In a world where you can be anything, be kind.
These are not my words. These are the words Caroline Flack posted on her Instagram account in December last year after she was charged with assaulting her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, and the media enjoyed yet another field day at the expense of a celebrity caught in its crosshairs.
The former Love Island host committed suicide in her London flat a fortnight ago, just a couple of weeks before the scheduled start of her trial.
Since her body was discovered and the news broke, social media has erupted into a firestorm of moral outrage at the way Caroline Flack was treated by the UK media, not just in the eight weeks since she was charged but in the near constant intrusion into her private life.
But the real truth is that her death shames us all, because we have allowed our society to abandon its human values in pursuit of an all-consuming voyeuristic need to spy on the lives of the people the media has enthroned in the high castles of celebrity.
The media is absolutely and directly responsible for the death of Caroline Flack. It hounded her into an early grave because she had a fight with her boyfriend.
Yet, her fate does not await the hundreds of other men and women who exist in turbulent relationships, because they are lucky enough that they don’t have to live in the white-hot glare of fame’s spotlight.
And for anyone reading this who’s even thinking about countering that last paragraph by pointing out that Caroline Flack chose to pursue a career in the public eye, I’d point out that it’s a facile argument and on the basis it’s usually better to be thought a fool than proved one, you may wish to keep the argument to yourself.
There are many definitions of what constitutes true journalism. One of my favourites is that it exists to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
In taking her own life two weeks ago Caroline Flack proved that she was someone who was afflicted by a terrible pain and in desperate need of comfort. But comfort doesn’t sell newspapers, so newspapers aren’t really interested in providing it.
Outside of what we might once have referred to as broadsheets, the media isn’t really interested in afflicting the comfortable, either. It’s why you’re more likely to see Nigel Farage on the front of the Daily Mail than you are any intelligent journalism that calls those in power to account.
It’s why the Daily Star was always more interested in Caroline Flack’s sex life than the politics that was shaping the world. It’s why The Sun was much more intrigued by the question of whether Olly Murs and Caroline Flack were rolling in the hay than they were about Boris Johnson’s row with his partner last summer – an event, ironically, more or less airbrushed from history by the right wing media that supported him.
I have friends who are journalists – proper journalists who have grown up reporting proper news. One of them was an investigative journalist who, among other things, first exposed child abuse within the Catholic church during the 1990s, covered the Lockerbie crash and the Kings Cross fire and uncovered institutionalised corruption and fraud in local government.
I asked him what he thought of the media’s treatment of Caroline Flack in the last two months.
This was his answer:
Responsible journalism is about understanding the difference between what is in the public interest and what is simply interesting to the public. If you challenged a hack working on a red top (tabloid newspaper) to apply that distinction to the case of Caroline Flack the answer you’re most likely to get is ‘but our readers want to know’. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem: we have finally got the media we deserve.
Which brings me back to my point. Unless you have never endorsed their existence and their principles by buying a copy of the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Sun, the Daily Mirror or the Daily Star, or reading their online articles, then I’m afraid you’ve played a part in what happened to Caroline Flack and you’re part of the problem.
If you watch Love Island – a TV show that is now directly associated with four suicides and whose 2020 summer series was, in a moment of astonishing poor taste, announced just two days after Caroline Flack’s death – then you’re part of the problem.
I write as one of the guilty, because I don’t believe there are many of us who can honestly say their money hasn’t added fuel to this particular fire.
I have written many articles on the mental health issues that come with fame and celebrity. The common theme is that those who are blessed – or, perhaps, cursed – by it are totally unprepared for the impact it has on their lives, completely ill-equipped to deal with it when it arrives and are often surrounded by people who put self-interest first.
The history of the entertainment industry is landscaped with the graves of those who didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to deal with their celebrity and who were either broken by it or found their pre-existing and perhaps unknown emotional vulnerabilities exposed by it.
The media can play a positive role in the fame game. Celebrity demands the oxygen of publicity. It is the essential part of fame’s DNA and it falls to the media to provide it.
But reflecting and amplifying the lives of those who are placed on the pedestal of public adoration is not a licence of ownership. Fame is not a proprietary commodity of the media and making a celebrity is not, de facto, reason or permission to break them when they have ceased to be useful distractions.
Yet this is the currency of the tabloid media in all its pernicious and unsavoury glory – and every single time we add our money to their balance sheet or bloat their user analytics, we join the illiterati and tacitly send a message that it’s okay to behave that way.
And in the process, we become silent shareholders in the ethics-free business of mass media.
So, if you’re one of those who feels disgusted by the role the media played in Caroline Flack’s death, and the deaths of those who went before her, then maybe it’s time to influence the media we deserve in the future.
Going to war with a keyboard, like I have here, is all well and good. But the real difference we can make in improving how we value those in the public eye is in choking off the revenue streams of those media channels that don’t reflect your own values.
I’m in. Are you?