By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic
The Madeleine McCann story offers the most potent example of what makes British media tick and what British people want to read.
Although crimes and atrocities occur every day, there are criteria which land them on page nine and conditions which qualify it for extraordinary media coverage, bordering on the obsessive. For the missing girls of India or teenagers in London enslaved by gangs it’s the former, in Madeleine McCann’s case it was very much the latter.
The disappearance of Madeleine McCann
The disappearance of Madeleine McCann is both a press phenomenon and an accurate portrayal of how the media functions. The ordinary middle class McCann family is what made their case perversely extraordinary. It’s relatable and thus the more shocking, despite being commonplace in the context of wider global affairs.
An intriguing question posted on thestudentroom.co.uk is “Would Madeleine McCann get as much attention if she was Black?” The prevailing opinion was, unsurprisingly, no. She is one girl out of hundreds that go missing every year, one student argued, adding that if the rest were given the same amount of exposure, more missing kids would be found.
This is an interesting hypothesis. Media coverage of McCann has undoubtedly fuelled police spending both at home and abroad, suggesting there is a link between what the public reads and what Scotland Yard investigates. It also raises the question of whether the McCann’s should be grateful of the media coverage, despite being publically resentful of it.
After Portuguese police inquiries were shelved in 2008 there was a Home Office-funded review in 2011 following the intervention of David Cameron. Why the Prime Minister intervened in a police case isn’t a mystery; the red top readers are waiting for a response.
The McCann case has been so extensively profiled that new angles and fresh stories can fill our papers for many years to come. On a slow news day it’s these kind of hooks which are regurgitated; an editorial strategy which means we never really hear the full story.
High profile cases linger in the public’s memory, and the fact there’s been no conclusion to this tale has fuelled media churning to some extent. But even the hacks facing ‘slow days’ in the newsroom will tell you no such case has managed to hit the headlines so relentlessly, with so few new developments.
I often compare the Madeleine McCann story to press coverage of war zones. A British soldier will make the news even if he died killing 1,000 Iraqis, which will go unreported. For the British public, it’s not the scale of the atrocity but whether they can relate to it, whether they can identify an ‘enemy’ and whether they can comprehend the incomprehensible.
Is it deserving?
The McCann case is deserving of British press coverage because it satisfies the essential criteria of coverage, which are largely determined by us. It is undoubtedly unique in the amount of press attention it received, but it is regardless a potent example of what drives British media.
For those disgusted by a Madeleine McCann front page while tales of bigger atrocities lie scattered and sparse throughout the rest of the publication I would advise avoiding the periodical all together and reconsidering the news you digest. I still maintain that The Economist, for example, contains more ‘newsworthy’ content in the first two pages than a red top does in a week’s worth of print.
The question posed at the start of this feature is “what fuels media obsession with one middle class white girl and its ignorance of so many other similar cases?” The answer, I believe, is us.