For at least the third time in a week and a half the radio 5 phone in this morning was about Madeleine McCann. The phone calls have ranged from the condemnatory (why did they leave the children alone in the room?) through the sympathetic or empathetic (we know how they feel – which obviously people don’t unless they fall within the small number of the population where children have gone missing) to the xenophobic (the Met should be carrying out the enquiry because the Portuguese are foreign aren’t they?).
The story is shocking and the frenzy of coverage criticising the Portuguese police, and condemning and exonerating the suspect while the investigation is still ongoing has rather lost sight of the fact that a little girl is missing. And the following may be accused of the same.
I think that the coverage of this case, preying on the fears of a parent of a young child, exhibits various media characteristics.
First, rolling news requires constant updating, and if there is no updating the story becomes about inaction. For example, the police weren’t acting quickly enough, they didn’t cordon off the hotel room (ignoring the police suggestion that there was no evidence of forced entry and their suggestion that Madeleine had initially wandered off), the police aren’t giving the media enough information (because they can’t under Portuguese law, because unlike the system in which the British media now operates – see Ipswich, the Tobin case in Glasgow, the Luke Mitchell case in Edinburgh &c &c – there is a degree of secrecy to protect the potential accused and ensure he or she gets a fair trial – immediately blown out of the water by the British media with photos of the suspect, details about his employment, a Sky reporter saying the suspect was “weird” and “a little creepy” ). So, yesterday’s police press conference that indicated this was a dynamic enquiry, things were moving quickly, but at the moment there was a suspect but insufficient evidence became in media terms – the police can’t arrest the suspect because there’s insufficent evidence. And this response where there must be new news, means that stories blow up about incidentals and the main issue is forgotten. A little girl is missing, and with good fortune will be found.
Second, the class issue and the way in which the “challenges” made by the media preserve and support pre-existing positions. If the situation had involved a single parent who had gone out for a meal leaving children at home popping back in every half hour or so would this be reported as child neglect or a tragedy? Does the prevailing agenda of the newspaper or broadcaster influence the tone of the coverage?
Third, the creation of a false sense of community. It reminds me of the hysteria around the death of Princess Diana. People were interviewed then saying they hadn’t cried at the deaths of close relatives but wept for Diana. Today, people have phoned in indicating how strongly they feel about “Maddy” (the media coinage, Madeleine to her parents and relatives – rather like the Bulger case where James became “Jamie” to the media in appropriation of the child’s image and life). We have yellow ribbons to show solidarity with “Maddy” in a Sun orchestrated campaign, the mass of posters circulating in the UK (why?). The media has kept this story in the headlines, and the public have responded perpetuating a cycle of call and response. Are people so desparate to latch onto such stories (Madeleine McCann, the Ken Bigley kidnapping, the death of Diana) to feel part of something bigger, to “feel” by proxy, in a bid to address personal dislocation within their own locale, where people barely know their neighbours but “know” those that appear on the telly far better.
Fourth, the preying on the fears of the viewers and readers – where the “bogeyman” is the child snatcher, the stranger. The reality is life isn’t generally like that (most crimes against children arise within the home or with friends or relatives). That’s why this story is so newsworthy – but also why the media representation with these “Newsworthy” stories so skews reality that people worry about the highly unusual.
Peter Wilby wrote about the reporting of the case in the Media Guardian on Monday (free registration needed). He concluded with a quote from Deborah Orr in the Independent last week that the media reports
“add nothing to anyone’s understanding . . . they do not educate, inform or entertain … They exploit the interest of readers in a way that can only chime with their own worst fears and insecurities, and augment their own distress and panic”.