The ghoulish spin in the Steenkamp case


Rupert Murdoch knows how his newspapers’ readers like their girls (I use the word advisedly: in the world of tabloid publishing, there are no “women”, only “girls” and, sometimes, “mums”). They should have long hair; small waists; medium-to-large, natural breasts; and an interest in, say, the poetry of Theodore Geisel or nanoscience. Death is not necessarily a disqualifying factor.

Certainly, the fact that Reeva Steenkamp’s body was barely cold in a South African morgue last Friday didn’t stop Murdoch’s Sun newspaper inviting its readers to ogle her – she was pictured on a beach, clad in a pink bikini as her blonde hair blew about behind her.

The paper splashed with a giant front page picture of Steenkamp as it was revealed that her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, had been arrested on suspicion of her murder. The story didn’t even mention Steenkamp by name until the second paragraph. (We should probably just be grateful that it didn’t give her vital statistics in brackets immediately afterwards.) The spread was ghoulish, dehumanising and tasteless to the point of laughable – if the context hadn’t been so tragic. It prompted an outcry on Twitter and across the internet.

By last Monday, as Pistorius was preparing for his second court appearance, Steenkamp was back on the Sun’s front page, this time fully dressed. But any hope that the message might have got through was dashed by the huge photo of her on page five, in which she was sporting nothing but a black lacy bra.

The Sun wasn’t the only paper to spin the story as “Oscar Pistorius charged with death of generic hot blonde”: the New York Post and the New York Daily News opted for a similar approach (the Post is another Murdoch publication.) The Mail and the online Huffington Post also went big on the bikini angle.

The argument being trotted out in defence of the tabloids was that Reeva Steenkamp had been a model: these were simply images of her at work. That may be true, but a simple image search would have revealed many photos of her “at work” with all her clothes on. She was also a law graduate, of course – and no, I don’t expect you came across any photos of her poring over books in the library either.

So yes, many people were justifiably appalled. But can anyone really have been surprised? After all, reducing women to the sum of their body parts is what this section of the media does every single day. That is the rationale behind the page three, and the reason why Murdoch – despite his tantalising recent suggestion to the contrary – probably won’t actually “consider” discontinuing it any time soon.

Page three doesn’t exist to feed the demands of women clamouring to get their tops off for the boys; it doesn’t exist merely because “sex sells” or because, as is often suggested with an almost touching naivety, “men just like looking at breasts”.

It exists because a certain type of man – a Sun-reading type of man – likes to imagine he lives in a world where women are called names like Lacey and Amii, and while they might spout on about things such as stem-cell research and North Korean nuclear testing, what they’re really interested in is whether blokes fancy them. Page three’s primary purpose is to reassure Sun-Reading Man that, no matter what the “PC hypocrites” – as Murdoch has called them – might wish, the world has not moved on all that much.

Sadly, this does not appear to be an entirely false proposition. I was disgusted by the tabloid coverage of Reeva Steenkamp’s murder, but I wasn’t surprised. Any shock I felt was reserved for some of the coverage of it on Twitter.

Within hours of the news breaking last Thursday, the social network was groaning under the weight of “legless” jokes and gags about the “worst Valentine’s present ever”. They included one by John Cleese that was shared more than 2,800 times; a handful of equally unfunny efforts by comedian Frankie Boyle (retweeted more than 8,000 times), and many more by would-be comedians with far less glittering CVs. Presumably, some of the people who shared these jokes were the same ones who, 24 hours later, would be busying themselves being loudly incensed by the Sun’s front page.

Have we become so desensitised to violence that humour or an invitation to check her out “as she flaunts her curves in a bikini” seem appropriate responses to the death of a woman by gunshot wounds?

Last week, when Rupert Murdoch tweeted that he was considering the future of page three, he suggested that he might replace it with “glamourous fashionistas”. If this is an indication of what he has in mind, I’d sooner he stuck with Amii and her aspirations for world peace.

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