Opinion: Deputy editor of the News at Six and Ten defends the BBC in their coverage of Caroline Flack, but is she right?

BBC deputy editor of the Six and Ten o’clock news Thea Fairley was one of the few members of the media who went in front of the cameras on Newswatch on Saturday to try justify coverage of Caroline Flack’s tragic death

Fairly explained to Samira Ahmed that “celebrity” was not “the only reason” BBC News were looking at Flack’s suicide as viewers raised concerns about the way the story was reported. 

Viewer’s complaints included:
• the amount of speculation reported at the time of the former Love Island presenter’s death.
• using a photograph of Flack when she was at home, taken hours before she took her own life.
• detailing the manner in which she killed herself.

Fairly responded to each criticism, saying it was a “judgement call” in deciding to report how Flack killed herself and that only the “bare essentials” of the methods were described.  The photo, an Instagram post of Flack in a nightie by the TV set at home, had been released by a friend, so was considered to be printed with permission, and speculation made concentrated less on theories around the death and more on the issues that push a person to contemplating suicide.

Fairly said:  “She (Caroline) was clearly a public figure and a popular broadcaster.  It would have been odd not to cover her death in some way.

“I don’t think her celebrity was the only reason we were looking at the story.  We tried to cover some broader issues around press intrusion, social media, mental health and the criminal justice system.

“This is the type of story that we apply huge amounts of editorial scrutiny to.  There are a lot of editorial meetings that go into presenting this.”

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BBC criticism unwarranted  

Previous to Flack’s death tabloid media sources ran headlines such as; Gruesome photo of Caroline Flack’s bed (The Mirror), and; Court claim: “She tried to kill me” (The Sun), while the Scottish Sun has removed an article from its online edition about a valentines card that mocked Flack’s recent circumstances.

A host of celebrity sites including heatworld.com and closeronline as well as the Mail and Mirror internet divisions had been following Flack for months in the run-up to the events of the past week, reporting details of kiss-and-tell arguments between Flack and  boyfriend Lewis Burton.  The BBC did not run any of this tit-for-tat, sensationalist nonsense.  When comparing reporting narratives it becomes apparent the BBC’s coverage of the troubled star was about describing incidences relating to facts about Flack’s situation.   

A tragedy that is very hard to avoid

Another institution, along with the media, under scrutiny is the criminal justice system and particularly the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

The CPS persisted with the case against Flack even though Burton no longer wanted to prosecute.  While it initially seems an odd decision to continue prosecution when the complaintant no longer wants to proceed, explained alongside the test that takes place to decide whether criminal cases should continue, it makes sense why the prosecution had to go on.

In its test, the CPS asks whether it is in the public interest to prosecute due to factors that include the complaintant withdrawing charges on the grounds that they are afraid to face their attacker in court, or they have been intimidated.  With Flack, it’s clear she did not partake in intimidation, and Burton was not scared to face her in court, so, in this instance, continuing to prosecute was both pointless and harmful.

But this judicial caveat is applied to all cases across the country (over 750,000 cases of domestic abuse reported in the year to March 2019).   In the majority of cases that don’t involve celebrities and public figures it can be assumed that the action of intimidation and the emotion of fear are very relevant in perverting the course of justice and are vicious tools in allowing people who commit domestic assault to avoid answering for their crimes.  

The sad truth is Caroline Flack’s death was a tragedy born out of a series of events that were uncontrollably linked including mental health, relationship problems, losing her job, and pressures of being a public figure, which, unfortunately, snowballed out of control simultaneously, towards this tragic conclusion.

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