In the Oscar Pistorius story, there has been a particularly emphatic response to the display of the victim’s body on the front pages of the gutter press. One of the best, with whom it is easy to identify for every liberationist, which includes most journalists, is Marina Hyde’s in the Guardian, under the heading, “Reeva Steenkamp's corpse was in the morgue, her body was on the Sun's front page.” She has set off a storm of protest and many expressions of shame in the social media worldwide.
I too, identified with this disgust, but in a long career in journalism, and with many friends whose skills I respect working in the gutter media, I have also learnt to think beyond my own knee-jerk reponses – ironically, of course, since the gutter media thrives on the jerking of members of the body.
Or do they? It’s easy to accuse the Sun of exploiting Steenkamp’s body, and there is indeed the sickening realisation that it re-enacts in a crude way several aspects of the killing, and deliberately so, despite the knowledge that hypothetically there are perverts who may get off on it. But I also know that much thought and skill went into that layout, much more, anyway, than in the financial press. And comparing it with The Guardian’s own layout, I was reminded of the Allan Boesak infidelity scandal all those years ago. That was when literally dozens of journalists, including myself, resisted attempts by the security police to foist videos of his trysts on us – until The Star broke the story and justified it on the grounds that it wanted to expose the state’s dirty tricks.
One needs look no further than The Guardian’s very clever headline. Without having to publish the Sun’s front page, it still expolits it, since many of its readers would have seen it on newsstands, in the streets and on the underground. But whereas The Sun dramatises the killing, the Guardian goes one step further: It invites us to imagine Reeva’s corpse, lying in the morgue. And since the most vivid images we have of her are those in a near naked state, the Guardian can quite coherently be accused of promoting necrophilia – if one applied Hyde’s criteria for unacceptable journalism.
To put it another way, since I shall never condemn The Guardian, one of the best newspapers in the world, I am forced also not to condemn the gutter press, to be consistent. The big difference between the gutter press and the serious media, after all, is merely that the former beats the latter to the rumour. Indeed, if I go back on my own receptory steps, it is clear that certain subtleties, not always visible to the intellectual eye, are being ignored by a knee-jerk rejection of The Sun’s page.
The first is the assumption that readers will perve over the image. Maybe it is my advancing age, but it is long since I have found images of bikini-clad women sexy. Sure, there is always that jolt when it is a strikingly beautiful woman, but it is almost always followed by a sense of absurdity. It is highly uinlikely that one would ever find Steenkamp in such a pose, even if you dated her, unless it is some kind of half-hearted send-up of herself. Which is always undermined by that slightly goofy expression that models try to put on to suggest innocence or some such suspected state.
The assumption of perving gets even more questionable in the light of the contemporary ubiquity of internet porn. Bikini-clad girls come across as rather coy compared to the high definition displays of woman’s and man’s most intimate parts, readily available on cellphones and quite respectable in certain cultures.
In short, the bikini-clad girl is most often little more than a generic image of millions of similar bodies of which millions of copies have been made. The critic Walter Benjamin has written of mechanical reproduction that strips the subject of its aura, and Steenkamp’s photo is an excellent example. In fact, few would have noticed any individual aura had it not been for her killing. And the Guardian is just as instrumental as The Sun in enveloping her image with a new aura, whether as fodder for sexual perverts or as fodder for feminist moralists.
One should also note that it’s not really her body in the image. Behind that image lies another generic, of that kind of photogenic body that fits the specifications needed for the stock image of the sexy blonde. Media and advertising workers will know that the most beautiful models on the glossy page are not always the most beautiful in real life. And the most beautiful women do not always shine on the glossy page.
In fact, the supermodel and all the discipline and physiological austerity that goes into producing such stock bodies, are the stuff of modern myth. This probably allows those models who do feel uncomfortable with the exploitative aspects of their job, to distance themselves from it: “What you see, that’s not the real me.” Indeed, one of the early lessons of life for any man is that one should not fall for women just because they are beautiful.
I am not trying to be antifeminist here, and I still do not read the gutter press. Since women still have a raw deal even in the most progressive countries, I would say, go girl, if Marina Hyde’s excellent rhetoric promotes women’s liberation. But one has to ask: which would be the most effective in such a cause, the Sun’s exploitation of a lust for killing women, or the Guardian’s necrophilia?
Necrophilia is very rare; one has to break into a morgue to commit it. The lust for killing women would be much more common, if one accepts for the sake of the argument that the huge jump in the Sun’s circulation figures does attest to its prevalence. (Ignoring for the moment that the Sun’s numbers actually show that the gutter press is consumed by a small fraction of the total UK population.) Does its dramatisation in a very public space then not confront certain members of society with such lusts?
Is there a point where the lust of the reader who buys the paper because of the bikini on the front page, gets converted into feelings of shame and disgust, at which point he/she throws it into the gutter? Is there not a case to be made for the gutter press performing the function of producing a necessary disgust over the contents of the gutter, of which the removal has been the physical mark of human civilsation since ancient times?
In that first stage of scandal the apprently wild and uncontrollable mass media, which nowadays are being led by the even wilder and more chaotic internet, tend to soak up all rumour like a sponge cleaning up the scene of a crime. In its hyper-exposure of any remotely relevant tidbit, it neutralises such information into hundreds of factoids, denuding them of all feeling and morality. All players and props on the stage of the scandal become equal to each other, while we wait for the truth to emerge in court.
There is something quite democratic about this process of showing up, all over again, the banality of evil, and how we can all end up as suspects in its commission.