News Colette Browne

Tuesday 2 September 2014

The online sorrow for Peaches was genuine because we felt a stake in her redemption

Colette Browne

Published 09/04/2014 | 02:30

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Peaches Geldof, husband Thomas Cohen and their baby Astala in Disneyland, Paris. Picture: Twitter/Peaches Geldof
Peaches Geldof, husband Thomas Cohen and their baby Astala in Disneyland, Paris. Picture: Twitter/Peaches Geldof

PEACHES Geldof's body was still at her Kent home when the BBC asked its readers for their reactions to the breaking news of her death.

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"Send us your comments. You can email us using the subject line 'Peaches'," concluded its report.

In an age of cut-throat media competition, attempts to engage readers in your content are essential. But when that content relates to the tragic death of a young mother, the BBC's clumsy attempt to cash in was beyond crass.

The broadcaster's tawdry effort to drive traffic to its website was also redundant, betraying a complete lack of understanding of the central role that social media now plays in memorialising death.

It didn't need to make such a clumsy attempt to crowd source readers' grief. Instead, its job was simply to report the story and wait for the inevitable avalanche of emotion to be unleashed.

As soon as the news of Peaches's death leaked out, it was instantly one of the top trending topics on Twitter as people spontaneously posted anguished messages of condolence.

Within 90 minutes of the news breaking, more than 200,000 people had already tweeted about it.

Pictures of her laughing with her husband, doting over her children and clips of her final interview, in which she spoke passionately about attachment parenting, her words now imbued with a terrible poignancy, were shared.

Meanwhile, her Twitter followers grew by more than 100,000 in less than 24 hours – despite the fact that her account will remain frozen in time, serving as a digital mausoleum in which her final fleeting thoughts will forever be encased.

People clearly cared. They wanted to feel connected to the story, even if they had no real connection to Geldof.

For some, this kind of mob mourning amounts to a sort of mass hysteria. It is trite and insincere and represents everything that is corrosive and disingenuous about contemporary culture. After all, how can people be so badly affected by the death of someone they had never met?

However, this ignores the reality of our celebrity culture and the fact that, like it or not, many of us know more about the lives of models and actors than our own extended families.

For most, the funereal sentiment was probably entirely genuine. Geldof had grown up under a relentless media spotlight, every milestone in her short life documented by the press.

The loss of her mother when she was just 11, her first forays into journalism aged 15, her dalliance with drugs as a hell-raising teenager and her subsequent reinvention as a domestic goddess.

People felt they knew her. So they were moved by her death and expressed their shock and sorrow in an incessant torrent of 140-character eulogies.

The tragedy was compounded by the fact that she had latterly been rehabilitated in the media from delinquent to devoted mother. Dying young is supposed to the preserve of the troubled and the drug-addicted, not a happily married mother living in a rural idyll. Redemption stories are not supposed to end like this.

"I'm not Amy Winehouse. I never have been," Geldof said in an interview in 2009, railing against her wild child media caricature.

But now she is. Both women prematurely dead in their 20s, despite one exemplifying clean living and the other leading a debauched, destructive life.

It makes no sense. But death is not a punishment that is reserved for the wicked or the wanton. Young people, good people, die all the time.

On the same day that Geldof passed away, a young mother was killed in Dublin in a collision between a Luas and a car. Her death is no less inexplicable or tragic.

Nevertheless, people reacting to Geldof's death searched for meaning where there was none. The temptation to search for a sign, some kind of ominous portent, was too difficult to withstand.

So people used Geldof's final tweet, a picture of herself as a toddler in the arms of her mother, to suggest a kind of fatalistic inevitability to her death.

Her mother had died young, so Peaches never really stood a chance. She too was doomed to die in tragic circumstances.

Except she wasn't.

With a cause of death not yet determined, no one knows why she died and the senselessness of her death will not be mitigated by the announcement of a formal cause of death.

The question of why will remain unanswered, whatever the results of the autopsy.

Perhaps that is the hardest thing to accept.

Irish Independent

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