Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley, Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology

Last night saw the second in the new Channel 5 series ‘Autopsy’, in which an established pathologist reviews the autopsy report of a high-profile celebrity and tries to build a picture of their life and death. As a criminologist I was particularly interested to see how this series would pan out. There seems to be an insatiable appetite for television programmes about death, and that interest is multiplied considerably when it is the death of a celebrity. However, would this series push the boundaries too far? What could we possibly gain by looking at autopsy reports and graphic images of dead bodies?

The circus surrounding the death of a celebrity makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction. The runaway horses of rumour and gossip are increasingly more difficult to rein in with the exponential growth of social media and other communication technologies. We all engage, as observers or participants, in a modern day version of Chinese Whispers as fans attempt to salvage the respect and dignity of their idols whilst others relish in the prospect of more scandal – real or imagined.

So what is the point of a series like Autopsy? What new things can it tell us? What can we gain or lose as a result of tuning in? The central tenet of the series is that bodies tell stories – they are the vessels which carry us through our lives and they are inevitably marked by events within those lives. The body is a diary whose pages provide some insights into how we lived as well as how we died.

When we’re tuning into a series like autopsy, we may come across disturbing statements and chilling images of our idols laid out on gurneys or hospital beds. However, the strength of this series is that it paints the bigger picture, not just the grisly bits of it – we take in the graphic descriptions of addiction, illness, injury and disease but with an appreciation of how these phenomena might have had an impact upon the individual. Images of dead bodies are sadly too easy to come by and seen in isolation, they are unsavoury and distasteful – adding very little to our understanding and carrying the risk of further desensitising us to depictions of trauma and violence. However, when discussed in the context of science, by an established professional, as is the case in the Autopsy series, the experience moves away from being a gratuitous gore-fest into one which sheds new light on death and reintroduces a scientific, evidence-based perspective upon a topic that for too long has been characterised by a lack of evidence.

Autopsy is a step forward in encouraging a more critical approach to media and popular interpretations of celebrity lives and deaths. The very nature of celebrity is such that these  people are out of our reach – on the whole, we can’t converse with them, ask them questions or even take much from heavily edited stories sold to us as being ‘in their own words’.  We are all too willing to accept titbits of gossip without questioning the evidence base of these rumours and allegations. When presented with the opportunity to watch a scientifically-informed documentary such as Autopsy, we should expect something more – and that is what Autopsy delivers. However, we must also remember that the programme is an INTERPRETATION of evidence, as is an autopsy itself – informed and influenced by the experience and skill of the person overseeing it. Evidence is always filtered before it reaches us – we just need to develop a better awareness of the interests and agenda of the people doing the filtering. I would trust the judgement of an esteemed forensic pathologist like Professor Richard Shepherd over a tabloid journalist any day – but would continue to be critically aware of the editing that his contribution may have been subject to.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.