Public Death

When the News of The World printed a photo of a gravely ill looking football icon, George Best, it served as an uncomfortable glimpse of near-death and as a warning to others. The writing that accompanied the photo was explicit: “The outlook is pretty awful. His muscles have shrunk away. The red marks on his body are a sign of bleeding into the skin.”

Best’s steady decline was widely reported stage by stage as his body finally succumbed to alcoholism.

The public deaths of two giants of Northern Irish public life this year, the other one a political figure, have reminded us of the role the media plays in the world of celebrity. When Former Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, became ill in August, the front page of The Sun announced: “Mowlam ‘close to the end’”. This doesn’t happen for every famous face. Her death was of special interest because the timing of it was horribly ironic. The former Cabinet Minister went into a coma just days before the IRA vowed to end their long violent Irish republican struggle. The historic ceasefire was the crowning glory of Mowlam's chequered political career.

The extensive coverage during Best’s final days in hospital made sense for two reasons. He was a national hero, but a controversial one. While Mowlam bravely marched on with her important work after developing a brain tumour in 1997, Best, the former star Manchester United winger, faced a drink-driving charge and a liver transplant in 2002 as his alcohol abuse slowly consumed him.

When celebrities die, the media is quick to put together tributes. The poignant news coverage of Best, even before his death, would include the lines: “In his 1960s prime, he was dubbed the 5th Beatle,” and: “He was one of the country’s greatest footballers.” As Mowlam neared the end, The Sun’s coverage of her demise was full of praise: “[She] was a staunch Labour Party favourite… and stood down as an MP at the 2001 General Election.”

The level of newspaper and television attention is a tricky thing to get right. The Daily Mail’s Stephen Glover criticised the blanket reporting bestowed on an alcoholic footballer when the space might have been better used to cover a more deserving story. Glover said: “What knocks the wind out of me is that the media should have responded to [Best’s] death as though it were a heart-rending communal tragedy. Our media are partly to blame. We helped to make his death what it was.”

Yet death is no different to other news-worthy events in a famous life, in as much as it sells newspapers, or keeps viewers glued to one channel. After a career hyped by huge media exposure, the death of a celebrity will be the closing chapter in an ultimately public story. But just as a novelist must take care to finish her story successfully, so the media will be careful to send off a celebrity with the same sensitivity with which it hopefully dealt with his life achievements. In reporting such a delicate event as a publically drawn out death, the media has to balance a moral duty to respect the anguish of loved ones with a professional duty to give readers and fans all the grisly details. Gary Roberts


2 Responses to "Public Death"

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contribs editor

Sat, 01/28/2006 - 18:56
From Deborah Hobson<br /> <br /> George Best was an exceptionally talented footballer, a son, brother, father, husband, lover, friend, team mate as well as a chronic alcoholic. Journalists did their job and reported the news of his death. Overall, the coverage reflected the pathos of George Bests life and perhaps it was to their credit that most journalists concentrated on his 'glory days'. Citicism of what appeared to be the ritualistic response of the puplic to the death ignores the fact that a large proportion of people have personal experience of alcoholism or know friends or family members for whom the saying 'one for the road' became a lifetime of drink and destruction. It is conceivable that the publics outpouring of grief was genuine. The great failure of the media reporting of Bests death was the lack of expert comment from Alcoholic Anonymous and analysis of their research, particularly into the link between genetics and alcoholism-George Bests mother was an alcoholic.


Sat, 01/28/2006 - 18:56
I think the point is that for the months leading up to his death, ever single newspaper that carried an article concerning George Best was severe criticism with regards to his alcoholism and let's not foget domestic abuse.<br /> <br /> Yet when he passed there was a sudden turnaround and the public were thrown from a speeding train of criticism and were suddenly surrounded by eternal praise for his lifetime achievements.<br /> <br /> I fully understand that he may have been a remarkable footballer but, and I make no apologies for this, that means very little in my eyes. He didn't save lives or even provide some kind of essential service, he was famous for playing a game and <em>no</em> no amount of trophies or sporting acclaim can compensate for the fact that he physically abused women and drank himself to death. George Best was given a second chance at life. A liver transplant that could have gone to someone who wouldn't take it for granted. George Best seemed to think livers were like tyres, something that you replaced after you had rendered them useless after abusin them over time.<br /> <br /> So yes, I'm <em>very</em> sorry for his family that he has passed away, but I for one will not be jumping on the &quot;George Best: The National Treasure&quot; bandwagon!