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The Shipman files Monday, 7 February, 2000, 16:54 GMT
Shipman: The dam bursts
"Dr Death" seemed the most popular sobriquet
Keith Soothilll, professor of social research at Lancaster University, looks back at how the media has covered the Shipman case in the week since the verdict.


Media coverage of high profile criminal cases in Britain is very different from the United States. In the latter the media have a much freer rein from the outset of a case. Speculation and extended commentary in the media is rife from the moment that a major case comes to public notice.

This was evident in the world-wide coverage of the OJ Simpson murder trial. In Britain the media - trammelled by legal constraints - have to await the outcome of a case before they can let rip.

In the remarkable case of Harold Fred Shipman, the GP charged with the murders of 15 patients, that moment came on the last day of January when the guilty verdicts were announced at Preston Crown Court.

Up to that point the media coverage had been measured, briefly reporting the court appearances while Shipman was on remand prior to trial and some of the complex court interaction which eventually led to his conviction.

In fact, the 57-day trial never achieved the status of a national soap opera which usually needs the crucial ingredients of a celebrity, sex and titillating details.

Shipman was not a celebrity but a well-respected local GP and there was no sex - albeit his victims on the charge sheet were all women.

In a curious way, judgement had been suspended until the verdict was announced. Then the dam burst. With a guilty verdict on all 15 charges of murder, Shipman had become infamous and would now be remembered as the worst serial killer known in Britain's criminal history. How did the media deal with this revelation?

Incredulity and betrayal
The main question that remained unanswered was - why?
Press and television provided almost saturation coverage. Television had the first bite. The focus was one of incredulity - how could a man so apparently normal have committed such atrocities? The theme was one of betrayal.

Unlike the earlier case involving Fred and Rosemary West where gross abnormalities of behaviour had been identified in the court proceedings, Shipman seemed normal in all but the fact that he killed some of his patients. Nevertheless, the questions of 'when', 'where' and 'how' were answered, but the teaser remained 'why'.

The event which triggered his downfall - the forging of Mrs Grundy's will - provided the tempting clue of greed, but this was generally portrayed as self-destructive behaviour precipitating his downfall.

Culture of blame

Uncertainty generates anxiety and the media want a solution. The revelation of Shipman's previous convictions for drugs produced both a new angle and a potential scapegoat with the finger being pointed to apparent failures in a system which could perhaps have averted the tragedy.

In a growing culture of blame the role of the General Medical Council (GMC) soon become a major focus.

The turn of the national press next day provided a set of striking headlines with a fairly consistent theme. The front-page focus was on "How many more victims?" There was a wide range of conjecture with the Daily Star capping the lot - "Dr death gets life 15 times... but he could have murdered 1500", a figure originally suggested by the South Manchester coroner.
Connections with other killers usually help to normalise the extraordinary
The inside coverage was massive with inserts and special pullouts in the tabloids. Certainly the most focus on one individual since the death of Diana.

The case had not yet claimed a shorthand title comparable with the "Yorkshire Ripper" but "Dr Death" seemed the most popular sobriquet. However, "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", identifying both the profession and location of Shipman, provided a poignant reminder of how Robert Louis Stevenson's story published in 1886 fed into the hysteria of the late 1880s with the so-called unsolved 'Jack-the-Ripper' murders.

Connections with other serial killers and other murders usually help to normalise the extraordinary. The Preston court provided tenuous links with the James Bulger case which in the early 1990s had similarly challenged our conceptions of what is possible - young boys and doctors simply do not kill.

Coverage during the rest of the week widened the focus. BBC television news asked, "Can our doctors be trusted?" (2 February 2000).

A spokesman from the Patients' Association stressed how traditionally elderly patients had trusted their doctors. Shipman - portraying the image of the old-style GP - independent, conscientious, knowing his patient well with visits at home - perhaps began in some people's minds to represent the demise of the National Health Service with that crisis somehow lurking in the background.

Sunday reflections

The Sunday after a major trial often provides a different sort of coverage; the immediacy of the verdict has now passed. BBC Radio 4's early morning Sunday reflected on the role of the church in Shipman's town of Hyde reminding listeners of the heightened sense of betrayal. Churchmen ready to use the word 'evil' revealed a theological stance.

Among the press, the broadsheets tend to provide commentary while the tabloids try to provide colour and stoke up the fire of our interest. The News of the World's "exclusive" produced an alleged "admission in chilling letters from jail cell", while the Sunday Mirror's "exclusive" - complementing a "four-page dossier on the doctor of death" entitled "Vision of Death"- focused on Shipman's teenage son protesting his father's innocence.

The Sunday People must have hoped the triviality of its "exclusive" - "Princess Anne meets Dr Death" - would also appeal.

Exception or exceptional?

The broadsheets took a different stance. The Sunday Times identified their target as the GMC by producing in their headline other cases to suggest that Shipman was not an exception - "One of these doctors killed a child, the other sexually assaulted a patient. The General Medical Council allowed them to carry on working. Why?"

In contrast, The Observer's main analysis by Nicci Gerrard headlined "Most serial killers are icons of evil, the stuff of nightmares - Hindley, Sutcliffe, the Wests. But not Dr Shipman. Why? Because his killings were polite and clinical. And his victims were elderly women" - suggested he was an exception.

In fact, the central dilemma - was he an exception (or are other doctors like him?) or exceptional (are other killers like him?) - still remained after the most intensive media coverage of a case since the Bulger killings.

The unexpected devil

Unusually the media failed to come up with much of a theory or explanation after this trial. The media seemed generally stumped like the rest of us as to why this happened. Bogeymen are frightening before they are caught. The Yorkshire Ripper is now safe behind bars, but the fascination with the identity of Jack the Ripper continues.

The media coverage of the Shipman case dramatically identified a new dilemma for this century. The savage butchery of Rachel Nickell in 1992 produced evidence that our heaths and commons were unsafe for walking.

The bizarre case of 'Fred' Shipman has brought a new unexpected devil into our homes - perhaps that is too frightening an image for even the media to pursue too far.

Find out more about the Shipman murders

Trial and reaction

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See also:

04 Feb 00 | News and reaction
07 Feb 00 | Health
02 Feb 00 | Forum
31 Jan 00 | The Shipman files
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