In the clamour following Caroline Flack’s death, the only thing constant is the desire for change. Out of frenzied grief- as is common with unforeseen tragedies-comes desperation for accountability. The press, the government, social media platforms and the public have all faced impassioned calls to ‘do better'. But when we look under this hysteria, and confront the realities of the case, “change” becomes more and more elusive.
As mourners have emphasised, publications such as The Sun repeatedly targeted Flack in the months leading up to her death, and nothing was in place to prevent this. The scale of negative media coverage has resulted in the allocation of blame.
But, when it comes to sensationalism, there is a triad of responsibility. At the bottom, and often overlooked, is the role we play as consumers; where there is demand there is supply. Sensationalist media panders to the faults of human nature; there’s a reason tabloids such as The Sun and the Daily Mail are the most widely read in Britain, capitalising on our unscrupulous but powerful instincts. The truth is clickbait is hard to resist, especially when it conspires with internet cookies to show us exactly what will kindle our interest.
There have been calls to boycott these publications, with #IBlockedTheSun trending nationwide on Twitter. This sense of individual responsibility is refreshing, and any attempts to lessen tabloid readership should be encouraged. But it is hard to fight human nature. Sadly, I worry that the efforts of a strong-willed few will not rival the masses who respond to sensationalism in the way in which they are programmed.
Since change in human nature is inconceivable, change in the profitable media is fanciful. The media functions as any business would, identifying a market and appealing to it in any way it can. To expect a self-aware humanity and sensitivity from it is, unfortunately, too idealistic, working against its essence as a profit-driven business. However, we might hope it wasn’t, self-regulation is counter-productive on a business level. Caroline Flack’s death is less symptomatic of the unfeeling media than symptomatic of a deep-rooted system which feeds on inhumanity. The sensationalist aspect of the media won’t change so long as it functions as part of a system prioritising capital above all else. And since this system is unlikely to change, neither is the media, if it is left to its own devices.
Whilst the chief goal of the media is to make money, the primary purpose of the government is to care for its citizens. It is ultimately up to them to help prevent tragedies of this kind. In a post-Leveson landscape, most of the press is regulated by Ipso, which sets out an Editors’ Code of Practice. Ipso has the ability to fine media outlets for invasions of privacy and harassment, but its procedure is fundamentally flawed. Regulation should not be responsive. By the time the publication has been investigated and any incriminating articles have been removed, they will have reached a sizable audience; vilification cannot be undone by erasure. In its current capacity, Ipso’s regulating process does not negate harassment or minimise its effects; the damage is done upon publication. If it is to be effective, media regulation must become pre-emptive.
It is difficult to find an alternative. Multiple online petitions have emerged in Caroline’s memory, demanding celebrity safeguarding to be written into law yet such demands and the remits such policies would have are unclear. The press and social media relentlessly target politicians, would they be exempt? Must we draw a distinction between holding those who exercise power in politics to account and targeting celebrities who have less influence on our everyday lives? Arguably, there are certain acts which warrant widespread backlash and demonisation (Katie Hopkins and Andrew Sabisky come to mind). Do people in the public eye forfeit protection against harassment if they themselves become a harasser? When it is not on a case by case basis, the nature of a potential safeguarding law is hard to pin down. Such a law runs the risk of muffling criticism that is valid.
Where does this leave us? The ugly reality of human nature, capitalist pursuits for profit and non-inhibitory press regulation coalesce to create a climate where sensationalist press thrives. Without systemic upheaval, “change” is as distant as it is necessary.