Larry Murphy: Some Brief Thoughts

17 08 2010

Despite the fact that I really don’t have the time to do it justice, I can’t resist a quick post on the media firestorm surrounding the release of convicted rapist Larry Murphy. Just a few quick thoughts, then.

Murphy remains the prime suspect in the disappearances of several women during the mid-90s, although “no evidence has yet been found” to link him to these cases. What is certain is that, in 2000, he committed an incredibly brutal and callous crime, kidnapping and raping a young woman, and that he refused to engage with treatment programmes during the ten years he spent in Arbour Hill Prison. Under these circumstances, there is some merit to the argument that he represents a risk to women, and that the media are performing a valuable civic duty in alerting the general public of his whereabouts.

However, the melodramatic, hysterical tone of the coverage goes far beyond the strict requirements of public information. “An air of fear gripped the country” as Murphy “nonchalantly” strolled out of prison, taking an unsuspecting taxi driver on a ride from hell, having the temerity to walk around Grafton Street (losing the press pack in the process), and even going so far as to take a train to Cork. It is important to note that Gardaí are aware of his whereabouts at all times, and that he apparently had seven plainclothes detectives for company on his travels. Murphy’s brother has been subject to threats, and it is unsurprising under the circumstances that he has effectively disowned his sibling. Mobs have gathered at locations where Murphy was thought to be staying, forcing him to take shelter in a secret location, under the supervision of the Probation Service.

It is important to recognise that the hysterical approach has not been pervasive, with a number of more thoughtful pieces considering, in particular, the media’s role in inciting this furious reaction. A brief survey of Twitter reveals nothing like the degree of popular “fury” that elements of the media purported to articulate, although this may be a measure of the reflexive savvy of the “Twitterati”, while the “Don’t let larry murphy out” (sic) facebook page, established, as the name suggests, well before his release, had, at the time of writing, been inundated with satirical posts.

The Press Ombudsman, Professor John Horgan, raised an interesting point, reported in the Irish Times, that what we are witnessing represents not only trial by media, but also punishment by media, and is a most unwelcome development. Certainly, there is a degree of consensus that Murphy is probably a serial killer, and not without reason. Be that as it may, this rush to judgement shows utter contempt for the presumption of innocence and the right to due process of law. It is also worrying that a nascent drive for reform seems to be forming around this, thankfully, exceptional case, without regard to the complexity of the issue.

I don’t propose to examine the substance the Larry Murphy case in any more detail for the moment, however I do wish to address one particular question – why are representations of “monsters” such a dominant feature of today’s media landscape? Certainly, since the moral panic surrounding the murder in 1996 of Veronica Guerin, crime has become an abiding concern, far beyond what could have been imagined in 1983, when Ireland was characterised by Freda Adler as a nation “not obsessed by crime”.

My feeling is that the transition to an atomised late modern society, encompassing the rise of neoliberal negative liberty and the decline of traditional belief systems: Catholicism, nationalism, organised labour and class solidarity, has created something of an ideological vacuum. As a nation, we simply don’t have anything left to believe in. Thus, the hatred of a common enemy, an absolute “other” so monstrous as to be undeserving of any pity, becomes one of the few available means means of fostering social solidarity. Indeed, Isaiah Berlin’s logic suggests that the alternative, solidarity through the positive invocation of a “greater good”, will inevitably lead to terrible results.

This conception of the role of punishment as a means of reinforcing societal values in the “collective consciousness” has been around since Durkheim, who famously stated that even a society of saints, “a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals”, would be compelled to punish the most venial of transgressions for this reason. Other explanations approach the issue from a psychoanalytical perspective, regarding the punitive urge as a form of “shadow projection” or the “projection of subconscious wishes“, a transference of frustrations owing to the repression of negative, shameful desires or urges. The brilliant Prof. Shadd Maruna from Queens covers this ground in the attached lecture on the social and cultural uses of psychopathy, excellent watching if you have the time and the interest.

None of the foregoing should be in any way taken as detracting from the abhorrence of Larry Murphy’s crime. However, it seems abundantly clear that we should take care to approach media histrionics with due circumspection. I must point out, also, that the correlation between the rise of neoliberalism and crime hysteria is pure conjecture at this point, and the attempt to unravel this connection, if any, will be one of the key focal issues of this blog. Nevertheless, this perspective does provide an explanatory framework by which to contextualise the media feeding frenzy that we have seen in the past week, and the increasingly hysterical pitch of media treatments of crime. In Aeschylus’ phrase, culled from Prof. Maruna’s lecture, “unanimous hatred is the greatest medicine for a human community”. However, real dangers arise when this hatred translates into action, and begins to drive criminal justice policy.