Best’s steady decline was widely reported stage by stage as his body finally succumbed to alcoholism.
The public deaths of two giants of Northern Irish public life this year, the other one a political figure, have reminded us of the role the media plays in the world of celebrity. When Former Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, became ill in August, the front page of The Sun announced: “Mowlam ‘close to the end’”. This doesn’t happen for every famous face. Her death was of special interest because the timing of it was horribly ironic. The former Cabinet Minister went into a coma just days before the IRA vowed to end their long violent Irish republican struggle. The historic ceasefire was the crowning glory of Mowlam's chequered political career.
The extensive coverage during Best’s final days in hospital made sense for two reasons. He was a national hero, but a controversial one. While Mowlam bravely marched on with her important work after developing a brain tumour in 1997, Best, the former star Manchester United winger, faced a drink-driving charge and a liver transplant in 2002 as his alcohol abuse slowly consumed him.
When celebrities die, the media is quick to put together tributes. The poignant news coverage of Best, even before his death, would include the lines: “In his 1960s prime, he was dubbed the 5th Beatle,” and: “He was one of the country’s greatest footballers.” As Mowlam neared the end, The Sun’s coverage of her demise was full of praise: “[She] was a staunch Labour Party favourite… and stood down as an MP at the 2001 General Election.”
The level of newspaper and television attention is a tricky thing to get right. The Daily Mail’s Stephen Glover criticised the blanket reporting bestowed on an alcoholic footballer when the space might have been better used to cover a more deserving story. Glover said: “What knocks the wind out of me is that the media should have responded to [Best’s] death as though it were a heart-rending communal tragedy. Our media are partly to blame. We helped to make his death what it was.”
Yet death is no different to other news-worthy events in a famous life, in as much as it sells newspapers, or keeps viewers glued to one channel. After a career hyped by huge media exposure, the death of a celebrity will be the closing chapter in an ultimately public story. But just as a novelist must take care to finish her story successfully, so the media will be careful to send off a celebrity with the same sensitivity with which it hopefully dealt with his life achievements. In reporting such a delicate event as a publically drawn out death, the media has to balance a moral duty to respect the anguish of loved ones with a professional duty to give readers and fans all the grisly details. Gary Roberts