13 December 2006

Dial M for Ipswich

How many prostitutes does it take to set the news agenda? About five seems to be the answer. In my neck of the woods, where nothing ever happens, a couple of missing sex workers barely raised a mention in the local press. Three becomes four and then five - now suddenly there is a serial killer on the prowl. And just to add to everyone's fears and worries, people are being stalked by news crews and reporters, eager to fill the vacuum of hard facts with the oxygen of speculation and "reaction" - as though the citizens of Ipswich had been granted peculiar insight by proximity to murder.

Last night things had reached such a state of importance that the 10 O'Clock news came live from Ipswich. Huw Edwards was standing in front of a police station in Ipswich, presumably hoping to catch The Suffolk Ripper in the act, figuring that a criminal from East Anglia would be even stupider than your run-of-the-mill perp. We also had a reporter on hand to update us with news that the offender was likely to have a history of violence towards women. And to help everybody out, our killer seems to be producing corpses at such a rate that can satisfy the needs of 24-hour rolling news coverage, to allow them to really whip up the populace into a paroxysm of fear.

After the dehumanisation that enables a disturbed man to treat five women as expendable, his victims are dehumanised a second time, nightly across our screens and in the morning papers. Not people, merely tragic actors condemned to play their part in the narrative the press has written for them, right down to the culprit's nickname - even though he seems not to have mutilated any of them. And so Ipswich fears it will join that list of places whose names are synonyms for unspeakable acts: Dunblane, Soham. A brief feeding frenzy for the locusts in the slow news season, and soon all that is left is the husk of a town. A shorthand for tragedy we can file away for later, when we're treated to the follow-up stories One Year On, closely followed by the ITV1 Drama.

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