The Austrian incest story – the one about the “devil dungeon” or the “sex-hell pit”, to use The Sun’s descriptions – is the archetypal tabloid story. It is violent, macabre, conducive to easy moral outrage and of no practical interest to anybody.
Josef Fritzl – “Dungeon Dad”, as he is known to the Hindustan Times – began molesting his daughter, now 42, in the mid-1970s, when she was 11. An electrical engineer, Mr Fritzl turned out to be a diabolical tinkerer, too, of the sort you see in action movies. Over six years, he designed and built a perfectly soundproof living space beneath the apartment house he owned, protected by a 300kg steel door and a complicated electrical entry system. In 1984, he locked his daughter up in it, explaining her absence as a flight, and fathered seven children by her. One died (and was disposed of in a basement incinerator), three were taken in by Mr Fritzl and his unsuspecting wife upstairs, and three lived underground, stooped over, in a 5ft 6in-high windowless space.
Two things make this different from the usual tabloid story. First, such stories tend to remain quarantined in the tabloids. There are some exceptions: the O.J. Simpson murder case, for instance, so gripped Americans of all descriptions that when the verdict in the civil trial coincided with Bill Clinton’s 1997 State of the Union address, some networks showed both simultaneously, on split screens. But murdered starlets tend not to get discussed in university common rooms.
Second, tabloid sensations tend to travel poorly. Britons are obsessed with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, just as Americans remain obsessed by the death of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996. But foreigners are not so curious.
The Fritzl story breaks both rules. It has cracked the “A” sections of quality dailies on every continent. In Britain on Friday, a day when returns from local elections nationwide were showing the most devastating defeat for the ruling Labour party in decades, the most-read story in the online edition of The Times was a news item on a minor corner of the Fritzl saga, something about a psychiatrist estimating that it will take eight years of therapy for the family to recover. Non-tabloid readers, like missionaries in a Somerset Maugham story, have been caught indulging a pleasure that they rail against from the pulpit. What are they getting out of it?
They are getting a narrative that is interesting in its own right. First, there is a mystery in it. Mr Fritzl is now a suspect in the long-unsolved murder of a 17-year-old who was sexually assaulted and killed in 1986 along the Mondsee, where the Fritzls owned a pub.
Second, it has an element of moral complexity. Mr Fritzl seems to have been exposed by his decision to have his 19-year-old basement daughter rushed to hospital for a serious medical condition. (She is now in a coma.) This indicates either an otherwise undetectable empathy in the man or an equally surprising power of persuasion in his enslaved daughter.
Third, it is a narrative of the devious inventiveness of criminal minds. Mr Fritzl seems to have been under no illusion that there was anything “normal” about his relations with his underground family. He ran the dungeon as a totalitarian state on the scale of 60 sq m. In The Guardian’s gripping account: “He used the device [with the door codes] to lock the door once he had entered the cell, telling the children that as he was the only one who knew the code, if they harmed him they would all die in the cell.” German papers say he threatened to kill the family with poison gas if they tried to escape.
When elite editors run such stories, and elite readers read them, they often feel guiltily compelled to supply them with a deeper significance. Americans, whenever schoolchildren massacre their classmates or angry ex-employees mow down their former colleagues in post offices, insist that the “real” story is some crisis of the national character, of which the murders are only an epiphenomenon. Belgians did the same in a decade of dissecting the mass murders committed by Marc Dutroux.
Similar questions are being raised in Austria: how could Mr Fritzl have been allowed officially to adopt or foster his three grandchildren without a more extensive vetting? How could the neighbours have failed to notice what was going on?
But there is as yet no evidence that anyone really wants to address these questions. The reason nobody noticed Mr Fritzl is that Austrian society, like most western societies, was designed to protect its citizens’ freedom — including that of citizens such as Mr Fritzl — by discouraging prying. Mr Fritzl reportedly served prison time for a sexual assault in the 1960s, but this was expunged from his record. Of the three-week-long trips to a sex-tourist resort in Thailand that he took while part of his family was locked up in the basement, the criminal investigator Franz Polzer says: “His holidays are none of our concern.” They aren’t? The idea that sex-related crimes might be related to a given criminal’s sexuality seems to be as taboo as incest once was.
The larger meaning of the Fritzl saga is unclear. That does not mean we should not read about it. Sometime in the past few decades, quality newspapers gave up on stories that are interesting for their own sake. They limit themselves to stories with “deeper implications”, ie stories that we can learn from because they reflect things that are likely to be repeated in the future. In so doing, quality papers have grown biased against rare, unclassifiable or once-in-a-lifetime stories. This is another way of saying they have grown biased against news itself. Readers, apparently, have not.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard