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Stop exploiting murder

We should not rush to turn real-life crimes into entertainment and arguments

Artillery Row

The trial of the two teenagers accused of stabbing Brianna Ghey to death has seen reporters picking over grisly details like carrion crows. The CCTV from the last bus taken by the victim has been released, and even the footage from the family’s video doorbell is now public.

Depressingly, stabbings of youngsters in city centres are so common as to barely scrape a mention outside the pages of the local news outlets. This year in London alone, 16 teenagers have been murdered; 14 died by knife wounds, and two were shot. Unlike Brianna Ghey, none identified as trans. Undoubtedly, it is Ghey’s identification as a transgirl that pushed the story into national headlines.

The BBC has pumped out at least nine articles since the accused entered court on Monday. Pink News has been predictably eager to use the tragic killing to berate commenters about pronouns and the immorality of “deadnaming” the deceased. Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has published around ten articles, even producing a podcast including details such as how deep the knife went in. It is hard not to reflect that the life of the child at the centre of the case has been reduced to clickbait.

Outraged readers are also revelling in the grisly details of a killing

A constant throughout the coverage is pious condemnation of the defendants’ fascination with gore and the grotesque. Both 15 at the time of the killing, the accused, known as “Girl X” and “Boy Y”, were found to have exchanged gruesome messages fantasising about murdering their peers. Social media posts and comments from readers following the case have competed to express horror at the dark interests shared by the pair. Yet arguably in doing so, by picking through the prurient specifics, outraged readers are also revelling in the grisly details of a killing.

To be clear, there is no straight line between having an interest in the human propensity for inhumanity and committing acts of violence oneself. Perhaps a fascination with terrible and taboo acts could even be protective — a way of finding where the edges are, of looking at danger to understand it. It is notable that as a genre, true crime has a largely female fanbase. Some have suggested that delving into the criminal mind offers women a way to discuss male violence. Whatever the explanation, the public intrusion into such a recent and untimely death reveals something uncomfortable about British society.

To true crime podcaster Clive Simpson, the coverage of Ghey’s killing crosses the line. The cases he examines are firmly in the past, and he is careful to treat victims with respect.

“I don’t like to dwell too much on the violence beyond simple statements of fact so no salacious, morbid focus on injuries inflicted, for instance,” Simpson says. “I try and bring the victims to life as much as possible,” he adds, “so they’re not just bit part actors in a horror story. My focus is always on the victim, not glamorising the perpetrator.”

What makes the death of Ghey different is that it was immediately politicised. Across the country ghoulish trans activists in the UK had their photogenic martyr at last. They assembled for candlelit vigils, long before any motive could be established. Those in the public eye were keen to put the blade in the hand of their ideological opponents.

Just two days after Ghey’s death, Labour’s Nadia Whittome MP tweeted, “Brianna deserved a chance to become a beautiful adult woman, and to live to see a world where trans people are safe and respected.” Meanwhile, less than a week later trans activist lawyer Robin Moira White wrote in the Independent, “this kind of tragedy was waiting to happen. Anyone who followed the Conservative leadership contest will have seen the candidates vying with each other to stoke ‘debate’ over trans people’s lives; and such sentiment is something I, as Britain’s only trans discrimination barrister, have to cope with every day.”

Ghey’s death has been cynically exploited by activists, and the actions of the defendants have been turned into fodder to feed prurient public interest. If transphobia exists, it is surely to be found in the dehumanisation of a dead teenager — in the coverage and commentary which has turned a brutal killing into true crime entertainment.

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