The Suicide of Caroline Flack, Tabloid Gossip and the Power of UK Newspapers

Caroline Flack in London, 2017.  (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Zeo)

The outpouring on social media arrived swiftly after the news of Caroline Flack's death. The 40-year-old Love Island host and one of the U.K.'s most popular TV stars was found in her London apartment, dead from an apparent suicide, on Feb. 15. Her death came less than three weeks before she was due in court over the alleged assault of her boyfriend (she had pleaded not guilty), and years after unrelenting press coverage about her personal life had begun.

Fans and fellow celebrities quickly took to Twitter and called out the press for overburdening Flack in the months before her death.

Sponsored

The publication under the most immediate scrutiny was The Sun, a daily tabloid that has long been the biggest-selling newspaper in the U.K., despite a number of national scandals in which the outlet has been accused of xenophobia, misogyny and, most famously, victim blaming. When news of Flack's death broke, The Sun was quick to remove a recent negative story it had published about her.

The truth though, is that all of the U.K.'s daily tabloids had paid keen attention to Flack's personal life throughout her career—in December, The Daily Mail wrote a story about her "car crash love life." That kind of scrutiny first started with her controversial relationship with Harry Styles when he was 17 and she was 31, continued after a brief dalliance with Prince Harry (before he'd met Meghan Markle), and was ongoing at the time of her death thanks to the alleged assault of her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, who she was said to have struck with a lamp.

It's worth noting that despite consistent negative coverage about her relationships, it's hard to find anyone in Flack's life with anything bad to say about her. Harry Styles arrived at Tuesday's BRIT Awards wearing a black ribbon, and moved many with his emotional performance of "Falling."

Not only was Lewis Burton still in a relationship with Flack at the time of her death, he had withdrawn his complaint about the alleged assault (the charges were instead brought by Britain's Crown Prosecution Service) and publicly defended her in the midst of the controversy and imminent trial. After The Sun published photos of a blood-soaked sheet purported to be from injuries Flack inflicted on Burton, he wrote on Instagram, "This isn't my blood and I didn't get hit over the head with a lamp. Can everyone stop now."

BBC Radio DJ and friend to Flack, Laura Whitmore, said on the air the day after her death: "I’m not going to pretend that she was perfect. But is anyone? She lived every mistake publicly under the scrutiny of the media … To the press, the newspapers who created clickbait, who demonize and tear down success, we’ve had enough.”

In the wake of Flack's death, an online petition was quickly set up demanding the creation of a law (specifically "Caroline's Law"), "that would make it a criminal offense, not dissimilar to Corporate Manslaughter, for the British Media to knowingly and relentlessly bully a person, whether they be in the public eye or not, up to the point that they take their own life." It had received over 737,000 signatures at the time of writing. (A further 218,000 people signed a petition asking for a government inquiry into Flack's death.)

Such suggestions may seem like an overreaction in America, but the U.K. has been struggling with questions around press conduct and intrusion since the death of Princess Diana in 1997. At that time there was speculation that not only did the press hound her literally to death, but that the British public's outpouring of grief afterwards was somehow related to guilt over its own enthusiastic consumption of stories that violated her privacy.

In the years since, however, little has changed. Between 2005 and 2011, investigations by both the Press Complaints Commission and The Guardian revealed that British newspapers, including News of the World, The Daily Mirror and The Sun—all owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International corporation—had indulged in police bribery and phone hacking. Victims of the latter included celebrities, royals, politicians and, worst of all, the families of high-profile murder and terrorism victims.

These revelations resulted in the closure of News of the World, multiple arrests and hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation payments. But the smallness of the U.K. (geographically, it's almost half the size of California) in combination with the sheer power of its handful of daily newspapers (40% of people in the U.K. regularly read newspapers, versus 16% of Americans) leaves the British people concerned about tabloid bullying and violations in an ongoing manner.

There can be no doubt that Caroline Flack was shown little kindness by the U.K. press in the run-up to her death, and it's clear that she read what was written about her. In late 2019, she posted both of these headlines (with her own comments) to her Instagram stories:

Instagram/ @carolineflack
Instagram/ @carolineflack

We cannot know how much influence press scrutiny had on Flack's decision to end her own life. There can be no doubt that her upcoming trial, as well as her uncertain future as the host of Love Island were also factors in her demise. But it's fair to assume that too much tabloid scrutiny can wreak havoc on people's mental health, both famous and otherwise.

In his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson writes: “I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be.” Later, he concludes: "And so ... when you see an unfair or an ambiguous shaming unfold, speak up on behalf of the shamed person. A babble of opposing voices—that's democracy."

In the wake of Flack's death, the British public is doing just that, repeating a mantra that she herself posted to Instagram back in December: Be kind.

Sponsored