Shock, anger and a relentless desire to give an opinion characterised the media’s response to the final months of Caroline Flack’s life.
Charged with the assault of her boyfriend, the Love Island presenter committed suicide last Saturday. Both new and traditional forms of media have come under scrutiny over the last week, accused of executing a virtual trial that proved fateful for the star. Indeed, the online and printed abuse towards the presenter cannot be ignored, yet we should be cautious to indict it in isolation.
As spectators to this tragedy, we must consider if we asked the correct questions and if not, why not. It’s impossible to understand the personal struggles that Flack privately faced – just as it’s impossible to understand anyone’s mental health – but we should question the celebrity culture that sustained her public hounding.
It’s the unfortunate climate we live in where the majority of journalism (and I’m using the word in its broadest sense here) that constitutes tabloids’ headlines and columns are sensationalised and over-simplified stories churned out to increase the annual bonuses that end up lining the pockets of fat cat tycoons. This desire for sales or in clicks could not be better fulfilled by a story of a female celebrity falling from grace in pretty unprecedented circumstances; Flack became a puppet for editors, untroubled by the conclusion they were thrusting her towards.
I’m neither contesting the severity of Flack’s charges nor the right of the press to comment on them. The public had a right to be informed and more press coverage could have valuably contributed to a discourse destigmatising domestic abuse against men. But, sadly, speculative articles written just to include puns like ‘The Flack Attack’ sell far more than longer-form pieces that might have raised more pressing questions such as… are they okay? In fact, The Sun’s appropriation of ‘The Flack Attack’, popularised by Love Island, testifies to the absence of ethics in these newsrooms. Its comedic tone, trivialising the allegation of abuse, demonstrates the appeal of rhetoric over reason which crucially fails to offer an objective account appropriate for a case awaiting trial.
Another news source highly reputed for its exemplary ethics and objectivity, the Mirror, noted how Flack’s life had been “shrouded with heartache” despite her “stunning body”: is this really how accusations of domestic abuse should be reported? ‘Journalism’ like this detracts from the real issues, and it’s no surprise that a lot of similar articles mysteriously disappeared from online publications once the star’s death had been confirmed. These speculative and often misogynistic stories incite Internet trolls, who champion a cancel culture that validates their vitriol and negates nuances. Crucially this “cancelling” vilifies the accused who should really remain innocent-until-legally-proven-guilty.
‘Innocent-until-legally-proven-guilty’ seems at odds with much of the activism on social media today; why is it in some case, trial by media becomes a crucial medium for social justice, while in others it only offers mob justice motivated by trolls’ desires to add their voices to the computerised cacophony?
I think that social media can be used as a positive force: with #MeToo it offered a platform for thousands of victims to speak out when other media platforms prove bound by real-life power structures (whether patriarchal, racist, heteronormative etc.).
Nonetheless, like in the case of Flack, it can mutate into an echo-chamber of ill-informed, impersonal opinions all emboldened by their unaccountability. Discourse in the digital space can be wonderfully disruptive to the offline world, yet it also carries the power to dangerously dehumanise its targets. While #MeToo is fundamentally about the empowerment of those who have suffered at the hands of unaccountable individuals, with Flack the only empowerment was for the trolls’ themselves, at the expense of permanent damage to a real person with real emotions, experiencing real vulnerability.
While we can probably all agree that trolls demonstrate the most obvious, and most harmful type of digital dehumanising, I think that the nature of all interaction on social media exacerbates this phenomenon.
[In an era where mental health is being increasingly destigmatised, social media (most notably Instagram) has largely transformed from an exhibition of self-curated perfection to an exhibition of self-curated ‘authenticity’. While this change is a step in the right direction, I think it’s crucial that we acknowledge that this ‘authenticity’ remains a product of self-curation. Rather than taking every caption or tweet at face value, we should appreciate that a social media feed doesn’t present every struggle of someone’s life. We should not be complacent and instead remind ourselves that the pixels on our phone do not accord to reality. Perhaps, next time we watch a high-profile crisis unfold, we will encounter their online content with greater vigilance and greater compassion.]
Flack entered the public eye at the advent of social media and herself became emblematic of the changing face of celebrity culture. Her career, whether on Love Island or The X Factor, involved turning people like you and me into red-carpet walking, paparazzi-followed celebrities like herself. Rather than reducing her death to an inevitable consequence of press intrusion or Internet trolling, we should learn from its complications and make the public domain a kinder place for those whose careers attest to her legacy.