An obituary is not a tribute. That was the headline of a letter written in 2004 by the editor of the British Medical Journal to justify his publication of an obit of Harold Shipman. The sentiment should have been obvious from the opening words of the article in question: “A general practitioner and murderer.”
But this fine journalistic form may soon merit an obituary of its own — as increasing numbers of millennial and Gen Z readers mistake an obituary for a eulogy. Yesterday, I was waiting for the inevitable outrage following the death of entertainer and convicted paedophile Rolf Harris. But the BBC neatly sidestepped this, by simply not publishing an assessment of his life at all. This was despite the fact it had one pre-written, by the man who had written the piece for child murderer Myra Hindley (which they did put out).
“The BBC no longer publishes the well-researched and considered obituary,” Nick Serpell, the BBC’s former News Obituary Editor, tells me. “Four years before I left [in 2018], it became clear that the long-form obit on the website was falling out of favour. Indeed, one senior editor told me that there had been a discussion about removing the word ‘Obituary’ from the top of the piece as it might ‘dissuade younger audiences from clicking through’.”
Instead, for Harris, Auntie put out a paltry 420-word news story online. Some may see this as a sign of his relegation to well-deserved obscurity, but the BBC owes its readers far more, not least as the institution that shot him into the celebrity stratosphere and kept him there for five decades.
Clive Myrie spoke just 64 words on the News at Ten, referring to Harris as once being “a regular fixture on television”. In fact, he was for some time an adored national treasure — which is crucial to understanding his heinous crimes.
Serpell also wrote the obituary of Stuart Hall, another disgraced BBC presenter, but says, “My bet is that, when he dies, they won’t run that one either. Too close to home.”
Of course, obituary writers will frequently get it wrong. The Beeb’s obit of Sir Jimmy Savile described a “devout Roman Catholic” and “iconic Mr Fixit” who “maintained this benevolent persona beyond the screen”. But this still remains a vital first draft of history, revealing the spell Savile had cast on a large part of the nation at the time of his death.
The flip side of this muddleheadedness is the betrayal fans feel at anything short of a hagiography of their heroes. Recently, the Guardian was savaged for referring to the shortcomings of boy band The Wanted in Tom Parker’s obituary, and for describing the “rackety life” of Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding (the Times was also condemned for speaking of her “unexceptional” talent).
We are living in an era when celebrities urge us to #BeKind. But the job of journalists, and indeed historians, is to tell the unvarnished truth, sometimes brutally so. While social niceties compel everyone else not to “speak ill” of the recently departed, press hounds have a very different dictum: “You can’t libel the dead.”
Indeed, the finest obits are anything but adulatory. Take Richard J Evans’s article for the Guardian on the life of historian Norman Stone, who “never bothered to check his facts”, “became notorious for groping his female students” and collapsed drunk in front of Margaret Thatcher.
At its best, the obituary is an enlightening — and even entertaining — part of the public record. And while it may feel more comforting to try to erase monstrous figures from our consciousness, the painful truth is that we have much more important lessons to learn from the lives of the notorious than the merely notable.
An obituary is the perfect place to examine their motives and to shine a light on their victims — as well as on their requisite army of blind eye-turners, plausible deniers and brazen enablers.