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Attack of the billboard brutalists

Murder, rape, torture, gang warfare: the billboard headlines for local newspapers are an assault on the senses.

Brandon Robshaw

Topics Politics

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‘Woman missing on date found dead.’ The words, scrawled in stark black capitals, assail me from a newsagent’s billboard as I walk to the underground station in the London suburb where I live. I see it again on a billboard at the station itself and then twice more at the station at the other end. It’s like a series of slaps in the face. Am I alone in finding such headlines as ugly as they are unnecessary?

In recent weeks we have all been subjected to a spate of headlines about the disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann, constantly re-emphasising the grim fact that she’s still missing. But aside from such national news stories, there is a steady supply of horrific headlines from the local papers, which are often even worse. Notably brutal headlines of recent times include ‘Man murdered for mobile’; ‘Man beheaded on London street’; ‘Teenager killed in postcode gang wars’; ‘Backpacker beaten to death’; ‘Mum heard murdered daughter’s screams’; and the frankly pervy ‘Rapist filmed victim’s ordeal’.

One such headline every now and again might cause one to avert one’s eyes and attempt to divert one’s thoughts – but the constant drip, drip, drip of them is impossible to ignore. The effect is to create a general climate of terror: atrocities are happening all around, and you could be next.

Now, there may well be people who enjoy living in a climate of terror. That’s fine. They’re welcome to it. They can read the Daily Mail. But billboard headlines from local papers don’t give you any option in the matter; they ambush you as you walk down the road.

These headlines are, obviously, entirely unsuitable for children, yet they are placed in locations where it’s a stone-cold certainty that children will see them: in high streets, at eye-level, outside sweet shops. A child of five or six who has only just learned to read should not have to practise their new skills on headlines such as ‘Bus driver jailed for rape’ or the recent ‘Mum killed’, which seems to have been specifically designed to be as frightening to children as possible.

When my children are upset by billboard headlines, my strategy is to tell them that such crimes only make the headlines because they are so unusual, that the chances of anything similar happening to them or anyone they know are effectively zero. This seems to have a consoling effect, and has the benefit – let’s not forget – of being true. (The murder rate in the UK is steady at about 800 a year – not bad in a country of nearly 60 million inhabitants.) The trouble is that it’s apparently contradicted by the ceaseless flow of such headlines.

The usual argument – the only argument – is that it sells newpapers. Apparently, the tantalising mention of murder or torture or sexual violence makes us desperate to buy the paper and gorge ourselves on the details. Well, maybe, but it doesn’t work for me. I’d definitely buy a newspaper that had a headline such as ‘Elderly couple goes for walk in park and enjoy ice creams’, if only for the novelty of it. But a newspaper screaming rape and murder from its front page is not a newspaper I want to read.

Perhaps I’m unusual. Perhaps the majority of people really do like true-life stories of cruelty and brutality, and on such people these bills act like magnets. But it still does not justify editors pandering to, indeed stimulating, this morbid fascination. It cannot be justified to put profits before the wellbeing of our children. Who will edit the editors?

Brandon Robshaw is a lecturer, children’s writer, freelance journalist and father of three

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi explained how fear became a cultural idiom. Stuart Waiton asked: ‘Are scruffy youth so scary?’ Craig O’Malley argued that it is only recently that crime became a political issue. Bruno Waterfield demonstrated how the government changed the record on crime figures. Or read more at spiked issue Life.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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