Header image showing the words "bye then" next to a pixellated illustration of a man with a beard

Murderers are not celebrities

An infamous Yorkshireman died recently. Friday the 13th, how fitting. You know his name, so I don’t need to say it, and you know what he did, so I don’t really need to go over all that again, either.

The appropriate level of media coverage for just about anything is permanently in debate. Even in a case as apparently straightforward as the nicknamed serial killer, there are complexities in context. The limits and repressions of the era the murders occurred in, the misogyny that allowed them to continue, the incompetence of the police investigation that left him at large, the othering of sex workers both then and now, and the repeated attempts to make sense of him, to analyse this supposed aberration. A closed book that, once prised open, horrified us for a generation.

Other than a few insensitive infractions, the general consensus was that any discussion around this man’s death should focus on his victims – the thirteen women he murdered, and the many others he attacked who lived to tell the tale. But was this redirection of the spotlight any better an idea than reappraising the man who killed them? What would the dead women say about the way we talk about them once they’ve left us? Their names and faces forever associated with this man, as if their lives and hearts and loved ones had no meaning beforehand, that their only impact on the world was to be murdered by arguably one of the most notorious killers in the UK. Did we really need to use them as a diversion tactic? Who was this for? The families, perhaps, yes. Wilma McCann’s son, Richard, has spoken of the “beautiful moment” he learned of the killer’s death, but he also said he was looking forward to moving on. After all, the man’s death is ineffective as a balm, it can’t undo the pain of the bereaved. How must it feel for loved ones as the details of these crimes become headline news again, to see the photographs of the women on front pages, especially when – as some people pointed out in a recent documentary about the catastrophic mistakes made by the police investigation – some of the women’s images that have been used in books and newspapers for decades were often the first photo anyone could lay this hands on at the time, in an age before digital cameras and selfies. A few of these often unflattering and soulless images were mugshots taken after previous arrests. As Richard McCann said: “Every time we hear a news story about him, and my mum’s photo is often shown, it’s just another reminder of what he did.”

It’s right to acknowledge the horror of these crimes and mourn the loss of the women, but when Saturday’s Daily Mail promoted a 12-page ‘Ripper Files’ feature within, I had to wonder just who we were contextualising this monster’s deeds for. Our anger at what he did is not bread for the mouths of those left behind, it doesn’t discourage others from copying him crimes, and it doesn’t lead to any greater understanding about his motivation or the disrespect paid the women who encountered him. It is entertainment. As loath as I am to see the man on the front page of a newspaper, perhaps the most appropriate coverage came from a surprising source: the Daily Star, which featured a refreshingly irreverent panel on the paper’s splash – ‘Ripper dead: Oh well never mind’ it said, with suitable derision – then, inside, a short piece announcing his death and detailing the police apology to the victims’ families. No photos of the man inside, but photographs of each woman, those same ones you see over and over.

I spoke to my mother over FaceTime the morning his death was announced. My mum was a young woman during the time of the Ripper, in her early 20s – I was born the same year he killed for the first time. If you don’t already know, I grew up in Shipley, the next town over from Bingley, where I went to school and where the killer was born and grew up. He worked barely a quarter of a mile from my mum’s front door. Bradford, Leeds, Halifax – his favoured areas of destruction were all on our doorstep. My mum has told me before about what it was like being a woman in Yorkshire then. You sometimes felt you couldn’t go out, or if you did, a man had to come with you. And even if you had a chaperone, he wasn’t beyond suspicion either. People looked at fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, husbands, wondering if it could be him. Once, she was walking home to our flat at the peak of the Ripper murders, in summer 1978. Our block was was surrounded by trees and fairly remote despite being in a built-up area, and she was almost home, on her return journey from wheeling a tiny me along to her mother’s in my pushchair, when she realised she was being followed by two men. She’d remembered overtaking them a few minutes earlier: they were young, chatting about nothing and just shuffling along. My mum is a fast walker, and said she suddenly had a feeling she wasn’t alone, and out of the corner of her eye, realised the two men had sped up considerably and were now right behind her. She told me how scared she was, how every possible scenario flashed through her head in seconds. Nobody knew what the killer looked like, or even if he was just one man. What could they possibly want? How had they got so close when she’d overtaken them ages ago? Why were they so close behind her now, within touching distance? Suddenly, another man appeared ahead, and started getting into his car. My mum toyed with the idea of going to talk to him until the other men passed, before she quickly realised – all this happening in two or three seconds – that she couldn’t trust him either. The killer had a car, didn’t he? The only thing she could do was run, bolting away from them all, knowing that any one of them would be unlikely to follow in front of an audience. She didn’t stop until she reached the flat, double-locking the door and standing perfectly still in the windowless hall. She’s never forgotten, she said, how scared she was and how fast her heart was beating – she’d never experienced palpitations like it. While she told me, it was like I could hear each thud of her heart reaching through time.

Although it hadn’t been him following her, his actions had emboldened others. Call them copycats, cowards, or creeps, or whatever, but his six-year reign of terror left the women of Yorkshire scarred, and with every successive murder, the chance they would be next increased. Many men would’ve felt protective of women they knew, of course, but some would’ve taken advantage – a woman scared is a woman who can be controlled, and we know what a tempting prospect that is to some men. People in Yorkshire feel strongly about this man; they’re reluctant to give him much airtime. My mum, flicked on the TV and channel-hopped through various news bulletins, unimpressed by the coverage.
‘Fourteen, his youngest victim was, it just said.’
‘Ugh they’ve just said he stabbed one woman 17 times,’ she said, reading out highlights from a digital ticker on the TV that displayed these horrific statistics like it was announcing lottery results or the next day’s weather – at 11 in the morning.
‘They should just say he’s dead and that’s it,’ she said finally after she could watch no more. ‘There’s no more should be said about him.’
She has a point.

The coverage of not just this man bit others like him plays into our ghoulish obsessions. Why do we revere these murderers so much? What are we trying to understand when we listen to podcasts or watch documentaries, or settle down with a mug of Yorkshire Tea to watch the glossy dramatisation of a serial killer being flippant and charming in a police interview.

Commissioning editors may well be rubbing their hands in glee at the chance to tell this well-trodden story from yet another perspective. There is a drama based on the Stephen Port killings still to come, too. But these ratings are built on the deaths of vulnerable people who can’t fight back.

I watched the recent drama baaed on the murders of Dennis Nielsen, Des, as I like David Tennant and was interested to see how sensitively they would cover the murders of at least 17 men by a gay man. (Spoiler: not very.) It was lauded by critics, yet I found it lacking, and the mainstreaming of Nielsen’s nonchalant, breezy calm when apprehended was utterly repugnant. Who was this for? What was it claiming to be? A warning from history? It felt like the pilot series for a show about an affable fella with an unpleasant sideline – an analogue Dexter in C&A corduroys. I was surprised the first broadcast wasn’t followed by an announcement that Des merchandise would shortly be available to buy in the Disney Store. Same goes for the other big hit of 2020, the drama based on mass murderer Jeremy Bamber’s little foibles, and the lauded Fred West biopic before that. Renowned actors playing grubby killers for gongs, turning some of the most depraved criminals in history into leading men.

Do these Instagram-filtered characterisations, soundtracked by haunting chamber music, actually uncover any new facts or explain the behaviour of their subjects? Or are they just titillation? Like the way we enjoy watching a soap opera murder plot, or a big explosion in a movie? Sheer escapism, perhaps, or a reminder that there are others worse off than you, and sometimes the awareness of your comparative safety is exciting in itself. But trust me, as someone who was there when the bus blew up in the 7/7 attacks, those explosions are never as thrilling first-hand.

I don’t believe that video games or violent movies lead people to kill; most of us watch them without the desire to reenact. But perhaps they do foster a disdain for life, make people seem indispensable and allow us to think real-life violence is ripe for serialisation. Death and destruction reduced to plot points, collateral damage on the route to pleasure, real lives as inconsequential as the spiders we squish or drown in the bathtub.

I’m reluctant to sermonise too heavily as I’m not exactly without sin in this regard, but then glorification of murder, and our keenness to dismiss human life, create a mythology around those who take it, be it in an ITV drama or a true crime podcast, feels disrespectful and unsustainable. When people say they’re fascinated by serial killers, I wonder what part of the tale excites them so. Obviously the methods used to solve crimes, and the technology that allows us to do so deserve recognition, and any failures in investigation must be exposed, but it’s worth remembering that for every killer to exist, someone else’s existence must cease. In Midsomer Murders, or Death in Paradise, a different person gets offed every week, and as escapism, I guess, functional murder works to a degree, but real-life victims could not escape – to them, this was real.

This is why I’m uncomfortable with this constant reassessment of these men. They are not celebrities. This is not the time to go over the dead killer’s ‘best bits’ like he’s just won Big Brother. That air of fear in Yorkshire, as told to me many times by almost every woman I know who was alive then, wasn’t a storyline, it was real life, and thanks to the police not giving much of a damn about the victims for long enough, it went on far, far too long. Women didn’t come home. Their families, their mothers, their fathers, their children, wondering where they were, peeping their heads round doors to see only unruffled beds, their things as they left them, as they would now always be. They never came home. As important a piece of history as these crimes are, these women deserve better than to be a screaming headline or a footnote in the lives of the men who failed them. Like the apologies from the police for failures in the Ripper investigation, this attention has come too late – where was it when we needed it?

I’m not criticising anyone for enjoying these dramas or podcasts, or for immersing themselves in the case files of these heinous crimes – perhaps there are lessons in there for all of us. For example, A Very British Crime Story, the recent Liza Williams documentary on the Yorkshire Ripper murders, is sympathetic, yet unflinching as it exposes the prejudices and failings that allowed them to happen, giving a voice to the women and their families, and even some of the investigating police officers, and will be shown again on BBC Four from 8 December. But when consuming this kind of content, we should investigate our intentions and the validity of our pleasure, examine this thrill from a kill.

Close the tab on your browser, or the page of your paper. Hit pause on your podcast. Take a moment to breathe and remember: someone never came home.

Consider making a donation to Victim Support, an independent, national charity which helps people cope with the impact of crime.

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