Are we there yet? Is the mourn porn over? Can Gerry Ryan finally rest in peace? For the past week, it has been impossible to avoid the 'story' of Gerry Ryan's death, due to the incredible media reaction.
Front pages were torn apart to stampede the reader with the biggest headline, the most supercharged tribute, the most eclectic bundle of superlatives in one article. The coverage begat more coverage and it was hard to see where this all started, at what point fitting tributes to a popular broadcaster turned into a perpetually spinning cycle that continued to spew out overreactions.
There were some notable press moments: the pull-out supplements in the tabloids that then gave way to endless photographs of those grieving at the funeral; the Irish Independent with its front-page splash headlined 'More tests to find out how Gerry died', detailing routine and very non-news toxicology tests (they might as well have led with 'Gerry Ryan Still Dead').
Then on the day after the funeral, the tipping point, or rather tipping-over point, finally happened when a full page photograph on the front page of the Daily Mail recalled the dramatic coverage of the 9/11 attacks on the USA.
Even the usually sober Irish Examiner seemed to lose the run of itself, publishing a half-page sepia photograph of the hearse that contained Ryan's coffin.
Is this coverage fitting, or is there reason to question it?
The watershed in public grieving with the media as an active participant was, of course, the death of Princess Diana. Brian Trench, head of the School of Communications in DCU, points to our attitudes towards both celebrity and displays of public emotion to explain the level of coverage Ryan's death received.
"I think there is, not just in Ireland but in Britain too since the death of Princess Diana, a kind of greater capacity to emote publicly, to pour out one's feelings and grief, and if this can be centred on a well-known person that's the way it will happen," he said. "It's something that is of our times. I think it happens genuinely fairly spontaneously, and although I don't think the media play a role in creating it, they do amplify it."
This tendency towards collective displays of public emotion is a product of a spiritual recession as much as an economic one. The decline in organised religion leads some people to attach themselves to high- profile deaths and tragedies, which then unleash a tsunami of pent-up grief. There are remarkable similarities between the coverage of the deaths of Ryan and Boyzone's Stephen Gately, and the expressions of grief that followed those.
Communications and PR expert Terry Prone found the coverage "repetitive and mawkish" and blamed the gap between Ryan's death and his funeral for creating a vacuum that sucked in disproportionate coverage. "Somebody said to me today that it provoked a wider grief as if people were using it to express other aspects of grief about an Ireland that is going down the tubes," she told the Sunday Tribune.
"Some journalists are saying it's the public leading it, but in reality I think it's a dance of death between the two [public and media]." What do we do then if a president or a taoiseach dies? "The comparisons are going to be odious. There's no measuring against it. It's the most extraordinary level of coverage."
The centre pole of this week's expanding marquee of coverage was the broadcasting of Ryan's funeral live on 2FM. In an unprecedented move, RTE set up a dedicated multimedia website containing a live webcast of his funeral, radio programmes related to Ryan, a photo gallery, and the Late Late Show tribute special. On 2FM, Ryan's friend Mark Little led the live commentary on the funeral, which featured a host of household names, and to which reporters and photographers flocked to grab sound bites and photographs of grieving high- profile friends.
And there was plenty of good copy at St John the Baptist Church in Clontarf: Westlife, U2 phoning in a specially recoded song from New York, and the entire RTE stable descending to pay their respects. In a celebrity-soaked era, where even funerals have special guests and surprise celebrity performances, it may have been what Ryan would have wanted, but does that mean we were entitled to listen in?
Since the economy crashed, several initially small stories – nothing compared to Ryan's death – have exploded into big ones. It's generally one part of a self-distraction mechanism from financial trauma, one-part bored media looking for lightheartedness amongst the now trademarked 'doom and gloom', and one part online media, with its lightning-fast reactions acting as oil on the cogs of the spread of information. TheVirgin Mary embodied in a tree stump in Limerick, the Crystal Swing phenomenon, fantastical apparitions at Knock, have all grown legs beyond their worth.
The measuring stick that used to dictate how big a newspaper would 'go' on something has been completely splintered by several things. The priority of celebrity over actual current affairs has probably had the biggest influence on the news agenda.
Similarly, across the water, the Daily Star in Britain ran a story about Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and his wife Alex Curran on its front page on the day of the British election. There seems to be a growing desperation to judge the public mood, no matter how inappropriate that mood may be, and to follow the mood rather than lead it. In frantically trying to guess what that mood is, however, the news outlet can highlight emotion over proportion.
Michael Foley, head of the Department of Journalism and Communications at DIT and also the vice chair of the NUJ's Ethics Council, was "surprised" at the level of coverage. "I did think there was an element of everyone following everybody, that media pack idea of 'if they're going to lead with it, we'd better too' and if one paper was very reverential, I think everyone followed. It took on a life of its own... there might be an element of some sort of pack journalism in that," he said,
"At the same time, at 53 it's young to die. He leaves a young family, and that's another element to it, the ordinary sadness of a young family losing their father."
Brian Trench also touched on that sentiment. "I find it very hard to say 'it's too much' because I think there might have been a case that media found they weren't doing enough," he said. "If newspaper A gives eight pages and newspaper B gives two pages, then the reader of newspaper B might feel cheated. The mere fact that the Sunday Tribune nine days later thinks it's a big story says that nobody is exempt. All of the print media are involved in feeding this appetite."
It's hard to know whether a substantial enough proportion of our population cared enough about Ryan's death to warrant this unprecedented coverage, which eclipses that of recent high-profile deaths – Ronnie Drew, Stephen Gately or even Charlie Haughey. Perhaps because Ryan was representative of who we actually are – swearing, prurient, over-eating, over-boozing, bold, charming, imperfect and entertaining – we are more disposed to celebrating his passing in a brash and overblown manner.
"It did sort of veer towards the Princess Di idea, which I did find bizarre," Michael Foley said. "There seems to be a default position for media that if you have a celebrity death, we cover it like we covered Princess Di, but he [Ryan] was a different sort of person to Princess Di. To treat him as a Di figure was bizarre."
Foley also questioned RTE's role in the perpetuation of coverage. "I wonder how much it's being led by RTE. I don't want to sound cynical, obviously an awful lot of people in RTE were his friends and talking about your friend on air is quite legit... but in a way it does push RTE into that national broadcaster mode: one of their major talents dies, therefore it is a national event. I wonder how much it's a national event for an awful lot of people? There's a queasiness on my part about how much should be national and how much should be private."
That element of privacy is an important one. Do Ryan's family and close friends want all of this? Some have suggested that it is indeed too much and unrepresentative. From the timing by a tabloid of how long Ryan's partner stayed in his ex-wife's house on a visit before the funeral, to the random printed scatterings of baseless rumours about a tireless lifestyle that may have led to a heart attack, every microscopic part of this 'story' is being dismembered and reconstructed for public consumption.
Ultimately, it's hard to digest the fact that as much as Ryan's five children shared him in life, they also have to do so in death, and then some.
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