The tragic death of Caroline Flack is still a very raw subject. Regardless of the circumstances, the world has lost another person – loved by friends and family – well before their time.
The printed media took a chunk of blame. Hours after Caroline’s death the British press was subject to calls from tens of thousands of petitioners to face a ‘government inquiry’ into its practices – and even manslaughter charges – for its part in such cases.
The media was not alone in facing fury, with dozens of petitions launched on the back of the news, with specific papers and the Crown Prosecution Service among many others in the spotlight.
None of these would have grown so popular without social media fanning the flames. Yet it is social media, and more importantly society as a whole, which have largely escaped this debate with a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card.
The court of public opinion
The Caroline Flack case highlights a crucial issue in my mind. We are too quick to point the finger of blame and too often pick the easy targets, ignoring more complex issues.
I see this every day as a journalist.
Commentators on social media regularly assert someone charged with a criminal offence is ‘guilty’, before a verdict has been reached. Too quick to point the finger.
Councillors are regularly pilloried for controversial planning decisions, without exploration of the restrictive, national policies which give local representatives a smidgen of the perceived power they hold. Blaming the person closest is easier than a technical, dull debate.
Whenever someone unexpectedly dies, there is a long-established process. An inquest is held, which primarily confirms how they died – but it can also explore the factors surrounding the death, without attributing blame. Crucially, a coroner can make recommendations to prevent future deaths.
We do not know the full details of this case, however an inquest may assist. If certain factors were deemed to have contributed to Caroline’s death, such as press intrusion or the decision to proceed with an assault charge against her, we may see the coroner make recommendations for change.
That, to me, would seem a more appropriate way to fact find instead of letting the court of public opinion decide.
Seeking immediate answers
The problem with waiting for an inquest is it is likely to be months. Locally, we are still waiting for an inquest into the deaths of 11 men killed in the Shoreham Airshow disaster of 2015.
It is unlikely we will have to wait so long for Caroline Flack’s inquest but any wait is too long in today’s world.
As a society we want immediate answers. If the police helicopter is circling overhead, we want to know what is happening.
We look to social media. What have people heard? What have they seen? A conversation begins and all kinds of speculation is circulated before the facts are revealed later. We are happy with that, as we are part of something, seeking answers in the comfort of a larger group.
I suspect we have always been like this. It is partly human nature but this is magnified now we have the immediacy of Facebook, Twitter and the like.
It is easy to see why, following such a high-profile celebrity case, we have seen such finger pointing before the official inquiries conclude.
No one is perfect
It is easy to blame social media for the world in which we live. It has plenty of faults. It is completely unregulated, with often anonymous individuals using it to spread hate and misinformation. It is too easy to set up an online petition, too regularly without factual basis, and circulate it to a huge audience of willing signatories.
I cannot imagine the level of abuse celebrities receive. Even us local journalists receive plenty of stick online. It is extremely low level in comparison. Just the other day my Facebook memories reminded me of the time a person completely unknown to me criticised my paper: “The fact that Oli Poole has a senior position tells you all you need to know about that paper,” they said. Attendance at a public inquest was deemed to be me personally ‘harrassing dead people’. I have been branded a ‘liar, coward and a turd’. And just today on a local Facebook group someone branded all journalists ‘b***ends’ and ‘leeches’ with no apparent evidence.
While social media could be regulated and much more stringent action taken against nasty trolls, it is merely a platform.
The national press is far from perfect. Despite most nationals signing up to independent press regulation, many feel it needs to go further, pointing to individual experiences where they deem the media went too far. Indeed, this has happened in the Caroline Flack case, though I wonder how many of those using her case as a catalyst for change already held entrenched anti-press feelings.
Publications are a mirror of their audiences, though. They survive because people want to read what they are writing. Whether that be the investigative journalism of Private Eye or the latest nugget of celebrity gossip in the tabloids, it exists because of demand.
News organisations are not charities. Aside from advertising, they rely on print sales and revenue from website traffic – in other words people clicking on stories. Usually, the stories with the most negative comments about the justification for the piece are the most read.
If we want things to change, regulation and targeting specific groups merely papers over the cracks.
We need to assess our appetite for immediate answers, the cut and thrust of celebrity culture, open justice and acceptable behaviour online. We need to avoid knee-jerk petitions and have greater respect for official processes.
We are the source of the problem. Being a bit nicer to each other – in person and online – is the first step towards a better world.