The death of Caroline Flack has once again focused attention on the behaviour of the British tabloids, who had followed every twist and turn of her private life – coverage, critics argue, that fed vicious online abuse of a clearly vulnerable woman.
Within hours of the announcement, hundreds of celebrities and members of the public had backed calls for a “Caroline’s law” against excessive media intrusion while Laura Whitmore, who succeeded Flack as host of Love Island for the current series, suggested media coverage contributed to her friend’s death.
“To the press, the newspapers, who create clickbait, who demonise and tear down success, we’ve had enough,” said Whitmore in an impassioned speech on her weekly BBC Radio 5 live show.
“I’ve seen journalists and Twitter warriors talk of this tragedy and they themselves twisted what the truth is … Your words affect people. To paparazzi and tabloids looking for a cheap sell, to trolls hiding behind a keyboard, enough.”
Despite Whitmore’s pleas, there is little sign that change is on the cards. Individuals who work at leading British tabloids privately pointed out on Sunday that many of the people now criticising press intrusion into Flack’s life were likely to have been among the millions of readers who had previously rushed to click on articles about the presenter’s arrest in December for allegedly assaulting her boyfriend.
The attitude of many is that it was the public appetite for details about Flack’s private life that drove the scale of the coverage, with articles about her death topping the “most-read” lists.
The exact circumstances of Flack’s death remain unknown and the presenter had talked about her struggle with depression for many years. But as Britain’s tabloids face substantial criticism, they have sought to focus attention elsewhere. MailOnline’s report on Whitmore’s tribute to Flack left out the comments about tabloid media, while the Sun has sought to point the finger of blame for her death at the Crown Prosecution Service and ITV bosses.
Flack’s high-profile relationships, combined with her role presenting one of the few television shows that attracts younger viewers, had made her catnip for tabloids. Stories about the presenter had delivered substantial numbers of readers for years but this ramped up enormously following the events of last December when police were called to her London home in the early hours after she allegedly assaulted her boyfriend after reading messages on his phone.
Sources at the Sun, which on Saturday deleted a recently published negative story about the presenter when news of her death broke, pointed out that her death came shortly after a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service to press ahead with her trial. They said an article about a Valentine’s Day card mocking Flack was deleted to stop it coming up in Google results for her name: “We would no doubt have been criticised if we hadn’t taken a recent story down following a tragedy.”
The Sun, which in December obtained exclusive pictures of her bloodied bedroom following the alleged assault, used its leader column to point the finger at prosecutors rather than media coverage of the star: “The Crown Prosecution Service needs to take a long look in the mirror and ask why it pursued its course of action given what they knew about her vulnerability. We may never know exactly what drove Caroline over the edge. But we will always remember how, like the weather at the TV villa, she brought so much sunshine into our lives.”
Dan Wootton, the Sun’s executive editor, went further and suggested the blame lay with ITV for dropping her from Love Island following the assault charges, even though the programme was being filmed in Cape Town as court proceedings were active: “Caroline was hung out to dry by ITV. She was distraught they didn’t stand by her. And distraught about the lack of support she was given. Caroline and I were devastated to attend the funeral of our friend Mike Thalassitis last year. I cannot believe we are here again.”
ITV is also facing questions about whether it did enough to support Flack after she left Love Island following the arrest, especially given the support it has shown to other high-profile presenters such as Ant McPartlin as he dealt with drug addiction.
A spokesperson for ITV emphasised that Flack had chosen to step down from hosting duties of her own accord, said she was provided with support, and that “all of us are absolutely devastated at this tragic news”.
The broadcaster has already had to deal with renewed scrutiny of the support it offers to individuals associated with its reality TV shows, following the suicides of a participant on the Jeremy Kyle Show and the deaths of two former Love Island contestants who knew Flack.
There will also be questions over whether the Love Island brand, which has become one of the broadcaster’s cash cows, has been tarnished by multiple deaths. ITV said Love Island would be shown on Monday night, while Channel 4 has already announced it will cancel a forthcoming series called the Surjury presented by Flack about plastic surgery.
One thing is clear: for all the public’s anger at celebrity news outlets whom many are blaming for hounding a woman to her death, privately people are flocking to tabloid sites to read every possible detail about her. By Sunday morning the homepage of MailOnline, which dominates the celebrity news space, featured more than 20 separate stories about Flack, ranging from vintage video clips of her appearances on Strictly Come Dancing to exclusive photos of her former fiancee in Sydney “reading something on his mobile phone before hanging his head in despair”.
Backlashes against the media’s coverage often accompany deaths; after Princess Diana was killed in Paris in 1997, the Daily Mail went as far as to pledge it would never again use paparazzi pictures amid widespread anti-tabloid feelings that were soon forgotten as the British public took an interest in a new round of celebrities. With Flack’s death likely to result in lengthy debates about how broadcasters treat their stars and an inquest into the circumstances, there will be no shortage of material for months to come.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.