course look forward, should he be convicted, to the media once again being satisfied that it provided only the finest and most in-depth coverage of the latest serial murderer to establish himself on these shores. The real lesson that we will fail to take yet again is that there was no need whatsoever for these women to be on the streets, and that it's through our continuing twin obsessions of continuing both the war on drugs and the lesser war on prostitution, ensuring that the running of brothels of whatever size remains illegal that we force them into such a dire position in the first place. The sad reality is that we can expect this pattern to reoccur yet again, with the same salacious coverage and with the same tabloids dismissing the murders simply because of the nature of the people who died.

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I for one have been commenting on the fact that almost all the news outlets seem to have him charged with three murders. We've one murder and two suspected murders, but then saying that doesn't allow them to plaster "serial killer" on their front pages.

The Mail's coverage was particularly farcical - it honestly reads like a skit satirising their obsession with class and privilege. Here's how they opened today's front page article:

"The man charged with the Bradford prostitute murders attended one of the leading private schools, it has emerged.

Stephen Griffiths - who arrived at Bradford Magistrates Court this morning - benefited from a high quality education at a £9,000-a-year day school and went on to a top university.

Despite a fine start in life, the criminology student soon became obsessed with the history of serial killers and descended into a seedy, internet-addicted existence in a housing association flat.

In addition, his parents split when he was young."

Leaving aside the fact that the Mail comes across as surprised that a criminology student should display an interest in the history of serial killers, it outright assumes that the cost of one's education determines one's moral compass, being of far greater importance than, say, a troubled home life. There's also the repeated insistence that Griffiths was a loner - something we see quite often in tabloid coverage of criminals despite the fact that on the whole serial killers (as opposed to, say, school or office shooters) tend to be well-socialised and succeed in committing their crimes because they are able to persuade others of the rightness of their actions and evade suspicion by the authorities.

may have been EATEN cannibal-style.[...]
Presumably as opposed to any other sort of style?


As opposed to with a knife and fork, like ordinary decent Sun reading folk :-)

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