Posted by Ian
You have to wonder how much longer this can go on. Not the search for the missing toddler Madeleine McCann; rather the media’s hysterical coverage of the case, the like of which has plumbed new depths in the name of scurrilous rumour-mongering, gratuitous prejudice and sensationalist overkill.
What I’ve seen and read these past two weeks has profoundly shaken my faith in the standards of British journalism. Hearsay reported as news, gossip reported as news, nothing reported as news…anything, in fact, except facts and substance.
The McCann family has spoken repeatedly of wanting to keep their story "at the top of the news agenda" (and that’s a phrase you wouldn’t have found ordinary members of the public freely using even five years ago). But this bedlam of bombast and witch-hunting is having little or no positive effect whatsoever. Sure, it makes sense to keep the case in the public eye, but on whose terms – your own, or the media’s? Because so far it’s clearly been the latter.
The identification of a "suspect" earlier this week – a word that has completely different connotations in Portuguese law compared to here – was the moment that tipped things over the edge.
Initially I thought things couldn’t get much worse than Tuesday’s edition of the Daily Express: on the front page, a caption hysterically noting ‘Robert Murat’s daughter looks strikingly like Madeline’; inside, the headline ‘He had a steely stare’; a report breathlessly observing how Murat "was last night portrayed as an ‘odd-looking’ man unable to hold down steady relationships or jobs" and documenting, apropos nothing, that he has a glass eye; and worse of all a quote from Murat in which he speaks "chillingly" of his own experiences of…having a young daughter. Guilty as charged, clearly.
But then Wednesday’s edition was even worse, the front page headline proclaiming: MADDY SUSPECT BEHAVED JUST LIKE HUNTLEY – KIDNAPPING HAS WEIRD ECHOES OF SOHAM CASE. What, in the sense of it taking place abroad not here, the fact there was one girl involved instead of two, and that the victim didn’t know her apparent abductor? The headline also presumed the Madeleine was already dead, something that must have been a big confidence boost to the McCann family. The subsequent story on pages two and three of how Murat had a "sex secret" – an affair with someone else’s wife – was utterly irrelevant, yet once again passed off as something of great national importance.
Here on MSN I would like to think we’ve struck a more cool-headed and certainly more neutral approach to the story. We’re not first and foremost a news service, but recognise that people visit the site wanting news and, while on the site, click on our news story headlines. I’d hope the quantity of coverage we’ve given to the case has reached a more sensible level over the last few days. As for the quality, to a certain extent we’re beholden to the organisations who supply our stories (the Press Association, ITN and Reuters). We can and have been leavening their copy, however, via our own in-depth special report.
It seems to me there are two issues here. One, the whereabouts of Madeleine McCann. Two, the extent to which her whereabouts can be better determined through the involvement of various third parties (the media, politicians, celebrities, a "campaign fund"). Nobody doubts the validity of the former. A good deal more people should question the validity of the latter.
People go missing from families every day: daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, the list goes on. Terrible fates befall those who disappear either through choice or under duress. Up and down the land families are continually wracked with doubt and fear over the wellbeing of their loved ones. Where, though, are the round-the-clock vigils, the 24-hour news specials, the petitions to parliament, the ribbon-wearing initiatives and the banner newspaper headlines concerned with the 450 other young people who have gone missing since Madeleine disappeared?
I’m not saying her case is any less important than these scores and scores of others; I just think it’s not particularly more important either. The implications behind the titanic scope and fever of the reporting (that because the girl a) disappeared in a glamorous resort b) had glamorous parents and c) comes from a nice middle-class Middle England family as opposed to, say, working class separated parents on a council estate in a northern city) point to a devastatingly snobbish and parochial mentality at work in the UK. It’s a corrosive, poisonous state of mind that is suffocating in its ubiquity. And where will the vultures turn next, once this sorry case is over?
The behaviour of the media this past fortnight has made me ashamed to be British.