I know many people – mostly mothers – who can’t bear to hear or see anything about the terrible Madeleine McCann abduction case. Not that that will impose any limit on column inches or broadcast hours. This case is manna from heaven for the media. It scores 11 out of 10 for every tawdry news value. It offers the most gut-wrenching heart-breaking “human interest” story with the added advantage of being set fair to run and run.
But it makes me feel that a worrying new model of response is developing in such cases. The terrible child murders in Soham first set me on this troubling track. Here we had the perfect media image of two sweet little girls dressed in Manchester United kit, who disappeared so that every terrifying secret fear we have for those we love was raised. Then they were found killed and half buried in waste ground.
The police ran the highest possible profile media campaign, putting the grieving, confused families on TV, eliciting thousands of contacts from the public that swamped out potentially useful information.
Meanwhile the murderer Ian Huntley, was not only highly visible and an obvious suspect to be ruled out, but also behaved unbelievably suspiciously in full view of media and police, with a back catalogue of sexual violence and abuse that local police failed to act on effectively. His eventual arrest appeared like an afterthought.
Now we have prayers for Madeleine, civilian searches, fun runs on her behalf, chaotic police press conferences, and a mother encouraged to beg the perpetrators on TV to be kind to their daughter. Would anyone who would commit such a crime be swayed by such an argument?
I listened to a UK journalist talking about Madeleine’s parents trying to be positive and suggesting that this would be helpful in communicating “positive energy”. Is this where we have got to with the dawning of the 21st century – positive energy, prayers and fun runs? Let’s hope that the sorry pattern of some other recent tragedies of high profile media stories, huge piles of flowers and the desire to memorialise, doesn’t become the routine way such cases go. Instead they should be subjected to focused and quiet investigation, less concerned with profile and more with crime prevention, solution and conviction.
Whatever happens, this is a case that will long haunt parents like the McCanns. Let’s hope in their hour of need they will have some truly comforting shoulders to lean on. Don’t ever expect the media to offer that.
Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University and a long-term mental health service user.