Bereavement, betrayal, unemployment, mental illness, abuse, crime – in every community and in every week of every year, lives fracture and crumble under the strain of the 'tears of things'. Usually we know nothing of these traumas unless they are emotionally or geographically close to us. But occasionally, violence means that breakdown is moved from the private to the public sphere, and a wrecked human soul becomes the currency of news.
The 24 hour news cycle took this to a new level in the unfolding drama of the hunt for Raoul Moat. The Twitter-sphere and radio phone-ins have shown a division of opinion about the news saturation which has at times been almost indistinguishable from a fictional police drama. Repulsion and fascination go hand in hand and it is unlikely that any mass-media organisation will shun the feeding frenzy and limit itself to a policy of plain reportage as long as it believes that the public is eager to consume its output.
The danger of pointless repetition and exploitation seems to be no deterrent, It is dispiriting to see TV professionals placed in a situation where they are reduced to telling us that “three police cars just went by at great speed” or that the river bank is “just out of sight round that corner by the yellow bus”. Interviews with local residents either become tedious - there are only a limited number of ways in which anxiety and alarm can be expressed - or slightly disturbing as some interviewees were evidently excited by their five minutes of fame. Agitated individuals are sought out because they are seen as making 'good TV', to the detriment of their dignity. Plain decency requires that a veil is drawn over some responses.
Raoul Moat, a troubled and violent man, had to be apprehended. His willingness to kill and maim presented a real danger to the police and the public. But he did not deserve to have his character and mental condition dissected in public. Behavioural psychologists queued up to opine: Moat was “a paranoid narcissist”; he had “a controlling and rigid personality". There was speculation about an addiction to steroids and former girl-friends were brought forward to pass comment. There was no need for the public to hear any of this. Sufficient to know that he was dangerous and should not be approached. Instead, the man who was the subject of the hunt was turned into the monstrous 'other' who makes our flesh creep, and through that de-humanisation, serves to reassure us of our own 'normality'. We are turned into voyeurs whether we will it or not.
The loneliness of Moat's last hours and of his death was intensified by the police who surrounded him and by the unblinking eye of the camera. The photographs of the 'stand-off' should trouble us. We have moved a step nearer to seeing a disturbed person take their own life in real-time. But humankind still has a predisposition to turn aside from the gratuitous observation of suffering and desperation. Maybe it is time to draw on that instinct and reconsider the degree of media coverage of such events we are willing to tolerate.
Raoul Moat's dysfunction was turned into an 'infotainment' spectacle; his sickness met something ill-considered and undiscerning in our society and the outcome was demeaning to us all.