Danger of media hype

McCann case highlights danger of media hype
Deborah Orr, columnist (The Independent)
10 August 2007
Canberra Times

Leandro Silva and Leonor Cipriano

The parents of Madeleine McCann are reported as having found recent speculation in the press about their daughter, and the possibility that she is dead, to have been hurtful. One can only be relieved they were not walking the streets of London yesterday, where all over the city, vendors of the Evening Standard sold papers emblazoned with the headline ''Police 'Framing Maddy Mother'.'' The claim is quite without substance, though there can be no doubt that aspects of the report were ''in the public interest''.

A man called Leandro Silva is quoted as being the source. His own story is quite awful enough for there to have been no need of such lurid and irresponsible embellishment.

His own wife, he says, was jailed for killing her daughter and his stepdaughter, Joana. He says that his wife, Leonor Cipriano, was framed by the detective who is now leading the hunt for Madeleine, amid claims that a confession was beaten out of her.

He fears that may happen to Kate McCann, which is the snippet that
provided the headline.

Much of the story is unsubstantiated.

But the Portuguese police have confirmed that the officer in question, Goncalo Amaral, and four others, had been charged variously with torture, omission of evidence and falsification of documents in the case, although they do not say who was charged with what.

That news is extremely troubling in itself, without being dressed up so irresponsibly. It says nothing positive about the machinations of the Portuguese police, who have been criticised by the press already.

But I'm afraid it does not say a lot for the journalistic priorities of the people based in Praia da Luz since the child disappeared, and the editors demanding splashes from them, either.

From the start, the journalistic emphasis has been on sensation and emotionally-driven speculation, rather than sober reporting and investigation. It has taken a long time for the sketchy details of this particular shocker to have been uncovered, and there is a lot more to do before the story really begins to stand up.

This says a great deal about the state of journalism in Britain today, and all over Europe. None of it is terribly edifying.

The thin blanket of coverage that has lain over this case for three months has been justified on the grounds that it is all intended to help find Madeleine. Little time has been spent questioning the wisdom of allowing a missing child to be quite so widely recognisable.

Who, if they had Madeleine, would have been foolish enough to risk being seen in public with her when she was so sought after? Lots of people, it seems, if we are to believe the many reported sightings that have surfaced since May 3. Yet somehow, the huge exposure provided so generously by all media, has not achieved its purported object.

Though that's not the only object of the media.

Over the past months, it has had a vested interest in maintaining the hope Madeleine is alive and there will be a happy ending, for commercial reasons as well as humane ones.

Anyway, it is much easier and much cheaper to do colour pieces about what may or may not be going on in the heads of the McCanns, alongside long essays on how dreadful it is to sit at a keyboard being paid to imagine what would be going on in one's own head, if one was Kate or Gerry McCann, than it is to pour money into long investigations that might take weeks to come up with nothing.

The former approach has the added advantage of encouraging potential readers to place themselves in the situation the McCanns are in as well. Once people have been primed to dip in to the suffering of others in such a vicarious way, then they are hooked into the story very deeply. Madeleine becomes everyone's child, and everyone wants whatever news of her they can get. This lost girl sells papers. Yet such curtain-twitching, gossipy interest is not harmless, because it gets out of control so quickly.

The McCanns may have appreciated the outpouring of sympathy they have received but there have been other outpourings as well, like this latest one, which are in much worse taste than the well-meaning but misguided bad taste that is over-enthusiastic and self-indulgent empathy.

Alongside the expressions of sorrow and surely there is much to be said for simply assuming such sorrow rather than manufacturing or devouring its loud advertisement there have been expressions of a much darker sort. There has been a dreadful preponderance of victim blame, which asserts that Madeleine's parents, rather than Madeleine's abductor, are responsible for the crime. In the McCanns' home town, the local newspaper had to take down a website because it had been so bombarded with that sort of material. The victim-blame has gone even further at times, with the McCanns forced to answer questions from a German journalist who put to the couple, without the usual hypocrisy, that many people were suggesting that they had had a hand in their daughter's kidnapping themselves, or that their friends had.

At the heart of this story is a person who took and harmed a tiny sleeping child, and an occurrence that no one has a difficulty with describing as evil. But this evil has been exploited wildly without restraint. That's also a horrible, sick activity, and it is done in the name of sympathy.

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