Think before you share your pain

Why are two people well-versed in the media turning to strangers for help?

Two heart-breaking storylines from the world of soap opera have just been given a dramatic new twist. One is about a father whose drink-fuelled conduct caused him to be alienated from his girlfriend and their children. Legally bound not to approach them, the father defied the court order and was jailed. He was about to rehabilitate himself when a terrible setback sent him tumbling back into the pit.

Then there is the story of a wife who, after a row with her husband, changed her status on her Facebook page from “Married” to “Single”. With cybernetic efficiency, Facebook informed the wife’s friends of the change on her page. One told her husband. The next day, he had a terrible crash on his motorbike. Again and again, the wife has begged his forgiveness but has received no answer. The husband is in a coma.

The soap operas, you will have guessed, do not come from EastEnders or Emmerdale but from the incomparably more moving and addictive drama of real life. The sad dad in question is the broadcaster and journalist Andy Kershaw; the tragic wife is the columnist Lauren Booth.

The downward spiral of Kershaw’s private life has been widely publicised over the past two years. Last week, he seemed to have been thrown a lifeline by the BBC. He recorded an interview with John Humphrys for the Radio 4 programme On the Ropes.

By all accounts, it was a successful and interesting programme – indeed the BBC trailed it extensively over the weekend before the broadcast. Then, at the very last moment, it was pulled. In a carefully unrevealing statement, the Radio 4 controller Mark Damazer explained that the programme “in the end did not work”. There was much rage on the BBC blog from Kershaw’s fans.

Lauren Booth told her story in a Sunday newspaper. Cyberspace, through the Facebook debacle, may or may not have contributed to the disaster but it provided much comfort. After Booth sent out an email to friends asking them to pray for her husband, she received “a tidal wave of support” from strangers around the world, which lifted her spirits. “These past days,” she wrote, “have made me realise that, with the internet, we, the human family, have a chance to create a global network of love that is so strong, so beautiful, so life-enhancing.”

Each of us gets through personal tragedy in our own way, and only a fool would criticise these two people, both well-versed in the ways of the media, for seeking to gain strength from strangers. Politicians appeal to the court of public opinion; celebrities now tap into the great wailing auditorium of public sympathy.

Yet, sadly, the global network of love to which Lauren Booth refers is not to be trusted. A different story, or even the same story presented with a different slant, can turn mob love into mob hate. The anger of Andy Kershaw’s fans at not being allowed to hear the sad details of his marriage is not fuelled by compassion but by prurience, a need to get an emotional hit from someone else’s drama and suffering.

The sad dad and the tragic wife both deserve our sympathy, but neither should set too much store on the tears and prayers of strangers who have become hooked on their private tragedy.