A case study in sales-driven hysteria

  • 21 December 2007
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The collapse of Katy French on Monday 3 December and her death several days later in hospital provoked a full scale outbreak of media hysteria.  The story's combination of celebrity, drugs and a tragic young death unsurprisingly proved irresistible, and not only to the tabloids. The first ten pages of news section of the Irish Independent on Saturday 8 December, two days after her death, were entirely devoted to the story and were further supplemented by several features. Medb Ruane's article was particularly notable – attributing angelic status to Ms French and recasting her struggle to become a celebrity as a heroic quest against “the bitches and bastards” – the anonymous bloggers, jealous rivals and, naturally, Associated Newspapers journalists who had dared to express some scepticism in the face of the celebrity status that the Sunday Independent declared for French long before she was remotely famous.


Given the overblown nature of the coverage in the Independent, it was something of a miracle that John Waters managed to outdo them all in the Irish Times.

In the course of a tear-stained article, he revealed that he had met Katy French once. On the basis of that brief encounter he concluded that she was “the daughter of our dreams”, “a personification of our fantasies” and “a meteorite of desire plummeting through the Irish zeitgeist”. The article concluded by way of the pope's latest encyclical and a series of metaphysical assertions which, by a logical process decipherable only by the divine, led to the revelation of our collective guilt as a society.

It would be unfair, however, to imply that the Irish Times had much of a hand in the media hysteria.
Waters' article was most likely an example of self-indulgence twinned with a sentimental disposition rather than a ploy to cash in on low-brow celebrity scandal.  Despite the fact that stories related to Katy French were the most popular pages on their website for several days in a row, the ‘IT' were models of constraint compared to their competition. They limited themselves to a single front-page story, reporting on her death in hospital, in the week after the story broke.

The hysteria was picked up by politicians of all stripes, who tend to be keenly attuned to the media's agenda. The opposition's justice spokesperson, Charlie Flanagan, proposed a series of tough-sounding measures involving suitable reductions in civil liberties. Meanwhile the Taoiseach sent his official representative to Ms. French's funeral - a mark of respect not normally afforded to the victims of drugs.

The Gardai launched an extensive investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death, with the intention of identifying who may have supplied her with drugs. Ireland was officially and suddenly in the midst of a cocaine crisis. The sense of crisis was further fuelled by the media's natural response to a big story involving cocaine – much greater prominence for cocaine related stories and a much greater willingness to speculate about the possibility of cocaine being a factor in the mysterious deaths of young people.

The problem with this sort of media-generated crisis is, however, that it is driven by newspaper sales rather than by any desire to solve a real problem.

For all the mythologizing eulogies about French, public interest in the story was driven by a good old fashioned celebrity drugs scandal rather than by the high esteem in which she was held. Even in the Independent, the literary laments for her demise were accompanied by articles hinting at further scandals among the “celebrity set” and lengthy descriptions of the fashion choices of the mourners at her funeral.

The hypocrisy and cynicism of the media's hysteria did not, however, go entirely unremarked upon. Kevin Myers took some time out from the one-man crusade against the evils of Islamic fundamentalism to which he has recently tirelessly devoted his column in the Independent in order to denounce the media's cynical opportunism. “The ‘Katy' phenomenon only becomes really explicable in the context of a newspaper war in a declining market. [She] was thoughtful enough to give the tabloid-media all they wanted - a drug-related tragic end, with the kind of protracted death-bed drama that our beloved carrion-devourers prefer.”  The only fact that Myers neglected to mention was that his newspaper was undoubtedly in the forefront of the hysteria. 

Yet, despite Myers and the small number of voices who attempted to put the hysteria into perspective, it is highly likely that the cocaine-crisis will be a media staple for some time to come.  Although it is undoubtedly true that cocaine-use is an increasing health and social problem, there is actually very little to suggest that it amounts to any great crisis.

While headline statistics from Primetime may reveal that a large number of pubs contain traces of cocaine, it is impossible to extrapolate from those figures to get even a vague idea of how prevalent its use is nowadays. Similarly, anecdotes about cocaine being socially acceptable at respectable dinner parties, or vox-pops with young men outside pubs, fuelled by drink and bravado, recounting how freely available cocaine is to them do not provide a good basis on which to build public policy. If we are indeed in the middle of a cocaine crisis, then we must also be experiencing a permanent alcohol crisis of far greater scale. The nature of media hysteria is also such that policy responses tend to be superficial and ineffective - the sort of knee jerk tough sounding nonsense that Fine Gael have already proposed. None of this matters to the media. Their goal is simply to sell newspapers, social problems such as drug abuse are merely occasionally convenient vehicles to pursue this goal - much as Katy French was.