Tuesday, March 18, 2008


News coverage

Comment on a recent BBC blog about the comparative media coverage of two missing children, Shannon Matthews and Madeleine McCann. As usual, someone claims this is a class issue, and that the huge support and profile in the McCann case was due to the family being middle-class. The BBC is taken to task for not being even-handed.

Nothing changes. I remember a few days after the stabbing of headmaster Phillip Lawrence in 1995 and the media storm that quickly elevated him to a sort of sainthood, a young black boy went to the aid of his father who was being attacked in the street in London. He too was stabbed to death. Although his act was in many ways more heroic, he wasn't the "right" choice for journalists and editors to build a story around, so his death received a few lines of coverage only.

In such a cynical age, the media feed on what fits the bill for their audience, and the McCanns were able, willingly or unwillingly, to provide just that. Sweet little girl in peril, a very photogenic mother with just a hint too much self-possession, foreign police to criticise, a suspect with a strange name, Club Med subtexts, all these were ideal, titillating media fodder. The fact that the McCanns also were media-literate enough to know how the system worked and to exploit it gave the case a huge profile, but also, when as was almost inevitable they too became suspects, made them a "legitimate" target.

The media are not by and large allies in some great cause of rescuing missing children. They are in the business of winning audience numbers, and they will use, or ignore, stories depending solely on whether they will sell. It would be nice to think that the BBC was above all this, but a) it's as obsessed with ratings as anyone else, and b) sometimes the extent of coverage elsewhere defines expectations of how much coverage the BBC should give. Is it a class issue? Only to the extent that some people will be smart enough to play the system, and desperate enough to accept the possible consequences of supping with the media. Otherwise, it's all about what turns an editor on, sad to say.


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