The tragic death of Caroline Flack at the weekend has occupied more column inches than you’d perhaps expect for the host of a much loved and yet fairly trivial TV show. And there’s a very obvious reason why. The suicide of former host of ITV’s Love Island has raised deeply uncomfortable questions about online culture and media intrusion. What we’re witnessing, I hope, is a moment of national remorse.
We might not like to admit it but we’re all partially culpable for Caroline Flack’s death. Flack had been accused of allegedly assaulting her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, last December – a trial that was due to start next month. None of this matters though: she had already received her sentence from the court of Twitter where any and everyone had an opinion on what happened. She was labelled everything from ‘bunny boiler’ to ‘dangerous’ on social media with many calling for her to be sent to jail before her case had even been heard.
Innocent until proven guilty might be the founding principal of our justice system but, in the online wilderness beyond the courtroom, there’s no such commitment to fairness or facts.
For Flack, just the mere accusation of assaulting her boyfriend proved to be harmful to her successful media career. Her decision to step down from hosting Winter Love Island is an example of this.
It has since emerged that the door was left open for Flack to return to her role. But the fact is that Flack’s reputation was doomed before she even reached the courts. Nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven in today’s internet age; the accusations would have continued to haunt her career whatever the outcome of the court case. Our salacious appetite for news stories about the private lives of celebrities means that we forget that these individuals are not cartoon characters but humans with all the same frailties as us.
In the wake of her suicide, people are searching for answers, desperate to prevent a situation like this occurring again, and rightly so. Too often the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is undercut and reversed before an individual has their day in court simply because people are desperate to pass their own judgement en masse on the internet. The 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim showed how suicide, far from being an individualised psychological disorder, is strongly informed by social forces. The most potent social force of our time has to be social media and the pressure cooker effect it has on individuals who find themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.
The question is, are there ways of creating a more merciful media environment without threatening freedom of speech? Caroline Flack’s death has shown just how difficult a balancing act this is proving to be. We live in a society that preaches tolerance and acceptance at every turn but, more often than not, finds itself indulging in condemnation and judgement. This culture proved too much for Flack – as it will do for many other individuals – unless we learn to temper our instinct to play judge and jury online.