Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Professor Craig Jackson asks if real spree-killing incidents are often copied by some individuals who are inspired by news coverage, does it not stand to reason that the dramatisation of spree-killings may also have this power?

Sunday 4 August at 9pm will see Channel 4 broadcast the first episode of a four-part drama, Southcliffe, about an English village community and characters coming to terms with the aftermath of a day-long spree-killing in the local town. Written by British screenwriter Tony Grisoni who has a pedigree in crime dramatisation (Red Riding, 2009) and other major productions (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,1998, and The Unloved, 2009), a powerful drama is promised. Pre-release information informs me that the events in the story, which focus on the struggle of the survivors as much as the spree-killer himself, are based on Derrick Bird’s spree-murders in Cumbria in 2010 and the Hungerford murders by Michael Ryan in 1987. The school-based spree by Thomas Hamilton at Dunblane Primary School in 1996 does not appear to be as influential or present in Southcliffe – perhaps suggesting that the targeted killing of children would be too much for a drama to sustain or for viewers to tolerate. Having taken part in research looking at how the community of Dunblane came to terms with Hamilton’s actions over the past two decades and what they decided to do in order to move forwards, I know a few things about ‘community aftermath’ in the wake of spree-killings.

As someone who studies the families and backgrounds of spree-killers and the antecedent events before such tragedies, I am concerned about the potential effects of this drama. I am not accusing Channel 4, the production company Warp Films, or even Grisoni himself of glamourising spree-killing in any way. On the contrary, from what I have seen so far, the programme makers have attempted a serious and mature drama about disrupted lives, intertwined around horrific events. However, the potential danger of this broadcast does not reside in the programme contents themselves, but in the viewing public. The type of person who may find the idea of spree-killing to be an acceptable way to settle a grudge or grievance against a community or wider society (and such people are incredibly rare) could find the concept of Soutchliffe – whether it be glamorous or not – to be a legitimate justification for his or her (a small percentage of spree-killers are indeed female) lethal actions. Southcliffe could actually prove to be terribly written, poorly scripted, terribly acted and unpopular – but its existence on a major broadcast network alone could be enough to justify, to a tiny minority that their rage-fuelled actions or fantasies of spree-murder would be an achievement.

Throughout the explosion of spree-killing events around the world since 1949, over 90 per cent have occurred since 1980. It is quite common that when a major spree-killing incident occurs and is followed by international news coverage, there is often a copy-cat spree that also occurs within the following 2-3 weeks. The timeline of spree-killings in the global media age shows that they often occur in ‘pairs’ and are separated by a couple of weeks. Michael Ryan’s killing spree, which left 16 other people dead in Hungerford occurred 10 days after the ‘Hoddle Street Massacre’ in Melbourne that was covered on ITN and the BBC at the time. Hamilton’s spree-killing in Dunblane Primary School left 1 teacher and 16 children dead and was the inspiration for 28-year-old Martin Bryant in Tasmania who went on to kill 35 individuals at a tourist spot the very next month. When captured, Bryant claimed that he wanted to ‘beat the record of that Dunblane guy’. Spree-killings are very often shadowed by secondary-inspired sprees, and if real spree-killing incidents are copied by some individuals who are inspired by news coverage, doesn’t it stand to reason that dramatisations of spree-killings also have this power.

To this extent, news coverage or even dramas about these events are not ‘wrong’ – the malfunction of spree-killing clearly lies in the personalities and pathologies of those isolated people who blame other people or communities for the dissatisfactions, problems and setbacks in their own lives, and who feel that the killing of others will make them feel better, or prove them right, or make them feel accomplished in some way. I’m concerned that Southcliffe (and any associated media coverage it attracts) may just provide the necessary nudge that some disgruntled individuals with lethal intent may be lacking.

The following two tabs change content below.
Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University