Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Pungent whiff of desperation over coverage of Katy French

Taoiseach, what the hell did you think you were doing? Well, I suppose the presence of the Taoiseach's aide de camp at the funeral of poor Katy French finally puts an official endorsement on celebrity culture in Ireland, though, in all truth, I had never heard of the girl until shortly before her death.

I first registered her existence when reading a nasty, sneering piece in one newspaper about how no one of note had turned up at her birthday party (what delightful people we journalists can sometimes be, and what a story to be able put on your CV). Next the girl was dead: and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, Katy. Many observers have often remarked upon the Irish characteristic of imitating other cultures, both shamelessly and badly.

Cross-channel television formats are copied, almost as if the derivative Irish versions were entirely new and original, though the qualities which usually distinguish them are amateurishness, ineptitude and inaccuracy.

This degrading business of copying like ill-bred monkeys is not new: the hideous showbands of yesteryear attempted to be what they were not - Nashville, Elvis, even the Beatles. Sad, pathetic stuff, yet it is so common in Irish life that one can only presume it is actually part of the national character.

So, of course, we emulated celebrity culture when it arrived, though we didn't have the raw product, and in the absence of the real thing, we even turned a solicitor to the 'stars' - or rather the fool's gold that masquerades as such - into a celebrity.

Utter non-entities became famous merely because the media said they were famous, when they simply weren't. It was post-colonial mimicry at its most embarrassing. Yet, with the Katy French phenomenon, we got a genuinely new and very Irish slant on celebrity culture. The poor girl only became a national figure for being on the verge of death and then dying.

Thus, once again, we got an Irish solution to an Irish problem - from Wolfe Tone to Patrick Pearse, from Terence McSwiney to Bobby Sands, and once again unleashing a convulsion of hysteria. But this time, the hysteria hasn't been in the streets, but solely in the media. Katy French was invented by the print media; celebrated in life in the same media - though in a way which escaped my attention entirely; was turned into an object of acidulous media scorn towards the end of her days; took some drugs; hovered on the verge of death, to the intense satisfaction of some journalists; and, like the good girl she was, then did what was expected of her, and died.

But now it was the media imitating what they expected the plain people of Ireland would be doing; only they weren't. They were sorry for the girl, to be sure, and felt for her family.

They also felt for the families of the Waterford lads, Kevin Doyle and John Grey, who apparently died of similar causes. But around where I live, the talk wasn't so much of Katy French but of Tracy O'Brien, who was seven-months pregnant in her 4 x 4 when she was hit and killed around the same time Katy died. A caesarean did not save her baby, and on Monday, the baby, baptised Cameron, was buried in her young arms. And so her husband, David O'Brien - an officer in the Army of the Republic, than which there is no higher calling for an Irishman - must make sense of this world, after the greatest catastrophe that can befall a man. And of course, he cannot.

A week ago he was a proud and loving soldier-husband and about to be a father; now he is a childless widower, and outside the ranks of the Army, and rural Ireland, his tragedy is largely unknown. Dublin-based journalists may prattle about poor Katy (see pages 5,6,7 & 8 et cetera) but in terms of human catastrophe, the instant deaths of Tracy O'Brien and her unborn baby are far more shocking and tragic. But it doesn't make such lurid copy.

Moreover, one gets the pungent whiff of desperation in all this. Newspaper circulations are declining everywhere, and few people under 30 read newspapers, either broadsheet or tabloid, at all.

So the 'Katy' phenomenon only becomes really explicable in the context of a newspaper war in a declining market. There are too many titles chasing too few readers: the result is a downward spiral in taste and decency.

That being the case, we must brace ourselves for more Katy Frenches, though it is unlikely any will fit the requirements of the tabloids as she did so perfectly: beautiful, young, glamorous and 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. From vultures, we can only expect beak and claw. Similarly, from the Government, surely, while drugs remain illegal, we might expect a single clear message on the subject.

But if the Taoiseach continues to send his ADC to the funerals of high-profile drugs-users, what possible chance of success has any government campaign against cocaine consumption?

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