Been appallingly busy with real world stuff of late, but having been pointed, by Mr Eugenides, to this excellent and finely nuanced commentary on the increasingly tortuous ‘relationship’ between the media and the McCanns – way to go Kulvinder – I can’t resist throwing my own twopennorth into the ring.
Like Mr E, I find there’s little or nothing to disagree with in Kulvinder’s take on the current situation and, particularly, in his remarks on the media agenda, which has increasing taken over the story. In this the pivotal point, for me at least, lies in this passage:
To even allude to them being victims of a slick media campaign is to ignore the fact they were willing participants. The groundwork for the last few months was laid by their sensationalist and low brow reporting over the last few years. The editors wanted the paedophile campaign, they wanted the calls for laws to be changed, they wanted a prism for their views. The McCanns may have organised photo opportunities and interviews but they didn’t compile the in-your-face reporting we witnessed. Its worth clarifying in your own mind the difference between the McCanns publicising something and the media reporting it. If we’re honest with ourselves most of those irritated with the find Madeleine campaign are essentially irritated with the coverage – something the McCanns were never in control of.
That very much sums up my own take on things. As time has passed, the coverage of this story has become more an more reminiscent of the kind of media frenzy that followed the death of Diana and, indeed, any number of other high profile stories over the last ten years, all which were driven by the media’s relentless demand for novelty, for something new to report no matter how trivial or inconsequential it might be.
Recalling the media coverage that accompanied the death of Diana, ten years ago, the clearest memory I have of the day is the sense of complete frustration and annoyance engendered by the blanket media coverage given to the story by the BBC and ITV, in particular.
So far as genuine news content was concerned the story the media had to tell was crushingly simple and straightforward. There had been a car crash in a Paris tunnel and Diana had died – end of story.
Beyond that, there was nothing much else to say. The police investigation into the circumstances of the crash had barely got going, so there was nothing to add as to why the crash might have happened, and so far as legitimate reactions to the story were concerned the ‘news’ that her two kids were gutted by the death of their mother was about as novel and unexpected a ‘development’ as the news that the Pope’s Catholic and that bears shit in the woods.
Beyond what little had been quickly established about the crash itself, which amounted to no more than the stuff that telegrams used to be made of – ‘Car Crashed. STOP. Diana Dead. STOP.’ – there was no more actual news to report, despite which both the main terrestrial channels cleared pretty much their entire day’s schedules to regale the viewing public with hour after hour of idle speculation and the thoughts and opinions of whole bunch of people you couldn’t have cared less about if you tried.
The McCann story has been running now for what? A little over four months?
And during that time the sum total of relevant news content in the story can be pretty much summed up as follows.
1. Kid goes missing.
2. There’s a police investigation.
3. There’s a suspect.
4. The suspect looks like a dead end.
5. There’s been a couple of supposed ‘sightings of the kid’ – lead nowhere.
6. The police have decided that the parents are now suspects.
7. Oh… and the kid’s still missing, by the way.
That’s not much to show for a story that’s been running for four months, which is why to keep the novelty factor high we’ve been a treated, in between the odds bits of actual news to things like:
The McCanns go to church.
The McCanns set up a website.
The McCanns visit the Pope, go to a conference in New York, visit the toilet…
About the only inconsequential angle the press haven’t managed to cover is an exclusive interview with the stuffed toy that the mother’s been toting around everywhere with her since her kid went missing – and I’m half expecting the OK and Hello have already got the contracts ready just in case.
Oh, and did I mention that the kid’s still missing, just in case you missed that bit of the story.
In his book, ‘The Point of Departure’, the late Robin Cook relates the story of a meeting he had with a senior political journalist from one of the broadsheet’s shortly after the 2001 election.
With election only just out of the way and Cook having become Leader of the House, taking on the overall responsibility for taking the government’s legislative plans through parliament, the journalist, naturally enough, asked Cook what the government’s priorties would be for the next term…
…and Cook, naturally enough, responded by mentioning the main priorities that had been in the government’s election manifesto; education, the NHS, etc.
All as you’d expect, except that the journalist was rather disappointed with the reply he’d got and went to pointed ask Cook, ‘But what’s new about any of that?’
Go figure. A couple of weeks, tops, after an election and already the manifesto of the winning party is old news and the the lobby is demanding fresh meat for the grinder.
Cook’s observations on the nature of incestuous relationship between politicians and the media in the book, and how each plays off each others obsessions to the detriment of the standard of public and political discourse in the this country are well worth reading for the insights he provides into the extent to which lens that media apply to news reporting not only distorts public perceptions but conditions the way in which those who find themselves in the media spotlight are pretty much compelled to play along.
In this section of the book, which runs for no more than about 4-5 pages, Cook includes a very interesting and revealing statistic.
At the time he wrote the book, in media reporting on politics the general ratio of negative to positive political stories in the mainstream press runs at about 10 to 1. For every story the media runs about the government achieving something, a policy working out well or simply a politician floating a good idea, the public -that’s us – get regaled with ten negative stories about how things aren’t working, how politicians are all cynical bastard who’re only in it for themselves and how everything is generally going to shit.
According to Cook, back in 1973 the ratio of negative to positive political stories in the media stood at around 3 to 1.
Now, for many people, 1973 might seem like another country on another world but for those of us with long memories and sufficient years under our belts to have been around at the time – and I was seven years old in 1973 – that was the year of the Arab-Israeli war and the oil crisis, there were IRA bombings in Whitehall and at the Old Bailey and inflation was going through the roof prompting the Heath government to put a cap on pay rises. That led to widespread industrial unrest and a work to rule by miners that lasted for the whole of second half of the year, causing coal stocks to dwindle so badly that the year ended with the introduction of the three-day working week and electricity rationing.
In 1973, the majority of people in Britain genuinely did believe that the country was going to shit and had any number of bloody good reasons to see things that way, and yet the ratio of negative to positive political stories in the press over the course of the year was less than a third of what it is today.
Take a relentless demand for novelty and throw in the cynical belief that bad news and stoking public anxiety is the path of least resistance to increased sales figures and you pretty much have the recipe for the majority of the UK’s national press – and ultimately we’re all the worse off for it.
So far as the truth behind the disappearance of Madeline McCann, I’ve no view one way or the other on who might or might not be responsible.
The only observation I will make – and to be honest I’d have thought this screamingly obvious, which leaves me more than a perplexed as to why it doesn’t get more of mention – is simply that killing someone, especially a child, is the easy part of murder. The difficult bit is disposing of the body, which is what tends to provide the bulk of the most useful forensic evidence these days…
…unless, of course, you’re only a couple of miles from the Atlantic coast and give or take about 20 miles of coastline running to the west of your location the next best options for landfall heading out that way are the Azores and Chesapeake Bay.
Beyond that one observation, I genuinely don’t know enough about this situation or about the McCanns to take a guess a what actually happened a little over four months ago, let alone start making assumptions about the guilt or innocence of anyone who’s been associated with the case.
I’ve never met the McCann family – never heard of them before this whole business started – and as was the case with Diana and a fair few others in between, no amount of pushing so-called ‘human interest’ angles at me by the media is going to make me do anything more than watch the whole thing unfold disinterestedly, from a safe distance…
…and only then because it’s nigh on impossible to watch the TV news or pick up a newspaper without having it rammed down my throat.
I’m not shocked or horrified by anything that’s happened and I don’t particularly sympathise or empathise with the McCann family at anything more that the completely superficial level of thinking that losing a child in these kinds of circumstances is a pretty shitty thing for anyone to have to go to. I don’t know them, they don’t know me and, so far as I know, our respective lives have never crossed paths so nothing in this has the slightest personal dimension for me at all and I’m not about to pretend otherwise.
It’s patently obvious where the press are going with this, as Kulvinder rightly points out. They’re quite transparently setting themselves up to play all ends of the story.
If the McCanns are charged and evidence looks anything but rock solid it’ll be ‘Free the Praia Da Luz Two’ and they’ll be bashing Johnny Foreigner to their heart’s content.
If, on the off chance, the forensics has turned up something to implicate the McCanns, well the article that Kulvinder links to from the Daily Mail tells you everything you need to know about where the press will be heading. It’ll be a solid diet of ‘oh well, you know I always did have my doubts but I didn’t know whether I should say anything’ leading rapidly into ‘I thought there was something a bit iffy about this all along’.
It’s one of the oldest scams in the book – one that self-styled mediums and psychics and all manner of con-artists, preachers and snake-oil salesmen have been dining out on for centuries. Keep to the generalities, hedge your bets and wait for the mark to give something away then zero in and tell ’em exactly what they want to hear.
And they get away with it, and keep on getting away with it because, as PT Barnum observed, there’s a sucker born every minute.
If, as a society, we were just that bit smarter and more observant, just that bit more inclined to be sceptical, think for ourselves and question people’s motives, then maybe the question we’d be asking ourselves is just exactly what the media coverage of the McCanns tells us about how the media operate and what that, in turn, says about the pernicious effect they have on the nature of the public discourse in this country.