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TO KNOW WHERE TO STOP - The media have seized desperately on Michael Jackson's death

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By Notebook - Ian Jack
  • Published 5.07.09

Other than recounting your dreams, perhaps the dullest form of monologue is remembering where you were and what you were doing when you heard that famous person X had died. Please, then, be patient with the next few sentences. In 1952, I was a six-year-old schoolboy coming home for lunch one day when I saw a flag at half-mast and was told that the king (George VI) had died. As a college student in 1963, I met a lecturer in a Glasgow street one late afternoon who told me that President Kennedy had died. As a reporter in 1977, I was in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when I heard that Elvis Presley had died. I heard about John Lennon in 1980 on an early-morning bus from Heathrow airport and about Mrs Gandhi in 1984 in a phone call that got me out of bed in London and on to the Delhi plane. I was also in bed and listening to the radio when in 1997 I got the news about Diana, Princess of Wales.

Assassins’ guns killed three of them. Of the others, the Princess of Wales died from dangerous driving and Presley from a combination of prescription drugs and overeating. Only the king (George VI, not Elvis) died in his bed. What makes all their deaths live in the memory is their unexpectedness: how they came out of the blue. True, the king had been ill for quite a time with cancer, but very few people in a much more deferential and secretive Britain knew this and certainly not six-year-olds in small provincial towns. It’s the jolt that imprints the moment on our memory — it must be why, for example, I can recall the exact spot in the Glasgow street where, nearly half-a- century ago, I heard about Kennedy; and why, more oddly, I always associate Lennon’s death with the police blindings in Bhagalpur, the story I was returning from when I heard the news at Heathrow.

It was my 16-year-old daughter who told me about Michael Jackson. The news arrived via her laptop rather than the BBC news which we’d just finished watching — on the evening of June 25, it was Jackson-free. His death didn’t seem momentous to me. I filed it under ‘interesting’ — something I might tell my wife before we fell asleep, which in the end I forgot to do. The truth is that all I knew about Jackson could be written on the back of a postcard: he danced the moonwalk, he was frequently suspected of paedophilia, he was a black pop singer quite literally unhappy in his own skin, which years of cosmetic surgery had made as white as a shroud. Nothing prepared me for the torrent of media coverage that began the next day. “WORLD MOURNS”, said the newspaper placards. Apart from the Financial Times, every London newspaper devoted half-a-dozen pages to Jackson’s death. Four days later, all of them (the FT again apart) had also published fat pullout sections on his life.

Of course, I realize I’m not part of what’s known as “the demographic”. Satellite television gave Jackson a vaster global audience than ever the Beatles achieved, and I’m prepared to believe that for every person like me — people only mildly or not at all interested in Jackson — there are 10 more to whom his music and dancing have mattered. But the reason his death caused so much more fuss than Presley’s and Lennon’s wasn’t because he was a bigger star or a more significant musician; it was because the media, hungry for audiences, never know when to stop. This is particularly true of British newspapers, even decent ones such as The Guardian, The Times and The Daily Telegraph, all of which gave Jackson ten times as much space as the leading newspaper in his own country, The New York Times. British society has changed, been vulgarized if you like, so that these days there are very few publications or institutions immune to the attractions of celebrity, and, as celebrities are by definition popular, that means newspapers that were once made distinctive by their different approaches to news now increasingly occupy the same middle ground. The days have long gone when only tabloids covered pop stars and adultery.

As to death, the Princess of Wales showed what could be done. The crowds, the grief, the flowers: nobody could have predicted their spectacular extent or their global effect. The more the media reported them, the bigger they grew, the more they were reported, and so on — what science calls a positive feedback loop. When Jackson died, it seemed inside newspaper offices that a similar moment had come, a disparate world united by the same fascination. I don’t mean to be cynical. As well as deciding what’s important and what’s not, newspapers need to gauge their readers’ interests and cater for them. But there was also, it seemed to me, something desperate about the reaction to Jackson. London is still the most competitive newspaper city in the world (10 dailies, nine Sundays, one evening, three freesheets), but both readership and revenue are dropping like stones. Some of this is cyclical — an advertising downturn in the recession — but a lot more is structural. Readers are deserting for the web, circulation figures head inexorably down. When Jackson died, newspapers wanted to show how quickly and comprehensively they could still both create and feed a public appetite.

Did they succeed? This rather chilling comment from an online reader followed a piece about “the desire for collective emotion” on The Guardian’s website. “There is no ‘desire for collective emotion’ — there’s a silly media longing for it… The time for this kind of guesstimating of the public mood has passed. “We” know what we as individuals feel, “we” know what “we”, the vocal online public, feel. “We” don’t need the media any more to reflect back the half-grasped views of the people next door or people on the other side of the world; we can ask them ourselves.

“Now, all you columnists, go back to your Macs and prepare for redundancy. Soon the papers will be as dead as Jacko; and you didn't even have a monkey.”

I remember the scene in Hope Street, Glasgow, on Friday, November 22, 1963. It’s a dark afternoon. A couple of us are walking towards the station and the train home to Fife when we meet our lecturer coming the other way. He stops. “President Kennedy has been shot, looks like he’s dead.” The next day, our local football team takes on Scotland’s biggest club, Glasgow Rangers. The teams wear black armbands and stand in the middle of the field to honour the late president with a minute’s silence, which Rangers’ fans jeer and boo throughout. Rangers are a stoutly Protestant side and Kennedy was a Catholic and therefore detestable. Moments of collective emotion have never been as uncomplicated as the media would have us believe.

This time, what I’ll remember is not so much the news but the way it was delivered, out of my daughter’s laptop at a time when the BBC was still trying to establish the facts. So much of what she knows comes out of that machine. Like her younger brother, she’s a fully paid-up member of the online community, and reached her opinions about Jackson with very little of the simplifying interference from the traditional hierarchy of editors, TV executives and reporters. And this is ominous for those of us who go on loving, buying and writing for newspapers, despite their never knowing when to stop.