As someone who watches way too much Lawn Order for their own good, my immediate response to the Madeleine story was a mite cynical from the start.
My cynicism deepened as the parents became a media attraction for the whole world. There was huge public engagement in praying for Madeleine’s safe return. The parents got an audience with the Pope and attended services all over Europe. Sunday attendance of any number of Catholic churches was massively boosted by appealing pictures of a wide-eyed three-year-old girl stuck on their noticeboards and invitations to join in praying for her safe return..
I was appalled at the idea of belief in a god who must be an almost inconceivably evil bastard if he could easily save a three-year-old from a horrific fate but was too selfish to do it unless lots and lots of people asked him really really nicely.
But then I’m an atheist so I could hardly have an interest in people believing in a divine being that was at least as humane as the average non-omnipotent “sinner”. We all know god hates amputees. Maybe he feels the same aversion to 3-year-old girls.
The British media has turned this into a ubiquitous daily concern. Until a couple of weeks ago, the family have been presented as saints, who made a simple mistake. Every non-development of the case has been filtered through the wider families or the parents’ odd profesional spokespeople.
The xenophobia shown in the British media’s contempt for the Portuguese justice system has added another unpleasant aspect to the whole show. It is assumed that the Portuguese police are comedy Clouseau figures who couldn’t solve a crime that took place inside a police station without framing an innocent devout Catholic pair of English doctors. The Portuguese media was portrayed as completely irresponsible, when they first suggested the police line of enquiry might take that this turn. By the British tabloids. Yes, really. I did say the British tabloids.
Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the opposite direction. The formerly-sainted McCanns are now treated as fair game for public pillorying. The sound of the media desperately covering its own back is almost making an audible swoosh.
Even the BBC is in there, trying to justify its coverage in a pretty comical way. This piece tries to meet the critics who claimed that following the McCanns home in a helicopter and showng them on pretty well every news item, even when there is no news, is pretty unjustifiable. Their excuse is the extra millions of people who’ve watched the news because they have followed the story avidly. (Yes, obviously, that must include me.)
Debates about whether theyâ€™ve been treated in particular way because theyâ€™re of a certain class, for instance, is just speculation – individualsâ€™ own views. People are entitled to their own views, but I donâ€™t think that should form part of our news coverage.
I donâ€™t think we have been biased in favour of them. In particular weâ€™ve stressed all along, but especially in the past few days, how important it is not to refer to them by their Christian names. Thereâ€™s a danger in over-familiarity. I know that many other TV and radio networks have been absolutely extraordinary, always talking about it in terms of sympathy and their feelings.
So what he is saying is that the fact that this is a professional couple has nothing to do with the more or less completely sympathetic coverage? Come on. Please. Does anyone believe that? Other children go missing on a distressingly regular basis but the cases get nothing like this level of coverage. If you doubt the class basis of the UK media concern, see the Observer’s May article as an example.
On the front page of most newspapers yesterday, the family portrait of the McCanns testifies to the image of middle class stability. No single parent – more easily accused of fecklessness – here. Gerry McCann is a cardiologist, his wife a GP. Exercising responsibility is ingrained in their respective professions. Yet the voices of critics challenging the McCanns’ considered decision are already being heard, fuelled by hindsight
This was basically saying – in unbelieving horror – people have even dared to challenge doctors’ right to leave their toddlers alone in a strange hotel room. That article goes on to say “Which of us hasn’t made mistakes with our kids?” and to claim, in contradiction of the evidence, that it would be OK, or at least a borderline case, under UK law. Obviously not for feckless single parents, of course, but these ARE doctors.
Another strand in the coverage is the McCann’s Catholicism. They are almost always referred to as “devout” Catholics. So obviously they couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong as Catholics don’t ever commit crimes… Their very Catholicism is in itself a mite eccentric by the UK’s social standards.
Very few people in the UK go to Church regularly. By Christian standards, Catholics are better attenders than Protestants but even Catholics don’t normally go to Church every week, let alone every few days. Young science professionals are particularly unlikely to attend any Church. Which makes it odder still that the family’s Catholic adherence has been a very central theme of the whole event. And that prayers – so blatantly proving ineffective – have been central to the exhortations to the public.
Returning to the BBC editor’s piece, the claim that the BBC didn’t call the parents “Kate” and “Gerry” is odd. This cannot by itself characterise the BBC coverage as completely objective. I love the “particularly in the past few days” bit. The writer is basically saying – well we may have been uncritically pro-McCann-family until the Portuguese police started “liking” them (in the old NYPD-Blue-speak). Now we’re afraid that we’ve backed the wrong horse, along with the rest of the media, and we’re stepping back a bit from our previous viewpoint.
During the whole course of this event, there have been only the slimmest bases for anyone in the media to present anything as “truth”. This situation is basically unchanged now from a month ago, but the media pendulum has swung from “saints” to “demons” and will probably swing back.
Apart from anything else, would it be possible to find a judge or jury who haven’t heard so much about this case that their opinions have been formed long before they hear any formal evidence? There would be no chance for anybody to get a fair trial.