Eilis O'Hanlon: Media guilty of over-sensitivity, not insensitivity on Hawe family deaths
Those who say the media condoned the terrible murders in Cavan are just seeing what they want to see
Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30
More than 80 men, women and children were murdered on Nice's Promenade des Anglais on Bastille Day, but it's unlikely that most of us could name any of them.
Their killer is more familiar. We might not immediately recall his name, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, but his background and motivation were raked over in depth; his grainy picture was everywhere.
That's because the murderer is the obvious focus in the aftermath of a terrible murder. Who are they? Why did they do it? What were they thinking? These are natural questions to ask. In fact, it would be unnatural not to ask them. It doesn't mean that you don't care about his victims.
The same goes for the slaughter of a mother and her three children in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan, last week in what psychologists now call a "family annihilation". The same anguished questions arose. How could Alan Hawe have done such an awful thing to his family?
This time, though, even that question provoked angry accusations in some quarters that the victims were being forgotten, and that media treatment of this perpetrator was too sympathetic. The backlash reached as far as The Guardian, where demands were raised about how Clodagh, the mother of the dead boys, had become an "invisible woman".
The implication was that somehow there was less sympathy for the victims of this crime than there should have been; even that there was some fellow feeling for the killer. Newspaper stories quoting friends and family struggling to come to terms with what this apparently normal man had done were cited as evidence that the dead were being blamed for "driving" him to do it.
There were even claims that male violence was being "normalised" or "legitimised". Of course nothing of the sort was true. This was just an attempt to find a target for the distress and dread which we all share in response to an incomprehensible incident.
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It's a kind of transference. A terrible event had occurred. Someone or something must be to blame, but the murderer was dead and beyond justice. So that anger was transferred on to a different target, which was around to shoulder the blame, and in this case that was those who were deemed not to be responding to the murders in Cavan in the "right" way. By reprimanding them for some imagined misdeed, it proves that you are more upset than they are, that you are the better human being.
It's an unpleasant side to human nature that people get competitive in the face of tragedy, but they do.
Those who lambasted the coverage should stop lashing out and think harder about what they're saying. Are they seriously suggesting that the media was excusing the murder of a woman and her children? What sort of monsters must they think everyone else is, in contrast to their own angelic selves?
The truth is that there was no desire, subconscious or otherwise, to defend a murderer. What was being misread as justification was not a lack of empathy, but an excess of caution.
The real reason that the media seemingly tiptoed around what Alan Hawe had done was because of a fear of offending a very vocal and active mental health lobby which does not hesitate to come down hard on those who are seen to "demonise" the mentally ill.
To suggest that suicide may sometimes be a spiteful or selfish act will provoke immediate and severe criticism from campaigners. Language is a minefield in itself. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron was attacked by the mental health lobby just for describing his Labour rival's economic policy as "nuts". Modern media increasingly feels like a series of such pitfalls and traps.
- Read more: Relatives of Hawes ask mourners to give to suicide charity
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The fact that Hawe had no history of engagement with mental health services is irrelevant. That only means he was undiagnosed, not that he wasn't sick. Of men who do carry out such attacks, a 2009 study showed that 68pc had a history of depression and 38pc had borderline personality disorder.
Had the media portrayed this man as a heartless psychopath, only for it to subsequently emerge that he was mentally ill, be assured that the backlash would have been equally severe.
That's why those who cover these stories are afraid of saying harsh and difficult things. They're not guilty of insensitivity, but over-sensitivity. We're all tiptoeing around these days, terrified of causing career-ending offence to people who can quickly marshal up a mob of the terminally outraged to screech abuse.
Judging anyone for who they are or what they do has become fraught with danger in this age of heightened umbrage and identity politics. What you get is reporting and commentary so desperate not to cause offence that it can end up being offensive by default.
It's led to a situation where people are reluctant even to publicly vilify a man who killed his wife and children in the most evil way. That's a woeful state of affairs, but it's an inevitable consequence of a politically correct culture which refuses to blame anyone for their own actions and seeks to invest everyone with the halo of victimhood.
If we really want a more robust commentary on issues such as this, a thicker skin from all is required.