Saturday 17 July 2010

My 2 pence about the ethics of Raoul Moat reporting and lionizing

Many other bloggers have written great pieces about this. I wanted to add my own thoughts to the ever growing pile. David Cameron received a suggestion from conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris that he contact the social networking site Facebook to ask to have a Raoul Moat fan page taken down. The suggestion came during PM's question time this past week. The Prime Minister apeared to think that this might be a good idea, suggesting that his right honourable friend was making "a very good point." Cameron went on to say "As far as I can see, it is absolutely clear that Raoul Moat was a callous murderer - full stop, end of story - and I cannot understand any wave, however small, of public sympathy for this man. There should be sympathy for his victims, and for the havoc he wreaked in that community; there should be no sympathy for him." David Cameron later ordered Downing Street officials to lodge a formal complaint with the site. The page has since been made private by its creator.

I agree with Cameron that sympathy should be shown for the killer's victims in preference to the killer himself. This begs the question, who are the killer's victims? Do you know? I didn't before today when I searched "Raoul Moat victims". Why is that? I believe the answer lies in the slant that the mainstream media have given to this story. The 24 hour news networks and tabloids in particular have been guilty of portraying Moat as some sort of anti-hero and have devoted far too much screen time and print space to the killer and the hunt to find him. Martin Robbins and Johann Hari have both written excellent pieces about the role of the media in murder stories such as this one. See and respectively.

With such obsessive reporting of the killer's history and psychological profile, is there any wonder that the victims are all but forgotten? In my opinion, David Cameron should direct his anger and comtempt at the mainstream media for its irresponsible overexposure of a psychotic killer, rather than the backlash it has created. To condemn members of the public (who are after all voters) for sharing their thoughts, no matter how unpalatable, and to seek to take down the public forum that gives them their voice, is to overlook the significance of such public opinion. It serves to warn us that something has gone horribly wrong. In other words, it is a sympton rather than a cause for concern. That some 30,000 people would choose to idolize a killer of recent history ought to fill us with foreboding. But rather than wallpaper over the issue, it is the duty of a healthy democracy to ask the simple but difficult question "why?" This is a question that the Prime Minster has dismissed out of hand. Taking down that Facebook group would mean avoiding the question and labelling the 30,000 as morbid fantasists who exist outside the boundaries of normal society. But in searching for the answer to that question we might find that these folks are not so out of the ordinary. After all, they mostly have five senses and two of these have been presented with very disturbing stimuli from many news outlets. And the victims are all but forgotten.

I agree with Robbins and Hari that the media ought to look inward and ask themselves some serious questions about the direct effect they have had on this story and many others. Is it ethical and in the public interest to present such a narrow view of the case but fill that view with such mind achingly mundane minutiae? I don't think so. The media played a role in and has a lot to answer for the creation of the Facebook fan page. I do not doubt this. But the fan page is useful to our democracy. Parliament should note that there is much in the way of anti-police sentiment expressed in this forum. The extreme views do not negate the fact that there are many good reasons for the public to be upset with the country's police force and its tendency to ride roughshod over our civil liberties. David Cameron seems to have missed a golden opportunity here to tie this public opinion into a dialogue about the sort of policing the citizenry would like to have. Don't shoot the messengers, Dave. These are real people with valid opinions and actual votes. It is of course wrong to advocate violence against police or indeed anyone, but the feelings stem from actual problems that need to be addressed. And if you want to understand why anyone might feel like putting Raoul Moat on a pedestal instead of feeling sorry for his victims, then try Googling the killer's name and seeing what small portion of the results is in any way concerned with the victims.

By the way, here are the victims. Chris Brown was a 29 year old karate instructor who had been dating Samantha Stobbart the 22 year old ex-girlfriend of the gunman. The former was killed and the latter badly injured on the 3rd of July. Police Constable David Rathbone, 42, was also seriously injured when he was blasted in the face by Moat in the ensuing hunt. He will likely lose his sight. Search for Rathbone's name and you'll see that the first page of results has nothing to do with the Raoul Moat story if even the man himself. The two surviving victims are now evidently represented by PR guru Max Clifford, so it's likely we'll be hearing more about them in the days to come. I feel very sorry for the victims, but I can't help feeling at least a shred of sympathy for the killer as well. He was clearly a very disturbed and desperately unhappy man. The media ought not to have turned him into a legend. That sends all sorts of bad signals. I think Sky News and their contemporaries need to have a good hard think about what they do and why. Sadly, I don't think anything will change until it's more than ratings making the decisions.

Thursday 1 July 2010

Karaoke Circus and the Twitter-stalker phenomenon

Last night I went out to London and caught Ward and White's Karaoke Circus. It was the second time I've been and was once again a very fun night. The format of Karaoke Circus is such that local luminaries of the comedy scene are invited to perform a karaoke tune of their choosing in front of a very good live backing band. Audience members are also invited upon entry to put their names down on one from a list of songs for the chance to perform it in front of the band. It is a judged competition with the winning audience member awarded a prize. Several of my twitter pals regularly attend this event and it's a good tweet up. Last night I had the pleasure of a nice chat with comedy actor Tony Gardner (@tonygardner) and even a hug from the lovely Emma Kennedy (@EmmaK67). These are both people in the entertainment industry whom I follow on twitter and have had some conversations with. They do not follow my timeline, but they are nice and approachable people. It is very tempting when we have this type of contact with people and then meet them in person to imagine that we are friends. I am using the royal "we" here. We are not friends. What we are in fact is stalkers. It's the phenomenon of twitter that does this to us. This is not meant in a disparaging sense, though the meaning I have in mind has not yet made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. We follow the timelines of some of our favourite people who have no idea who we are. We do this because we are fascinated by their lives and enjoy glimpsing the more spontaneous elements of their personalities. Sometimes we reply and if we're lucky they chat back. We often know where they've been, what they're doing now and what they're up to next week. We are stalkers.

Yes, we are stalkers but that's okay. We are harmless. Well, I am anyway. We are not friends though and should not harbour any illusions. We should bear in mind that some stalkers are not harmless. I guess what I'm getting at with this piece is that it's best not to ruin it. It's nice hanging out on twitter with actors and musicians and other people I admire from a distance, especially when they appear to take some small notice of me. If there's an opportunity to introduce myself in person I won't hesitate to do it if the situation seems appropriate. I know that some people really like when this happens. I wouldn't do this when faced with someone who is very famous unless I felt I had something to say that this person would find particularly interesting. I know who I am. I do well to remember that just because Michael McKean (@MJMcKean) once retweeted me and David Mitchell (@RealDMitchell) liked something I had to say once and replied, this does not mean I'm famous. And why would I want to be famous anyway? I'm happy with my nearly 200 followers. I doubt I'll ever have much more than that. If you like to go fishing for entertainment people to rub shoulders with though, Karaoke Circus is as good a place as any. You might have the opportunity, as I did, to say to Chris Addison (@mrchrisaddison) "Hey Chris, nice job on that Pet Shop Boys song" while he's pissing into a metal trough. Or you could say to Kevin Eldon (twitter account unknown), "I had no idea you could sing so well" while he's desperately trying to step around you. Just remember who you are. Statistically the following are very safe bets. You are never going to play on Later with Jools Holland. You are never going to star in your own sitcom. You are never going to get Ben Stiller (@RedHourBen) to follow you. And remember that there are many hundreds or thousands (sometimes millions) who would also like to be their "friend".

Flayman on LiveJournal (old)