I’ve spent a large proportion of my time over the past fortnight talking about the dead. This is nothing unusual, I’ve worked in the courts for over four years now and tend to be seen as the oracle on all that’s gory for family and friends. You would not believe the number of people who want to hear about what poisons cause heart failure or the finer details of any of a dozen high profile murders.
There’s a fascination in this country for the macabre. We’re fascinated by death, the more violent or tragic the better. That doesn’t make us a nation of ghouls though, just one with an interest in our fellow man. It’s normal to be interested in your neighbours – who doesn’t take the opportunity to look into a curtainless window as you walk down the street? In a country where the rituals of birth and death still hold such a social resonance we all know that it’s at those moments you see people at their most unguarded – there’s a light on as well as the curtains being open.
For the past fortnight though I haven’t been talking about death in general, it’s been one death in particular. Not the death of someone I ever met in the flesh, or one that left a hole in my own life but one that I know the tiniest details of nonetheless.
That’s what happens when you cover a murder trial, you get the details – all the details. That’s why people have always and will always be fascinated in them. You watch a trial like that and you will find out details that you might not know about your spouse. The post mortem will tell you each mole and childhood scar, you might not know what that person was like to go for a pint with, say, but you will have more idea of a personality that you could have had in several casual meetings.
It’s a clinical kind of knowledge though, removed, academic. You will even go away knowing that most private moment that comes to us all, the moment, the ultimate instance of death, the last breath. A moment that loved ones might have missed will be examined in minute detail in front of strangers. That’s the reality of the trial process and that’s part of the attraction of this kind of trial.
Of course not all trials attract the same kind of scrutiny and people like me don’t end up writing books about them. I spent several years working for Ireland International News Agency. It was my job, and is still the job for those who still work there, to provide agency copy for the print and broadcast media on every murder and manslaughter trial before the courts. Starting off you don’t cover the big trials.
For every trial that sets editor’s pulses racing there will be a dozen that don’t. Those are the trials that the media don’t bother about, that appear as a side bar on page 11 or 12 of a paper. The acts of random violence, the young men from disadvantaged backgrounds who settle a disagreement a knife. The drunken rows, the senseless attacks, the depressing monotony of lives that were blighted before they were properly begun. These aren’t the trials you gossip about at the water cooler, these are the depressing meat of the criminal justice system, the ones that pass unnoticed.
The public don’t bother going to those trials, the papers don’t bother to cover them. Life after life is lost in obscurity, amounting to nothing but a violent sordid death. If the agency reporter doesn’t sit quietly for every day of the trial, filing copy that no one will use unless it’s a really quiet news day, no one will hear the details of that life and death except those directly involved and the lawyers.
No one cares about those trials happening in public. They are a depressing reminder of how cheap life can be and a side of humanity no one wants to hold a mirror before. But with the big trials it’s different. There’s something about the story that’s being told that raises it above the ordinary, a whiff of celebrity, a kink of weirdness, a view into a life in some way surprising.
The media cover these trials because the public want to know about them. It’s these stories I get asked about by friends, family and neighbours. The one’s that in some way rise up out of the norm and become the stuff of thrillers instead of a grim reminder of the briefness of existence. The protagonists are often rich, or if not rich at least possessed of some quality that separates them from the hot headed boys who get tanked up and stab their mates. It’s that factor that provides a distance so we can look at the sordid details as a story, a plot, rather than another human being meeting death before their time.
In recent years the refrain has been that these unusual trials are cropping up too frequently, that the public interest is being pumped by the hungry media and they are being led astray. I know a lot of people would think that I am also guilty of fanning that particular forest fire with this book, throwing my cap in the ring and exploiting the grief of the bereaved.
Anyone who thinks that is of course entitled to their opinion but it’s one I will take exception to if it’s put to me. I don’t consider what I do to be voyeuristic and I don’t consider my colleagues to be doing anything other than satisfying a public demand, which is the way newspapers have always worked and always will. When I write about a trial I’m not doing it to be ghoulish I’m doing it because it’s what I do.
I’ve always felt that it’s important that trials are written about, that in some way I’m helping with the whole constitutional imperative that justice be done in public, disseminating what goes on in the courtroom, bringing an informed reading to proceedings couched in arcane methodology and convoluted terminology and giving a voice in a way to those that can’t speak for themselves. I think that the media have a place within the courts and one that should be recognised and respected without accusing us of voyeurism and bad taste.
When I write about a trial I will try to show respect for everyone involved. For the dead who cannot speak and also those on trial, for the families of both and the witnesses who have to relive the traumatic past. Everyone I work with does the same. We might have a feel for a story that sells but that’s part of the business and part of our jobs and it’s not incompatible with respect and compassion.
Of course sometimes, when push comes to shove that balance gets skewed. There are times when the media scrum seethes forward and shoves us all into an unflattering spotlight. There are times when the excitement about a story gets out of control and enthusiasm for the job can seem like callousness and poor taste. It’s hard to explain news sense to someone who’s never had to find a story but it’s ingrained in most journos and can sometimes make us lose the head a bit but does not make us bad human beings.
Even in the heel of the hunt we don’t forget that we are dealing with death, that there are grieving family members and traumatised witnesses. It’s just that our job is not to wrap them in cotton wool – it’s to tell the story as it unfolds. All I can do when I talk about the deaths I’ve seen dissected is to talk about them with compassion, it’s got nothing to do with taste.