Caroline Flack’s death last Saturday has opened a discussion on reality TV, the media and its impact on mental distress.
But as news of the TV presenter’s suicide began to filter out over the weekend, the media circus really began.
News websites filled their front pages with stories about Flack—accompanied by stock photos taken of her at glitzy media events over years.
By Sunday morning, the blame game had begun in earnest.
Everyone from TV producers, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), gossip columnists, newspaper editors and social media trolls were in the firing line.
Flack had been arrested in December after allegedly assaulting her partner, Lewis Burton, with a lamp. At the time The Sun newspaper responded by plastering picture of her bloodied bedrooms across a double page spread.
She had reportedly heard news that her upcoming trial for assault would go ahead just hours before she died.
Tabloids targeted her clothing, physical appearance, mental health, romantic relationships and celebrity friendships.
It shows how women in particular can be pulled apart by media barons desperate to get more clicks on their articles to boost advertising revenue.
A petition demanding it be a “criminal offence” for the media to “knowingly and relentlessly bully a person” “up to the point that they take their own life” went online.
The demand for “Caroline’s Law” has garnered almost 700,000 signatures. It called for the media to be charged with an offence similar to corporate manslaughter, in the event of similar suicides.
It’s understandable to be angry at the pointless cruelty of the mainstream media. But simply blaming the media reduces the complex, long-term factors that affect mental health into a single-issue campaign.
However repugnant the press, socialists should treat attempts to clamp down on media freedom with caution. Britain already has some of the strictest media laws in the world.
Tightening legislation further will give more power to the state and the judiciary. Neither operate in the interests of ordinary people.
Another explanation for Flack’s death came from Francis Ridley of Money Talent Management, her management company. He blasted the CPS for pressing ahead with the case, despite Flack’s “very vulnerable” state.
“The CPS should look at how they pursued a show trial that was not only without merit but not in the public interest,” he said.
Only those involved in Flack’s legal proceedings will understand the specifics of her case.
Yet some are using her case to question whether police and the CPS should pursue prosecutions if there is no official complaint.
It is far from the case that the CPS pursues prosecution in all cases. For instance, survivors of child sexual exploitation have been routinely ignored by police and social services.
The cops and the CPS didn’t pursue their attackers because the victims were young working class women. Victims were often too terrified to press charges in any case.
Similarly victims of domestic violence, who are overwhelmingly women, may feel too scared or ashamed to pursue the lengthy and arduous prosecution process.
Some perpetrators will manipulate or threaten victims and witnesses into dropping charges or withdrawing evidence.
These things show why there can be good reasons why the CPS may push forward with prosecutions, without the support of alleged victims.
Others blame the tabloid media’s obsession with Flack for her death. In turn, journalists are quick to point the blame at Love Island—the TV ratings hit Flack hosted until her assault charges in December.
The loathsome hypocrite Dan Wootton, The Sun’s executive editor, said, “Caroline was hung out to dry by ITV.”
Flack is the third person associated with the reality TV programme to have taken her own life. Former contestant Sophie Gradon killed herself in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis, who appeared in the 2018 series, died by suicide the following year.
But a straight line cannot be drawn between the suicides of Flack and the two former contestants.
Love Island is a deeply exploitative TV programme that relies on young working class people to expose the most intimate parts of themselves.
When the TV cameras stop rolling, contestants can be catapulted from a TV studio into new-found celebrity.
This intense media interest usually only lasts a few weeks. It’s a deeply alienating experience for many people, and former contestants have said they were unprepared for the effect the programme would have on their lives.
This wasn’t Flack’s experience—a presenter and reality TV contestant herself who spent more than a decade in the industry.
And Flack, Gradon and Thalassitis weren’t alone. In fact, the Samaritans charity report that some 6,507 people died by suicide in 2018.
And it said poorer people were at a higher risk. “We found that income and unmanageable debt, unemployment, poor housing conditions and other socioeconomic factors all contribute to high suicide rates,” it said.
“Tackling inequality should be central to suicide prevention.”
Most people don’t have a court case hanging over their heads, or face daily scrutiny from the clickbait tabloids.
But the pressures of everyday life, coupled with acute mental distress, provoke real desperation for many ordinary people.
And even when people have reached rock bottom, cuts mean they are often unable to access life-saving services.
The coroner’s inquiry into Caroline Flack’s death is yet to begin. But the media, Twitter trolls and TV producers are likely to keep tearing strips out of each other for some time to come.
What can easily be forgotten is that at the heart of these toxic industries are vulnerable individuals, who are mercilessly chewed up and spat back out.
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