The prurient interest
The story of one man's death is a perfect example of what British newspapers pretend is "public interest" journalism.
Matthew Crawford died last week. He was 37 years old. The news of his death wouldn’t have made the national newspapers today had it not been for his previous appearances in their pages as a scapegoat, a symbol and an object of appalled curiosity. At one point, he weighed 55-stone and was given one of those unwanted awards newspapers so relish doling out in their copy (“Britain’s fattest man…”)
The Daily Mirror’s print edition put the story on page 11 today with the headline Obese patient who once took up four NHS beds dies at 37 and the subhead “Football fan Matthew had sepsis and organ failure”. The online versions — there are two — were written by different journalists and carried the headline Britain's 'fattest man', who once weighed 55 stone, tragically dies aged 37.
I want to focus on the print version because it offers a stark example of the difference between public interest journalism and indulging the public’s most prurient instincts. It opens with a sneering joke…
One of football’s biggest fans has died — 55-stone Matthew Crawford.
… and ends with a line carrying a whiff of disgruntled entitlement:
His mum… refused to comment about his death yesterday.1
The only new fact in the entire story is that Crawford has died. The rest is made up of details — some factual, others just supposition, or claims from anonymous sources— that appeared in previous reports. The reporter bylined on the piece, Martin Fricker, was one of the journalists who first brought Crawford to national attention. He writes:
There was uproar in 2018 when the Mirror revealed his care had been costing King’s Mill Hospital an estimated £40,000 a month.
A line shared by the reports from 2018 and today’s story explains why this one case was deemed worthy of such extensive coverage:
Bed-blocking costs the NHS millions of pounds a year.
It was Matthew Crawford’s bad luck that he could serve as a parable for tabloid reporters. It helped them that he was not a sympathetic case — he was convicted of common assault against four nurses in 2018 and had previously been charged with assaulting a police officer. He had also posted racist messages on his Facebook page.
But how do I know any of these things? Because the tabloids went fishing through his social media accounts back in 2018 when anonymous sources within the NHS decided to make him the poster boy for “bed blocking”. That entire concept is predicated on blaming individuals for systemic failures.
Nigel Farage has a TV show five nights a week. Rod Liddle sits atop an entire back catalogue of racist articles. Toby Young attended a secret conference for eugenicists. The British media is extremely selective about what racists it deems beyond the pale. The Sun, which wrote extensively about Crawford, frequently gives a byline to Douglas Murray, the Oscar Wilde of bigots.
The purpose of writing stories about Crawford, both in life and death, is to provoke scoffs of laughter and contempt. Despite official NHS statements refusing to discuss his particular circumstances but referring to “patients with complex needs”, the tabloids treated him like a child on a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory, a moral lesson made flesh. Though he denied having takeaways delivered to his hospital bed, the claims appear in every story about him.
Similarly, a picture of him holding a bottle of champagne is included in most reports of his death. That it cost, at most, £21 from Morrisons is not mentioned. The point is for you — someone who most likely did not know this man — to be angered by his sheer existence. How many of us could be framed as monstrous by a tabloid hack with time on their hands and access to our social media accounts?
It’s easier to turn someone like Crawford into a parable than put real pressure on the people with power who let the NHS and social care rot.
I come neither to praise Matthew Crawford nor to bury him, but to ask what tabloids are trying to achieve when they turn ordinary, flawed, fucked up people like him into symbols. Because there are choices being made. And the choice today was to make the suffering of Matthew Crawford’s family a little more acute in return for a chance to reheat some old copy and stir up some tabloid readers’ disgust.
The story told about Matthew Crawford by papers like The Daily Mirror and The Sun does not have a human at the centre of it. The reporters who sneer about “Britain’s fattest man” are not trying to provide answers but cheap punchlines. The complexity of a man’s life is boiled down to some jibes and the family left behind are expected to take the punishment; a hack who knocked on their door or rang their phone off the hook griping that they “refused” to discuss their relative’s death.
I’m in no position to pass judgement on Matthew Crawford, but the hacks who caricatured him for cheap copy are another matter entirely…
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I’ve omitted her name to avoid contributing to the harassment.