I watch the search terms people use to arrive at this blog with interest. Every blogger gets some weird ones but I get more than most. It kind of goes with the territory when you spend most of your time writing about murder, rape, abuse, death and the media.
I write on a fairly niche subject so I end up high in the results for searches for Irish legal or criminal matters. There’s a couple of weird ones – I get a LOT of hits from Japan for naked caricatures since I posted on the paintings of our esteemed Taoiseach in the nip that appeared in a couple of galleries in Dublin a while back using a full frontal image from Galway cartoonist Allan Cavanagh. And recently I seem to have become a go to place for those looking for the recipe for ricin (though since I’ve written extensively on that very subject I brought that one on myself).
Today I got an unusual one, a sentence that took me aback when I read it in the list of Google searches. Someone had found my blog looking for the phrase “Abigail Rieley is scum”. I know that people sometimes have very strong views about what I write here and that’s why I have comments enabled on every post. Blogging is a social form of writing and I believe people should have the freedom to express their views. I won’t allow comments that will cause unnecessary offence or break the law but if someone has a rational case to make they can make it freely.
But it got me thinking. I write, for the most part, about death. I earn my living following the stories of some of the most violent deaths we have in this country and I comment on them. I’m aware that I can’t please everyone if I come down on one side or another in a trial but I will always try to be as fair as I possibly can. But however fair I am there is always the risk of upsetting someone.
That’s the problem with this line of work. As a court reporter specialising in criminal trials I am feeding one of the oldest appetites for news. It’s the same public hunger that demands public executions and fights to the death for sport. It’s the side of humanity that watches the pain of others with a bright glint in the eye. Before you recoil in disgust stop a minute – it’s a lot more common than you think.
It’s the same side of us that laps up crime fiction and violent movies. Just because it’s make believe doesn’t mean it’s a different urge. It’s the same sneering little voice that laughs at the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent, willing dreams to be dashed and hopes crushed and will continue to watch even though psychologist have warned of the dangers to the more vulnerable auditionees. But what I write about doesn’t have the sanitised gloss of entertainment. It’s real life, real death. The raw explosion of emotion that leads one ordinary person to take another’s life. You realise very quickly when you work down in the courts that the average person on trial for murder is not a psychopath or evil or depraved. They’re just like you and me.
With every trial there are people who have lost, families who must listen to their loved ones reduced to an echo, a cipher who was at the centre of a storm and is now in front of the court as a a series of figments; forensic samples, perhaps a few photographs taken after death and the inevitable post mortem. It’s shocking in it’s mundanity.
I’ve seen the looks the family of both the accused and the deceased give us journalists as we file in to the front of the court. We’re usually seen as vultures, vermin scrabbling for the juicy titbits left over from a tragedy. I know how it looks, we all do. But the reality of the situation is that we are there to do a job and to feed an appetite for this kind of news. It’s easier to cover a trial when you aren’t emotionally involved and that distance tends to show itself as an increased cynicism and an outward callousness. We’re there to tell a story and allow the audience that same remove. We’re feeding an interest, crime and politics have been filling newspapers since they were just a bill pasted on a wall…at least we don’t write ballads about the more infamous trials these days.
I would argue though that court reporting’s not all base emotions. We’re witness to the carrying out of justice, one of the basic pillars of society. Without the courts we’d have anarchy, or something similar. When we write about murders we’re giving a voice to the dead and seeing their killers brought to justice – most of the time. Maybe the reason why there’s such an interest in crime stories is just that, because it puts the bad guys in their place and makes the world less scary. There will always be those that just see the sleaze and think what I do is sordid and perhaps even exploitative but all I can do is try to show them otherwise.