Turning tragedy into trivia

The ghoulish obsession with two missing girls shows the UK media at its worst.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

It seems grotesque to describe the frightening saga of two missing Cambridgeshire schoolgirls as a silly season story. But that’s what it has been turned into.

The two friends, 10-year-olds Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, went missing from a family barbecue at the Wells’ house in Soham, East Anglia, on the evening of Sunday 4 August. Holly’s parents raised the alarm later that night; by dawn a search of the area had begun, with police and local volunteers. The story hit the national press shortly afterwards, and has dominated the headlines ever since.

The photograph of the girls wearing Manchester United football shirts, taken on the day of their disappearance, has been so widely circulated that nobody could fail to recognise them. Timelines of the story so far are available, and maps of the local areas. The police have released a reconstruction of their final movements, using child actresses; school-friends, teachers and other local residents have been widely quoted.

Families of other child abduction victims have come back into the news – notably, Sara Payne, mother of Sarah Payne, who disappeared in July 2000 and was subsequently found murdered, having been sexually assaulted. The grimmest child killings have been dug out of British history, such as the Moors murders of the 1960s and the Babes in the Wood case of 1986. Criminal psychologists from other notorious cases have been brought in to speculate to all and sundry about the possible profile of the girls’ potential abductor.

As if the story itself were not bad enough, it took only a matter of days for journalists to delve into imagined horrors – for example, the idea that the girls had been lured away by an internet paedophile (even though there seems to be no indication that this was the case). And much of the ‘real’ news is not even news. After nagging the police for information, the papers on 14 August reported the possibility that disturbed earth discovered in nearby woods might have links to the girls’ disappearance. By the time papers hit the newsagents’ shelves, police had rejected such a link.

Caught up in this distasteful media circus, we should ask the question – who does it help?

No doubt local publicity in cases like this does encourage witnesses to come forward. Whether the national press can play a constructive role in this sense is less clear. Many have pointed out the danger that this nation-wide obsession with an abduction that occurred in East Anglia may well hinder the search, by encouraging false sightings of the girls all over the place (as happened with the Sarah Payne case). That some of the press has started offering rewards for information regarding Jessica and Holly increases this risk.

As it is, the Cambridgeshire police seem to be suffering from information overload. Much has been made of the scale of the investigation, and the numbers of people coming forward to help. But what is now presented as the key piece of information – a taxi driver who saw a car driver seeming to struggle with two girls – was reported by the taxi driver four days before the police formally interviewed him.

This national obsession seems unlikely to help in the search for Jessica and Holly. How, then, will it help their parents? Thrust under the spotlight, bombarded with speculation about all the gruesome things that might have happened to their girls – the parents couldn’t even take communion at Soham church on Sunday without one national broadsheet publishing a front-page photograph of them doing so.

Whatever happens to the girls, their parents will never be allowed to put it behind them. Just look at Sara Payne – transformed by media attention and campaign groups’ tactics from a grieving mother into a public spokesperson on every child tragedy. Parents who have had to suffer the loss of their children deserve better than constantly being encouraged to relive their pain.

From the first few days commentary has declared that the small Fenland town of Soham will never be the same again. Of course it won’t. But the people of Soham might have stood some chance of recovery had the town not been presented as a macabre tragedy tourist attraction, and their children might have stood a better chance of being allowed to play outside once more.

And what about the rest of us, as we become further and further embroiled in this saga? The disappearance of Holly and Jessica is, ultimately, a highly personal tragedy for their families and friends, which carries no broader lessons for society. We are repeatedly assured that child abductions are extremely rare; double abductions even more so. But as this story continues to pound our eardrums, such rational understanding is subsumed by irrational fears. As Joan Smith, columnist for The Times (London) writes, at worst, the obsession with the missing girls ‘paralyses us and stirs up atavistic and mostly unfounded fears about the kind of society we inhabit’ (1).

Joan Smith criticises the way that ‘the invitation to identify so closely with the families of missing children threatens to turn us into voyeurs’. In its prurience and banality, the media reportage contains more than a few similarities with the coverage of the Big Brother TV show. It imagines an insatiable appetite among the public for more details, more pictures, more heartache, gossip and platitude.

Of course, the media imagines that this story is far worthier than reportage on the antics of the Big Brother house. Indeed, on the Radio Four Today programme’s religious slot, ‘Thought for the Day’, Anne Atkins celebrated the fact that her teenage niece, who has never been interested in current affairs, has become hooked on this case. But the coverage of this case has placed it in the realm of trivia. It has become a silly season story, filling the summer vacuum left by the absence of current affairs. And just because the storyline is grim, the media should not convince themselves that it is news.

I wish those girls could be found. I wish they had never disappeared. And I object to the kind of culture that feeds, vulture-like, off such tragedies.

Read on:

Sarah’s Law can’t protect us from fear, by Mick Hume

(1) The Times (London), 13 August 2002

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Topics Politics


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