“Why the prurient interest in media reports of other people’s deaths?” – perhaps they’re read John Donne, silly

Each time a celebrity dies, someone, somewhere, probably a Guardian writer, possibly even two Guardian writers, and for all I know, many other journalists or so-called journalists, will write a piece about ‘what on earth are all those plebs doing taking such a ghoulish, prurient interest in the death of someone they don’t even know?’ Accusations will be  made in the columns of right-thinking newspapers, for once aligned with the nasty guys on twitter, about the false grief – sorry, ‘faux’ grief, of those who pretend to be upset that someone has lost their life at 27 (it’s usually 27) or 25, or 42, or whatever. How could people possibly be really upset? ‘I mean’, the writer might add, ‘I did meet her once, so it’s a teency bit sad for me, but for the likes of our muck common readers? Give it a rest, you don’t really feel sad, this is nothing to do with you, run along now and live your tedious lives. Surely someone you actually know has actually died? Mourn them, suckers.’

Only, here’s the news for you, cynical writer in the ‘quality’ papers. (For the tabloids don’t seem to worry about this.) These pitiful readers are mourning  people they actually know. The news of the death of any person will trigger this mourning. That’s how it works. So why don’t the posh papers know this? Oh, silly me – they do. They sell papers with it – they just cater to the schizoid nature of their readership by slagging off those susceptible to this phenomenon at the same time, just to cover all bases.

There might be something about some particular person in the news that just gets you. Me, I cried for a week when Diana died, and I’ve got four degrees, so I must be clever & all that. But there was something I could relate to about her, and something that triggered in me grief that she’d died just when there might have been hope that her life was getting on track. The fact that I never met her is neither here nor there. The fact that I don’t really know if what was reported about her is true or not is neither here nor there. I do have it on good authority, though, that she was a human being, and therefore, someone whose life mattered. So I got sad when Peaches Geldof died – not because it’s any sadder that this 25 year old died, or that those two little boys are left motherless, but because it’s just sad, whoever she was. Nonetheless, of course I felt much, much, much sadder that someone I did know and love died the same week, at an early age, in a terrible accident.

What’s more, these are stories of real people. (And, did you know something very interesting, celebrities are actually people. Strange but true.) So here’s another reason why people read these tragic stories. To stand witness to the sorrows of others.  I’ll tell you how I found out about this reason. On April 28th, 1996, I was on holiday in Port Arthur, Tasmania. On that day, as any Australian will tell you, Martin Bryant shot and killed 35 people, and injured about 80 more. Having had a timely row with my then husband, we delayed our visit to the Port Arthur site, a row which very possibly saved our lives. On the way down to Port Arthur, shortly after, unbeknownst to us, Bryant had fled, I found the body of a young woman, shot dead as she tried to escape. I grabbed my young son from our car, ran and hid in the local garage. A couple of hours later, we were transferred to a hotel where with many others, we watched in mute horror as the news came on the TV and we started to realise just how many were dead.

Afterwards, I read newspaper reports about the shootings and the victims for weeks and months with careful, horrified attention. I felt a duty to read their stories, a duty to stand and witness their brutal passing, to acknowledge their lives. And since then, with similar stories, I have felt the same need to witness, to recognise, the human loss. True, sometimes I turn aside from such accounts, too weary to take in any more. But whether the person is a random stranger plucked from life by a crazed gunman, or a celebrity famous since birth whose every move is watched by the world, it is another human life lost.

So maybe all those ‘prurient’, tacky readers soaking up news of the latest tragic demise are not just ghoulish; maybe they are not expressing insincere pseudo-grief. Maybe they have just read John Donne, and know that no man is an island, and that each man’s death diminishes us.

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