Life must get pretty damned complicated when your brother Toby suddenly becomes the world's most notorious 'Internet monster'. This is what happened last week to Leo Studabaker. One day he was smoking roll-ups on his porch and idly tossing beer cans at stray dogs, the next he had the world's media shouting at him from stepladders and poking microphones through his letterbox.
So what do you say when journalists confront you about your monstrous, child-snatching sibling? It's a tough call. This is what Leo said: 'My message to my brother is: Toby, I hope you can get out of whatever charges they are trying to bring against you.' And when asked about allegations that Toby had child porn on his computer, he said: 'I don't know about that. It is news to me. I'm going to have to wait for the FBI.'
A fairly straightforward message of support for a sibling. But the press wanted more. Leo wanted to be left alone, so he stuck a notice to his front door: 'We are not doing any more interviews. Please do not knock. Thank you. Please we just want some peace until we can find out what is going to happen.'
A fairly straightforward request for privacy. A photograph of which is printed on page seven of yesterday's Daily Mirror, and in dozens of newspapers worldwide:
Printing a photo of this note is journalism of the lowest kind - the kind Louis Theroux specializes in (have you noticed how many times the dreadful tosser Theroux includes footage of his victims saying things like: "can you please turn the camera off, I don't want you filming this"? Keeping such footage in (where there is obviously no public interest defence) is just plain unfair. It marks the total abandonment of journalistic integrity. But you can tell, nothing gives sad little Louis more of a boner than capturing 'off the record' moments like that).
What a vile little prig. Someone should smash him in the gob with something. Something hard like a vase or a music stand. Really lay into him. Imagine it. Blood everywhere.
So... Where were we? Ah yes. Leo Studabaker.
Bad enough that the Daily Mirror should print a photo of his note asking to be left alone by the press. Worse - far worse - that underneath it they should print a close-up photograph of Leo himself:
Remember: at this point in time, Leo is at (or very near) the centre of the world's biggest human-interest story, which concerned the abduction and alleged sexual assault of a minor. The sort of high-octane drama in which you might want to be careful how you present the supporting actors. The sort of context in which you might not want to slap a close-up of the child-snatcher's innocent sibling, looking all shifty on the phone. Directly beneath a photo which suggests that he is somehow 'hiding away'. And the context is hardly improved by the fact that, in the story itself, after a great swathe of negative testimony against Toby, the Mirror introduces Leo with the sentence: "Studabaker had one supporter last night, though - his brother Leo."
'One supporter'. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the monster. A kindred pervert, almost certainly!
Look again at the photo of Leo. The first thing to note is the fact that it is not a photo of Leo making a statement to the press. Instead, it's a picture of an unshaven Leo engrossed in a phone call, his eyes dark and menacing. It is impossible to see that image and not feel, at some level, suspicious. The image matches exactly one of the most widely distributed photos of Toby Studabaker - the one of him making a phone call:
This photo was used, for example, on page four of Thursday's Sun newspaper, with the understated caption: "Scheming... pervert." It also cropped up on page five of the Independent. One glance at this photo is enough to tell us what Toby is chatting about on his mobile: he's planning more abductions and child-abuse schemes. Probably with Leo.
Except there's two problems with this photo: 1) it's heavily cropped down from a much larger photo - the cropping serves to isolate Toby in the frame, and reinforce the idea of him as a weird loner; and 2) no one's actually sure if the Marine in question even is Toby Studabaker: "the U.S. Marines are at this stage unwilling to confirm that the man in this file photo is Studabaker" (note on Yahoo News). It could just be some bloke talking to his mum.
The inclusion of the Leo photo, the inclusion of the note on the door, the cropping down of the Marine on the phone - the purpose of all of these things is to *sensationalize* the story. These photos have nothing to do with facts; they have to do with sensations. Gut responses. The reader is being manipulated, tickled, led by the nose; and truth and fairness are being chucked away like old beer cans.
Itís getting easier and easier to open newspapers and find images that *really shouldn't* be there. Take yesterdayís Bizarre column in the Sun: two photos of Sporty Spice. Headline: Spotty Spice. Yup, thatís the story. Mel C had a couple of spots on her face. You have to look closely, but if you squint you can just about see them. On the Sun website, the main photo was captioned "spot of bother"...
The second photo, which shows Mel C coming out of a Body and Skincare Clinic, was captioned "popping in" ('popping' as in spots - yes? - can you see what they've done here?)
Mel C visits a beauty clinic, and has a couple of spots. This isn't entertainment news. This isn't even dermatological news. It's nothing. Itís pathetic. Empty, anti-female (the copy is horrible) and mildly intrusive. And itís a classic example of a 'story' being created purely because some photographs exists.
Photographs in newspapers no longer fulfil their old role of proving that something has really happened (like the photos of dead gunslingers). Instead, they lend a kind of emotional texture to the paper. This shift from information to emotion, from fact to feeling, was shown in all its ghastly glory on the front of Thursday's Guardian: which was dominated by the photo of a dead American serviceman being covered with a plastic sheet by one of his comrades.
Now, this photograph isn't actually telling us anything. We all know that American servicemen are being attacked and killed in Iraq. This has been going on for weeks. We don't need to see another dead soldier to know that soldiers are still being killed. We don't need to see another corpse to be told the same fact. We really don't.
Alan Rusbridger has put that photo on the front of his newspaper purely for its emotional content. It looks a bit sad and moody. The guy draping the corpse with the sheet is probably quite sad. He might have known the dead chap. Played gin rummy with him, chatted about girls. And now heís dead and twisted on the dusty floor. This is the 'human cost'. Makes you think, eh? About war and the value of human life and stuff.
It's a flash of knickers; a nudge in the ribs. If it devalues anything, it devalues the death of the soldier. Death in general is going cheap these days. Have you noticed the number of bodies in the newspapers recently? Tons of them. Like the CCTV shot of the bodies scattered by the OAP driver in the Santa Monica market. No need to show them. The story is horrific enough, and understandable enough, without seeing the body of a three year old under a sheet. Similarly, no need to show (as many newspapers did) the body of the girl who was killed when her foot got caught in the tethering rope of a balloon:
Oh look, a dead girl. Oh look, a dead Marine.How sad. But wait - here's a picture of Sporty Spice with spots on her chin. Ha ha ha! Thatís funny! Her face is all spotty! And look, here's a pervert! Urgh, look at his eyes. What a monster! You wouldnít want to meet him on a dark night. Oh no, hang on. That's his
Still, you wouldn't trust him to babysit.