“Obituaries should be reserved for people who have done something notable with their lives, not something notorious. We should not glorify criminals by giving them attention, but instead remember their victims: Wilma McCann, Emily Jackson, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson, Jayne MacDonald, Jean Jordan, Yvonne Pearson, Helen Rytka, Vera Millward, Josephine Whitaker, Barbara Leach, Marguerite Walls and Jacqueline Hill.”
So wrote a reader, one of about 80 who complained about the decision to publish an obituary of Peter Sutcliffe, the serial killer who between 1975 and 1980 spread terror across the north of England through his brutal murder of the 13 women named above, and the attempted murder of seven more. He received a whole-life sentence for his crimes.
Sutcliffe died in prison on 13 November, and the next day’s newspaper carried a double-page news spread, featuring pictures of the 13 women and focusing on a police apology to their families, reflections on the mishandling of the investigation and the legacy left. In the Journal section, Joan Smith, who as a young radio reporter in Manchester had covered the case, wrote a powerful opinion piece tracing the misogyny that permeated the case. It was followed a few pages later by Sutcliffe’s obituary, which ran second after that of Jerry Rawlings, the former president of Ghana.
“I felt the treatment of his death and his notoriety was fair and balanced in both the Guardian and the Observer, which made the victims the centre of the coverage,” said one reader, “but I don’t feel that the death of a serial killer should be marked with an obituary … I hope that there has been discussion at the paper about whether it is right to mark the death of a man whose ‘fame’ proceeds entirely from the brutal murders of defenceless women.”
Many were concerned for the feelings of the families, and said the obituary was an “honour” he did not merit.
The piece was commissioned in 2017, incidentally the same year that the Guardian published obituaries of Ian Brady, who, with his accomplice, Myra Hindley, abducted and murdered five children in the 1960s, and of the US mass murderer Charles Manson. Those articles seem to have been mostly accepted by readers; there was one complaint about Brady to the readers’ editor, and two to the obituaries desk, although it is suggested the letters editor received a number more.
The Guardian obituaries editor, Robert White, told me that he “deeply respects all the complaints” received last week. He explained that it was rare to publish obituaries of those known only for wickedness, and in such cases there must be wider considerations beyond the person’s crimes (Harold Shipman was the subject of an obituary; Fred West and Dennis Nilsen were not). With Sutcliffe, it was “how the rest of society responded: how police investigating methods were criticised and overhauled, and how mention of ‘innocent’ victims exposed wrong, unthinking attitudes towards violence to women. I accepted that these factors justified running an obit.”
Notwithstanding the range of other coverage on the day, he felt there still should be the “single, measured, deft account” of who Sutcliffe was, what he did and what transpired.
Newspaper obituaries are, of course, not eulogies. Tyrants of the international stage – such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Augusto Pinochet, Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden, all of whom were obituarised in this and other serious newspapers – would make unsuitable subjects for inclusion if they were.
But the obituary pages are overwhelmingly populated by those who contributed to the positive ledger, such that the section can accommodate the necessary charting of how ruthless dictators rise and fall.
While some readers wil also value knowing the backgrounds of criminals who loom in collective history, giving space to Sutcliffe has deeply upset others.
The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, told me: “I was very affected by the response to this obituary and think many of the correspondents made valid and important points. The decision to commission it was not taken lightly. I originally agreed to running an obituary of Sutcliffe on the basis that an obituary is not an honour (though clearly many readers take it to be, which matters, and we should find a way to signal this better).
“The Guardian covered the lives of Sutcliffe’s victims in considerable depth, and as well as an obituary we re-examined the sexism and misogyny that pervaded the investigation and media coverage of the time, through both news reporting and a number of opinion writers, one of whom was the only woman to report on the case at the time.
“In a digital age, when our journalism can be easily disaggregated and shorn of context, we should think very carefully about how stories might appear to our readers – not only on our own platforms but when shared on social media and elsewhere.
“As someone who grew up in Yorkshire in the 1970s, I know full well the terror Sutcliffe inflicted on women. While making decisions such as this is always difficult, we should reflect on whether the Sutcliffe obituary crossed the line of what is acceptable.”
There are currently no obituaries of other serial killers in stock or planning, but should the time come, I offer some points to consider.
Placement: although not intended as a tribute, a formal obituary elevates. Such biography as necessary might sit better within surrounding reporting.
Scale: many readers objected to the length at which Sutcliffe’s obit ran. At 1,150 words it took almost a full page. This sense of podium was greater than for Brady, whose piece, though longer, constituted only two-thirds of a page in the paper’s old Berliner format.
Presentation: online, an obituary is more isolated still, and for sensitive situations editors will want to think about framing and added context. I agreed with the reader who said the convention of closing with who “survives” the subject may be ill-suited when the subject is a serial killer. It is victims who should properly have the last word.
• Elisabeth Ribbans is the Guardian and Observer’s global readers’ editor