- 20 Jun 12
The murder of Michaela McAreavey in Mauritius was heart-breaking for those who knew and loved her. But is the extent of the coverage of the case in Irish media a good thing?
A Germany-based friend once commented that the Germans were great travellers, always off to find somewhere new and exotic, always pushing the boundaries and exploring. She knew this anyway but added, by way of proof, “if a plane crashes, there’s always a German among the dead”.
It’s a grim reckoning, sure, but it’s one that resonates with the Irish experience. Of course, for a century and a half the Irish scattered to where there was work. But since the ‘90s they’ve been going where there’s adventure.
Whether working or adventuring, the risk of death and injury abroad is ever-present and for the families and friends of those who are off somewhere in the distance, it’s a dreadful prospect. Everyone fears the knock on the door and the beginning of a process encapsulated in the terms used in news reports: “The Irish embassy is offering assistance.”
When the Irish flooded across America in the 19th century, news travelled slower. Sometimes people never knew what became of their loved ones. It is truly poignant to pick your way through the graves in a tiny town like Downieville in California, a place that has hardly grown since the gold ran out, and where the graveyard has many headstones and crosses bearing Irish names, sometimes of men as young as 16, and telling of where they came from.
We hear more now and faster about what happens even in remote places. But still, most of us will be familiar with the fear that takes up residence in the back of the minds of parents, siblings and friends when someone we are close to heads off into the wild blue yonder.
The worst rarely happens, but there are occasions when it does. Take the case of Jonathan Spollen, a writer and journalist from Ranelagh in Dublin. He is currently missing in India. Then there’s Nicola Furlong from Wexford, who was found dead in mysterious circumstances in a hotel in Tokyo after a gig by Nicki Minaj. And there are others who have fallen foul of strange and dangerous circumstances, sometimes fatally.
In that last category is Michaela McAreavey, who was murdered in her hotel room in Mauritius while on honeymoon with her husband, the Co. Down footballer John McAreavey.
In the world of GAA, the wedding was a very big deal. Michaela was the daughter of Mickey Harte, the manager of Tyrone, and one of the more successsful ‘bainisteoirí’ in the history of the game. These are famous people. Perhaps that’s why coverage of the trial of those accused of murdering Michaela is deemed to be such an important item on the national news agenda.
A number of Irish journalists have been flown out to cover the trial, one which may last for some weeks more. Newspapers carry extensive posts and RTÉ has had daily serial reports from its Northern correspondent Tommy Gorman. This, given that the station is in the process of closing its London office and losing the excellent Brian O’Connell on cost grounds, seems an interesting decision. Other stations are more sparing.
The contributions, postures and stratagems of the dramatis personae have been widely parsed and analysed. Their motives and tactics are the subject of speculation. The reports, especially on radio, suggest intrigues and high drama. The point is to draw the listening public into the plot…
In the purest, 19th century sense of the word, Michaela McAreavey’s death was sensational, an outrage and a tragedy that happened far away. I don’t in any sense underestimate in any way the terrible grief experienced by her family and friends nor the widespread shock and horror at her murder, in an apparently idyllic place and at such a time of celebration and joy.
But is it much more important than other deaths in faraway places?
From the coverage one might think so. But who decides? Or, to put it another way, will there be a similar convoy heading out to cover the trial, should there be one, of the man or men accused of causing the death of Nicola Furlong? We shall see.
Who decides what’s news is a fundamental question and it’s tied up with who owns the media. It helps explain the epic saga that is now close to conclusion in Independent News and Media. It also explains why politicians in the UK cosied up in such a demeaning and ultimately damaging way to Rupert Murdoch and his minions.
While the news is, or should be, factual, facts are open to interpretation, which in turn is shaped by many influences. The news, in effect, is a socially constructed phenomenon. What makes it onto the news agenda is influenced by power, by politics and by money, as well as by good journalism.
It isn’t just about who owns what, though that plays a part. It’s about those choices that are made every day, about what to feature, who to chase and why. In an era of increased sensationalism and celebrity fixation and ruthless competition, there’s a risk that news and entertainment conflate, thereby muddying the waters and prioritising stories that, to coin a phrase, give good headline.
Which returns us to the question – why this case more than others? If two women are murdered in far distant places, what makes one murder more newsworthy than the other? Is it really just all about selling newspapers, about attracting listeners? About the bottom line?
Will there be similar attention paid to any court cases arising from the deaths of other Irish people abroad? If so, that will be good and fair. If not, it will seem to many, and especially to the families and friends of those who have died in far flung foreign fields, that – in the eyes of the modern media – celebrity transcends even death.