The media coverage of the Germanwings crash is shocking. I had 2FM on in the car on the school run and Tubridy addressed the issue of mental health. Clearly the broader coverage -about the co-pilot’s supposed mental state and constructed history of mental health- poses difficulties for RTÉ’s usual light entertainment/lifestyle coverage, since it has been placing major emphasis, for some time now, on mental health and matters such as suicide and depression. Tubridy expressed concern that the coverage and debate might have the effect of giving people with mental health problems “a bad name”, but took pains to emphasise that what had happened in the case of Germanwings was a “freak” occurrence – he repeated the word “freak” twice. I went into the filling station and had a look at the newspaper headlines – the stand was a mix of “maniac”, “depression”, “jilted”, “murderer”. Apparently the co-pilot was referred to repeatedly as a “mass killer” on Morning Ireland.
There is a vast media apparatus dedicated to presenting destructive deeds in terms either of actes gratuits that originate in pure individual volition, or else the product of some kind of essential evil (the distinction isn’t always clear). But this apparatus steers well clear from offering any kind of explanation that the deeds in question might be socially generated. And, in the case of RTÉ’s coverage of mental illness, the idea that this might also be socially generated is always already hidden from view. This evening on its six o’clock bulletin, it reported that the co-pilot had hidden illness from his employers. We are unlikely to know, if this is indeed true, if there was anything about his employers that caused him to hide such an illness. At any rate, this now appears as something originating outside the aviation world, rather than the act of someone dedicating his life to flying aircraft, and as such very much part of that world.
I think there is a contrast to be drawn here between this sort of presentation on the one hand, and the kind of analysis that occurs within organisations, such as airlines, that recognises that the demands of working conditions are indeed a major factor in producing harmful outcomes. It is just that such organisations tend to recognise the outcomes as harmful not in terms of their immediate human effect, but ultimately in terms of their effect on the bottom line.
It would be inconceivable were the airline industry, for example, to not conduct studies on burnout and the likely effects of burnout if the demands made on the workforce are too great to bear. I imagine the same is also true of the haulage industry, whose workers are continually subjected to all manner of controls. But in the media coverage generally, and particularly in terms of content for popular discussion, all this is largely unthinkable and unsayable, and instead the effect is to stigmatise the victims of such systemic problems, characterising them, in this case, through the particular focus on the highlighted perpetrator as -in the words of an Irish Times opinion piece today-“the enemy within“.