Jun 7, 2010

Cinematters: The gutter press

Last Wednesday, in an incident that lasted three hours, and ranged over several towns and villages in the English county of Cumbria, 52 year old Derrick Bird, armed with a shotgun and a .22 rifle, went on a rampage. He shot and killed 12 people, and wounded another 25, before shooting himself as Police closed in. Obviously whenever this sort of thing happens there is a need for the public and for the press to know why it happened, to have something to point to and say "that's why he did it". I'm surprised it took so long, but disgusting right wing rag The Daily Mail has now decided, once again, to infer that a film - Steven Seagal starrer Exit Wounds - is to blame.

Here's the boxout dealing with the film from their latest story on Bird (click to enlarge)
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It's easy to understand the impulse. Saying that a movie, or a video game, or a piece of music has warped someone's mind is much easier, and rather less disturbing, than confronting either the idea that someone is evil or the fact that systemic failures, be it with Police or mental health services, led to problems going untreated or other more minor offences unpunished. Not all of these things may apply to Derrick Bird, but some likely do, and frankly it's easier to blame a movie than to spend the time, effort and money to discover the real causes behind this hideous act.

Our papers have form in this regard. This is the third gun massacre in recent UK history, following Michael Ryan's Hungerford rampage in 1987 and the 1996 killings in Dunblane Primary School, perpetrated by Thomas Hamilton. After Hungerford the papers focused on Rambo, despite the fact that there were no similarities between the crime and either of the first two Rambo films (the third was released in 1988, prompting tabloids to dredge up the Hungerford 'connection' again to try and stoke moral outrage). Even more damning to their case was the fact that there was absolutely no evidence, besides the fact that he owned a TV and VCR, that Ryan had even seen either Rambo film.

With Thomas Hamilton the papers adopted a more scattergun approach. 1993 had seen the murder of James Bulger, and out of that, and its utterly made up 'connection' to Child's Play 3, had come a campaign against violent videos of all kinds, led by the tabloid press, especially the Mail. Hamilton's crime re-stoked that fire. "Who supports violent films now?" asked a Times headline after Dunblane, without connecting any one to Hamilton.

Before we take a closer look at the boxout which makes the case for the influence of Exit Wounds in this crime, let's take a second to look at the several other things the Daily Mail thinks might be to blame for Derrick Bird's actions... (all these are clickable to full articles. Click only if you have a large tolerance for shitty journalism).
Being dumped by his Thai girlfriend, and subsequent 'ribbing' from fellow taxi drivers.
Antidepressants (this is a really nasty article, by Peter Hitchens)
Fellow taxi drivers stealing fares
Fear of prison over an unpaid tax bill. A row over a family will.

It's pretty easy to see the pattern here; a desperate search for answers, none of them very satisfactory. Now let's take a look at the boxout. I'm going to take it apart, the Daily Mail's words will be in blockquotes, my responses in normal type.

Derrick Bird watched a violent film which shows numerous killings using guns the night before his rampage through Cumbria.

Assuming this is true (a hell of an assumption, given the Rambo and Child's Play 3 cases, among many others) So what? I watched The Killer Inside Me on the Monday of that week, and I didn't go and beat a woman on Tuesday. He's also alleged to have watched it with a friend, which, had the film been the causal influence, would surely have meant that two men would have been on this rampage.

There's also a LOT of accounts of where Bird was on the Tuesday night, and much of what he's reported to have said mitigates against the idea that Exit Wounds had any part to play in his actions, rather they suggest that he was set on his course already. A Mail story from June 3rd says "After a heated argument on Tuesday night, Derrick Bird is said to have stormed off saying: 'There's going to be a rampage tomorrow.'" This has to precede the viewing of the film, which ended in the early hours of Wednesday morning. That means that this plan MUST also pre-date the viewing of the film (and, indeed, that even if he'd watched Care Bears: The Movie on Tuesday night this masscare would still have happened). Another quote from June 3rd: "A friend, Peter Leder, said Bird had told him hours before the killings: 'See ya Peter, but I won't see you again.'" Does this sound like a man who killed people because he saw a movie?

Bird watched the film at his friend Neil Jacques's house and left looking like a 'zombie' around 12:30am once it had ended.

Note the total lack of attribution, the absence of quotes except around the word zombie, both decent indicators for something being made of bullshit. Might I also suggest that, given other anecdotal evidence he was looking like a 'zombie' because he knew that he'd entered his last day of life. Or perhaps, I don't know, he was sleepy at half past midnight, rather than in a zombified daze thanks to a violent movie?

It features Detriot cop Orin Boyd, played by Seagal, who wages war against violent drug barons.

Which, obviously, is exactly like a middle aged cabbie from Cumbria gunning down random people.

During the film Seagal's boss is killed by the chief of Police, who shoots him four times with a shotgun while yelling 'You're fired'.

I haven't seen Exit Wounds, but it sounds to me like they've got their facts wrong here. If he's a cop the surely Seagal's boss IS the chief of Police. So, who gets shot by who? As well as likely being wrong this exhibits little connection to Bird's crime. Yes he used a shotgun, but that's because it was one of two licensed weapons he owned, not because he saw a movie (a few days previously, it is reported, he was so angry he went to grab his gun and go shooting, but was talked down by a friend). In addition it has not been reported that he used the words "You're fired!" to any victim, nor that he shot any victim four times.

Firearms consultant Mike Yardley... provided a report on violence in films to the Government after the Dunblane massacre in 1996. He found that there were an average of 13 firearms killings in each of the top ten rental films at the time. He believes the figure is far higher now.

Note, again, the lack of any specifics, or a quote. How do we know Yardley believes this, when did he say he believed this? Also, what this essentially breaks down to is "Man makes guess". There's no inference of new research here, not even any indication that Yardley has seen the films he's commenting on (whatever they may be). Assuming Yardley's right, doesn't that disprove the point the Mail wants to make? If violence in film has a causal relationship to violence in real life, and an increase of average gun deaths in movies is a bad thing, shouldn't we have had an increasing incidence over that period of incidents like Derrick Bird's rampage? In fact there was a longer gap between Dunblane and Cumbria (14 years) than between Hungerford and Dunblane (9 years). Wouldn't that make an argument that, if anything, screen violence is cathartic, and may help pacify a violent impulse in people? Certainly it's no more ludicrous than the inference that Exit Wounds had something to do with Derrick Bird's actions last Wednesday.

I despise journalism like this. News reporting should be about uncovering truth and understanding why things happen, not obfuscating, political agendas and reaching for easy blame, which is the Daily Mail's stock in trade.

If you've any thoughts on this article then please use the comments.


  1. the article doesn't seem to be on the mail site anymore, and according to some more recent pieces the "guilty" film is actually "on deadly ground", making the mails analysis even more bollocks than it already was.

  2. I do believe that violence and sexuality in the media can have a strong influence on the mentally ill and young children. This is Daily Mail bollocks as usual though.

  3. Natty. I'm absolutely not arguing that violence in the media is good for the young or the mentally ill. That said, a film never killed anyone. People who kill kill, there will always be a trigger, but it's the person who kills, not the trigger. That's basically my position.