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Williams-Thomas: Child Victims as Symbols



Original Source: MBJ TIMES: TUESDAY 15 APRIL 2010
April 2010

Child Victims as Symbols:   Media, Crime and Ideology. 

Today we are now able to access a wide variety of media interactive technologies which have completely revolutionised the ways in which we are able to access and receive information. The use of television, which now offers 24 hour news channels,satellite, telecommunications, including mobile phones, the internet (websites and blogs), radio and newspapers, have completely reconstructed our concepts of time and space as we are now able to access first-hand information from around the world. These new technologies have also completely restructured the way in which the media ‘does’ news reporting. Now the media is able to present global news stories to a wide variety of viewers from a range of respective cultural backgrounds. The media’s ability to transmit live images through satellite to an ever-present audience has completely changed our perspective on news reporting.

This relative ‘revolution’ in communication technologies, systems and media structures has also been met with a protracted growth in media discourses towards crime.

In the modern context, crime has continued to represent a considered proportion of news reporting, with dedicated crime reporters giving detailed, up to the minute accounts of recent cases on Television news shows. Newspapers give ever increasing column inches to the latest crime headline and internet websites provide sources of information and dedicated blogs for members of the public to indulge.

We have also seen a growth in both fictional crime programmes and crime documentaries, both on Television and through Film, with film-makers following Police on their latest case, ‘cop’ shows  gaining high TV ratings, and the shows like Crimewatch becoming a regular part of British evening viewing.

With these developments, we have also seen a growing sophisticated body of criminological analysis which has examined the media-crime relationship. These analyses have continued to reflect upon how crime news has been presented through the media, often focusing upon how it is constructed and to what purpose the media has reported them. What we have subsequently been left with is a rich tapestry of literature and examinations which have continued to represent that the relationship between crime and the media has become as central to criminological discourses as its usual focus on law and order institutions, social control mechanisms, and social deviancy.

For instance, in focusing upon the media and its relation to crime we should perhaps ask ourselves whether the mass media presentation of crime is real or a distortion? How does the mass media construct crime and why does it focus on certain cases? What does media discourse reflect within the wider public context? And does the media influence public perceptions of crime? Although such questions are forever present within any examination of the relationship between the media and crime, such questions are often relevant to contrasting theoretical and epistemological approaches to understanding media and crime.

A recent examination upon the media’s reporting of crime has seen a considered proportion of its time and resources focusing upon child victimisation cases. Although this may still pale in comparison with the reporting of other forms of victimisation, child victimisation has found itself occupying a more central role in media discourses towards crime.

As equally important as this, media discourses on child victimisation, have continued to inform public ideas about crime and social reactions towards crime. Consequently, what we have been left with is a growing public debate about child victims, with ever increasing measures to protect children within the public sphere.

Although media depictions of child victim cases have forever remained an ever-present within media reporting, a more casual shift towards media reporting of child victims grew during the 1990s following high profile cases including James Bulger, the crimes of Fred and Rose West, and a number of cases relating to child sex abuse in care homes, which helped to capture the public imagination. Despite this relative shift in media reporting, a more collective representation of child victimisation has not been realised. Instead, the media has continued to show it’s pre-dominance towards child victim cases of sex offences, abuse, abduction and murder. This focus on highly emotive cases has consequently only sought in playing upon existing public anxieties.

The media’s continued pre-occupation with such extraordinary cases is, on reflection, a largely pragmatic one, given the relative emotiveness and shock-value of the crime leading to widespread public interest and higher viewing figures, listeners and sales figures.

However, such analysis continues to underplay and devalue the very important role that social ideologies play in the selection, construction, dissemination and overall discourses of child victim news stories. Central to this focus is a respective understanding of the media as a reflection of its own pre-existing ideologies through its selection of individual cases and presentation of particular details, values, voices and ultimate solutions to each case.

Few recent cases in living memory have received the high level of public attention and media frenzy than that of the most recent case of Madeleine McCann. This story of a young British girl who, in May 2007, when she vanished from her parent’s holiday apartment, captured the public imagination and was met with virtually unprecedented media attention and reporting. The media’s near hedonistic reporting of the case, its round the clock updates on TV news channels, the continued presence of the story on newspaper front-pages and the considered advertisement of the international campaign to find missing Madeleine keeps the story within the public sphere and marked it out as one of the most significant ‘signal crime’ within the 21st century to date.

On reflection, the media attention is hardly surprising given its usual pre-occupation with child abductions, child murders, and possible sex offences. Historically, the media has continued to focus upon possible cases of stranger danger, especially if they are seen as more extraordinary within usual depictions of crime cases.

The case of Sarah Payne, a small British girl, who, in 2000, was murdered near her home in Sussex, has become as big a part of the collective public conscience as any case which has proceeded or preceded it since. The murder, committed by a convicted sex offender who had been released back into the community, led to widespread public outrage and culminated in a ‘naming and shaming’ campaign led by the News of the World, in which details and photos of convicted sex offenders were printed in their pages. It also led to a nationwide public campaign to introduce ‘Sarah’s Law’, a community notification scheme, which ensures that the public are notified when a convicted sex offender is released into their community.

In 2002 the issue of stranger danger and sex offenders in the community once again rose to prominence within the media following the tragic deaths of
Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells in a small Cambridgeshire town called Soham. Their deaths, again highlighting the perceived threat of stranger danger, was met with a collective outpouring of public grief  and high media attention with round the clock updates of the case, extended column inches in newspapers, and the inclusion of expert analysis.

The media, with ever growing public interest, continued to use traditional discursive practices, a relative ‘story narrative’ in which individuals became actors on a stage, each detailing their experiences of the case for public consumption.

The considered media attention given to the murders of Jessica and Holly, the lurid details of the background of the man charged with their murders, Ian Huntley, and the media’s detailing of systemic failings within the Police Force and Social Services, all led to growing pressure to introduce reforms to protect children in the future. The resulting inquiry, the Bichard enquiry, was ultimately a product of such pressures, and introduced extensive reforms, including a national information system for Police in England and Wales, and the new Independent Safeguarding registration scheme which comes into force in July this year for those who wish to work with children.

Although the cases of Madeleine, Sarah, Jessica and Holly, stand alone in their relative emotiveness, collective public interest and media attention, the obvious common threads in the media’s construction and discourses towards each case are plain to see. Given that each girl was white, photogenic, from a respectable middle class home, and was the victim of a stranger (thus was a prime example of stranger danger), only colluded in making each case equally more newsworthy and the victim more ‘deserving’ of media attention.  Fundamental to the media’s selection, construction and consequent dissemination of each story were underlying conservative ideologies with regards to family structures, victims and stranger danger.

The media’s continued pre-occupation with the threat of stranger danger, its continued focus on victims of strangers, has only sought to re-affirm pre-existing conservative ideologies within the public sphere. It does this by firstly constructing an image of the ideal family (or individual) that is under threat from a demonised ‘other’, an alienated individual, who lives in the margins and no longer plays a central role in ‘normal’ family life. The contrast is consequently centred upon the family who offer security and sanctity through parental responsibility, good homes and discipline, and those who no longer abide by these rules and seek to destroy it. Secondly, the media re-affirms conservative ideologies by focusing on cases, which deflect attention away from the more obvious sites of child victimisation and thus underplay or ignore the fact that sexual violence exists- indeed, is endemic- in all communities and that sexual abuse of children and infanticide are more likely to occur within the family than at the hands of an evil stranger.

In the 21st century, new communication technologies have revolutionised the ways in which information and news stories can be disseminated to the public. However, despite these new forms of disseminating information, what is clear with recent cases of child victims, is that the media will still select and construct the cases through dominant existing conservative ideologies.

The media’s presentations of high profile, emotive cases of child victims, have in essence been able to construct, replicate and re-affirm conservative ideologies within the public sphere.
Mark Williams-Thomas
April 2010


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