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The unreal news in detail about Britt Lapthorne


The moment Brit's mum was told the awful truthIn his essay about capital punishment, Orwell describes a man who is walking toward the gallows. He swerves to avoid a puddle.

This is but a minor exemplar in James Wood's startlingly brilliant, recently-published book How Fiction Works. Wood was highlighting what he calls 'the reality effect' of a writer's use of an apparently irrelevant detail. His analysis is helpful in understanding the media's repeated headlining of the story about Britt Lapthorne's tragic death in Dubrovnik over the past few weeks.

How is it, when thousands of people are dying in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and millions are dying of hunger and preventable disease in Africa, and when all this is being exacerbated as the world's economic institutions go into free fall, with inevitable and massive loss of homes, jobs, health care, education and so on, that the headlines focus on one tragic tourist death?

It's heartbreaking to think of Lapthorne's sudden and probably violent disappearance. Likewise, it's unfortunate that perhaps the local police were not as forensically astute as one might have hoped.

But how is it that we are more focused on a tragedy which befell a young girl who was out in the early hours of the morning in a foreign country, than we are about billionaire board directors and managers of financial institutions selling off the risky debts they tricked people into taking and bringing the infrastructure of the whole world to its knees? The subsequent suffering will be, if we are to believe what we read, incalculable.

As I write, my eye rests on a print on my wall: Breughel's portrayal of the fall of Icarus. I have read about how it was inspired, in its turn, by Ovid's verse. He tells us that a fisherman, a lonely shepherd and a ploughman were there at the time, and that they observed Icarus' watery death.

In Breughel's painting, it is they who are given star roles as the final disappearing leg of Icarus makes but a small splash on the surface of the ocean.

Does the presence of the fisherman, shepherd and ploughman make the Icarus tragedy more real? Does the commentary on the investigation of one particular death offer us some sense of our own reality as we try and conceive of a world in which all expectations of predictability might cease? Perhaps ...

Brueghel - the Fall of Icarus But Wood also finds that novelists can employ details which are 'sparklingly opaque' and honed to 'deliberately mislead' the reader. Could it be that the details of one girl's death, anger at delays and so on, have been used in this way, to mislead the public, to distract them from reality?

In the midst of our burgeoning information technology, still it seems we are like putty in the hands of those who give us the details they choose about what is happening in the world. If we need them to make us feel real, as Wood discovers in his study of how fiction works, then we should focus on detail which is not likely to mislead us.

Or maybe we should attempt more to shape the detail. Helen Garner spoke recently about her disaffection with 'ideas' as a basis for her writing. She explained that she would rather 'shape the clutter' of her experience. As my sociologist friend Affrica Taylor observed to me recently, most of 'the clutter' is female and interior and it reminds her of Margaret Olly's paintings.

The film Lemon Tree demonstrates this effective use of detail from the feminine perspective. As we watch a Palestinian woman's lemons wither in the grove planted by her grandfather and now cordoned off for security reasons, we are shocked by the obscenity of a newly-built section of that massive concrete wall. We weep at the frailty of those lemon trees as they dry up and die, like people, for want of a drink.

Lemon Tree is a film that shows us how detail can work. As human beings we need to choose our detail carefully.

Jill Sutton is a generalist and freelance writer who lives in Canberra. She has drafted government policy, opinion pieces, poems, background notes for Tim Costello, plays and poetry. She believes in real life conversation.

Topic tags: jill sutton, Croation police chief Ivan Kresicin, britt lapthorne, media



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Existing comments

A very confusing article. I respect the basic proposition, but I think using the Britt Lapthorne tragedy to highlight it is both intellectually and morally perverse.

Tom Cranitch | 29 October 2008  

Who in their right mind would compare the two? Are you questioning the grief we feel for people who are the victims of unscrupulous people in power?

Our children go overseas to expand their horizons. It hits home when our children die on their journey for no good reason. Others who are setting out need fair warning.

Perhaps some things might change for the better due to the scrutiny Britt's family want.

louise | 29 October 2008  

Absolutely on the money. The perversity is the media (presumably driven by the public's voyeuristic propensities) devoting a disproportionate space to this family tragedy. Their criteria would appear to be the photogenic nature of the victim and the articulate nature of her parents. Without devaluing a whit the pain of the family, the profile given to the girl's loss crowds out profiling the myriad other losses suffered throughout the world, to which the public might be able to constructively respond.

Mark Kelly | 29 October 2008  

Why? One person's death affects each one of us.

folkie | 29 October 2008  

What a great comment ... gives insight into reflection simplicity ... reality Thank you

annetine forell | 29 October 2008  

I am friends with one of the Australian foreign correspondents who reported on this case. Britt's family were immensely grateful to him and his colleagues for keeping it in the news, because this is what put pressure on the authorities to find answers. In this case, I think the media has done good.

julie | 29 October 2008  

It is interesting the difference perspective makes. Those close to the case would feel that the media were led to the story by public interest rather than the reverse. The role of social networking in this has not been discussed. What basic need drew 20000 people to this case? Were we searching for a community as well as Britt? Social networking took us both into the future and back to a place in time long past. The contrast is striking. In an online forum we pulled up a seat on the limestone streets of an ancient town. We read translated stories to each other and learnt about our different cultures. We were part of a village.

Brendan | 29 October 2008  

This article really is confusing! Britt Lapthorne's death was a tragedy and the media coverage, as her mother said, highlighted the dangers of young tourists travelling/going out in foreign countries. I don't think the news about Britt's death "distracted us from reality" - her death is a reality! The world (and life) is always going to be tough but I think using Britt's death to highlight whatever was supposed to be the point of this article is just sad.

Lou | 29 October 2008  

In Ovid, the fisherman did not see Icarus fall but was stupefied by his flight.

Breughel, I think, makes a very different point from the one suggested here, witness Auden's take on it:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along ...
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure. The sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Michael | 29 October 2008  

great article, but, have you ever lost a loved one? do you actually know Britt Lapthorne? Britt was a beautiful person and she brought joy to many hearts. Many people are very greatful this story was kept in the headlines, would you write the same if it were your daughter? wife? sister? You have made some good references in this article, however using Britt Lapthorne as a reference is absolute ludicrous.

as for the family keeping the story public, it was for two reasons, one to put pressure on the Croatian government, and to also keep those loved ones who care about her informed as to what was happening, remember, she was an exceptionally great person who touched many people.

I am honoured to be able to say that i had a relationship with Britt throughout high school and am even more proud of the way the Lapthorne family has carried themselves in this horrific time.

jacob | 29 October 2008  

Stalin commented that one death was a tragedy but 1000 deaths was a statistic.

Regretable but true.

Good article.

John Hiller | 29 October 2008  

This is the fourth article I have read like this. Why do journalists find it a problem that this girl captured our hearts? To be honest, I think they are capitolising on the Lapthorne name to get more google hits. A lot of australians could see themselves, or their daughters in Britt. I think it's disgraceful that anyone would try and take this support away from the family or make it seem like we shouldn't care for them.

Beth | 29 October 2008  

A strange article, far too many threads. I feel Britt Lapthorne, and her story, has been used here as the premise for something that she shouldn't have been. You can't direct peoples emotional experiences of life. Who 'chooses details', this is a process far too complex for such a statement like that.

Angela | 30 October 2008  

Another confusing article bashing the role of the media in the Lapthorne case.

Dale Lapthorne welcomed the media to highlight the case and pressure the Croatian and Australian governments to take the case seriously. He continues to thank the media for their ongoing interest in the case. It worked. Good for him and his family.

The media interest has in turn brought into question the role of the AFP and DFAT in missing persons cases in Australia and overseas. This specific story has raised general awareness about missing people. Good for them.

The author seems to think that because of the coverage the Lapthorne case received all other media was blocked and that readers are being distracted from the reality of market economics. It's possible to engage in more than one subject at a time. There are multiple avenues for following the news. No one is being force fed a mainline from one channel.

Daryl Watson | 01 November 2008  

Jill Sutton displays a profound lack of understanding of how we make sense of grief and loss. For Sutton, the public outpouring of emotion must be proportional to the number of people affected. There is also a hint of moral judgement when Sutton describes Lapthorne as “a young woman out in the early hours of the morning in a foreign country”.

The tangible, comprehensible death of a young woman from within our community touches that part of all of us who have suffered loss. Her death embodies our loss. The painful images of her mother’s face touch every parent who has lost a child – no matter the circumstances. She is also a reminder of the vulnerability of life, of all our lives and of our continuing struggle to make meaning of the losses we have experienced.

The utterly repugnant behaviour of some players in the financial sector does not provide that emotional connection that the death of this young woman presents. It is in the particular that we make meaning and find emotional connections as we work out how we can grieve and so integrate our own losses.

Jo Dunin | 01 November 2008  

Agreed. And people it's a media story. People are allowed to use it for comparisons in a constructive and informative manner if they so wish to do so.

Why should one girl get so much coverage? Makes me think of that Maddie McCann that went missing. Do you know how many children go missing everyday? Why do they not all deserve the same coverage?

I personally think that one person decided it was a good idea, and the others follow and agree because they don't want to be seen as coldhearted.

Dani | 12 February 2009