Love(less) Island: Should media coverage of celebrities be more strictly regulated?

Image Credit: PA Images

Yesterday, a coroner ruled Caroline Flack’s tragic death as a suicide. Flack, one of the most popular British television personalities, hanged herself on Saturday, February 15, in her northeast London apartment. Flack is most well-known for hosting the popular UK reality TV show, “Love Island.”

Two previous “Love Island” contestants died by suicide, Sophie Gradon in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis in 2019, making Flack the third person associated with the show to have committed suicide. In response to Gradon’s and Thalassitis’s deaths, ITV, the British network that broadcasts “Love Island,” released new guidelines in May 2019 to promote contestants’ well-being. As part of its new support procedures, the network now requires a minimum of eight therapy sessions for each contestant upon their return home, and it offers “training on dealing with social media.”

Image Credit: ITV / WENN (Pictured: Sophie Gradon (left) & Mike Thalassitis (right) – Love Island cast members who also took their own lives)

Flack, who left “Love Island” in December, was due to stand trial for an alleged assault on her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, in March. Yesterday, Flack’s family released an unpublished Instagram post that Flack had written shortly before she passed. In the post, she referenced her assault charges and stated that she was not a domestic abuser. She also wrote that since her arrest, her “whole world and future was swept from under my feet.” After Flack was charged, British tabloids demonized her, posting scathing articles about the star daily.

British tabloids are notoriously brutal in how they depict certain celebrities. A recent example of how these publications vilify certain individuals is how the British press has treated Meghan Markle, which arguably led to Prince Harry’s and her defection from the royal family. Princess Diana was similarly hounded by the British tabloids, though she had more of a love/hate relationship with the press than Markle. Her death serves as a reminder of what can go wrong when the paparazzi (who are paid by the tabloids) recklessly pursue a photograph and/or story.

Image Credit: Tara Steinmetz via toughtotame.org (Pictured: a compilation of British tabloid headlines about Meghan Markle)

Flack’s death has reopened the debate over press regulation in Britain. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman called Flack’s death a tragedy and said that social media companies should do more to ensure that unacceptable content is removed. Tracy Brabin, the opposition Labour Party’s culture spokeswoman, went a step further and called out the mainstream press. Brabin said “Caroline Flack was relentlessly trolled online, but this trolling was amplified and legitimized by the mainstream press and they should not be allowed to dodge their share of the blame.”

More impressive than the politicians’ calls for action has been the reaction of the public. On Monday, U.K. citizen Stephanie Davis started an online petition calling for a law that would prevent newspapers from “sharing private information that is detrimental to a celebrity, their mental health, and those around them.” Close to 600,000 people have signed the petition. This campaign urging new legislation has been dubbed “Caroline’s Law.” Though the effort is admirable, such calls for action on this issue have been resisted in the past due to fears that new legislation could threaten the freedom of the press. Thus, the debate boils down to freedom of the press versus the right to privacy.

In contrast to the United States, Britain has no constitutional guarantee of press freedom. However, Britain has a long tradition of a free, inquisitive press, and previous efforts to strengthen privacy laws at the expense of press freedom have failed. The Protection from Harassment Act was introduced in 1997, and it remains largely unchanged. Media commentators say that the calls for “Caroline’s Law” will not be any more successful than past attempts to strengthen British privacy laws. In addition, many are quick to point out the hypocrisy of the British public, who indulge in reading and often writing about these celebrities but are quick to blame the media when things go wrong.

It is hard to ignore the symbiotic relationship between the press and celebrities, who largely reach certain levels of fame due to press coverage. Regardless of whether you favor stricter privacy laws over the freedom of the press (or vice versa), situations such as Caroline Flack’s suicide should remind us all of the importance of empathy and kindness.

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Liz Costello, University at Buffalo School of Law, Class of 2020. Liz is the Treasurer of the Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Law Society, an Articles Editor of the Buffalo Law Review, and an anticipated associate at Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham LLC. Having grown up in Los Angeles with an entertainment attorney mother, Liz is especially interested in the legal issues surrounding music, film, television, and sports. Her favorite activities include going to local live music and sporting events.

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