Caroline Flack, the former host of the hit reality TV show Love Island, was found dead in her home nearly a week ago, having taken her own life. The news was a shocking close to months of intense coverage of Flack’s life, and extreme scrutiny on social media.
Aged 40, she had for years been in the public eye, and pored over by Britain’s tabloid press. But recent coverage was of a different tenor. In December, she was charged with assault, following an incident involving her partner, the tennis player Lewis Burton. It unleashed a torrent of tabloid speculation – about her mental state, her finances, the future of her career, and her relationships.
Caroline Flack’s story exposes something toxic at the heart of celebrity culture – and in particular, how we appraise women in the public eye. Traditional media coverage shaped Flack’s journey through celebrity, and drove dissection of her life on social media. But it went further, too. After her death, the Daily Mail sent a push notification to the phones of its readers detailing the manner in which Flack ended her life, a serious breach of the Samaritan’s best practise guidelines for reporting on suicide.
Here, we examine the coverage of her life, and her death, and what it tells us about the state of celebrity culture.
We analysed 120 articles about Caroline Flack that appeared in three British tabloids, The Sun, The Mirror and The Daily Mail over six months, between September 2019 and her recent death. The coverage breaks down into three distinct sections: pre-assault charge, where the tone is often gossipy and salacious; post-assault charge, after which it becomes both more serious, and vicious; and finally after her death, when the coverage becomes packed full of heartfelt tributes.
“Caroline Flack is back and better than ever with a sleek new hairstyle. The Love Island presenter made a comeback to social media with an incredible snap having been absent from her Instagram account for a week.” Daily Mirror, 25 September 2019
“Lewis Burton and the Love Island host were both covered in blood after she allegedly whacked him over the head with a lamp while he slept.” The Sun, 23 December 2019
“The coming days after Caroline Flack’s tragic passing will not only be one of grief, but reflection – as to how Britain lost one of its brightest stars… Caroline’s energy, kindness and huge talent made her one in a million, and a massive favourite with people of all ages and among our team at The Sun.” The Sun, 17 February 2020
In March 2018, Ant McPartlin, one half of the television-presenting duo Ant and Dec, was arrested for drink-driving. Flack and McPartlin share certain characteristics – both well-known and loved ITV presenters of a similar age, charged with high-profile crimes. Yet the coverage these two stories generated is markedly different.
“Her bed is splattered with blood in an exclusive photo of the carnage at her North London flat. A source said: “The police were right when they said it looks like a horror movie.’’ The Sun, 31 December 2019
“Ant McPartlin is facing fresh anguish as it’s reported he could lose custody of his beloved dog following his drink-driving charge… Estranged wife Lisa Armstrong, 41, is said to have now taken control of the dog after Ant announced plans to return to rehab.” Daily Mirror, 22 March 2018
“A six-year-old girl has written a touching letter to TV star Ant McPartlin to show how much she still adores him despite his drink-drive shame.” Daily Mail, 21 April 2018
A duty of care
Flack really shot to stardom as the face of Love Island, the jewel in the crown of ITV’s reality TV offer. She lost that role after being charged with assault. The conclusion to draw, and a point that has been made by critics of the channel since her death, is that ITV was happy to leverage Flack’s tabloid salience and social media presence to promote the show, but was quick to drop her when the coverage became more critical after the criminal charge against her.
Her benching by ITV fuelled the fire of the press coverage, with the papers keen to report on her fall from grace. Flack’s death also raises questions about the channel’s duty of care, and what support she was offered as media scrutiny, and the tone of coverage, intensified.
Love Island, in particular, is currently the subject of a Parliamentary select committee inquiry into its duty of care, following the suicides of two contestants in the last few years.
“Caroline Flack has rejected ITV’s offer of therapy after she was forced to quit Love Island this week… She had felt let down by them after being forced to walk away from the show.” Daily Mirror, 20 December 2019
“Amanda Holden slammed ITV in a tribute to Caroline Flack following the news of her death. The Britain’s Got Talent judge, 48, blasted the company for not showing her the “same level of consideration, protection, warmth and importance as other artists in our industry who have struggled recently.” The Sun, 16 February 2020
If you are mourning one trolled celebrity and sticking to your troll guns about Meghan Markle and Jameela Jamil you are clearly part of the problem. ‘Sticks and stones’ is bullshit. Mental health is real.
— Matt Haig (@matthaig1) February 15, 2020
Flack’s death points at important broader questions of how we talk about mental health. Traditional and social media were rife with speculation about Flack’s mental state in the weeks and months leading up to her death, with the media keen to quote concerned “pals” talking of her going through “the worst time”.
“Caroline Flack has spoken about her battle with anxiety after opening up to someone made her feel worse. The TV presenter, 39, was posting to mark last week’s World Mental Health day, as she admitted she had been in a ‘really weird place’ mentally over the last few weeks.” Daily Mirror, 15 October 2019
“Sources urged Caroline needed ‘urgent mental health treatment’ because the telly star was ‘clearly emotionally distressed’ on police’s arrival at her flat last year.” Daily Mirror, 17 February 2020
I didn’t know Caroline Flack. People would do well to remember that “celebrities” & public figures have interior lives. The UK tabloid press is a disgrace in treating the worst moments of people’s lives as entertainment. Maybe think about if strangers were poring over yours.
— Hannah Jane Parkinson (@ladyhaja) February 15, 2020
In the aftermath of Flack’s death, various sides have tried to apportion blame. Social media points to the tabloid press, which in turn points the finger at ITV. Others have accused the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) of proceeding unnecessarily. Flack’s partner, Lewis Burton, declined to press charges, but the CPS decided to continue with the prosecution.
The CPS has a two-stage test, issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions, which sets out the general principles for whether a prosecution should proceed.
- Is there sufficient evidence against the defendant, and a “realistic prospect of conviction”.
- Is it in the public interest for the CPS to bring the case to court, taking into account the seriousness of the offence and the harm caused.
Allegations of domestic abuse can be highly complex for the CPS. There are many more reports of domestic abuse in England and Wales than there are prosecutions, because of the number of individuals who withdraw complaints. For this reason the CPS does not always withdraw the prosecution even if the survivor of an alleged assault doesn’t want it to proceed.
According to the Office for National Statistics, women are around twice as likely to have experienced domestic abuse than men. Had the survivor of the alleged assault in this case been a woman, it is likely that the media would have been less quick to argue for the prosecution to be dropped on the basis that the woman did not want it to proceed.
“Why was the CPS so determined to make an example of her, even though her boyfriend was standing by her?” The Sun, 15 February 2020
“CAROLINE Flack’s boyfriend Lewis Burton has called her ‘the most lovely girl’ — after she was arrested for allegedly hitting him with a mobile phone.” The Sun, 16 December 2019
Caroline Flack’s death exposes how the often toxic relationship between celebrity, media and the public can target people at their most vulnerable. Tragedies like these should act as an inflection point, and an opportunity to work through what it is that we want from our public figures, and whether our consumption of celebrity culture has the right balance.