Reeva Steenkamp: our media invites you to ogle a dead woman

Tasteless photos of the woman found dead at the home of Oscar Pistorius.

There's been a lot of chatter on Twitter (isn't there always?) about the media's use of photos of Reeva Steenkamp, who was shot dead yesterday at the home of her boyfriend, the athlete Oscar Pistorius. 

Some newspapers and websites have been "paying tribute" and "celebrating her career" by running multiple photos of her in swimwear, or posing sexily.

Here is The Sun inviting you to admire the hotness of the recently deceased:

And here is the Mail inviting you to reflect on the tragedy of a young woman who died younger than she needed to:

(It might be unfair to single out these two papers, but they're the most obvious illustration of the point. Update: The Huffington Post did a slideshow of bikini shots.)

So I made what I thought was a fairly uncontroversial statement:

Cue four billion (that is my go-to made-up number today) people telling me one of a couple of things. Let's deal with them in turn.

She was a swimwear model.

So she was. She also modelled cosmetics for Avon. She had a law degree. She campaigned against violence against women. And yet - I'm not hearing a lot about that. And it is not just reported that she is a lingerie model, but visually demonstrated.

What do two pictures of her in a bikini tell you that one doesn't?

That Sun front page is particularly jarring - they've given Steenkamp the same treatment they'd give any sexy bikini-posing model. These pictures are intended to titillate, to arouse . . . and they're alongside a thumping great headline about her violent death. 

Those were the only pictures available of her.

Bzzt! Wrong. I looked on the Getty newswire - which all British newspapers have access to. (The NS only has a basic subscription, so every picture desk on a national will have access to far more of its pictures, plus those from specialist agencies.) Here's what they had:

You will have seen those pictures a lot yesterday, I imagine. But if your interest is in illustrating a news story, there are a couple of shapes and crops available where she has clothes on.

They'd print just the same of a male model or swimmer who was killed!

In response to me saying "try to imagine a man dying and the media running four billion pictures of them in swimwear", many people came back with "Tom Daley" or "David Beckham". It's an argument that looks superficially attractive, but lacks sophistication. Yes, there might well be photos of Daley in trunks . . . winning medals. (Maybe even presenting Splash). Being portrayed as the successful athlete he is.

Similarly, there might be a single shot of Becks in his tighty whiteys among a retrospective of his life and career, but if you think that any British newspaper would run that on their front page, rather than a photo of him, say, at the World Cup, you are deluded. The backlash would be incredible. 

If either of these men were portrayed in a way that was solely about their looks, we would seeing the oddness of it instantly. 


It's not that I have a problem with how Reeva Steenkamp made her living. And I don't disapprove of the mere concept of women in underwear, or bikinis. If you're at the beach, swimwear is a totally reasonable thing to wear, although obviously I prefer a Victorian-style pair of bloomers, because I'm a feminist.

What's problematic here is the knee-jerk response to the death of a woman being to print exactly the kind of pictures you'd invite readers to perv over if she were alive. The subtext is so icky I don't even want to type it out.

Roll up to ogle the recently deceased!

Look at the tits on this dead woman!

Buy our newspaper - we have 50 per cent more sexy pictures of a potential murder victim! 

Reeva Steenkamp. Photo: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide