The tabloid ecosystem and crimes against society
When Elisabeth Fritzl gained liberty from her father late in April 2008, she and her children required extensive psychiatric and, in some cases, physical rehabilitation: Elisabeth had been imprisoned in a modified cellar beneath the family home in the Austrian town of Amstetten for nearly twenty-four years. During that time, from August 1984, Josef Fritzl raped his daughter more than 3,000 times; Elisabeth gave birth to seven children by her father.1
Psychological and emotional security and privacy were paramount in the rehabilitation process of Elisabeth and her two eldest children in particular. After more than two months of treatment in a psychiatric hospital, in July 2008 they were very discreetly established in a new home with new identities – the first major step in establishing a new life in the outside world.
Then, in early February 2009, the Sun, a British daily tabloid published by News Group Newspapers, a subsidiary of News Corporation, hunted down the whereabouts of
Elisabeth and her children and published a two-page spread that included a photograph of Elisabeth and a young woman, believed to be her eldest and probably most psychologically damaged child, Kerstin. Mother and daughter were on the street in the village they had not long called home; they had been shopping. Elisabeth appeared to be turning around to look at whoever was taking clandestine photographs of her without her knowledge or permission; the Sun had pixelated her face to preserve a fig leaf of privacy for Elisabeth and a fig leaf of integrity for itself.
Elisabeth issued a statement through her lawyer that she believed the press had approached a relative offering large sums of money for photographs and information from the time her story first came to light, and that the latest information on her whereabouts had earned the relative a six-figure payment.2 The statement made her position clear: “The permanent and persistent attempts of media representatives to get in touch with me and my children are an unbearable
disturbance of my life. I do not wish any contact with the press and will not give any interviews”.3
The Sun’s eventual success in publishing a photograph of Elisabeth Fritzl followed more than nine months of unrelenting media invasion of her and her children’s privacy. The Sun was certainly not alone in what became an international spectacle engulfing the Friztls, but British photographers were singled out as “the main perpetrators”.4 Almost immediately after their liberation, as Elisabeth and her children were undergoing intense therapy at the Amstetten–Mauer psychiatric hospital, photographers were reported to be going to extraordinary lengths to gain access to the hospital and its grounds. Some of their antics are at once comical and outrageous: wearing camouflage gear and perching themselves in trees; disguising themselves as police and cleaners; one was reported to have dug himself into the earth, complete with provisions, and covered himself with a birdwatcher’s hide; another reportedly attempted to paraglide into the hospital’s grounds; another hovered over the facility in a helicopter. Hospital security had to be dramatically increased, especially after a photographer assaulted and injured a guard, and guards had to be supplied with thermal imaging cameras and
sniffer dogs to detect invading photographers.5 The “upstairs” Fritzl children – Lisa, aged 15 in May 2008; Monika, 14; and Alexander, 12 – were also the objects of similarly unethical media attention, necessitating the employment of security guards at their school.6
/ Photographers wore camouflage gear and
perched in trees /
When the story broke in late April 2008, the priority of the tabloid press was to procure and publish photographs of a post-liberation Elisabeth; until the Sun’s delivery of such an image in February 2009, almost any image would suffice. British tabloids inundated their readers with photographs of Elisabeth as she was before her imprisonment,7 and even featured voyeuristic images of her older sisters when Elisabeth was some ten years old.8 The Daily Mail in particular proved itself willing to publish portrait shots of the “upstairs children”, sometimes with the same photograph used for both Lisa and Monika, and on at least one occasion – on the same day – with Monika represented by photographs of different children.9 “Frenzy” is indeed not an inappropriate