LONDON — On Saturday night, news broke in Britain that Caroline Flack — the former host of “Love Island,” a wildly popular reality TV show — had killed herself.
Within hours, British social media was flooded with tributes to the star, who died while awaiting trial for assaulting her boyfriend.
But those tributes were soon overtaken by something else: demands for a new law in Flack’s name, to stop Britain’s tabloid newspapers from publishing stories that relentlessly dive into celebrities’ private lives.
Flack had been a tabloid fixture, having had romances with Prince Harry and Harry Styles, among others, and social-media users accused the newspapers of harming her mental health.
“The British media is the cesspit of our society,” wrote one Twitter user, adding the #carolineslaw hashtag.
On Monday, an online petition calling for a law that would prevent newspapers from “sharing private information that is detrimental to a celebrity, their mental health and those around them,” quickly gained over 400,000 signatures. Politicians also lined up to criticize the tabloids, as well as hate-fueled social media commenters.
The press “have to take responsibility as well,” Keir Starmer, the front-runner to become the next leader of Britain’s Labour Party, told reporters, accusing newspapers of amplifying negative social media chatter.
None of that debate was noticeable to readers of Britain’s tabloids Monday. The Sun — the newspaper subject to the most criticism, with some social-media users calling for a boycott — devoted seven pages to Flack’s death. Its front page led with criticism of the British Crown Prosecution Service for “its pursuit of fragile Caroline Flack” in forcing her to trial.
Authorities had decided to pursue the assault charge despite knowing Flack had self-harmed during the alleged assault, The Sun said.
Last year, The Sun featured blanket coverage of the assault allegations against Flack, even calling her “Caroline Whack.”
The rancor around Flack’s suicide is only the latest time British tabloids have come under scrutiny. It comes just weeks after Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, who have complained repeatedly about press intrusion into their lives, again threatened legal action against several British tabloids over invasive photos.
But media commentators said they did not think calls for #carolineslaw would be any more successful than past campaigns to strengthen privacy laws in Britain. Nor did they expect the campaign to dent the British public’s interest in such stories, which tend to be popular on social media.
“This is one of those great hypocrisies of the British public, that they indulge in reading, and often writing, about these celebrities and then when things go wrong they turn on the media and say it’s all the media’s fault,” Roy Greenslade, a media columnist for The Guardian, said in a telephone interview. Greenslade once worked at The Sun and was also editor of The Daily Mirror, another tabloid.
Greenslade said he lived half of every year in Ireland and there seemed “less of an appetite” there to read about celebrity gossip. That was also the case in other European countries like France and Norway, he said. Gossip rags do exist elsewhere, he said — he cited The National Enquirer as one example — but they are not seen as also being serious newspapers like Britain’s tabloids.
Adrian Bingham, a historian who has written a history of Britain’s tabloid press, said in a telephone interview that British newspapers’ focus on people’s private lives first boomed in the 1930s as the publications competed for scoops. “People would have done anything then,” he said. “If they could have hacked phones in the 1930s, they would have.”
He did not expect anything to come from the calls for a #carolineslaw. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, while pursued by journalists “didn’t lead to anything meaningful” around press regulation, he said. Flack was not as big a celebrity and the newspapers were already using their platforms to divert blame onto other people, such as the Crown Prosecution Service or the producers of “Love Island,” he added.
On Monday, the Daily Mail’s front page said Flack feared a “a show trial.” Inside, an opinion piece said Flack had been “tried and convicted by the merciless court of social media.”
The Daily Star, another tabloid, focused much of its coverage of Flack’s death on a backlash against ITV, the TV company that broadcasts “Love Island,” with fans asking if it gave her sufficient support after she left the show because of the assault case.
“Did the tabloids kill her?” asked David Yelland, a former editor of The Sun and deputy editor of The New York Post, in an email. “I think the reality is that popular newspapers are now just one part of the toxic ecology the very famous have to cope with.”
Social media and the tabloids “feed off each other in a way which creates a living hell for celebrities in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he added. “It seems to be getting worse and there are no easy answers.”
Flack had a typical rise to fame in Britain, first making her name on children’s television before being involved in popular reality TV shows such as “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here.” In 2014, she won “Strictly Come Dancing” — one of the most popular shows on British TV — and the following year she became the host of “Love Island,” a show in which contestants live in a luxury villa. That show has stirred debate in Britain around the ethics of reality television shows, following the suicides of several former contestants. Its latest season didn’t air episodes Saturday and Sunday nights following Flack’s death, although it was due to return Monday night.
Throughout her career, Flack was a tabloid fixture. On Monday, The Sun carried a two-page article focusing on how her career highs “coincided with crushing personal lows.” It then listed her failed romances, bouts of depression and use of anti-depressants. “In a pattern often repeated, her career took off while her personal life was in tatters,” it said, after discussing her first public romance.
Last October, around World Mental Health Day, Flack posted on Instagram about her recent struggles. “The last few weeks I’ve been in a really weird place,” she wrote. “I guess it’s anxiety and pressure of life and when I actually reached out to someone they said I was draining,” she added.
“Be nice to people,” she added. “You never know what’s going on. Ever.”
Greenslade said he had read about the message and thought it was “a lovely plea” that he supported. But, he added, “if you’re a celebrity and you have depended on your media profile to make your fame and therefore create your income, it’s very difficult then to turn off the tap.”