When the sad suicide of Robin Williams became known on Tuesday, ABC TV News devoted the first six minutes of its midday bulletin to his death and to a “tribute” to him. The story displaced reports of the Iraqi leadership crisis, the plight of the minorities being persecuted by ISIS fanatics, and the AUSMIN talks beginning that morning in Sydney on world terrorism and defence. This accurately reflected the ABC’s current standards of news evaluation.
The same evening, extensive retrospectives of Robin Williams’ cinema work were broadcast in the 7pm TV bulletin and the subsequent 7.30 current affairs programme. Few details were provided about his death or his life, but much emphasis was placed on the tragedy of depression. The coverage and its response confirmed two modern phenomena: the widespread public identification with individuals, especially celebrities unknown personally to the audience; and the tendency to find someone or something else to blame for an event.
Thousands of people die every day. All but a very few are completely unknown to most of us, and of those few, most are known only remotely, through their work as sports people, actors, writers, politicians. So where does the need to identify, to empathise with someone whose death comes up in the news, come from? Well within living memory, we used to just nod, remark that we remembered seeing that film or that game, and get on with our lives. Television and newspaper “tributes” of the scale seen this week were for figures of national importance, not as manifestations of an internationalised voyeurism.
Perhaps it started, or accelerated, with the Princess Diana fiasco. The death of that sad, troubled individual, elevated to martyrdom by a cruel publicity machine at least partly politically motivated by anti-royalist machinations, was orchestrated into shameful displays of public grief. The reality of the poor girl’s deficiencies, revealed much later, was even more tragic but went unremarked.
In Australia, the focus and emphasis on Robin Williams’ death has been on his reported depression, and his consequent resort to drugs and alcohof. Conveniently, he became the poster boy for the mental-illness campaigners, the suicide-watch people and the depression industry. Lots of people have suffered from depression, but didn’t end their lives. Winston Churchill managed his “black dog” and so did former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, who turned his problem to public advantage.
The problem with leaping to blame depression for Williams’ suicide is that it implies lack of free will. It conveniently masks other events, within his control, which contributed to his condition, and his final decision.
But don’t blame! When U.S. broadcaster Shepherd Smith said: “….you’re such a coward or whatever reason…” the roof fell on him. Even comedians couldn’t use comedy, as Richard Herring found out in Britain when he tweeted: “Wondering if God is finally handing out divine judgment for Patch Adams.” It was too early to joke, he was told, and forced to resign his contracts.
According to close friends, Williams lately had talked of little else but his financial worries. Did we hear that on the ABC? Those seventy films mentioned in its eulogy were doing little for him. Williams was skating on thin ice towards bankruptcy, the result of two failed marriages and two expensive divorces.
He had joked: “It should be called ‘all your money’ but they changed it to ‘alimony.’” As a result, he had been accepting screen and TV roles he despised to pay his bills. This year he was devastated by the failure of The Crazy Ones, a sitcom set in an advertising agency, a job he had accepted only for the money.
At each step in his life, Williams made decisions – marriage, divorce, cocaine, philanthropy – without apparently considering the consequences. The consequences were episodic unemployability in big movie roles, financial difficulties, loss of self-esteem, and inability to cope.
Even his final decision brought criticism. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences posted an image from his voice-over role in Disney’s Aladdin, and the message: “Genie, you’re free!” the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Christine Moutier, had to issue a tut-tut, saying it was the wrong message to send. “It doesn’t follow the established safety recommendations,” she said.
It was most inconvenient to the cause of suicide-prevention for a celebrity to take his own life. The least people could do was to shut up about it.
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist from 1950 until 1976