Will the sudden and tragic death of TV presenter Caroline Flack finally urge the British media to be kinder?


By Florence / 19 February 2020

TW: References to suicide

The shocking announcement of Caroline Flack's suicide on February 15th has brought dismay and sadness to the nation.

The 40-year-old television presenter has become, in recent years, a household name as the host of ITV's Love Island and Love Island: Aftersun. The bizarre reality show that 'on paper' does not warrant its 6 million viewers saw Flack as a warm and supportive mediator of the outside world. Flack was, in many ways, like the Islanders themselves, whose initial manicured exterior soon gave way to vulnerable relatability. Her singular earnestness in an environment that is based on superficiality made it easy to imagine her non-televised life, a fact that made her arrest for domestic assault on her boyfriend Lewis Burton in December 2019 even more surprising.

This event marked the beginning of what papers have deemed her' fall from grace', Flack swiftly being replaced by Laura Whitmore to present the 2020 winter series of Love Island currently screening. For a while it appeared that Flack's career was over, and now, through a devastating turn of events, it is. Aside from the contractual consequences of December 2019's assault charges, which would have gone to court in March 2020, Flack was exposed to a maelstrom of online abuse, both from social and news media outlets. On Friday 14th, one day before her death, The Sun ran an article highlighting the sale of a Valentine's card inspired by Flack's assault charge. The Sun's subsequent removal of this article from their website has sparked queries as to whether the online rag is acting in respect to Flack's family, or covering their tracks in the long history of character-assassinating clickbait.

So, where does responsibility lie in the death of one of the nation's most recognisable faces?

Francis Ridley of Money Talent Management, Flack's management company, has called the Crown Prosecution Service to "look at themselves today and how they pursued a show trial that was not only without merit but not in the public interest." Lewis Burton hesitated from enforcing charges on his girlfriend, and the high profile court case has been an endeavour of the CPS, who have been under increasing pressure to pursue evidence led, rather than charge led, domestic violence cases. But should the blame really lie with those engaged in the pursuit of justice? While the details of the assault remain unclear, the deliverance of retribution for committing violence underpins functional society. However, to publicly vilify one going through the legal processing of retribution with slanderous claims, questions of character and the exposure of personal details, merely to shift that morning's paper, has become a social norm that warrants interrogation.

The tabloid press' responsibility for the surmounting pressure Flack felt in the run-up to her March trial is undeniable. While the CPS is not without fault, the press reportage of legal proceedings has abstracted Flack/Burton's personal troubles into little more than a soap opera, demanding reflection on the lengths mass media will go to for content. Flack's career has been punctuated by tabloid condemnation of her love life; she received online abuse in 2011 for her relationship with Harry Styles, resulting in her being brandished a 'paedophile' by reporters in the street. Additionally, the media announcement of Flack's brief involvement with Prince Harry degraded her to "Prince Harry's bit of rough," she wrote in her 2014 memoir. The torrent of coverage from the tabloid press since December must be regarded as an intensification of a preexisting agenda to defame a successful woman. Flack joins the ranks of Amy Winehouse, Meghan Markle, and lesser know Lucy Meadows, the primary school teacher who committed suicide in 2013 after being harangued by the press for undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Mass media's slanderous attempts on the personhood of public individuals, more often than not women, has demonstrated its mortal consequences again in this past week's events, necessitating a reconsideration of what we assume to be a fair press in our post-Leveson society.

ITV's careful navigation of Flack's death saw the channel cancel Saturday and Sunday's episodes of Love Island and release a statement of regret before Monday 17th's episode.

The regular idents on Monday's episodes were also replaced with contact information for Samaritans UK. This level of caution has, unsurprisingly, not been shared by the tabloid press. On February 17th, The MailOnline published the headline 'Inside Caroline Flacks flat: Photos reveal interior of Love Islands stars £3,000 a month London apartment where she killed herself- five days after posing for a selfie with a friend.' A scene of devastation has been transformed into a '3 minute read' property segment.

The lack of press regulation has been highlighted in the wake of Caroline Flack's death, leading to the promotion of 'Caroline's Law', a bill that would restrain the journalistic defamation of public individuals and celebrities on false pretences. While the petition has 540,693 signatures [at time of writing], the close affiliation of the UK's most powerful media barons and our current Conservative government makes the actuality of legal change appear slim. Boris Johnson PM has released the vague statement that "The industry must continue their efforts to go further. We expect them to have robust processes in place removing content breaching their acceptable use policies." The expectation cannot lie however in the hands of media, print or online, who continue to demonstrate that individuals mean nothing in the face of capital. Labour leadership contender Keir Starmer has said that if he were to win the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn he would take active efforts to "diversify" the press, and recognises the effect of online news sources on social media. Johnson's lack of specificity and Starmer's appropriation of Flack's death to pedal his own political agenda both fall short at a time where government resistance to 'fake news' has never been more important. Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper is one of the few politicians who has called directly for an independent regulating body for online and offline publishers, she also cited specifically the role of the press in Flack's death.

Ironically, any media coverage of the death of Caroline Flack, this article included, contributes to the abstraction of her from an individual to an allegorical figure. In death, she no doubt will be fixed in the public imaginary as another young woman taken too soon, and her death will be used to evidence comments on the perils of social media and mental health issues, on which Flack was vocal. It is more important than ever to recall Flack as a nuanced and multifaceted human being- a twin, a daughter and a friend to many- while vocalising the substantiated connection of her death to her denigration at the hands of the tabloid press. To feel powerless against such media juggernauts as those yielded to by Johnson is expected; however, this situation is not without hope. You can sign the petition to get 'Caroline's Law' to Parliament or write to your MP supporting an independent regulating body for media. Furthermore, you can actively resist consuming unbalanced, unregulated, news sources. Unsubscribe from media outlets that are not openly committed to a supporting a fair press, do not give them your views, do not give them your likes. Be vigilant to tomorrows news, and not let it distract us away from the depravity, sadness and tragedy of Flack's death.

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