Shannon: overshadowed by Our Maddie
Why hasn’t the missing working-class girl Shannon Matthews received the same attention as Madeleine McCann?
On 19 February 2008, nine-year-old Shannon Matthews was dropped off at West Moor Junior School in Dewsbury, South Yorkshire, after a school swimming lesson. She has not been seen since. Initially it was assumed that she might have run away, possibly to see her estranged dad, Leon Rose, in nearby Kirkburton. But as the hours turned into days, this explanation looked increasingly like wishful thinking. Three weeks on and with nothing substantial to go on, the search for the little girl last seen wearing a school uniform and a pair of furry, pink Bratz boots has acquired an increasingly grim aspect.
Sadly, the case has an all too familiar resonance. From the murder of seven-year-old Sarah Payne in July 2000 to the killing of two 10-year-old friends, Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, in August 2002, the collective imagination has been innervated by similar tragedies before. Around no one incident has this been more apparent than the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, then three years old, during the McCann family’s stay in the Portuguese holiday resort of Praia da Luz last May. If the UK was initially gripped by sympathy, an increasingly complex fascination has only started to ebb in recent months. Still, for good or ill, one would expect a similar pattern of media coverage and public outcry on behalf of Shannon Matthews.
This, as many have noticed, has singularly failed to materialise. Outside of Dewsbury itself, where local support has been effusive, public interest seems muted. There is no sensation. When it does gain exposure, Shannon’s disappearance seems to feature as no more than a footnote to the continued farrago of misinformation, rumour and cynicism generated by the Madeleine McCann story. On 21 February, two days after Shannon was last seen, the Sun ran the frontpage, ‘Maddie “seen” in France’. Inside, the story about the supposed ‘sighting’ sat above a brief piece about Shannon. Seven days later, the situation was no different. Page nine was dominated by a story concerning a Portuguese taxi driver who claimed that official suspect Robert Murat was in his cab with Madeleine McCann the night she vanished. At the bottom of the page, we saw Shannon’s mother Karen Matthews swearing that she would not give up hope. Predictably, broadsheet coverage has been sparser still.
Until now, that is. Starting with the Sun’s belated, guilt-tinged reward of £20,000 – raised today to £50,000 – across the media there has been a late bloom of self-recrimination. ‘The search for a vanished innocent continues but Britain seems to have lost interest’, lamented Andrew Norfolk in The Times (London). ‘This week’, he continued, ‘the hunt [for Shannon] appeared to have been classed as less newsworthy than the most minor developments in the search for Madeleine McCann, who disappeared nine months ago. Is Shannon – a shy, timid, gentle girl – somehow deemed less worthy of our concern?’ (1)
There’s little doubting the evidence for a ‘yes’. Nine days after her disappearance, Madeleine McCann had received 465 UK press stories alone; Shannon Matthews had just 242. By the same point, approximately £2.6million in rewards had been put up for Maddie; Shannon’s reward fund consists of approximately £55,000 (2). And whereas premier league football stars were quick to sport t-shirts emblazoned with Madeleine McCann’s image a week after her vanishing, rugby league club Leeds Rhinos urged those distributing leaflets publicising the search for Shannon before a match to do so away from the ground itself.
All the recent commentaries reflecting upon the disparity between the reaction to the case of Shannon Matthews and that of Madeleine McCann agree upon one thing. As Roy Greenslade put it in the Guardian, ‘overarching everything is social class’ (3). In the News of the World, Carole Malone was more specific: ‘What did YOU think when you first looked at Karen Matthews? What did you feel when you first read her story, looked at how she lived? Was there a part of you that sneered and looked down on her because she didn’t fit the image of the perfect mum – all smiles, posh clothes, ordered house?’ (4) The Guardian’s Helen Carter concurred: there is an ‘inherent snobbery about Shannon and her family’ (5).
There is undoubtedly something to this. Shannon’s background is several socioeconomic categories away from that of Madeleine McCann, the daughter of two doctors. Shannon’s mum, Karen, is 32 years old and does not work. She has seven children by five fathers (or six fathers, if you read the Sunday Mirror (6)). Her current boyfriend and Shannon’s stepfather, Craig Meehan, is a 22-year-old supermarket fishmonger. The barest description seems to betray a judgement. But what media commentators fail to ask is why, beyond the implication of snobbery, is class important? What role does it play here?
It seems that class acts as a barrier. Not to institutional assistance – the police operation has involved over 250 officers – but to something far less tangible: the collective national experience. In effect, the Matthews’ background inhibits the emotional identification of the public with the private pain of Shannon’s family. If the McCanns’ plight dramatised everything from the agony of losing a child and, later, certain parenting anxieties, not to mention a fair bit of middle-class self-loathing, they were still ‘one of us’. The Matthews on the other hand are almost made to seem, if not other worldly, then at least from somewhere around Wigan Pier. Despite recent efforts to prompt the feverish compassion characteristic of the Madeleine McCann case, they defy the empathy of those used to passing judgement. Each commentator’s reassessment, from Carole Malone to Andrew Norfolk, seems to read as if written against their very grain.
And is it any wonder? The Matthews belong to the only section of society it is still okay explicitly to denigrate, namely the white working class. For every slice of Jeremy-Kyle-style moral pantomime, for each piece of light-hearted mockery, be it Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard or the affectionate anarchy of Shameless, complementing them are the dark-hearted envisioning of politicians and commentators, be it of feral youth, booze-sodden adults or dangerously incompetent parents with a culinary predilection for the work of Ronald McDonald.
When the question arises, as it always does, ‘is poor Shannon any less worthy of our compassion than Madeleine?’, the chorused ‘no’ is of course the right answer. But then no child is more worthy than any other of our care. The problem, it seems, lies in the question itself. It suggests that collective outpourings of emotion ought to be allotted like dinner vouchers. Unfortunately, this particular collective national resource is the most limited and volatile of all. To invest public emotion in individual incidents will always neglect hundreds of thousands of equally significant private tragedies. Conspicuous compassion, it seems, creates the most cruel of hierarchies; it disparages the importance of the inconspicuous calamities that befall us all.
In part, some of the anger recently directed at the McCanns, with the Matthews used as a counterpoint, draws upon an inchoate awareness of the iniquity. Affluent and well-connected, the McCanns are now always accompanied by the adjectival phrase ‘media savvy’. In other words, their wealth and social standing allowed them unfair access to the well of national compassion. What such criticisms ignore is that initially it was the media and public which seized upon, indeed told their story for them. The appointment of a PR team was merely a reaction to the deluge of interest, not its prompt.
To complain that Shannon has not enjoyed the attention attendant upon the McCanns ignores this; it ignores the profound social malignancy underpinning the gratuitous display of collective emoting. Madeleine McCann, at the point she became public property as ‘our Maddie’, served as a national rallying point for a society lacking anything around which to rally. Suddenly there was reason where before there was just football. The search for a little girl had become something else; it was now a substitute for meaningful social activity. Of course, such hyperventilated public emotionalism was always going to exhaust itself. Unfortunately, to demand for Shannon that which infused the Maddie phenomenon tacitly approves the social pathology of an atomised society at its core.
Hopefully, however, the search for Shannon will remain just that: the search for a vanished child and not a lost social purpose.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Tim Black reported on the disconcerting hysteria over Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. Mick Hume questioned whether the explosion of public emotionalism after her disappearance was a healthy response and dissected the media and ‘Maddie’ in terms of post-Diana mourning sickness. In 2002, he also looked at the reaction to the Soham murders. Also in 2002, Josie Appleton analysed the grief roadshow post-Soham. Or read more at spiked issue Madeleine McCann.
(1) Poor little Shannon Matthews. Too poor for us to care that she is lost, The Times 1 March 2008
(2) Missing: the contrasting searches for Shannon and Madeleine, Independent 2 March 2008
(3) Why is missing Shannon not getting the same coverage as Shannon? Guardian 5 March 2008
(4) Poor Shannon’s a victim of class, News of the World, 9 March 2008
(5) No longer news worthy, Guardian, 7 March 2008
(6) See Hunt for missing Shannon Matthews: uncle reveals rows at home, Sunday Mirror, 9 March 2008