'Maddie' and the media in Britain AD (After Diana)
The three-week emotional outpouring around the missing Madeleine McCann has laid bare much about British culture today.
Last week I wrote here about why everybody seemed to be ‘Missing “Our Maddie”’, and questioned whether that outpouring of public emotionalism was a healthy response to somebody else’s tragedy. Normally I would only write a spiked column touching on the same issue two weeks running when there is a war on, or at least an election campaign. But these are not normal times.
Over the past three weeks, the campaign and media coverage around the missing four-year-old Madeleine McCann has continued to seize the public imagination in a way that politics in Britain never does these days. And it has also apparently done what wars cannot any more, by uniting the nation behind a cause.
Few want to question the response to Madeleine’s disappearance, since we are talking about an innocent little girl. Yet, despite my suggestion that we should shut up about ‘Our Maddie’, there is a need to keep questioning the reasons behind this phenomenon, and what it reveals about the British state of mind. The campaign for ‘Our Maddie’ may indeed be well-intentioned; but it has come to look like an increasingly morbid symptom of a society that is missing something other than a little girl.
Inevitably, raising these issues means you get accused of downplaying the horror of child abduction. We have all been touched by the McCann’s tragedy, sympathised with the devastated family and, if we are parents, even allowed ourselves to think for a moment what it would be like if our child went missing. I hope that she is found safe (whilst recognising that history suggests this is increasingly unlikely as time passes) and that those responsible are brought to account.
But over the past three weeks, the reactions to this case have gone far beyond such personal feelings of basic human solidarity. Indeed, it has become clear that there are not one but two little girls involved here. There is Madeleine McCann, at the centre of a secretive investigation in Portugal. And then there is ‘Our Maddie’, a photographic image of a blonde girl with a name made up by the media, at the centre of a publicity circus over here.
As time goes on it increasingly seems that the UK media coverage of Maddie has had little connection with the progress of the case itself. Indeed it has often appeared that while the police investigation has been stalling, the media campaign over here has been revving up, as if the less that has been happening, the more coverage it has attracted.
During the first two weeks after Madeleine disappeared, there was little of substance to report from the Algarve on most days. Yet as the Sky News correspondent in the Algarve wrote in his blog, the story topped news bulletins every day bar one - only pushed slightly down the schedule once, by prime minister Tony Blair announcing his resignation date.
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Last Sunday night on ITV News was a study in making headlines out of the fact that nothing was happening. The only development was that Madeleine’s father was flying home for an overnight visit. To record these events, ITV News had two ‘live’ reporters - one standing in Portugal to tell us that the plane would be taking off ‘any minute’, the other sent to near the McCann’s home in Leicestershire to report that this was where he would be travelling to.
Then, Monday’s Daily Mirror covered its front page with a splash reporting ‘a minute’s silence to remember Madeleine and pray for her safe return’. The source of this important news? An anonymous e-mail, calling for a minute ‘to raise consciousness about the disappearance’, as if raising consciousness any higher were possible.
Now we even have articles speculating on what will happen when the case drops out of the news, and a sort of grim contest to find new angles to keep it in the headlines and keep the emotional temper high - from stories about Madeleine’s baby siblings kissing her image on TV, to front-page ‘exclusives’ about the BBC soap opera, EastEnders, pulling a summer storyline (ie, not to be broadcast for some time) involving a baby being snatched. None of it is news, but it all offers excuses for more ‘Maddie’ front pages, so back into the emotional maelstrom we all must go.
Some have put this remarkable blanket coverage down to the media savvy of ‘Team McCann’, the family members and advisers supporting Madeleine’s parents. No doubt they are well-organised and persistent professional people who have done everything they can to keep the case in the news, and nobody can blame parents for that. The question is, however, why has the media been so willing to give in to their efforts and tried so hard to put itself in their shoes? After all, the British media is not known for its soft-heartedness. Nor can it have much to do with helping the investigation - the constant calls for more/any information from people in Britain seems more likely to lead to wild goose chases and confusion.
But it is always too easy just to scapegoat ‘the meejah’. Media bosses will say that they have only been giving their readers and viewers what they want - as reflected in high viewing figures for anything Maddie-related and positive feedback. Nor did the mainstream media somehow order millions of people to visit the Madeleine website set up by the family campaign. The media has willingly provided the ring for the public circus. But it has been reflecting - and reinforcing - wider, powerful trends that exist across contemporary UK society.
Here are a few of the features of our culture that have been laid bare these past three weeks:
Britain AD - After Diana. It is over a decade now since I coined the phrase ‘mourning sickness’ to describe the rising fashion for ostentatious public displays of grief and ersatz emotion in response to celebrity deaths. It was a trend that became obvious to all in the huge response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.
Many have since tried to claim that mass emotional outburst was a national ‘moment of madness’. But the current mawkish response to the disappearance of a little girl shows that, if anything, the same attitudes are now more deeply embedded in the public psyche and more readily brought to the surface. It has been an outbreak of a sort of pre-mourning sickness, before we even know whether or not she is still alive.
Sharing suffering has become one of the few ways that people feel able to come together in an atomised society. The emotionalism around ‘Our Maddie’ has displayed many of the new rituals people perform to make a public show that they care and are sharing the pain - the flowers, the wristbands, the ribbons, the online messages. When the news reported that the McCanns were visiting a ‘holy site’ this week, I thought for a moment that they were coming home to see the pile of these memorials near their home; it turned out to be a Catholic shrine in Portugal.
I have been reminded again of something Oliver James, the popular psychologist, said about the reactions to Diana’s death in one of his wiser moments: that the sincerity of the public’s emotions was not in doubt, but their authenticity was. In other words, these are not fake tears, people are not putting it on. But nor can public shows of concern for strangers or celebrities be compared to genuine grief. There is something else going on.
In the same way, something else has driven so many people to make a public display of their private fears and feelings over the little girl they have never met. This is close to emotional exhibitionism. It is clearly more about searching for ourselves over here than helping to find her over there. Sadly, this is how many people feel that they can express themselves, and find themselves part of something bigger, in Britain AD - After Diana.
The football factor. The high profile of football and footballers in the campaign around ‘Our Maddie’ should come as no surprise. There were the early fan-made ‘Our Maddie’ banners at Everton (after we all saw the pictures of her in an Everton shirt), the messages from Premiership players and David Beckham asking for her return, the unprecedented two minute film about her shown at Wembley before the FA Cup final, and then the Liverpool team posing with a ‘Bring Maddie Home’ banner on the way to Athens for the Champions League final.
Football has become the nearest thing to a modern-day church for many in our secular society. Where do people come together in large numbers to show their respects or bow their heads these days? At football grounds, where a minute’s silence (or even a minute’s applause) before kick-off has become a regular feature of match-day. To have some campaign linked with football has become a sign that we take it seriously.
This is one sign of the way that the status of football has been inflated in recent years to fill the gap where our society’s deflated, flat public and political life ought to be. So when the campaign for Maddie became a focus for people to make a public display of common feeling, it was straying onto football’s new home ground. Indeed, those posters for Madeleine often occupy the same windows and make the same statement as England football flags might - an expression of the wish to belong, to be part of an emotional collective.
Some might think it better for people to come together and share feelings around something serious like a lost child rather than something as frivolous as football. But there is surely nothing positive about turning child abduction into a national spectator sport and an emotional football to be used for other purposes.
Misery media. The furore surrounding the McCann case has confirmed the central role of the media in society today. It has become the only platform for public debate and discussion. The way that this one case has suddenly been elevated into a media-managed national obsession shows that we have reached the point where, if an event is not reported, it effectively did not happen; but if it captures the media’s attention, it can be the only story in town.
Yet the coverage following Madeleine’s disappearance also reveals the weakness of the news media today. Lacking a clear sense of its own mission, and feeling as isolated as every other institution, the media seizes upon a case like this as a chance to connect with the audience. As that same Sky correspondent’s blog put it, journalists generally are ‘not very popular in certain quarters, and en masse we can even seem like vultures’. But over the McCann case, things are different: ‘members of the public keep telling us what a great job we are doing’. He concludes with satisfaction that ‘we as journalists had moved beyond reporting to performing a public service’.
But what are the consequences of this shift for news reporting? It means that reporters become concerned not just with reporting the news but with making it - pointing the finger at suspects, and generally doing whatever they can to keep the national emotional rally going. It means journalists putting themselves and their feelings at the moral centre of the story, which inevitably leads to telling us how we should be feeling. At worst, we can end up with a sort of news version of the misery memoirs that top the best-sellers lists, wallowing in the trauma of it all. It is pretty base voyeurism, yet it is seen as a ‘good thing’ because it keeps Maddie in the news.
The lonely planet of politics. Last week, when members of the McCann family visited Parliament, a lot of MPs wore those yellow ribbons for Madeleine; some senior politicians were reportedly spotted ducking out of the debating chamber to get one when they saw how popular they had become. They were criticised in a few places for this cheap stunt, even accused of pandering to the sentiment of ‘the mob’.
But they weren’t really pretending, either. Politicians are at least as lost as anybody else in our society today, bereft of any clear sense of mission or purpose. In an age without real political parties or social movements, politicians do these things out of a genuine sense of desperation to be connecting with some sort of widespread public sentiment. That is why they will hitch their horse to any passing wagon unquestioningly.
Even Gordon Brown, prime minister (non-)elect declared that he would do anything he could to help the campaign. Family members reported that he was tearful when they met him. As a father, that is entirely understandable. But as a PM, we could do with a more clear-eyed vision of where the country is heading.
In sum, the outpouring of emotionalism around Our Maddie reveals that many of us seem to have lost something other than a little girl: a sense of where to draw the line between the private and the public, between feelings and facts, between genuine grief and pseudo-suffering; a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, so that many will seize upon any opportunity to indulge in collective emoting; a sense of how to report the news, or how to lead the country.
It is important to stand back and take stock before emotional exhibitionism and voyeurism towards victims become defining features of ‘Britishness’ today.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.