White British; the Madeleine McCann story

By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic

Media coverage

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.

British Media

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.

4 Responses

  1. Naomi

    I think you are missing the point here, Madeleine McCann’s parents are educated and articulate, and have been able to use their verbal skills and middle class status to draw attention to their child.

    Sadly, the many black children that go missing in other parts of the world (specifically third world countries), do not have parents who have the means to look for them, or set out any kind of alert. Many of these parents are powerless, due to poverty, to do anything to find their missing children.

    It’s like when we all sit down to eat with our kids. We do that knowing there are children in other parts of the world that are starving. But that doesn’t stop us from making sure our children are fed. In the same way, the McCanns merely used what was at their disposal.

    Also, Madeleine McCcann went missing under exceptionally unusual circumstances, at a time when communication is instant, Journalists no longer need to wait for any time to pass before they know what is happening on the other side of the world.

    There are a whole lot of factors that created the media frenzy around the Madeleine McCann case, and it is far more complex than her ‘race’, or the colour of her skin

    1. Anne Guedes

      Have the McCanns “used their verbal skills and middle class status to draw attention on the simple fact that little children can’t be left on their own ? No responsible parent would risk that their child wakes up in the panic to be alone.

    2. mark


      What complete tosh you write. The reason why Madeleine McCann story is so high profile is due too the fact they were personnel friends with Gordon Brown and friends with people in the media (i.e. phone SKY before informing the police). Nothing to do with having means to looks after their children. Don’t you realise that if anyone else had neglected their children in the way the McCanns did (As defined by the NSPCC) they would have been arrested and served time if if nothing could be proved to implement them in murder or manslaughter. I am really surprised the LondonEconomic printed your piece.

  2. if the police had listened to me 6years ago you would have got her back,as the story is long from 4days before she went misssing ,due to me going to luz 6 times looking for her ,came back with a video of a girl who i say is her plus man & woman,plus car reg number,the police say its not there job to check it out ,i did take the video to leicester police so they could do a copy ,now operation grange do not no anything about the video did leicester police not do a copy,as you have not found her what
    have you to lose

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