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Media coverage of missing Madeleine prompts doubts

Original Source: YAHOO NEWS: 22 MAY 2007
Tue May 22
LONDON (AFP) - Nearly three weeks after Madeleine McCann's disappearance from a Portuguese holiday apartment, the media is starting to question its blanket coverage of the hunt for the four-year-old.

Some analysts have even compared the tidal wave of media attention given to the story -- and the accompanying outpourings of public emotion -- to that after the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

Television channels dispatched their star presenters to Praia da Luz in the Algarve, while newspapers splashed the story on their front pages day after day, despite a relative lack of new information.

The Guardian's Simon Jenkins was among the first to break ranks last Friday, calling the coverage "absurdly over the top ... prurient and tedious beyond belief," and questioning the ethics of airing a family's grief at peak time.

The publicly-run BBC has had to defend itself from claims it has succumbed to tabloid values as speculation replaced concrete facts, in part due to Portuguese legal restrictions on police speaking about ongoing inquiries.

But Mary Riddell, from The Guardian's sister paper The Observer, wrote that far from being prurient intrusion, Madeleine's parents, Gerry and Kate, were driving the publicity in the hope it leads to their daughter's safe return.

"Good luck to them," she wrote.

Yet as the story finally slips down news bulletin running orders and off the front pages back home, there is still concern about the impact the coverage has had -- and the precedent it has set.

The National Missing Person's Helpline said this week that more than 800 children and young people have gone missing since Madeleine disappeared from Praia da Luz on the Algarve.

There are also some 210,000 incidents of people reported missing each year, two-thirds of them young people under 18, according to British interior ministry estimates. But few, if any, receive as much publicity.

Paul Horrocks, editor of the Manchester Evening News (MEN) and president of British press guild the Society of Editors, disagreed the publicity was disproportionate.

"Just because one case didn't get it, why should we criticise what this case is getting?" he added.

"This case is getting the coverage that it needs. If it is being fuelled by the parents, by the public, by the editors and broadcasters feeling that they've got a duty to keep this going, then so be it."

Most people could relate to the horror of having their child abducted on a family holiday but the press interest is down to that and the unusual fact of a well-organised and orchestrated media campaign, he told AFP.

Decisions about what merits media attention and what does not in such cases are hard to objectify, with editors guided by what they think the public interest to be -- and that interest was massive, he added.

"I don't see why we should start having to become very introspective and critical, sort of analysing why when at the end of the day what everybody is hoping for here is that this little girl will be found safe and well," he said.

Others point to the fact that, after starting as a mainly British media story, reporters and camera crews from all over the world have also descended on the tiny Portuguese village at the centre of the hunt.

Frank Furedi, a sociologist from the University of Kent, told AFP there is a growing realisation here that much of the reaction to Madeleine's disappearance, including the coverage, had been in "bad taste."

Politicians and England's cricketers have worn yellow ribbons -- the symbol of the missing -- in support of the family while appeals have been made by high-profile footballers and at the FA Cup and UEFA Cup finals.

Government ministers, including Britain's prime minister designate Gordon Brown, have met members of the McCann family. Rewards have been offered in excess of 2.5 million pounds.

Millions of "hits" have been registered on the official website, moments of silence have been held for the little girl and money pours in to a search fund.

Some blame the new era of 24-hour rolling news, with its unrelenting demand for watchable stories.

Kevin Bakhurst, controller of BBC News 24, defended the corporation's extensive coverage.

"We have been particularly careful to avoid entering into a round of speculation and rumour, though this has surfaced in some other media," he wrote in a blog responding to criticism.

"And we have tried to satisfy the genuine interest among a huge portion of our audience and strike the right tone."

Furedi, who has written about the increasing paranoia of parents because of critical experts and media scare stories about predatory paedophiles, said the public reaction was like that after the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

"That was bad enough but in this case it's one child acquiring this visibility. It's spread like wildlife. It's a much more mawkish, much more pornographic, like reality television turned inside out," he said.

"I think it says we are very much ill at ease with ourselves and we need these symbols to give meaning to our life, to say we are good people and the reason why we're good people is because we wear these ribbons..."



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