Reeva Steenkamp and Why The Sun Aren't the Idiot Perverts You Think They Are
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It's an outrage, it's a scandal, it's a national shame and it's not really particularly nice. The Sun's front page Friday, featuring bikini-clad murder victim Reeva Steenkamp, has set Britain into angry-questioning mode. Steenkamp was shot dead, in their shared bathroom, it is alleged, by the world's fastest man on no legs, Oscar Pistorius.
Yet the national handbagging News International is taking has so far been conducted at a pretty facile level. Really: How much cynicism can you assign to The Sun?
It's one of those posers, isn't it? Like how long is a particularly long piece of string, or how thick is Mario Balotelli, really, a conundrum that, when you get down to it, can never be answered precisely.
Yet that seems to be the chief task at hand. Trying to weigh the intents of some salaried blokes in Wapping against the dragons and ogres that the usual huffing-puffing Morally Outraged Of Tunbridge Wells types would have us believe they are. Who is second-guessing whom here? And are they themselves being second-guessed?
Perhaps, had Reeva Steenkamp been an auto-engineer, Dominic Mohan would have dug up a picture of her in her overalls, her hands mucky with grease from the carburettor of a 2006 Honda Civic. But she wasn't. She was, as well as a law graduate and a TV personality, a professional swimwear model. For FHM. We all have pictures we wish someone would burn if we were found face-down in our swimming pools. Steenkamp had whole terabytes of archives of the things arrayed and painstakingly indexed on Getty Images.
So again: How much cynicism do we now attach to The Sun? Level One says that they see a picture of a semi-naked lady and they simply get what Fleet Street neuropsychologists call boner-tunnel-vision. They can't help but put it on the front page. Then they're genuinely a bit wounded when people point out that it isn't appropriate. They go around the office saying to each other, effectively: “But can't they see she's got a really lovely flange?'
Level Two says that they are full-square aware of what an awkward match a tale of murder and a dead girl's pink-wrapped boobs are. But if there's one thing they learnt in the ten-minute fire-drills-and-journalism-training meeting that inaugurated their careers, it's that sex sells. So they print and be damned, knowing full well that they'll suffer a rain of blows from the high-mindeds at the broadsheets the next day.
Level Three says they're actively mooning at the broadsheets, and that is The Whole Point. And it's this level that otherwise-sophisticated media-watchers don't seem to be seeing. The fact that people who work in Wapping may be dumb but they ain't stupid. And that by failing to mark their gamesmanship, the sanctimonious broadsheet types are possibly proving to the world that the tabloid hacks – if it should matter at all in a case like this – are often smarter than them.
So far, the facts of the case have been too horrific, the circumstances too tawdry, for any sort of comment-sphere to develop around it. Up and down the country, op-ed writers have opened their browsers, looked at the top story screaming from every banner headline, and after a moment's pause, skipped on past it. Because: What can you actually say about that sort of thing? Where's the angle? Where's the blame-apportioning, hand-wringing, crocodile-tears sentiment-spraying rub of the piece? Even something as numbingly awful as Sandy Hook came strapped to an instantly accessible political agenda (guns = bad). This does not. It has been an oddly private affair, the individual tragedy of two people played out on a stage so small that it will admit no broader conclusions.
So, along comes The Sun. And it recognises this. And so it decides that, in order to be the most-read, most-commented, most-blogged paper for the next 72 hours in the news cycle, to effectively gain ownership of the story, it will soak up this overflow of op-ed energy that presently has nowhere to go. It will make itself the focus of the sensation. It will juxtapose naughty imagery until it is indisputably front and centre. And it will sell more, and it will re-establish its reputation as the terrible infant of British journalism, as much as this, this or this did.
Remember that this is a paper that just a few months ago was broken on the wheel: editorially beheaded, half its staff arrested, its parent company commercially broken up by Uncle Rupert after endless Parliamentary beatings. And who by? Only those notorious woman-suck-ups The Guardian. This, then, is as much The Sun striking back, albeit while offering Marina Hyde, Jonathan Freedland, Deborah Orr, Hadley Freeman, Simon Jenkins, Suzanne Moore and their many op-ed colleagues an easy afternoon's work.
Today, you can join the Twitter hateswarms presently circling over the blogosphere. There's nowt wrong with that. It's your right as a citizen to express the same opinion as everyone else. But just remember not everything is the same shallow puppetry you perceive. There's no point imagining that NI's generals are mindless, nuts-dragging cave-folk leaking semen from their barbed pizzles. However much that might comfort you, the truth is that they're very clever men and women in suits who dine at The Ivy and holiday in Tuscany. And they play the game as much as anyone. Only, their game is very different.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes