Media mayhem: McCann vs Matthews

It seems tasteless to look at the misery inflicted on two young girls from the point of view of the media coverage given to them. And yet these cases may be linked by the media attention they achieved. That is tasteless.

A Radio 5 show asked me on to discuss whether the news media follow or set the news agenda, and whether their role is a good one. Here’s the sort of thing I worked out to say.

In general

It’s worth noting that some sorts of stories get an unhealthy momentum of their own and that editors are only partly to blame.  The classic example was the death of Princess Diana, in which the nation seemed to indulge in a phony mass grief which was silly to a degree but which was a real phenomenon the media had to report. There was a positive feedback effect, sure. But the process was real enough.

Equally, there are certain sorts of story which produce “moral panic” which is understandable but not particularly useful. Violence will do it, but it needs to be capable of being seen as an epidemic and “ideally” it will be perpetrated on children.

The story of the Madeleine story

The story of the story of Madeleine McCann has upset lots of people who worry about the media. The common theme, rightly I think, was that the story received far more coverage than it deserved. Time and time again, non-developments were picked over in minute detail. In one sense, again, the media can’t be blamed. There was real public interest, and the media can’t easily insist that this or that audience concern is mawkish or redundant.

We can’t mince words. Audiences enjoyed this sort of material. I say ” enjoyed” and am inclined to stick with the word. I simply believe that there is an unhealthy pornography of suffering in which attractive and young victims are the best stars.

One aspect to it was that the media organisations committed big resources to covering this overseas story. Once the trucks and talent were in place, it must have been very tempting to put plenty of material through them.

It is worth saying that Madeleine’s parents seem not to have contributed to any of this.  They have been dignified in the face of tremendous suffering and provocation. If they handled the media with a degree of sophistication and professionalism, they can hardly be blamed for that. They believed that publicity increased the chances of Madeleine being recovered and they weren’t stupid. And they had to be all the more brave because they were criticised for not emoting. The less they played the parts generally assigned to suffering parents, the more they had to suffer – and it must have caused suffering – public indignation.

They also learned the hard way that short of hiding on a Scottish island, media attention must be managed somehow.

The story of the Matthews story?

Here is a wild speculation but a very tempting one. One of the victims of the Madeleine story may have been poor Karen Matthews, the mother who kidnapped her own child and sought to put her up for media ransom. One can’t help feeling that the events in which Shannon starred (if in absentia) may have unfolded as a desperate attempt by her abusers to have a piece of the McCann sort of action. I rather share the sympathy for Karen felt by a policewoman, Christine Freeman, who must have got to know her well. It seems absurd to call Karen “pure evil” as a policeman did in a statement after the verdict.

The late Alan Brien said that violence was the repartee of the illiterate.  Seeking celebrity is the homage paid by the untalented to the glamorous.

The Matthews story is very sad. With luck, no bones broken and maybe not even a tremendous amount of suffering additional to being brought up in a dysfunctional family. The worst of it may unfold in the care regime now awaiting Shannon. But it may be that her life will be the better for the absence of her mother. Who knows? But every aspect of the thing is stamped with grimness.

That it sucked in millions of pounds-worth of policing is perhaps inevitable.

That it hoovered up oceans of TV truck-time surely gives us all pause. Shannon was perhaps abducted because her abusers longed for the media attention which they knew accrued to abduction stories. Or perhaps they believed they could play the attention in some way.

What we know is that the media saturated the story with coverage because they knew abductions gripped audiences. Even then there was irony: the media and public were accused of not liking the Matthews back-story as much as they liked the McCann attractiveness. The thing became circular when the media corrected their former squeamishness (was it in fact a sort of prescience?) and shone their full attention on the case.

The long media tail

Many stories become long-running media roundabouts. Victims get hooked on the stardom their misery has brought to them. They long to put their suffering to some use by affecting policy. They want to make sense of the loss or suffering of themselves or their loved ones by “making sure this sort of thing never happens again”. Victims make great TV and never more than when they fight back. They command sympathy, if nothing more mawkish. Their passionate pleas are far sexier than the nuanced policy judgements of the authorities in charge of policing, welfare, child abuse, railways, or whatever.

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Publication date

04 December 2008