This is more than a case of ‘media Maddieness’

Tim Black reports from a debate amongst leading journalists about the ‘story of their lifetime’: the abduction of Madeleine McCann and the subsequent public hysteria.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, this infernal media machine churns out news, something new, something old, but always news – news recaps, news updates, and, of course ‘the latest from our man on the scene’. But lately this glut of information has prompted unease. Last June, Tony Blair, citing the demands of rolling news channels for endless stories, and the shrinking but ever more vicious newspaper market, felt the media were behaving like ‘feral beasts’. ‘In these modes’, he continued, they just ‘tear people and reputations to bits, but no-one dares miss out’ (1). While Blair’s particular focus was on the media’s treatment of politicians, particularly when the journo pack gets the faintest whiff of impropriety, these feral beasts were never just concerned with Tony’s cronies. What matters, then, as now, is the story.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the strange case of the McCanns. What began last May as a tragic tale of a three-year-old girl who disappeared on a family holiday in Portugal has shifted focus. As much as ‘our Maddie’ still exercises the emotions, since the Portuguese press made them ‘arguidos’, or suspects, it is her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, who exercise the imagination. ‘McCanns split by agony of Maddie’, ‘Why I can’t keep silent about Kate’, ‘Locals jeer McCanns’, ‘Maddie Gran: I can’t understand why they left the kids’, ‘McCann fund running short of cash’… It’s not just the tabloids either. Even the London Review of Books scented blood, with Anne Enright declaring: ‘I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I’m not proud of it).’ (2)

Unsurprisingly, given its often callous nature, this pursuit of the McCanns has given rise to a bit of journalistic introspection. In an article entitled, ‘I hang my head in shame at what my trade has made of the McCann story’, Max Hastings, a former Daily Telegraph editor, was unequivocal: ‘The story provokes in us the sort of guilt that our ancestors must have felt on finding themselves unable to avert their eyes from a public execution.’ (3) Earlier this week, Blair’s former press chief, Alistair Campbell was more bullish, accusing ‘most of the media’ of ‘getting close to hysteria’: ‘It has been the worst example of recent times, on a par with coverage of Princess Diana, of some newspapers thinking the word Madeleine sells and finding literally any old nonsense to keep her name in that selling position on the front.’ (4)

Last night, during a curiously fraught debate organised by think-tank Polis, The McCanns and the Media: Information or Entertainment, the panellists were less judgmental. Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor and current columnist for the Sun, called it the ‘greatest story of my life’; Steve Hewlett, a Guardian columnist, noted it was the story of last year, ‘if not the biggest, [then] certainly the most reported’; and David Mills, producer of a recent BBC Panorama documentary on the McCanns, which he later disowned, called it ‘one of the best [stories] I’ve ever encountered in my career… it has everything.’ Their professional enthusiasm is understandable; it’s a story that has continued to hold the public’s attention, or as MacKenzie would put it, ‘sell papers’. If it didn’t exist you suspect the media would have to invent it.

Which, in a sense, they have. For as a number of the panellists made clear, very little is actually known about the case. Whereas the British police tend to hold off-the-record press briefings to stymy endless press hypothesis, their Portuguese counterparts are conducting their investigation largely without media contact. What there is instead, to paraphrase criminologist Roger Graeff, producer of Dispatches: Searching for Madeleine, is an ‘unbearable nothingness’, a story that refuses to yield anything like a plot, let alone a resolution.

‘Unbearable’ is a telling adjective here. There are plenty of events, be they crime investigations or marital break-ups, about which we know very little. But that not-knowing does not often become an intolerable burden. As last night’s discussion made apparent, what’s striking about the McCann case is that an absence of facts is experienced by media and public alike as a lack of facts, a need which must be met. And met it is – by outlandish theories, opinionated speculation, and no little bile.

This is where the media are culpable. In the absence of any actual information, the media stops reporting and starts making the news. This is not to say that every McCann update is fabrication or fantasy, but that, in the absence of anything concrete, sheer opinion predominates. Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror and now a professor of journalism at London’s City University, made this clear when responding to a question about whether the media had neglected its critical faculties. No, he argued, precisely the opposite is true: ‘The media has overextended its critical faculties – it has become hypercritical.’ To make the news, it is now necessary to have a view on Gerry’s reticence, or Kate’s tearless demeanour.

However, as ‘commercially legitimate’ as the endless coverage might be, it is not straightforwardly manipulative. News outlets, be they tabloid, broadsheet, or rolling news channels, are not cynically distracting us from internecine struggles in Kenya or Iraq with photos of Amy Winehouse’s coke-encrusted nostrils or, in this case, footage of Kate McCann getting out of a car. Journalists’ views may be distorted by their professional existence but they still arise in the same social world as the rest of us. Working in the Westminster village, it’s understandable that many start to believe in the newsworthiness of parish gossip – ‘have you heard what Gordon’s said about Tony’s legacy?’ – but insofar as the McCanns have become, not just a media commodity, but an object for public debate, the hype, speculation and ‘how I feel about Kate and Gerry’ diatribes are experienced by many as perfectly valid forms of public expression.

As Mick Hume has pointed out (see The increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann), in the absence of any other collective experiences, national or otherwise, an event such as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann provides an occasion for an experience of solidarity, as specious as that might be. What’s interesting is that as the McCann story increasingly concentrated on the parents’ lives, so simple ‘I feel your pain’ emoting became something more febrile and sanctimonious. Greenslade, noting the ‘incredible emotionalism’ provoked by the McCann case, asserted, almost incredulously, that ‘everyone is so heavily involved.’ ‘Self-identification’, he concluded, ‘is the key here’. But this doesn’t just mean identification as in empathy, but identification as the process of forming one’s own identity. To have a view on the McCanns has become a way of saying ‘who I am’. Where mourning Princess Diana or wearing a ‘Make Poverty History’ wristlet became public expressions of one’s inner self, the McCann case has allowed for a yet greater degree of self-articulation. One cannot only be against child abduction, but you can have a view on the McCanns as people too. Middle class, stand-offish, and suspect parents, or just a desparate family in search of their daughter? Either way, to have a view is to sign up to particular set of values, to share in a minimal, lowest common denominator morality.

And this explains, I think, why the event last night was so fraught. The increasingly angry interjections from the audience, especially towards Clarence Mitchell, the McCann’s current spokesperson, were born of frustration with the management, indeed the authorship of the McCann story. There are a lot of stakeholders, to borrow a New Labour term, in this public debate who feel they’re not being included. Their anger wasn’t just an aversion to ‘spin’. It was a frustrated desire to comment on the story, to narrate it, to take part, if you like, in what seems like a vital public conversation. As one audience member put it, ‘I’m angry with the media because I can’t get my point of view across’. ‘If you look at the [online] forums’, she continued, ‘there’s a collective gut feeling that something is amiss’. Having a view on the story, an investment in its telling, has become a form of belonging, of expressing oneself in public, either through sympathy or, increasingly, antipathy.

But this is public debate as a book club, albeit a particularly irate one. There’s endless discussion of the story, argumentative speculation on characters’ motivations, and frustration with the author. To the extent that everyone has an opinion on the McCanns, everyone has a virtue to vent – ‘I’d never leave my kids alone’ shouted one particularly angry audience member. The black hole that is the McCann case has not merely illustrated the bankruptcy of parts of the media; it hints at the degradation of the public sphere as a whole.

Tim Black is staff writer at spiked. To listen to a podcast of The McCanns and the Media, visit the Polis website. For the Polis director Charlie Beckett‘s report of the event, plus links to further articles, visit www.charliebeckett.org

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume looked at the increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann and questioned whether the explosion of public emotionalism after Madeleine McCann’s disappearance was a healthy response. He later examined the UK media coverage of ‘Maddie’, and he has argued that the experience of suffering is no basis for creating real social solidarity. Patrick West said that Newsround was en exception to the largely craven media coverage of Madeleine McCann. Or read more at: spiked issue Madeleine McCann.

(1) Media like feral beast, BBC News 12 June 2007

(2) Anne Enright: Diary, London Review of Books 4 October 2007

(3) I hang my head in shame at what my trade has made of the McCann story, Guardian 10 September 2008

(4) Campbell attacks ‘culture of negativity’, Guardian, 28 January 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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