‘Spy’ dies, press goes bonkers: 26 August 2010

Imagine a story about a middle-aged woman dying in a car crash. It’s tragic because her life is cut short, and for her children who lost their mother far too early. But make it 1997 and the most photographed woman in the world, and the whole country came to a weeping stop. As a university student, I was working nights in a hopelessly irritating summer job at the time, and if I ever hear Sinead O’Connor’s ‘nothing compares to you’ again, it will be way too soon… 

Fast forward to 2010, and imagine the tragic and untimely death of a civil servant. For all intents and purposes the civil servant is a talented and diligent individual, and he dies in slightly odd circumstances. It would merit at best a short column on page 8.

But this story has the word ‘spy’ in it, and so the British press has gone loopy. Journalists have had a go at long-range, blind CSI; former-intelligence officers have been consulted about the empirically light imponderables; and academics have been dragged out of their murky towers, dusted off and made to say something interesting.. (to this end and as an irrelevant aside, I have the funniest answerphone message I’ve ever received, from one of the administrators in my department passing on a message from a journalist; I wish I knew how to share it with you all. The journalist’s message wasn’t funny, just the way it was passed on..)

But, let’s be clear. No-one bar the police and those who are investigating the scene and the circumstances knows anything about this case. No-one. Not the journalists trying to scratch out copy, not the ex-intelligence officers acting as talking heads, and not the academics trying to come up with best-sense for the media.

There probably was no need for a cycling website to report that the unfortunate Dr Williams was a keen cyclist , nor for the North Wales website to get terribly excited that he was probably welsh, welsh people die too… shocking, but true. There have been all sorts of other lurid claims and Janet and John extrapolations – he kept himself, to himself ergo he was a loner. If he’d have gone out drinking the headlines would have been ‘did party lifestyle lead to his death’. Some question-marks were raised about lovers (of all different types), but without a shred of evidence. His death signalled a catastrophic failure of security for some, but a ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ for others. Living in a street where some luminaries have lived was apparently very significant. Nonsense, he might just have wanted to live near to work. Even better, they might have paid for it. Bonus.

The reality check is this. A young and gifted civil servant died. His loss is tragic for his family, his friends and work colleagues. If his death was related to his work, that will be concerning and steps will be taken, but we – the general public –  need not fret about this, others much better qualified than us will take care of it. Be sure of that.

End the hysteria, stop flapping your arms around like an Italian taxi driver carved up by a lorry, report the facts (of which there are essentially none) and chill out. Leave the Williams family, his friends and his work colleagues to the mourn the loss

When on earth did Britain become so excitable…..


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