"Whitney's death bath": a morbid curiosity

Long may such freedom of speech continue.

Billy Bob Thornton's latest directorial outing, Jayne Mansfield's Car, arrives at a suitable time. While we are morbidly fascinated with the death of Whitney Houston in a bathtub in Los Angeles at the weekend, it's worth remembering that this is nothing new: ghoulish interest in the very private death of a very public figure has always been around.

The morbid curiosity the Sun has with "WHITNEY'S DEATH BATH", to the extent of showing a photo of the bath on its front cover, is not a whole world away from the story of the Buick in which Mansfield was scalped and killed in 1967. "SEE JAYNE MANSFIELD'S DEATH CAR", urged the signs at fairgrounds across middle America. The bloodstains and brain matter had been cleared away, and the vehicle had been restored from the wreck it became that fateful night, but people still paid a dollar or so to go and see the car that claimed three lives, including a Hollywood icon.

I doubt the bathtub at room 434 at the Beverley Hills Hilton hotel will tour the world, attracting morbid onlookers the way the Mansfield wreck did. But the scramble to get a photo of the bath where Whitney drowned says something about how we can't let go of celebrities, even when they're dead; especially when they're dead.

Almost before the price of Whitney's back catalogue was quietly marked up in anticipation of the post-mortem spike in sales, the public wanted pictures. Sadly, this time there were no photos available of a naked Houston receiving CPR or a lifeless arm dangling out from under a blanket, so we had to make do with photos of a bathtub. Not a very interesting or exceptional bathtub, but a bathtub where someone famous died, and so a bathtub which has instantly become the most famous in the world.

The image of the bathtub, which appeared first in the Sun in this country and which has of course been shared around the world, is a curious thing in itself. It's a badly taken photo, blurred and badly framed, maybe snatched with a camera phone by someone who was there at the time, or who managed to squeeze their way into the suite on the night the singer died. It's just an overhead view of a bathtub with some water in it and a hairbrush sitting by the side: a meaningless, empty image of nothing.

There's a part of me that hopes this is all some colossal stunt, that it's just a photo of an ordinary bath and someone has somehow convinced the world's press that it's the particular bath where Whitney died. Imagine that, if an ordinary bath could appear on the front page of a newspaper, or be pored over by millions of people around the world, and that we're all just peering at some non-entity's hairbrush and bathwater, as opposed to that of a now-dead and now-very-much-more-marketable celebrity.

It's a time when our tabloid newspapers are trying to convince us that they are vital, that they are the lifeblood of our free speech, the cornerstone of our democracy, a set of people who should be placed above the law for the way in which they challenge authority and enlighten us about what's really going on -- and they're fighting each other to get photos of a dead woman's bathtub, to speculate about what it was that killed her, to gleefully announce in giant letters that someone is "on suicide watch" as a result of the tragedy.

I don't see much democracy, or authority being challenged: I just see a pack of jackals tearing over the corpse of a dead woman. And fine, that's free speech, and long may it continue: long may we have the right to want to read about dead people, be they Jayne Mansfield or Whitney Houston, seeing as it's what we appear to prefer to real political debate. And maybe tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, we will see dozens and dozens of public-interest exclusives falling down like rain, proving me wrong.

In the meantime, who wants to buy a ticket to see Whitney Houston's death bath?

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.