Monday, 17 December 2012

Dead children, great TV.

Hopefully like me, you'll have been sickened by the murder of 20 children and six adults in Newtown Connecticut. Sickened, but not remotely surprised: one more in a chain of 'isolated incidents' which will shortly fade away in the public consciousness thanks to inertia, arrogance and the concerted lobbying of the National Rifle Association and their friends, who clearly have an acceptable number of deaths in mind in exchange for the right to bear arms.

I've also been sickened by the media coverage. Over the last two days, I've seen excerpts from interviews with surviving children from the school. These are kids whose friends were killed in front of them, kids who narrowly escaped with their own lives. They'll be hurt emotionally and psychologically. Is it in their interests to put them on camera and make them recount their experiences? Shame on the TV networks, shame on the journalists, shame on the parents and local authorities.

The UK media coverage is equally reprehensible. Covering this stuff like it's an episode of Die Hard, the UK media (TV and press) revel in the kind of pictures and text you just don't get in the UK: architectural plans, sobbing parents, SWAT teams toting massive weapons, lingering shots of the murder weapons. It's pornographic in the most literal sense. These massacres are quite simply great TV, especially in a country which doesn't get the chance to clear the schedules for days of horror. The media love it. You can almost sense their regret that there isn't any of this stuff homegrown. Imagine the pictures and stories the Mail or BBC24 could get out of regular massacres in Coventry or Taunton or Llandrindod Wells. Though at least because it's in America, British journalists get to convey the smug undertones of cultural superiority ('look at these fat brutes: it's all "have a nice day" until a burger-chomping Goth kid has an argument with his mom and goes on the rampage').

This is why it's pornographic: we're all encouraged to share the horror but also revel in the knowledge that it's not going to happen here, or at least not to the same extent: it's just a media event from a place which we don't understand, though we do have strong opinions generated by the erroneous sense that we have a shared culture. The media coverage is a framing device to make ourselves feel better. We can decide that America's gun laws are at fault. Or we can blame the killer for being 'evil', or ill. We settle in to the familiar framing effects of our chosen channel: crying parents - check. Sombre President - check. Banal religious discourse - check. Photos of smiling children, now dead - check. Talking heads  - check. And now for the sport.

Here's Roger Ebert's eminently sane perspective after Columbine:

Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.
The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."
In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.

Here's Charlie Brooker's acerbic take on it from 2009, after another 'isolated incident':

It makes these events comprehensible and limited. We shouldn't accept it. Motive is a meaningless term beloved of those who cling to the belief that individuals and societies are rational. That's what America is for - especially if you read Baudrillard and Ballard. It's the anti-Europe, or the future-Europe, the brash, often admirable but also brutal and individualistic dystopia beloved of Tories and feared by liberals. We need it to feel good about ourselves. At least we're not America, we say. And I include myself in this, as I'm about to demonstrate.

The UK doesn't have a gun culture. They're available with some considerable effort, but they're not part of the culture. When I see Americans claiming that the real issue is mental health rather than gun ownership (and we'll leave the deconstruction of this offensively broad term for another day), I want to point out that the UK has the same proportion of mentally-ill people as the US: it's just that unarmed mentally-ill people will find it a lot harder to kill than heavily-armed mentally-ill people who acquired military assault weapons perfectly legally.

Which brings me to another point: the NRA and its friends are hugely rightwing. They hate government (their major argument for gun ownership is that government is automatically oppressive, like it's still 1791 and the British have only recently been sent packing). One of the things the right hates most is the Obama administration's pathetically weak version of a National Health Service. Of all the healthcare sectors, mental health is the least profitable and most urgent, even in the UK. Nobody wants it, no area gets it right. Perhaps if the US had a decent, tax-payer funded health service (and education system) which picked up people like Lanza, a massacre might have been averted. But no: healthcare is socialist-fascist Big Government. Better to accept that dead children are the price of liberty.


Ghislaine said...

I have yet to see any sane logical reason or justification for Americans to own assault-type weapons other than wanting to go out and kill multiple people. Not that they'd say that - but what other purpose could they have? I could (just about) see why you'd own a handgun for self-defence, or a rifle for hunting.
Can't believe they interviewed the surviving children - obscene - cn't believe people watch that kind of thing.

Ann Walker said...

E.g. TV images of a sign saying 'No Press' on a bereaved family's home. The filming added no information at all and the media presence on their doorstep must have compounded the family's grief and trauma.

It's 'Drop the Dead Donkey' journalism and it's shameful prurience.

The Plashing Vole said...

I absolutely agree with you: if you're going to bag a rabbit for dinner, have a shotgun. I don't believe in weapons for self-defence: we need a social structure that renders such methods unnecessary and it only starts a literal arms race.

As to the media coverage: Chris Morris said it all 15 years ago. Appalling that ratings dictate the tone.