What's the right way to respond to #MichaelJackson's death?

by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2009

Why is it okay to laugh at the death of celebrities? Genuine question. As news of Michael Jackson’s death swept the world last night, causing the Internet to grind to a standstill, two things about our new cyber-age stood out to me.

First, that it was a US celeb website, TMZ.com, which broke the news of Jacko’s demise, leaving traditional media, including the wire agencies and LA Times, in its reporting wake. Its maintained the frenetic and frequently intrusive coverage today. If you want to see pics of the paramedics arriving at Jacko’s house, or of his grief-stricken relatives at UCLA hospital, or if you want to see the body bag arriving at the coroner’s – it’s all there for your voyeuristic viewing pleasure.

Gorge away, you know you want to, just as you know you’d slow down when passing a road accident. Never mind that it’s de-humanising: celebrities are public property, we pay their wages, dammit we own them! Even and especially in death.

Secondly, the worldwide phenomenon that is Twitter – so visible a couple of weeks ago with its uncensored spread of #iranelection news – once again proved we now live in a wireless global village, with top-trending Tweet hashtags including #MichaelJackson or simply #mj. This wildfire dissemination has revealed the variety of reactions to his death, with Tweets ranging from grieving to amazed to bored to flippant.

Within just a couple of hours of Michael Jackson’s death becoming general knowledge yesterday, Liberal Conspiracy was already collating the funniest messages, a mix of LOLarious, tasteless and black humour (no puns, please, this is a serious post). Of course this simply mirrors and amplifies in public what once would have happened in the relative privacy of pubs up and down the country.

The fact that society does not have a unified response to the complex range of emotions that the sudden demise of an emo popster like Jacko provokes should come as no surprise. It is one of the built-in double-standardds of news reporting of slebs’ deaths that only the respectful can be broadcast, a principle which was over-extended to snapping point in the mad week following Princess Diana’s death – the perils of breaching this unwritten code can be seen in the virulent backlash to trash gossip website Perez Hilton’s inaccurate suggestion last night that Jacko’s cardiac arrest was a low-rent publicity stunt.

Yet is such hypocrisy such a Bad Thing when reporting death, even and including a celebrity’s death? It doesn’t matter what you thought of Michael Jackson – whether you believe he was the King of Pop or a troubled child-man – he leaves behind him three kids, two ex-wives and family and friends, and they will all be grappling with universal emotions today: grief, guilt, bewilderment, emptiness, regret. Most of us have the opportunity to wrestle with such feelings in privacy, to isolate ourselves from the outside, and come to terms with it all in our own space, in our own time.

There is a time for the public sphere, for promenading as individuals or as a community; but the existence of and need for the public sphere also shows the importance of the private sphere. And never more so than in times of death.

My closing thought is no more than this: any death is a sad event for those involved, so why can’t we just let them get on with their grieving and their lives in peace? Sure, let the jokes be told and Tweeted if that’s you’re thing – it is, after all, your democratic right – but why not at least save it for the pub.