Thursday, 31 May 2007

The News Today is that there is No News

What makes one human being more important than another?

From where I'm sitting I can reel off the names of those humans who are most important to me. It's easy. The list includes my family and friends and then maybe those that I've not met but whose art brings me happiness.

If I was to try to think of this question in an objective sense then I'd probably go for world leaders. Then campaigners and activists of all kinds, people who try to make a difference to their environment, thereby influencing the lives of others.

But in reality I've no idea. I'd really like to think that the answer is that no one human being is more important than any other. I'd hope that's how God sees it too.

There is, however, an industry that decides which human beings are the most important every day and that industry is the newspaper industry and that human being is the one that appears on the front page. It's a tough call. Each paper is aware that it has to print stories that appeal to the current readership while trying to attract new readers. They also have to try to attract new advertising revenue. Each seems to have worked out what to wheel out on a on a slow news day:

Daily Express - Princess Diana
The Star - TV Reality show stars
The Independent - Environment expose
Guardian - Big business expose
Daily Mail - Anyone who isn't, or isn't aspiring to be, white and middle class is scum and a danger to us Mail readers, the silent moral majority.

Recently, however, there has been a pan-newspaper consensus on what constitutes a front page story, what constitutes an important human being. What our nation's media (this includes TV)has decided is that the most important story in this country for the last 28 days is the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. She has become the most important person in the world, judging by the amount of exposure her plight has received. She, in this country, is more important than the Queen, the Prime Minister (and the PM in waiting), and all of our sports and pop and movie stars (which I'm sure no-one has a problem with). She is more important than genocide in Darfur and every other tragedy that is occurring anywhere in the world today and I have a problem with this.

Now follows a disclaimer, obligatory for anyone expressing any kind of cynicism at the amount of exposure that one girl's disappearance has caused. If I was her parent I would want her image on every front page, every back page, every TV programme, billboard, passing car, lapel badge etc. I would want her name on everyone's lips, in everyone's consciousness. I can't imagine the pain they're feeling and hope that in the event that their worst fears come true that they can somehow move on with their lives with Madeleine's siblings.

But I'm not her parent. I have other concerns. I'm just a person who reads about her in the papers every day hoping for new information. So far there has been none. A man was questioned by police and then released without charge, so far his only crime seems to have been that he looked a bit suspicious. His glass eye probably didn't help. And that has been the only news in the month since she first went missing. Every day her story gets top billing and every day the story is that there is no story. Not even my beloved BBC can hold its head high here as it has been guilty of the same speculative and sometimes libellous reporting - think of Robert Murat and the frequent comments on the adequacy or otherwise of the Portuguese police.

So why is she still front page news? The simple answer is that I don't know. But here are some possible factor:

- She's young and photogenic. Let's not mess about here; if she wasn't a pretty, young white girl with attractive middle class parents there would not have been all of this exposure. Sukhpal Singh from Stockwell would not have got the same treatment and you can be sure that there would have been more outcry at the parents leaving their child alone.

- Her parents have used the media fantastically well.

- Portugal is a nice place to go to report on a story.

- The public still want the story and so none of the papers want to drop it. This is a difficult point to evaluate as there is a very fine balancing act between a paper and its readers regarding demand for news: the public demands certain stories but the media can also create these demands where previously there was little interest. I think that there is still a huge amount of interest in the story although this may be waning in the face of a complete lack of new information.

This last point could absolve the media of its blanket coverage, although not its mawkish style. If the public wants a story then the papers will provide it regardless of whether there is a story at all, it would be stupid not to. It's just a shame that we're left with the strange phenomenon whereby the public and the media exist in a symbiotic relationship that is entirely dependant on the amount of grief that members of that public feel for a child that they've never met. How long can this go on? Did we collectively grieve for this long when Princess Diana died? I'm not sure we did.

What I've written here is pretty unfocused so I feel I should summarise:

- Madeleine's plight is a tragic one, especially to her family.

- But, for the rest of us, life goes on.

- So let's continue to pray for her safe return

- Although I don't see why the Pope should get involved, unless this is the new Papal strategy for every family in the McCann's position.

- There are few things that we like more than a good old collective grieve. We are clearly, as a nation, emotionally retarded.

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