One story, two headlines

Harold Shipman thought he was ‘boring’” says The Telegraph. “Harold Shipman thought he was God” says The Mail. Two headlines that are diametrically opposed. Which is true?

Both articles are about the release of some of Shipman’s personal correspondence released as part of a BBC documentary to be shown this evening. The release of the letters is a relatively small part of the documentary, which actually focuses mostly on foot-dragging by the government on reforms to death certificates and the licensing of doctors. While both the newspaper articles do mention the lack of reform, the bulk of the articles is about the letters (letters that the victims’ families did not want released, by the way).

The Telegraph‘s claim comes from a short snippet taken from one of the letters:

“The police complain I’m boring. No mistresses, home abroad, money in Swiss banks, I’m normal. If that is boring I am.”

Is that Shipman claiming to be boring, or just commenting that someone else thought he was boring? Shipman is simply saying he considers himself normal, at least in terms of lifestyle (which could have been twisted into an even “better” headline, had the subs thought about it. “HAROLD SHIPMAN THOUGHT HE WAS NORMAL – AFTER MURDERING 215”).

The Daily Mail meanwhile is not quoting the letters directly, but a psychologist brought in to investigate them:

Psychologist Dr David Holmes told BBC One’s Inside Out North West that Shipman thought he was a ‘medical god’.

He said: ‘He saw no one as being superior to him. In his own mind, in his own eyes, he was some sort of medical god.’*

There’s a fair difference between “some sort of medical god” and “God”, but on balance, I suppose the Daily Mail‘s headline is the less misleading one.

Of course, nitpicking the headlines misses the bigger picture. Quite why anyone involved – the BBC, The Mail or The Telegraph – thought digging through the letters of a serial killer would be enlightening enough to overcome the ghoulish mythologising that inevitably comes from trying to analyse murderers is a bit of a mystery.** The letters or at least the small fragments released online, don’t tell us anything new; the idea Shipman had a god complex was around even during his trial back in 2000. There’s nothing valid or newsworthy here, at least in terms of psychology, and the important message – the flaws that Shipman used to hide himself are still in the system – gets buried under what amounts to rooting through the wardrobe of a long dead murderer, humanity towards his family or his victims be damned.

* I love how redundant this is. Either line on its own would work just fine. When used together, with both paragraphs ending with the phrase “medical god”, this becomes just bad copy. In fact, both articles – Mail and Telegraph – use this horribly redundant structure. I thought at first it had been copied from a press release, but I tracked down the BBC’s press release, which doesn’t use that phrasing at all. Both papers appear to have independently come up with almost exactly the same clunky sentence!

** Why yes, I did take an elective module on attitudes towards murder and mental health, how did you guess?


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  1. #1 by ukenagashi on Tuesday, 20th July 2010 - 21:13 GMT+0100

    We both knew that module would come in handy at some point, didn’t we?

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