The popular “Love Island” presenter, one of the country’s most recognizable TV personalities, had been due to go on trial in March for allegedly assaulting her boyfriend in December, and was subject to extensive tabloid and social media scrutiny in the weeks prior to her Feb. 15 suicide. British tabloid The Sun was found to have deleted a negative article on Flack just hours after her death came to light.
Three months on from her suicide, the government is making clear it is unlikely to pursue any further action on a proposed “Caroline’s Law,” which would make media harassment and bullying a criminal offense.
Joshua Brandwood, a resident and former councillor for Lancaster in northern England, started the Change.org petition a day after Flack’s suicide. “After witnessing the abhorrent treatment of Caroline by the tabloids leading up to her tragic death, I felt compelled to act,” Brandwood tells Variety.
“I acknowledge there were likely multiple factors that played a part in Caroline’s decision to take her life. However, I refuse to accept the tabloids were completely innocent in this,” says Brandwood, who is calling for a second U.K. media inquiry. The first major inquiry followed the News International phone hacking scandal in 2011, when an investigation into the media’s ethics and culture eventually led to the creation of media regulators Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS).
Brandwood’s petition drew more than 250,000 signatures in a number of weeks — to date, it has garnered over 270,000 signatures — and with the help of local Member of Parliament (MP) Cat Smith, was presented to the government, which considers debating petitions with more than 100,000 signatures.
However, any hopes of further action by the government have now been crushed.
In an April 23 letter to Smith, seen by Variety, Rees-Mogg states the petition has been rejected for debate because it originated on Change.org, rather than the government’s official petitions platform, even though the latter service was unavailable in February.
“Petitions started on other websites are not considered for debate because the Petitions Committee is not able to verify the signatures on the petition or contact petitioners about any Parliamentary business,” writes Rees-Mogg.
Acknowledging that the government site was out of service in February, Rees-Mogg notes, “[Brandwood] will be aware that the petitions website is now operational should he wish to start a new petition.” He also bats away responsibility for media regulation to U.K. regulators IPSO and IMPRESS, noting, “It’s for the regulators to decide how each complaint is dealt with.”
Calling the House of Commons leader’s response “dismissive and completely invalid,” Brandwood says the petition’s early end, without any governmental consideration, is “grossly unfair to the millions of people across the country seeking justice for Caroline and others who have been harassed and vilified by the press.”
Brandwood’s petition was one of several launched around Flack’s suicide. Another launched on campaign site 38 Degrees calling for a “Caroline’s Law” has been signed by more than 860,000 people. It was delivered to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on March 3, where Variety understands it was accepted.
However, it is now unclear whether that petition, even with close to one million signatures, will move forward in the government. A DCMS spokesperson declined to give comment, and instead directed Variety to the government’s petitions committee.
The petitions committee also declined to comment, instead reiterating the government’s inability to consider external site petitions due to the inclusion of non-U.K. residents, potentially fraudulent signatures and topics that could be outside the remit of the U.K. government.
Holly Maltby, campaigns manager for 38 Degrees, tells Variety: “This huge and clear public outcry should be reason enough for the government to debate this issue. The fact that the Leader of the House of Commons is using small print and loopholes to avoid debating what the government should do to end bullying and harassment in parts of our press is doing the public a disservice. 860,000 people will hope he reconsiders.”
38 Degrees has collected “thousands” of case studies from the public who have also been victim to bullying by parts of the press, and submitted a mass complaint to IPSO.
While IPSO has confirmed to Variety that it is “carefully considering” the complaint from 38 Degrees — which raises a number of issues, including harassment — IMPRESS has not received any complaints, though it notes it is undergoing a “first fundamental review” of its code.
A third petition from “Hollyoaks” actor Stephanie Davis has amassed more than 820,000 signatures, though it’s still unclear how Davis will proceed with that initiative. Her representative did not respond to request for comment by press time.
Reflecting on the government’s response, Brandwood says the parliamentary petitions system is “incredibly inconsistent and needs reviewing.”
The former councillor says he “will not rest” until his petition is considered and debated by parliament, and will continue calling for a new media inquiry via campaigning group Hacked Off.
“Love Island,” U.K. broadcaster ITV’s most popular show, has been canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of her death, it was not yet clear whether Flack would have been invited back to host the show. The broadcaster parted ways with the host after allegations of abuse surfaced in December, and replaced her with Laura Whitmore, who hosted the winter edition of “Love Island.”
Flack’s death came almost a year after the suicide of former “Love Island” contestant Mike Thalassitis and, previously, the reported suicide of contestant Sophie Gradon in June 2018.