Death to the cancer column, says Jennie Bristow
When I started out as a journalist writing comment I thought, perhaps too grandly, that my role was to try to analyse and critique the world 'out there'. The journalist's skill, I believed, lay in her ability to get under the skin of an important issue and to enlighten an audience. But with the rise of the personal/confessional column, the role of the journalist-commentator has been turned inside out.
Rather than being somebody who writes about other people, public issues, the journalist is nobody unless she herself is some kind of personality, whose raw material is little more than the events of her own life. To put it bluntly, to write about cancer, the disease, is boring and mundane. To write about cancer, the personal experience, as a cancer sufferer (or friend/relative of a cancer sufferer) is highly profound, worth double column inches and a plug on the front page. The journalist-as-professional-writer is subsumed entirely by the journalist-as-tragic-individual.
It seems to me that the journalist least likely to give a rounded, balanced view of an issue is the journalist who is personally and emotionally caught up in it. I do not blame the late Ruth Picardie, probably Britain's best-known cancer columnist, for not writing about something other than her breast cancer: when you are dying it seems logical that you can think of little else. But I do think that the culture set off by the cancer column is entirely unhealthy.
In June 1997 Ruth Picardie, terminally ill with breast cancer, began to write a column titled 'Before I say goodbye'. Five-and-a-half columns appeared in the paper before her death on 22 September. Writing in the Observer one year later, Picardie's sister Justine, who had commissioned the column, described what happened next as 'not a conspiracy, not a cock-up, but something else, something with a life of its own'.
This 'something else' was an insatiable craving for more: more news about Picardie's death, more description of the feelings of those caught up in the mire of terminal illness. It was the morbid fascination with death that has come to characterise society as it is dragged towards the millennium, and the very thing that Picardie, even as she was dying, criticised, coining the phrase 'autopathography' to describe the gross popularity of writers writing about their illnesses. There is indeed something weird about a society which gets off on stories of sickness, as summed up in Decca Aitkenhead's phrase 'the pornography of death'.
I share their distaste, but I think there is more to it. What drives the cult of the confessional column is not just an obsession with a journalist's death, but an obsession with her life: every last aspect of her everyday existence. In playing up to this, the distinction that once existed between an individual's professional life and their personal world becomes increasingly eroded.
Following Ruth Picardie's death, her friends and relatives jumped into the vacuum to make their own confessional careers. Picardie's husband, Matt Seaton, wrote a long essay detailing his wife's last moments, which was published in the national press. In 1998 Penguin published a slim book titled Before I Say Goodbye, put together by Seaton and Justine Picardie, which contained the column and a host of personal emails between Picardie and some of her closest friends. On the anniversary of Ruth Picardie's death, Justine wrote a major feature for the Observer, detailing her own feelings about her sister's death.
The result of all this is that Ruth Picardie, her husband and her sister have all become names in Observer-reading households - not because of something they have done, but because of a private tragedy that they shared and suffered. The distinction between their personal lives and their careers has been eroded as every last detail of a private tragedy is dramatised and played out to an audience.
My impulse is to feel sorry for them. Who wants to parade their grief to the world? Yet for Justine Picardie, the problem is that she is unable to parade enough grief. 'So much is still unsaid', she writes in her Observer piece. 'There is still a gulf between the public and the private. It's a kind of wasteland that I inhabit, a limbo in the dull half-light of Ruth's fame.'
There is something incredibly sad about this. Here you have a journalist with a job many would give their writing hand for, bereaved of a loved relative, saying what? That the only way she can become the somebody she wants to be is by prostituting her emotions ever further, for a sobbing, voyeuristic readership.
This bothers me because I cannot understand the attraction of making your personal life public. I am as ambitious as any other workaholic young professional but, even so, I think there has to be some separation between your work and the rest of your world. You need space to think, relax, form relationships, wash your knickers and so on without subjecting every detail to the tyranny of word length and deadline. That, to me, seems self-evident.
Ironically, however, even those writers who have voiced some astute concerns about the confessional column seem ready to use it when it suits them. The columnist Julie Burchill has been feisty in attacking the 'death column', as represented by cancer-suffering journalists Ruth Picardie and John Diamond. On 5 December in the Guardian Weekend, Burchill reported that her own father had just died. Although she had known he was dying from cancer for five years, she said, 'I never once mentioned it', unlike other low journalists who were 'capitalising on the death of a family member'. Yet, maybe inevitably, within a few paragraphs her public protest had turned into a self-absorbed reflection upon how she feels about her loss, becoming the very kind of column that she despises.
In her Guardian column on 27 October, self-publicised neurotic Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation) claimed to 'despise' the 'private journals of non-public figures'. Coming from somebody who made her name by writing about her own depression, this is a bit rich; as she admitted, 'it is the memoir of precisely the variety I am guilty of producing that I am sick of'. A case of post-traumatic syntax disorder, perhaps?
So everybody despises this trend, but we all feel compelled to do it sooner or later. And so the emotional bandwagon gathers pace, threatening to reduce journalism to the kind of diary-writing you did as a teenager: overhyped, self-obsessed and, when it's been done once, boring.
Yet to say this is to risk being treated as though you are stamping on the victims' graves and their relatives' hearts. In December Nicola Horlick, well-known fund manager and 'supermum', wrote a two-page feature in the Sunday Times about the death of her daughter from leukaemia. Horlick attacked a journalist who had criticised the fashion for stories about death. 'I would say to him that I feel that it is important to confront these issues and to learn from other people's experiences', she retorted. She said she had been comforted by Ruth Picardie's and John Diamond's columns, and hoped her own story might comfort others.
What do you say to that? When it comes to easing the pain of a bereaved mother, defending standards and principles of journalism just seems unfeeling and petty.
But it's not. For journalists and their readers alike, there has to be more to news and commentary than personal, self-absorbed emotion. If the news is to mean anything more than the over-dramatised private lives of the people who write it, the death column has got to go.
Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999