Like many people this weekend, I followed – appalled – the news of TV presenter Caroline Flack’s suicide. While never a fan of her shows, I found the whole thing particularly shocking and upsetting. Maybe this was because of her age (she was only 40) – but also her ubiquity, and her seeming vulnerability. There was something of the Amy Winehouse about her death, but less expected.
Then, out of the general sadness, a weird sub-theme quickly emerged. People were blaming ‘the media’ for Flack’s death. Within hours, Hollyoaks actress Stephanie Davis had arranged a petition on change.org calling for ‘Caroline’s Law’ – new legislation to protect celebrities from being exploited by ‘the media’. By Monday lunchtime, 224,000 people had signed it.
A quick side-note at this point: railing at ‘the media’ is like railing against ‘winter’ or ‘food’. It’s such a ridiculously general term. ‘The media’ is not some super-state like the USSR, but covers anything from the New Statesman to the Sun to Good Morning Britain. Whether it covers social media or not, seems to be up for debate – an important debate, which I touch on below. Either way, by Saturday night, people on Twitter had started hurling abuse at journalists – including myself, and I have never been a showbiz reporter. Perhaps it’s all par for the course: we hacks are an easy target.
But the one thing that really made me sit up was a tweet from a SAMHI, the Suicide Awareness and Mental Health Initiative. Showing a smiling picture of Flack and the logos of three tabloid newspapers, it wrote: The people telling you to mourn the sad death of a young person & to talk about mental health are the same people who caused it. DON’T BUY THEM. DON’T CLICK THEM. DON’T SHARE THEM.
I was furious. The assertion that newspapers or TV reporters can cause people to kill themselves is wrong-headed and ridiculous.
Unfortunately, I have some personal experience of suicide. A close family member took their own life 2011. And, during a long period of insomnia and depression earlier this decade, I flirted with the idea myself.
The SAMHI tweet showed an extraordinary lack of insight into what causes suicide. (I looked SAMHI up by the way. They are ‘a group of 15 Football Clubs from the Greater Shankill (Northern Ireland). This group was set up to help raise awareness about suicide and mental health.’) And while any organisation which supports people with mental illness is entirely laudable, SAHMI are not the Samaritans. Speaking of the Samaritans, their media guidelines on the subject of suicide reporting are clear. ‘Over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading, and unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide,’ says the website. ‘For example, avoid the suggestion that a single incident, such as a loss of a job, relationship breakdown or bereavement, was the cause.’ Most pertinently, perhaps, the post goes on to say: ‘Approximately ninety per cent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problem at the time of death.’
By all accounts, Caroline Flack was a troubled young woman. While the facts have not been fully disclosed, before she killed herself on Saturday, she had just received news of a court date: the CPS had charged her with a serious assault on her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, 27. He was apparently asleep at the time (he has since denied the assault took place). Flack allegedly attacked police officers who came to the house. There is bodycam footage of the latter. According to friends, Flack was particularly concerned about the film coming to light, and its potential effect on her career, already damaged by the assault allegations. Even before this latest incident, there were murmurings about substance abuse and erratic behaviour. When Flack was 32, she ‘dated’ the One Direction singer Harry Styles, who she met while she was hosting the X-Factor in autumn 2011. He was 17 at the time.
Caroline Flack lived her life by social media. Her last public act was a set of racy Instagram photos in a black bra and red lipstick, apparently aimed at Burton, who she was barred from seeing after the assault. Burton’s heartbroken response to her death was relayed via the same medium. Flack boosted her fame and presumably her income on social media, which predictably turned on her after the assault. Twitter and Facebook currently are hosting a lot of the vile abuse heaped on journalist colleagues of mine – some have been named as ‘murderers’; others have received death threats. If there is to be regulation of ‘the media’ anywhere, it should probably start here.
A person on the verge of suicide is frozen in a numb, dark world where nothing and no-one can touch them. If they are looking anywhere, it at to their internal hell. It is not at the words of a showbiz reporter. There was only one person responsible for this terrible event. And while her family have my deepest sympathy, that person was Caroline Flack.