Turning murder into reality TV

From police and reporters to criminologists and psychologists - everybody seems to want a walk-on part in the 'Suffolk Ripper' show.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Culture

Even before the victims’ bodies had been moved, the discussion had started about the ‘meaning’ of the Suffolk murders. I am not sure whether the grisly actions of a homicidal maniac ever have much meaning. But some reactions to the murder of five women, all of them prostitutes in the town of Ipswich, do seem to say something grim about our society’s current state of mind.

The coverage of the case has turned the ‘Suffolk Ripper’ murders into another sort of reality television show. The police officers leading the investigation, the news reporters covering it, the criminologists and psychologists speculating about it – everybody seems to want a walk-on part in the theatre of death.

There has been a lot of easy criticism this week of the foreign paparazzi who photographed Diana, Princess of Wales, after her fatal car crash. But some of the British media might do well to examine the ghoulish streak in their own coverage of these deaths closer to home. Such a killing spree was always going to be big news. But the way it has been reported is revealing.

The news media has barely been able to contain its excitement at events in Ipswich. Television news programmes dispatched not only reporters, but also top presenters, to keep us updated ‘live’ from the quiet, cold fields and lay-bys where the bodies were found.

The tone of much of the reportage has been focused on feelings rather than facts, in the contemporary style often criticised on spiked. We might call it emo-news. We have been instructed about the feelings of the people of Ipswich, the feelings of the victims’ friends and families, the feelings of the police officers who have to deal with the murder scenes, even the feelings of MPs in the House of Commons. But perhaps more than anything, the ‘news’ has reflected the feelings of the journalists themselves.

One report I watched earlier this week, on the main ITV News bulletin, encapsulated the self-centred reporting style. Having apparently arrived before the police, the news crew were reporting from the spot where a motorist had just found a body. The young woman reporter’s opening words were ‘First on the scene…’, as if that was the news. The item then focused on footage of the police telling them to move back. It ended with her telling the studio anchor that, whilst it had been ‘exciting’ to get there first, it had turned out to be ‘really quite emotional… a horrifying case for the police, a horrifying day for the media’. Objective news reporting is a casualty of this sort of reality TV coverage, where journalists imagine themselves taking part in the story rather than simply reporting it.

Police officers leading the murder hunt have also seemed willing to play their part in the ‘Ripper’ reality TV show. At one of the early press conferences, the Detective Chief Superintendent fronting the case admitted that Suffolk police had been organisationally ‘overwhelmed’ by the demands of the extraordinary series of murders. This did not go down too well, so he sought to ‘clarify’ his remarks by explaining that he meant the force had been ’emotionally overwhelmed’. The media seemed far happier with that touching confession. Yet surely the last thing we need in a major murder inquiry it to be told that the police are too upset to cope.

Police ‘sources’, often unnamed, quickly got into the theatrical swing of the thing, briefing newspapers about the possible popular culture connections to the case. One suggested that the murders might be based on the plot of a PD James novel. According to the Daily Mail, the killer in the book moves on from killing a prostitute to attacking a teacher, a secretary and a schoolgirl – ‘just as police now fear the Suffolk Strangler may extend his attacks’. That’s forensic police work for you. Meanwhile another police source told the media that they feared the killer had been watching the hit CSI series, about the work of forensic scientists, and had learned how to hide the evidence. It certainly seems as if somebody might have been watching too much TV.

So far the missing character in the murder thriller has of course been the ‘star’, the killer himself. But no matter, the media have filled the role by bringing in all manner of experts, academics, psychologists and criminologists to draw a sketch of what he might be like. There have been many more theories than bodies around Ipswich this week.

One psychologist specialising in deviant sexual behaviour speculated that the killer sits and talks to the dead women. Another – who had worked as a consultant on the TV crime thriller Cracker, so must know what he is talking about – thought the murderer’s mother might have let him down. Or he might be ‘on some kind of Christian mission’. An American criminologist was brought in to tell us that he was probably a virgin with a sexual problem. A criminal psychologist described him as an evil mastermind with an assistant, who had probably killed the first victim to cover up some other crime. A forensic psychologist ‘trained by the FBI’ thought he had a massive grudge against the police and wanted to embarrass them. Whereas a top crime writer felt the killer could feel a strange mixture of worship and disgust towards women, probably based upon some humiliating experience involving his mother. Yet another university criminal psychologist went into more detail, imagining that the murderer could be a nurse, taxi driver, church worker or policeman who had caught a sexually-transmitted infection from a prostitute. Maybe the one whose theory turns out to be closest to the truth will get their own show.

Just like all reality TV shows, the coverage is following a largely predictable pattern. Despite the number of reporters stalking the streets of the Suffolk town, most reports from Ipswich could have been read from the same script written in London studios and editorial offices. They are all apparently reporting from the ‘streets of fear’ where the appearance of pre-Christmas normality cannot hide people’s anxieties. When even the sober BBC runs on-line discussions around such questions as ‘Are you worried about going out? Is it affecting how you will celebrate the festive season?’, it is worth asking whether the media are just reflecting the fears or stoking them.

It is as if Ipswich has been turned into a microcosm of how the fear-mongers see British society today. As one report succinctly put it, a case of ‘police on the streets, people staying indoors, the killer on everyone’s mind’.

Another theme that could have been pre-scripted involves the constant references to the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ murders of the 1970s, when Peter Sutcliffe killed at least 13 women. Now the anonymous killer has been dubbed the ‘Suffolk Ripper’, the ‘Ipswich Ripper’ or sometimes the ‘Suffolk Strangler’. Even the police have made the connection, defensively suggesting that the rapid rate of the killings means they are trying to catch a murderer who is even more frenzied than the Yorkshire Ripper. You surely do not need to be one of those expert criminal psychologists to suggest that, as well as reinforcing popular fears, this sort of promotion of a ‘celebrity killer’ is more likely to feed that frenzy.

One memory I do have of the Yorkshire Ripper case is the combination of incompetent detective work and clumsy PR that characterised the police campaign. Remember the farce of those hoax ‘Wearside Jack’ tapes and letters, when senior officers allowed themselves to be drawn into a personal duel with an imaginary adversary? It is to be hoped that is one lesson the police have learned, if they are to avoid further temptation to turn the case into a game of Cop Idol.

The silent participants in the reality TV show are the five women victims. There has been some confusion about how to cast them. Early reports began with such stark headlines as ‘Another prostitute has been found dead’ – a dehumanising attitude which many felt did evoke bad memories of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, when the police and media often made a clear distinction between the prostitutes whom Sutcliffe killed and his other, ‘innocent’ victims. Later reports have since tried to over-compensate by describing the Ipswich victims either as poor exploited drug addicts, or as golden-hearted good girls. None of these confused attempts to label them, one suspects, are of much comfort to their families and friends, and it is doing nothing to facilitate a rational debate about the decriminalisation of prostitution.

No doubt in parallel to all of this, there is a serious campaign of real police work seeking to catch the killer, albeit without making any apparent breakthrough to date. In the meantime, we are all left to witness a publicity-seeking circus. When the police moved on that ‘excited but emotional’ young ITV news reporter earlier this week, she insightfully observed that ‘It’s clear we’ve outstayed our welcome.’ Perhaps others should draw the same conclusion.

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