Notes on News: Why and when popular culture needs to be sensitive to grief

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Recently, I wrote an article regarding the controversy surrounding Ricky Gervais’ supposedly “transphobic” joke about Caitlyn Jenner at the Golden Globes, and how over-blown reactions seemed more common nowadays. The article mainly defended the right of comedy to be controversial and edgy and generally suggested that the fuss was about nothing.

Subsequently, I find myself writing an article discussing when our culture should be sensitive and how the media, at times, fails to recognise the need for this sensibility, presumably in the name of “high ratings.”

Channel 4 News Anchor Jon Snow is guilty of one of those moments. This week, when interviewing Richard Wilson – an acting colleague of the late, great Alan Rickman, Snow felt it was necessary to echo a joke about Wilson’s One Foot in the Grave character ‘Victor Meldrew’ by telling Wilson “I don’t believe it” (Meldrew’s catchphrase) when discussing the death of the much loved Rickman, who Wilson had only seen a few days prior. Wilson’s calm response – “No, I saw him earlier this week and to some extent it was a release today. It was still a terrible shock” – was an incredibly dignified response, when few would have criticised him for a more angry reaction.

Earlier this week, Channel Five were also equally guilty of using media coverage to exploit a tragic situation. The death of the equally great David Bowie led to his first wife Angie being understandably upset. Due to the fact she is currently in the Celebrity Big Brother house, however, the producers felt it necessary to broadcast her mournful sobbing on television. At a moment when likely media attention was the thing she least needed, the executives at Channel 5 put “high ratings” ahead of her dignity and right to grieve. Of course, Angie’s decision to stay in the house meant they had to address the subject of Bowie’s death in some way, but the manner in which they did divided public opinion. Indeed, the subsequent reaction of Tiffany Pollard, who sent the housemates into frenzy thinking David Gest was dead rather than David Bowie, was quite frankly farcical. Again, one must question why on earth the organisers could not have cleared it up on the tannoy to avoid Angie’s subsequent humiliation. Unsurprisingly, Channel 5 was accused of capitalising on her grief to boost ratings.

There is a fine line between comedy, good television and unacceptable behaviour. I can already see someone asking “Why did you defend Ricky Gervais for making a joke about a fatal car crash then if death is such a taboo?” I didn’t. If the backlash had been about Gervais joking about a car crash, then rightly I could have understood it. Instead, the backlash was focused towards a joke which potentially might have been construed as offensive by a section of society. In both occasions here, we have something different. The former incident with Jon Snow was a blatant attempt at humour in an interview which was promoted as sombre and respectful and the latter, regarding to Celebrity Big Brother, was an attempt to use the right to grieve to boost ratings and create hysteria for a lady who was suffering enough already – both totally unnecessary. Furthermore, Gervais was backdating over ten months. These cases were barely a day old.

Here’s the thing: comedy is okay, even when it is controversial or when it is done in the right environment and the comedian is renowned for it. But the exploitation of grief, whether for “high ratings” or a cheap laugh, is where I, and in my view, the media should draw the line.

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2 Comments

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      Yes George, and I could understand the backlash if the joke was mainly aimed at that. Instead it was apparently an insult to Jenner being Trans. I have done an article on it that I think explains my position quite well. Rest assured, if the joke had explicitly mocked those who passed, I would understand the outrage.

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