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Friday, 20 March 2009

20 March 2009

When you opened the newspaper this morning, did you look for the coverage of the Josef Fritzl case? Or did you rapidly turn the page so that you could read something less upsetting?

Do you regard the terrible story of a man who kept his daughter captive in a cellar for 24 years, raped her thousands of times, and had seven children with her, as a salutary example of the terrible depths to which a human being can sink? Or do you regard the coverage of the case as a sickening example of how the media will always seek to pander to our basest instincts?

When we discussed these issues on the programme last night with the Reverend George Pitcher and the forensic psychologist Professor David Canter, they both said that to be interested – even fascinated – by the Fritzl case is healthy. The scientist and the cleric were united in their view that to be interested in even the most appalling human behaviour is to show that we recognise that, despite our horror, we share something with all our fellow humans. (I have linked to a recording of our discussion here.)

There are, of course, important questions that arise from the case -- but they are questions mainly of interest to the people of Austria. How could a man hide an adult daughter and three of the children he bore him in the cellar of his own home for more than 20 years? (Three other children were allowed to live above ground with Fritzl’s wife; the seventh died shortly after birth. Fritzl was found guilty of “murder by neglect”.)

Why were no questions asked when a convicted sex offender (Fritzl had a previous conviction for rape) reported that his then 18-year-old daughter had apparently run off to join a cult, but was then allowed to adopt three of her children whom he said she had dumped on his doorstep? Why did no one apparently notice that he had built a virtual second home below ground and was regularly providing food and other necessities to his “hidden” family?

Perhaps one reason why we are fascinated by the case is that it helps us define who we are. We read of the depravity of Josef Fritzl and we say to ourselves: “I could never behave like that. He is a bad person; therefore, I am a good person.”

But here’s an interesting fact: throughout yesterday, as the Fritzl trial reached its climax, and the verdicts and sentence were announced, the most read story on the BBC News website remained the death after a skiing accident of the actress Natasha Richardson. Only on Monday, the day the trial opened, did the name of Josef Fritzl figure at the top of the “most read” list.

Make of that what you will. But to those of you who wonder why the media seem so often to concentrate on the deviant and the extreme, I would suggest that perhaps one reason is that only by revealing the extremes of the abnormal can we begin to define what is normal. (Also, of course, as has been known ever since the invention of journalism, horror sells papers. Never under-estimate the commercial imperative.)

We know who we are by defining who we are not. And I suspect that many of us take comfort today in the knowledge that we are not – and could never be – Josef Fritzl.

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