How the New Year’s Day suicide of Fred West opened up the floodgates of tabloid sensationalism over his unspeakable crimes.
Twenty-five years ago today, serial killer Fred West hung himself in his prison cell, thus robbing of the eagerly awaited trial of the decade. Not since Peter Sutcliffe – and arguably not even then – had there been such a lurid and shocking case, with Fred and his wife Rose raping, torturing and murdering both hitchhikers and their own children, driven by twisted sex drives and seemingly egging each other on to new levels of depravity. When the pair were arrested and their home at 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester became a digging ground where bodies were seemingly unearthed on a daily basis, the sheer horror of the Wests’ activities seemed beyond belief – emerging nightmarish tales of child abuse, bestiality, murder and incest shocked the world. West’s death, on the first day of the year, was a final moment of shocking sensationalism in a case that wasn’t lacking any to begin with.
Of course, the newspapers in Britain had to show a modicum of restraint – once the pair were charged, there were legal restrictions on just how much detail could be revealed thanks to laws of sub judice. West’s suicide changed everything. Now, with no trial in the offing, the whole story could be discussed in as lurid a detail as possible. The lip-smacking stories of West’s excesses that might have otherwise had to wait until his conviction could be trotted out early. As these stories from the long-defunct Today tabloid newspaper show – all from just one day – there was little restraint shown. West had barely been cut down from the blankets he’d used to hang himself before the newspapers were filling half their pages with lurid tales of rape and murder.
Of course, the fly in the ointment for the press was Rose. She’d maintained her innocence, and had made a very public show of being repulsed by Fred at their court appearances – the image she wanted to present to the world was that of a grieving mother, aghast that her husband had killed their daughter Heather amongst others, and definitely not an accomplice responsible for nine murders. Rose was very much alive and not due to go on trial until October, and so the coverage had to be careful only to discuss Fred as killer, with passing mention of Rose as accused partner in crime. The plus side, as far as the tabloids were concerned, was that while this somewhat stymied their coverage, it also meant that when she was on trial and ultimately convicted – and no one seemed in any doubt that she would be – they would get a second bite at the cherry, able to report on court proceedings and then repeat the whole sordid story once she’d been found guilty. Serial killers sell newspapers, and the Wests were an international sensation.
But once the Rose West trial began, the newspapers found themselves facing an unexpected dilemma. The stories coming out in the trial were so extreme that there was the possibility that even a crime and sensation hungry readership might be repulsed by them. Far from increasing circulation, heavy coverage of the West trial might actually decrease it. “A normal person can’t take too much of it”, Today editor Richard Stott told The Guardian. The Sun opened with a front page headline saying “My sex hell with Rose West: blindfolded, gagged, tortured, then Fred raped me”, but within a few days their coverage was much more perfunctory and buried inside the paper. After BBC legal correspondent Joshua Rosenberg read details of the case to news executives, they begged him to stop and coverage was subsequently as minimal on the specifics as possible.
Of course, once she was convicted, sensationalism overtook good taste once more in the reporting – a final blow out of excess for the press before the story faded into folklore. In the immediate aftermath, there were the inevitable TV documentaries, most of which were the sort of serious-minded finger-wagging that ignored the fact that they were shamelessly cashing in on murder. There was none of this hypocritical subtlety for L!ve TV, the cable channel that brought us Topless Darts, the News Bunny and midgets on trampolines reading the weather – their jaw-dropping documentary included ‘reconstructions’ in which Rose and Fred lookalikes in bad wigs tied up nubile glamour girls who were stripped to their underwear. It was the height of sensationalism, in the tradition of the most lurid exploitations films, and only the fact that I seem to have been the only person in the country to have watched it prevented wide public outrage. sadly, no one seems to have digitised this, so you’ll just have to take my word for it about the breathtaking bad taste of the whole affair.
There have since been numerous documentaries – some pompous, some nakedly exploitative – about the couple, countless books of varying quality (few of which spare any details) and the sort of socially aware dramas that British TV specialises in about such cases – exploiting the case while mainatining a chin-stroking seriousness. Rose West has become the new Myra Hindley, an unrepentant and arrogant female monster who will have her every move reported on by a sensation-hungry media – even yesterday, the Daily Mail was foaming at the mouth about West enjoying ‘a slap up Christmas dinner’. A quarter of a century after Fred West’s dramatic death, the story shows no sign of going away.