The Culture of Offence takes aim


Helen Flanagan is an actress who used to appear in Coronation Street, and was lately a contestant in ITV’s ever popular “Celebrity Jungle Torture”, or whatever it’s called. She’s one of that new brand of celebrities who tweets herself (rather than having a PR tweet for her, which is often the case), and treats us to the mundane minutiae of her day.

On Monday evening, she ran into a bit of a problem. Being hungover, she posted an image of herself taken in October, showing her in lingerie, pointing what appears to be a very obvious toy gun towards her head, with the caption “headf**k”.

Cue outrage.

As everyone who casts even a vague glance at the news would know by now, there was the small matter of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre last Friday. Twitter decided, in its hundreds, that Ms Flanagan was “insensitive” and “offensive”. Several newspapers – chief amongst them the Sun and Mail – decided to follow suit (complete, of course, with the offending image, because Ms Flanagan in lingerie is, one assumes, guaranteed to sell newspapers even without the addition of a very obvious toy gun). Ms Flanagan, who states she is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit disorder, ends up having to appear on Daybreak, ITV’s bland early morning snoozathon, to apologise profusely for her “crime”.

Each newspaper’s story included within it quotes from parents of children killed in the massacre. These parents were unnamed and unidentified. Now, there’s only two interpretations one could read of this: the first, is the charitable one, which is the Sun and the Mail made up these quotes. I’ve got no idea whether they did or not, by the way, and am not accusing them of doing so. But, as I say, that’s the charitable interpretation.

The uncharitable interpretation is this: a minor British celebrity posts a picture of herself on Twitter that only those stretching, reaching, aching for a connection, could actually connect to Sandy Hook and get “offended”. Ms Flanagan holds no assault rifle. Ms Flanagan is pointing the “gun” at nobody bar herself. Ms Flanagan offers no threat. Ms Flanagan, as the accompanying tweets show, is talking about having a splitting headache. Meanwhile, at the UK Cinemas, hundreds of thousands of people go and watch “Skyfall” and “Seven Psychopaths” and Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher”, revelling in fictional guns being used violently. On BBC1 on Monday night, the late film was “Matador”, featuring a washed up hitman. On the weekend, hundreds of thousands of people tuned in to watch “The Killing” and “Homeland”, which both feature death, violence and the threat of violence. In this context, Ms Flanagan’s tweet is a mere drop in the ocean, it’s offensiveness diluted to almost homeopathic concentrations, and it takes a reach of almost gargantuan proportions to connect it to Sandy Hook. Convinced they have been “offended” by her “insensitive” behaviour, and determined to share the genuine pain of actual victims through their posturing, hundreds of people take to Twitter to berate a woman with self-confessed mental health issues. The British tabloid press, not to be outdone, decides the best thing to do in this situation is to run with the story and contact the families of victims just days after their children had died, to ask them their opinion about “news” they would never have heard of were it not for the Sun and the Mail contacting them.

Now, putting the story like that, one needs to ask, what’s really insensitive and offensive here? Because for the life of me, I can’t see that it’s Ms Flanagan.

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