"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
Rex Features
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

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. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage