The world’s media has a poor track record when it comes to reporting the deaths of celebrities, going early often enough to invoke the classic Python-esque protest, “I’m not dead yet”.
Singer and actress Olivia Newton-John was the latest victim of tabloid hyperbole, when reports described her as ‘clinging on to life’. The star of Grease took to Facebook to cheerily confirm her existence, even though it is known she is ‘battling cancer’ for the third time. Reports said Newton-John was privately upset by the reports which emanated from the US supermarket tabloid National Inquirer.
Earlier this month a report on the BBC quoted Scottish comedian Billy Connolly saying that his life was ‘slipping away’. Billy, who has been enduring Parkinson’s Disease and prostate cancer for some years, posted a video on Twitter a few days later, playing the banjo and singing that he wasn’t dying just yet and sorry if he’d made everyone depressed.
In regional media circa 1980s, it was drummed into us that one should not report the death of a person without double-checking with the police, the family and/or the undertaker. But that was when newspapers could afford the luxury of a second and third line of checking and, moreover, there was only going to be one, unretractable edition, so you had to get it right.
Now, obvious errors can be corrected in an instant online, although probably not before thousands of people have shared and re-posted the original erroneous report.
Such was the case last year, when multiple publications carried reports of rock star Tom Petty’s death, some hours, as it turned out, before his actual demise from cardiac arrest. In that case, the media outlets which gave Tom an early exit cited Los Angeles police, which just goes to show that official sources are not always spot on either.
So numerous have been the instances of inaccurate reports of people’s deaths, prematurely published obituaries and so on, Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to the topic, hundreds of examples, arranged in an A to Z format.
Australian country comic Chad Morgan should be aggrieved that premature reports of his death are not included.
Chad has twice been reported as dead. In 2008 a regional radio station reported Chad Morgan’s death, which led to him coming out with the classic comment ‘I’m not dead yet’.
(The phrase might well reference a scene in the classic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Python Eric Idle and others are wheeling a cart through a village calling ‘bring out your dead’. John Cleese emerges with a villager over his shoulder. The villager assures the collectors he’s not dead yet and a comic three-way conversation ensues until Idle’s character smites Mr Not Dead Yet with a cudgel.)
Rock star Tex Perkins and director Janine Hosking subsequently produced the 2011 documentary of Chad’s life on the road, fittingly called “I’m Not Dead Yet”.
Last year the rumour of Chad’s demise surfaced again, the Courier-Mail reporting that it came about through misinterpreted sharing of a social media report of jazz musician Chuck Morgan’s death.
It ought to be funny but it’s not if you have been the victim of erroneous reporting. The prime retort still belongs to author Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), for the oft misquoted ‘reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” (he actually said: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”)
As you’d imagine, large media companies pre-prepare obituaries of famous people and archive them for the appropriate day. This explains why, on the sudden death of David Bowie, hundreds of in-depth obits appeared so quickly in publications around the world. In large news organisations, an individual is often assigned to manage the obituaries section. This person manages the delicate business of persuading people to supply tributes and photographs.
Some mis-reported deaths have occurred as a result of accidental publication of pre-prepared obituaries. In 2003 CNN accidently released seven draft obituaries of major world figures. Gaffes like this have been associated with three premature obits published about Pope John Paul II. There’s been no shortage of examples. Steve Jobs, Ernest Hemingway, Karl Marx, Paul McCartney, Beyonce, Whitney Houston and Charles Manson are among those killed off early.
Folk musician Dave Swarbrick’s obituary was published in the Daily Telegraph in April 1999 after he was admitted to Coventry hospital with a chest infection. Swarbrick, who died in 2016, saw the funny side. After reading his own obituary he quipped: “It’s not the first time I have died in Coventry.”
Australian media outlets alarmed and upset monarchists in 1993 by reporting that the Queen Mother had died (eight and a half years early as it turned out). Even the national broadcaster got caught out, with an ABC news bulletin attributing the news to ‘unconfirmed reports’.
Perhaps cashing in on the familiarity of the phrase, variations on the phrase ‘I’m not dead yet’ have been used as band names, album names, song names (I found three songs with Not Dead Yet titles – Styx, Bullet for my Valentine and Jen Ledger) and the titles of at least three movies. This year rock drummer and singer Phil Collins, 67, is touring the world with his ‘Not Dead Yet’ show. The tour itself is named after Collins’s autobiography released in 2016.
In addition to the Chad Morgan-Chuck Morgan confusion mentioned above, celebrity-spotter website avclub.com identified a few misreported deaths involving similar-sounding names.
In 1998, James Earl Jones (the voice of Darth Vader), was reported dead (it was Martin Luther King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, who had died). When comedian Jerry Lewis died, several outlets announced the demise of rockabilly pianist Jerry Lee Lewis. Rocker Bob Segar (Silver Bullet Band) also suffered a similar fate on the death of activist songwriter Pete Seeger. Urgent text messages to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office (during a 2009 tour by former British PM Baroness Margaret Thatcher), were resolved when it was established the texts referred to the death of then Transport Minister John’s Baird’s cat, Thatcher.
More soberly, a national grassroots disability support group in the US and UK has taken the name as part of a protest movement. Notdeadyet.org opposes the legalising of assisted suicide and euthanasia, saying it is an extreme form of discrimination.
In this era of instant social media ‘news’ some of it fake and much of it un-vetted or corroborated, I’m picking we haven’t seen the last of Not Dead Yet.
You might wonder what led me down this path. She Who Plans Ahead has been suggesting we make advanced health directives. You know – where you instruct doctors to take or not take heroic measures if you are incapacitated. I went for a lone stroll through the old part of Hemmant Cemetery (see photo above) on Tuesday to ponder this unpalatable development.
Part of me wants to resist, worrying that perhaps someone will misinterpret notes on a chart and pull the plug, just as my brain is trying to get my mouth around…I’m not dead yet.