Soham voyeurs?

Nostalgists would maybe argue that detailed coverage of and interest in criminal cases is a fairly recent phenomenon - a symbol, alongside supposedly rising violent crime rates and the constant failure of the England cricket team, of a decline in British society. This is not so. From public hangings to "Penny Shocker" paperbacks on sale in railway stations, public interest in criminal cases has been alive and well for centuries.

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Soham voyeurs?

"Remember those covers of detective magazines long ago of women tightly bound and gagged in inescapable rope bondage? Are you tired of that namby-pamby posed bondage of today where the bondage is nice and neat and you know the models are only doing it for the money?"

So runs the introduction to Detective Magazine's web site, devoted to retro true-crime and detective publications between the 1930s and 1980s. True crime literature is as popular now as it was during this period — as booming sales of books by "Mad" Frankie Fraser and Jonny "Mad Dog" Adair in the run up to Christmas demonstrate. Giving your Aunty Mary a copy of "Top Ten Ripper Killer Cases" for Christmas seems just as acceptable as the traditional bath salts – especially if she specifically requests it. But is this a sign of a society gone wrong? Is the clear and often demonstrated public interest in the details of criminal cases actually an indication of a voyeuristic and amoral culture, slowly rotting in the bacteria of salacious criminal detail?

Coverage of the recent Soham murder trial has sparked off a public debate in which various voices, most notably including Roy Hattersley, have accused the British media and the British public of an unhealthy, and even prurient, interest in the details of the case. As Hattersley puts it:

".I cannot recall any recent prosecution being reported in such detail.we are required to believe — as a result of last Tuesday's unanimous editorial verdict – that the British public, whatever its general taste in journalism, combines in its enthusiasm for information about human suffering."

In response to Hattersley's perspective, one Guardian reader wrote in to the paper arguing that:

".the people of this country are not.collectively guilt of 'sedentary voyeurism' just because they buy the newspapers that print the distasteful details that have emerged from the Soham trial. The true voyeurs are those in the media who have decided to cover this trial in the way that they have."

The disputed point between these two men is the nature of the voyeurism displayed — is it the fault of the public, whose demand for a certain kind of material has led the newspapermen onto new heights of depravity, or the fault of the newspapers, that this case has been reported in such unpleasant detail? Neither of them challenge the idea that coverage of the Soham trial has been unpleasant, and that such a level of public/media interest is both unnatural and unprecedented.

There is a widespread notion that the 1990's, with its televised trials and high profile criminal cases (O.J. Simpson, the Bulger case) ushered us into a new age of criminal voyeurism. We could catch court-room TV live on satellite — no detail of the most important criminal cases of the day would be kept away from the public. This phenomenon was most recently played out in a case relevant to the British public when Louise Woodward, an English nanny living in the USA, was accused of killing a child left in her care. The details of this case as they were reported in the press, and the general public interest generated by it, arguably bring into question Hattersley's statement that he "cannot recall of any recent prosecution being reported in such detail."

Admittedly, Woodward's trial was a very different sort of case from the Soham trial, yet the issues it dealt with were similarly emotive — a young, attractive woman in a strange country, perhaps or perhaps not loses control when responsible for someone else's child. Trial coverage was just as salacious as that of the Soham murders, the difference being that because the details themselves were less gruesome, coverage of them was much less likely to shock. The precedent of detailed crime coverage had thus already been set in the TV age, long before the disappearance of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman had hit the headlines.

Nostalgists would maybe argue that detailed coverage of and interest in criminal cases is a fairly recent phenomenon — a symbol, alongside supposedly rising violent crime rates and the constant failure of the England cricket team, of a decline in British society. This is not so. From public hangings to "Penny Shocker" paperbacks on sale in railway stations, public interest in criminal cases has been alive and well for centuries. To accuse the modern British public of voyeurism is like accusing the Beckhams of courting the press — of course we are voyeuristic about criminal cases, we always have been. The only difference now is that technology allows for much faster and more reliable transfers of information. The details previously picked up as gossip in a tavern or coffee house can now be accessed through TV, newspapers and the internet. If voyeurism is the sign of an unhealthy society, then one can only conclude that Britain is a fairly lively corpse.

Followers of Carl Jung might even argue that interest in the sordid details of recent murder cases is a comparatively healthy phenomenon, in that it indicates a population which is in touch with its shadow, or innate dark side. Frieda Fordham says of this:

"The shadow is the inferior being in ourselves, the one who wants to do all the things that we do not allow ourselves to do, who is everything that we are not, the Mr Hyde to our Dr Jekyll.it is personal in so far as our own weaknesses and failings are concerned, but since it is common to humanity it can also be said to be a collective phenomenon."

She goes on to point out that according to Jung's psychological approach it takes great moral courage to acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of human nature which may form part of our own personalities. Acknowledging the existence of these aspects, however, is always preferable to ignoring them, as it is only by recognising these parts of ourselves that we have any hope of tackling or even changing them. So, while it might be inappropriate to suggest that the general British public is, in fact, engaging in a complex Jungian exercise when they gossip about the latest public child murder trial, perhaps we can take some comfort from these thoughts and acceptthat a little bit of voyeurism is probably quite normal — the detailed coverage of the Soham trial does not necessarily indicate the massive moral decline heralded by Mr Hattersley.

While popping off to subscribe to "True Detective Magazine" then, we might reflect on the idea that mass voyeurism is really the least of Britain's worries. Aunty Mary's Christmas present need not go back to the shop — in fact, a gift of "Top Ten Ripper Killer Cases" seems positively traditional.