It began with a very public statement online. "With great sadness Ronan and Yvonne Keating today announce their separation. The separation is amicable and they will continue to work together in order to provide the best for their children. The family ask for privacy at this difficult time." As if. The statement on Keating's website sparked an unprecedented level of coverage in the newspapers. The Irish Times even found space for a small mention on its front page. And for some reason, even though nothing was actually happening, even though neither of the parties were speaking to the press and even though there was nothing to go on apart from rumour, the tabloids kept going.
There was some semblance of a series of events – Yvonne Keating apparently found a phone similar to her own that her husband was using to conduct a seven-month affair with a dancer, Francine Cornell, who was part of Boyzone's touring troupe. Ronan was apparently then kicked out of the family home and, rather rapidly, the statement announcing their separation was released. Keating had committed to a three-night stand of performances in Zurich, a commitment he fulfilled, and upon returning to Ireland, took up residence at the K Club golfing resort with his children, while his wife went between the gates of the house and Malahide village in the company of friends, neighbours and relations. So far, so boring.
One of the reasons mooted for the suddenness of the statement is that a Sunday newspaper was about to break the story, having gained information relating to the affair. It is thought by some that the Keatings decided to set the agenda themselves, rather than allow a newspaper to reveal the information, although that isn't compatible with the narrative we have been sold so far.
The Irish Daily Mirror led the charge the day after the separation announcement with the rather brilliant "Ronan Cheating" headline, but many of the front pages were expert exercises in straw-grasping.
The Sunday World managed to get a front-page splash out of Yvonne Keating hanging out with the family's dogs. "DOG GONE" the headline screamed; "Glam Yvonne sticks with loyal family pets as cheating Keating jets out", complete with a photograph of two dogs. The Irish Daily Star's front page on Tuesday featured Ronan Keating wearing a necklace with a key attached to it. This was of front-page significance seemingly because his estranged wife wore one similar to it a few days previously. And on Thursday, the Irish Daily Mail dedicated a page to the various outfits Yvonne Keating had been wearing over the previous days, detailing how she was perfecting scorned-woman style, an article which simultaneously endorsed and ridiculed the amount of coverage.
Throughout the week, photographers and reporters began not so much a siege of the Keatings' €2.5m home at Abington in Malahide, as a safari-style spotting game documenting the comings and goings of Ronan, Yvonne, their children and various friends and neighbours. Some observers rather cruelly wondered whether the events were actually a publicity stunt, given the unusual velocity with which they were unfolding.
It was hard to keep track of the number of times Ronan pulled up in a luxury vehicle outside their house, and how long he stayed and when he left, and when/if he came back, or when he started golfing on the K Club course, or when Yvonne left to go for coffee in Malahide with friends, or for lunch, or drove out in an open-top BMW or appeared at the gates of the house at least once a day, or which friends and family members were going back and forth to Abington. With all the coming and going, you'd swear they wanted to be seen.
The story began to run out of steam, but the coverage kept trundling ahead. The willingness with which the tabloids were pushing this story is in some ways strange given that – unlike, say, the recent overblown coverage of the death of Gerry Ryan – the Keating split isn't really a non-stop topic of national conversation.
"What shocked me most about it was people weren't talking about it," communications expert Terry Prone said. "None of the pictures moved things along, although they [the Keatings] were clearly not avoiding having their picture taken. Neither of them has what we call a visual personality. Some people are alive under their skin, and look furious or grief-stricken or joyous. It bubbles out of them. But Yvonne is pale and expressionless. The pictures of her are so desperately uninteresting that the newspapers ended up talking about what she was wearing."
There is a sense now that celebrity stories, especially ones relating to infidelity, are being latched on to and blown out of proportion as a kind of diversion from the 'downer' type of news that has occupied much of the print media over the past year or so in relation to the economy.
A juicy (even if the juice is created largely by the newspapers themselves) celebrity story offers a welcome respite from the doom and gloom financial stories that are becoming a turn-off for readers.
The biggest shift in tabloid reporting, which the Keating story has illustrated best so far in Ireland, is the adoption of the tabloid magazine method of what is known as 'selling a narrative'. A narrative is created around an incident or a photograph, and a pseudo-story is built around that. The reader consumes the narrative like they consume EastEnders or Coronation Street, and facts or any kind of truth becomes incidental. It is easier to get people emotionally invested in a narrative, creating the same emotional responses that make soap operas popular; there always needs to be the follow-up, the latest instalment. But it can backfire too, especially if the story just isn't interesting enough.
"Newspapers sometimes commit themselves to a story and are afraid to abandon it," Prone said. "They don't have the ability to say 'Nobody cares, let's pull the photographers from the gig', and then they're stuck with it. Some of the papers probably thought it was going to be an Ashley and Cheryl Cole-type story, but it isn't, and they've ended up flogging a very dead horse with increasing enthusiasm."
Tabloid editors would beg to differ. "It sells newspapers, and it sells newspapers because people are interested," Daily Star editor Ger Colleran told the Sunday Tribune. "We don't go with 'is this in the public interest?' I never believed in that crap. If they're not interested, we'll move on... The only reason you [the Sunday Tribune] are doing this story is that you're attempting to piggyback and get on the wagon of the celebrity reporting. There's no other reason. You're attempting to have Mr and Mrs Keating's pictures in your paper." Colleran said the Star has had "good feedback" from readers about its coverage, and doesn't think the coverage has been "gratuitous or intrusive".
But there have been complaints about intrusion. On Tuesday, press ombudsman John Horgan emailed a confidential advisory note to newspaper editors after representatives of the Keatings voiced concerns about how the saga was being covered, especially in relation to their children.
Cynics might say maybe Keating should have thought about the protection of his children before he began a seven-month affair with a dancer. And if he really wanted to keep them out of the papers, he probably shouldn't have decamped to the K Club to play golf with them, or released a statement in the first place.
Ultimately, the story has been unique for its lack of excitement. Instead of any actual developments, readers were treated to boring photographs of the Keatings getting in and out of cars, and comments from a long line of increasingly desperate sources, unnamed "friends", "close friends", "sources close to", and some named ones as well.
This remarkable cast of loose-lipped pals include Louis Walsh ("I didn't see it coming at all") and Lisa Duffy, Keith Duffy's wife and friend of Yvonne, who chatted away to reporters from the Star and the Irish Independent.
"I feel that love never dies," she said. "I've seen them as a couple and I've seen them as a family. I know what they have."
Then there was the 'other woman's' ex-boyfriend's father (keep up) Royston Robbins, another unnamed Boyzone dancer, and Ronan's brother Gary who told the Mirror: "It has been tough but they'll get through it. I just hope it will all die down soon."
And let's not forget the delivery man who brought flowers to Yvonne Keating and had this pearl of wisdom: "I don't know if they're from Ronan to be honest." Eventually, even the parish priest Fr Paul Thornton spilled his guts to the Irish Sun. "I hope and pray Yvonne and Ronan can work through this and get back together," he said.
There is a place for all this gossip and rumour and endless photographs, of course, but is that place on the front of several newspapers every day, "no matter what" as Boyzone might say? And more importantly, who's next?
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