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The UK's premier new media criminologist - on Twitter @criminology4u, facebook and blogging on Criminology in Public and Sports Criminology.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Serial Killers made in the media: My failure to become a media tart

Earlier this month I received an email from a production company making a new series on serial killers for Sky. They had picked up my name as I’ve written with David Wilson about one of his TV shows but did not want him.  Perhaps he’s seen to be over-exposed.  I exchanged emails and a phone call with the associate producer.  I sent them links to my appearance on Sky News and interview with George Galloway to prove my media chops.

I’ve just heard I’ve not got the gig.  Apparently someone else has been chosen.  I know personally of another criminologist who deleted the email without debate seeing it as inherently trashy.  In my phone and email conversations I made no specific claim to knowledge of serial killers as a sociologist but was well aware of the sociology of victim selection and of media fascination and would want to focus on that. 

As an example of the non-Cracker line I proposed to take I pointed out the work of Drew Gray's London's Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City who looks at the Whitechapel Murders whilst remaining true to the historical data without becoming ripperological. I pointed out Darrell Hamamoto’s ‘Empire of Death: Militarized Society and the Rise of Serial Killing and Mass Murder’ where he argues for a link with the Vietnam war.  Also Allan LeRoy Branson’s The Anonymity of African American Serial Killers: From Slavery to Prisons, A Continuum of Negative Imagery  offers a different take on the usual story.

I agree with  Kevin Haggerty & Ariane Ellerbrok when they say: 

In fact, serial killing is intimately tied to its broader social and historical setting, something that is particularly apparent when such killing is considered in relation to a series of broad historical changes that have occurred over approximately the past 400–500 years, commonly associated with the rise of modernity.

Perhaps it was such theory heavy language that put them off, or, perhaps because I asked for a fee.  But I’d like to think it was because what I proposed to say didn’t fit the usual media narrative.  I await with interest hearing who has taken on the job and what they do.  Expect more posts if I disagree or feel used.  So while we wait, this will have to do.  Is this my pitch for a properly academic series?

In Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI  Robert K. Ressler and Thomas Schachtman set out how they came up with the term ‘serial killer’ seeing that we/they are ‘lured back to see another episode, because at the end of each one there was a cliff-hanger’.  Having come up with the concept the concept the definition has proved more difficult as the FBI make clear:

In the past thirty years, multiple definitions of serial murder have been used by law enforcement, clinicians, academia, and researchers. While these definitions do share several common themes, they differ on specific requirements, such as the number of murders involved, the types of motivation, and the temporal aspects of the murders. To address these discrepancies, attendees at the Serial Murder Symposium examined the variations in order to develop a single definition for serial murder.
Previous definitions of serial murder specified a certain number of murders, varying from two to ten victims. This quantitative requirement distinguished a serial murder from other categories of murder (i.e. single, double, or triple murder).
Most of the definitions also required a period of time between the murders. This break-in-time was necessary to distinguish between a mass murder and a serial murder. Serial murder required a temporal separation between the different murders, which was described as: separate occasions, cooling-off period, and emotional cooling-off period.
In combining the various ideas put forth at the Symposium, the following definition was crafted:
Serial Murder: The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.
Many people cite a figure of three as a minimum and emphasise a time gap as the template of the Whitechapel Murders demands (note I don’t speak of Jack, a ‘purely’ media construct).

Harold Shipman therefore meets any of the proffered definitions with over 200 victims over more than twenty years but I wish to demur.  It may be that Shipman’s victims were wrong too in terms of media narrative.  That is not young women.  The case of Trevor Joseph Hardy illustrates some of these issues.  Wilson et al (2010) argue serial killing is now a ‘media event’, as Hardy’s case shows even murdering three young women lead to little coverage as his short series largely came to light late in the investigation.  Even so the media can get it wrong.  Thus this website touts Shipman as the ‘world’s most prolific serial killer’.  But this is a retrospective claim.  Media serial killers are prospective, they promise more action.

Because we only discover the extent of Shipman’s activities all in one go there is no cliff-hanger just an ‘info dump’.  For me, he is not a serial killer because we are not waiting for the next killing/episode.  He is not a serial killer because only the media can create a serial killer, by building that expectation, by forging links between random acts and finally by giving him (usually) a nickname.

The Wire understands this when, in series 5, we have McNulty deliberately ‘dressing’ random murder victims and tipping off the media about a serial killer to unlock funds.  The media gleefully run with this.

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