They say things come in threes. No? They really do! Buses, good news, bad news, magic numbers, girl predicting magpies, bloated corpses swimming through my watering minds eye.
Ok so I made the last one up. Corpses don’t come in threes. Cadavers are a day-to-day feature of our cruel world of murder, disease, war, famine and old age. Except in the last week or two I’ve noticed people dying prompting very different responses from my beloved media. Which got me to thinking about how the press treat people when they’re dead. Not people made famous because of the manner of their death but famous people who die. The ones whose death isn’t newsworthy except that it marks the end of their life.
Take Brian Haw for example. Cancer claimed him as he saw his one man battle with the government taking a new direction in Libya. In a genuinely sad twist of irony he started his anti-war vigil before the UK had invaded anywhere, but ended it as the UK entered its third arena of war in a decade! It’s like successive governments wanted to tease him in a national act of teenage rebellion.
If someone had jumped in my path dressed like a bad court jester and shouted ‘Brian Haw’ to me a few weeks ago I’d have jumped out my skin and replied ‘who?’. If they had done the same but blurted out ‘that bloke in the peace camp outside parliament’ then there would be light bulbs flashing and bells ringing in my brane – although I’d still wonder why they decided to dress up and surprise me like that. Fucking jesters!
Before he died I thought of Brian Haw in two ways. First I thought he was a bit of a nutter. I mean camping outside parliament day in day out in a one man vigil was never gonna achieve a thing except loneliness, misery and bad hygiene – as hinted at by his divorce, the lack of credibility he had (in life) and his scruffy appearance. That said, I also had a lot of respect for him. You couldn’t accuse him of being an armchair protestor like most of the rest of us. People like me, who shuffled along a “peace” march once and saw that as carte blanche to decry government policy over a comfortable pint and never do anything more active than sign the odd petition or bore your friends with the odd anti-war rant. True his parliament protest might have been a bit more of an eye opener if he’d decided to take the fucking building out, Baader Meinhoff style, but I guess it was a ‘peace’ protest so no room for a bit of well placed high explosive. Shame!
Anyway. Since he died I did a bit of reading up (for objectivity I took the Telegraph and the Guardian obituary… guess what? The Telegraph one was excellent and the Guardian one was rubbish… surprising). Turns out he was a lot more than I ever gave him credit for. A man whose own father gassed himself 20 years after liberating Belsen. Someone who travelled the world with the merchant navy. Someone who embarked on his own evangelical peace initiatives long before he set up shop outside Parliament. Northern Ireland in 1970? Cambodia in 1989? The more I read about him the more fascinated I was. And so were a lot of the press. In some ways his death has given him more attention than his life ever really did!
So enough of the news. Where’s the tantrum? Well here’s the fucking tantrum. Just as I was marvelling at the life of a man feeling all humble and shit because he gave up his whole life on a one man crusade that I should have supported rather than thinking he was a bit mental I saw this
Simon Jenkins. A name that will remain forever indelibly etched to my memory wrote:
The king is dead, long live the king. The death last week of anti-war Parliament Square squatter Brian Haw coincides with a bill finally to clear the pavement opposite Parliament. The citing of a “human right” to a stretch of pavement brought human rights law into disrepute. No one has a right to turn a pavement into a private home, let alone in a historic site.
Great. Fucking great. Here’s an angle for a story. Take someone who has just died and celebrate their passing because it finally means you can clean the fucking street up a bit. As articles go this is the lowest of the low. Jenkin’s uses Haw’s death as a means to wail and whine about how terrible London’s government quarter looks. Fuck war. Fuck death. Fuck the right to protest. It’s all about getting our streets looking goooood.
So not long after Haw gets the brown carpet treatment another notable shuffled his mortal coil. Peter Falk dies aged 83. Now this bloke’s been in loads of stuff. IMDB lists 107 titles. OK so maybe we remember him mainly for one thing but give the man a break… even out of a bit of respect you’d think the media reception to his death would reflect a bit of variety. But no. He gets one catchphrase – repeated over and over again. “Just one more thing”. In fact, half the articles that actually got published in the wake of his death didn’t even bother with his real name. “Columbo dies” the headlines boldly stated. As though Peter Falk was a fictional character played by some dishevelled raincoat wearing sleuth.
As bad as that is the fact that the reception to his death was as garish as Haw’s was muted. An 83-year-old actor dies almost a decade after his “trademark” show comes to an end and the world can’t get enough of “Columbo”. A 62-year-old protestor dies after a decade of standing up to the government and it’s like “whatever – now we can clean the fucking street”.
Which brings us onto Christopher Shale. I can’t imagine a more undignified way to go than on a Glastonbury portaloo. If I were a headline-grabbing, media-whoring, gutter-writing hack I’d jump on this story like a frog in a pond. It’s got all sorts of media intrigue that I could go into but I won’t (because I’m NOT a headline-grabbing, media-whoring, gutter-writing hack). So what’s going on? Why are the press being so fucking respectful? I mean he died on a toilet backstage at Glastonbury. A relatively Senior Tory party member? It’s not like he was an old man either. I mean… isn’t it a bit suspicious that a Senior Tory party official goes to a Glastonbury, where there are literally more drugs than hot dinners, and winds up dead on a toilet? Personally I wouldn’t be saying any of that – but this is the press we’re talking about they say anything with no regard for the truth in any other situation – what we get is suddenly huge amounts of respectful distance. A rentaquote from Cameron that says “A big rock in my life has suddenly been rolled away.” (is that a pun? Did he like Rock and Roll? Is that why he was at Glastonbury). The immediate response has been to publish no suspicious circumstances around his death – even though we’re still waiting on a toxicology report?
This smells strange and while I like to think that the press should be commended for their restraint here I struggle with the different attitudes they adopt for different cases. After all death is one thing that unites us all. Brian Haw’s death was reported as though it’s solved a litter problem, Peter Falk got the clown detective treatment, yet Shale is getting the distance and respect that most premiership footballers would need a super-injunction to achieve!