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 Two mothers, two lost girls, one class system

Original Source:  BRISBANE TIMES: SATURDAY 08 MARCH 2008


Meet the two sides of the social class coin in Britain: Karen Matthews and Kate McCann. From parallel socioeconomic worlds, the two women are bound by perhaps the most traumatic experience a parent can have: the disappearance of a child.

Ms Matthews' nine-year-old daughter Shannon, from West Yorkshire, has been missing since February 19. Madeleine McCann, 4, vanished from her bed in Portugal in May last year. It is suspected that both were abducted.

The unkind have depicted the two mothers as Waynetta Slob - Britain's most famous underclass stereotype - versus Kate Moss - darling of the glamour set. They have compared Ms Matthews' seven children by five fathers and her 22-year-old boyfriend with Mrs McCann's IVF-conceived twins and heart-surgeon husband. The high-minded say these things should not matter; it is the missing girls that are important. But it is clear that the perception of class does matter when trying to capture the public's imagination.

You may not have heard of Shannon Matthews. The little girl, from an impoverished council estate in Dewsbury in Britain's north, disappeared as she walked home after a swimming class. The police have deployed 350 officers and 60 detectives to the search, joined by innumerable local volunteers. A reward of ?25,000 ($A55,000) has been raised, with The Sun contributing ?20,000.

You will have heard of Madeleine McCann, who vanished from a holiday apartment in Portugal last May. Her comfortable home in Leicestershire, in the East Midlands, became the site of a media stakeout after her parents, Gerry, a cardiologist, and Kate, a GP, returned to Britain.

At this point in Madeleine's disappearance last year, ?2.5 million had been raised, with contributions from Sir Richard Branson and J. K. Rowling. Celebrities including David Beckham publicly appealed and the McCanns had begun their sophisticated media strategy: daily briefings, a website, experienced representatives and eventually, a meeting with the Pope and the appointment of a private detective agency.

A distressed Kate McCann: lean, blonde and articulate, clutching her daughter's soft toy and wearing a yellow ribbon of hope, was the figurehead from the outset. Amid accusations of police incompetence, the McCanns were declared suspects but have never been charged. A commentator in the Daily Mail wailed: "This kind of thing doesn't usually happen to people like us."

It was two weeks after Shannon's disappearance before her mother, 32, was put before the television cameras. With no make-up, hair askew, wearing a T-shirt saying "Help find Shannon", Ms Matthews looked the essence of working-class Britain. She, too, clutched her daughter's teddy bear and tearfully appealed for information. But Shannon did not make the front pages. In the first 16 days of Madeleine's disappearance, 519 articles were written about her in Britain. By Wednesday, 16 days after Shannon went missing, she had received 111 mentions.

A former Daily Mirror editor and media commentator with The Guardian, Roy Greenslade, appraises public perception and media judgement. "The mother (Karen Matthews) is unsympathetic. This is a dysfunctional family, and people feel, 'Does she not bring this upon herself? Is she not the author of her own misfortune?' " He says Ms Matthews represents an underclass that Daily Mail readers and their like cannot and do not want to relate to.

But the McCanns, he says, with their seemingly respectable lives, represent the aspirations of Middle England. "It shouldn't matter. But it does. This is a really difficult thing for editors. They don't like talking about this aspect because it really does betray the unspoken way they make their mind up."

This is not what Gordon Brown had hoped for Britain under his reign. In his first Labour Party conference address as Prime Minister in September, he said: "A class-free society is not a slogan but in Britain can become a reality ? I stand for a Britain that supports as first-class citizens not just some children and some families, but (that) supports all children and all families."

He may have a long way to go. In a Guardian/ICM poll in October, nearly 90% of respondents said people were still judged by their class. The poorest were most aware of its influence, with 55% saying that class, not ability, affected the way they were judged.

But there has been a backlash. In radio talkback and online forums, people are criticising the perceived media prejudice. In a forum on the Government's family support website, one parent said that the McCanns were neglectful by leaving their children alone in the apartment when Madeleine disappeared: "If they were from a sink council housing estate, and looked like (the boorish Little Britain character) Vicky Pollard, the press would have been screaming for their blood."

Julie Bushby, who chairs the tenants association on the estate where Shannon lives, said: "Listen, we're not pissed out of our trees or high as a kite all the time, like they associate with council estates. Ninety per cent of people here work."

A major difficulty has been a lack of funding to put into a PR campaign for Shannon. Greenslade points out that the coverage of Madeleine has been disproportionate; that she disappeared in a foreign country during the northern summer "silly season" when news dries up. But, he concedes, appearances do count: where there is a multitude of images and video footage of Madeleine to run on TV and websites, there is one stark school photo of Shannon, and grainy CCTV footage of her leaving the swimming pool. "One doesn't want to be rude about the

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Matthews family," he says. "But cuteness, prettiness, beauty does play a part. The most important thing there (for media attention) is the image."

But pretty or not, underclass or Middle England, even the greatest level of public awareness and sympathy may not win either of these little girls back to their desperate families.


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