Grâce à la liberté dans les communications, des groupes d’hommes de même nature pourront se réunir et fonder des communautés. Les nations seront dépassées.
Friedrich Nietzsche (Fragments posthumes XIII-883)

08 - MAR/ AOÛ - Black/Lyons (Spiked)

Tim Black - Spiked -  11.03.2008
On 19 February 2008, nine-year-old Shannon Matthews was dropped off at West Moor Junior School in Dewsbury, South Yorkshire, after a school swimming lesson. She has not been seen since. Initially it was assumed that she might have run away, possibly to see her estranged dad, Leon Rose, in nearby Kirkburton. But as the hours turned into days, this explanation looked increasingly like wishful thinking. Three weeks on and with nothing substantial to go on, the search for the little girl last seen wearing a school uniform and a pair of furry, pink Bratz boots has acquired an increasingly grim aspect.

Sadly, the case has an all too familiar resonance. From the murder of seven-year-old Sarah Payne in July 2000 to the killing of two 10-year-old friends, Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, in August 2002, the collective imagination has been innervated by similar tragedies before. Around no one incident has this been more apparent than the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, then three years old, during the McCann family’s stay in the Portuguese holiday resort of Praia da Luz last May. If the UK was initially gripped by sympathy, an increasingly complex fascination has only started to ebb (décliner) in recent months. Still, for good or ill, one would expect a similar pattern of media coverage and public outcry on behalf of Shannon Matthews. This, as many have noticed, has singularly failed to materialise. Outside of Dewsbury itself, where local support has been effusive, public interest seems muted. There is no sensation. When it does gain exposure, Shannon’s disappearance seems to feature as no more than a footnote to the continued farrago of misinformation, rumour and cynicism generated by the Madeleine McCann story. On 21 February, two days after Shannon was last seen, the Sun ran the frontpage, ‘Maddie “seen” in France’. Inside, the story about the supposed ‘sighting’ sat above a brief piece about Shannon. Seven days later, the situation was no different. Page nine was dominated by a story concerning a Portuguese taxi driver who claimed that official suspect Robert Murat was in his cab with Madeleine McCann the night she vanished. At the bottom of the page, we saw Shannon’s mother Karen Matthews swearing that she would not give up hope. Predictably, broadsheet coverage has been sparser still.

Until now, that is. Starting with the Sun’s belated, guilt-tinged reward of £20,000 - raised today to £50,000 - across the media there has been a late bloom of self-recrimination. ‘The search for a vanished innocent continues but Britain seems to have lost interest’, lamented Andrew Norfolk in The Times (London). ‘This week’, he continued, ‘the hunt [for Shannon] appeared to have been classed as less newsworthy than the most minor developments in the search for Madeleine McCann, who disappeared nine months ago. Is Shannon - a shy, timid, gentle girl - somehow deemed less worthy of our concern?’ (1) There’s little doubting the evidence for a ‘yes’. Nine days after her disappearance, Madeleine McCann had received 465 UK press stories alone; Shannon Matthews had just 242. By the same point, approximately £2.6million in rewards had been put up for Maddie; Shannon’s reward fund consists of approximately £55,000 (2). And whereas premier league football stars were quick to sport t-shirts emblazoned with Madeleine McCann’s image a week after her vanishing, rugby league club Leeds Rhinos urged those distributing leaflets publicising the search for Shannon before a match to do so away from the ground itself. All the recent commentaries reflecting upon the disparity between the reaction to the case of Shannon Matthews and that of Madeleine McCann agree upon one thing. As Roy Greenslade put it in the Guardian, ‘overarching everything is social class’ (3). In the News of the World, Carole Malone was more specific: ‘What did YOU think when you first looked at Karen Matthews? What did you feel when you first read her story, looked at how she lived? Was there a part of you that sneered and looked down on her because she didn’t fit the image of the perfect mum - all smiles, posh clothes, ordered house?’ (4) The Guardian’s Helen Carter concurred: there is an ‘inherent snobbery about Shannon and her family’ (5).

There is undoubtedly something to this. Shannon’s background is several socioeconomic categories away from that of Madeleine McCann, the daughter of two doctors. Shannon’s mum, Karen, is 32 years old and does not work. She has seven children by five fathers (or six fathers, if you read the Sunday Mirror (6)). Her current boyfriend and Shannon’s stepfather, Craig Meehan, is a 22-year-old supermarket fishmonger. The barest description seems to betray a judgement. But what media commentators fail to ask is why, beyond the implication of snobbery, is class important? What role does it play here? It seems that class acts as a barrier. Not to institutional assistance - the police operation has involved over 250 officers - but to something far less tangible: the collective national experience. In effect, the Matthews’ background inhibits the emotional identification of the public with the private pain of Shannon’s family. If the McCanns’ plight dramatised everything from the agony of losing a child and, later, certain parenting anxieties, not to mention a fair bit of middle-class self-loathing, they were still ‘one of us’. The Matthews on the other hand are almost made to seem, if not other worldly, then at least from somewhere around Wigan Pier. Despite recent efforts to prompt the feverish compassion characteristic of the Madeleine McCann case, they defy the empathy of those used to passing judgement. Each commentator’s reassessment, from Carole Malone to Andrew Norfolk, seems to read as if written against their vety grain. And is it any wonder? The Matthews belong to the only section of society it is still okay explicitly to denigrate, namely the white working class. For every slice of Jeremy-Kyle-style moral pantomime, for each piece of light-hearted mockery, be it Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard or the affectionate anarchy of Shameless, complementing them are the dark-hearted envisioning of politicians and commentators, be it of feral youth, booze-sodden adults or dangerously incompetent parents with a culinary predilection for the work of Ronald McDonald.

When the question arises, as it always does, ‘is poor Shannon any less worthy of our compassion than Madeleine?’, the chorused ‘no’ is of course the right answer. But then no child is more worthy than any other of our care. The problem, it seems, lies in the question itself. It suggests that collective outpourings of emotion ought to be allotted like dinner vouchers. Unfortunately, this particular collective national resource is the most limited and volatile of all. To invest public emotion in individual incidents will always neglect hundreds of thousands of equally significant private tragedies. Conspicuous compassion, it seems, creates the most cruel of hierarchies; it disparages the importance of the inconspicuous calamities that befall us all. In part, some of the anger recently directed at the McCanns, with the Matthews used as a counterpoint, draws upon an inchoate awareness of the iniquity. Affluent and well-connected, the McCanns are now always accompanied by the adjectival phrase ‘media savvy’ ("médiatiquement à l'aise"). In other words, their wealth and social standing allowed them unfair access to the well of national compassion. What such criticisms ignore is that initially it was the media and public which seized upon, indeed told their story for them. The appointment of a PR team was merely a reaction to the deluge of interest, not its prompt. To complain that Shannon has not enjoyed the attention attendant upon the McCanns ignores this; it ignores the profound social malignancy underpinning the gratuitous display of collective emoting. Madeleine McCann, at the point she became public property as ‘our Maddie’, served as a national rallying point for a society lacking anything around which to rally. Suddenly there was reason where before there was just football. The search for a little girl had become something else; it was now a substitute for meaningful social activity. Of course, such hyperventilated public emotionalism was always going to exhaust itself. Unfortunately, to demand for Shannon that which infused the Maddie phenomenon tacitly approves the social pathology of an atomised society at its core.
Hopefully, however, the search for Shannon will remain just that: the search for a vanished child and not a lost social purpose.
(1) Madeleine McCann may have been kidnappe to order, Guardian, 7 August 2008
(2) Madeleine McCann ‘seen again’ in Brussels, Daily Telegraph, 12 August 2008
(3) I sold an ice cream to ‘Maddie’, Sun, 12 August 2008
(4) ‘I saw Madeleine in Venezuela just weeks ago - and even spotted the tell-tale mark in her eye,’ claims new witness, Daily Mail, 10 August 2008
(5) See This is more than a case of ‘media Maddieness’, by Tim Black, 31 January 2008

Comparaison de Data 

Madeleine McCann
Age: Four. Parents: Kate, 40, a GP. Gerry, 39, a cardiologist. Siblings: Twins, now aged two.
Home: Detached house, Leicestershire.
UK press stories after nine days: 465.
Rewards offered: £2.6m: the 'News of the World', Stephen Winyard, Philip Green, Simon Cowell, Coleen McLoughlin, 'The Sun', Sir Richard Branson, J K Rowling.
Public donations: £1.1m:
J K Rowling, Bryan Adams, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, John Terry, Phil Neville, David Moyes, the England cricket team.
Wikipedia profile: 2,182 words after nine days.

Shannon Matthews
Age: Nine. Parents: Karen, 32, and Leon Rose, 29. Stepfather, Craig, 22. Siblings: Six boys and girls, from her mother's partnerships with five different men.
Home: Three-bed council house, Dewsbury Moor.
UK press stories after nine days: 242.
Rewards offered: £25,500. Made up of £20,000 by 'The Sun', £5,000 from Huddersfield firm Joseph International, £500 from Wakefield pensioner Winston Bedford.
Public donations: Thousands at most, including Leona Lewis.
Wikipedia profile: 151 words after nine days.

Rob Lyons - 12.06.2008

With echoes of recent high-profile child abductions, Ben Affleck’s crime drama poses a modern moral dilemma.

I remember when I heard Shannon Matthews had been found alive. Having been missing for almost a month early this year, nobody expected the nine-year-old from Dewsbury, Yorkshire to be safely returned. For a moment, it seemed like a minor miracle that, for once, the case of a missing child had a happy ending.

That moment of relief - and that sense of disappointment at the subsequent arrest of Shannon’s mother and other members of her extended family - came flooding back to me while watching Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone, Baby, Gone. Although the film was released in October 2007 in the US, it was held back until last Friday in the UK due to sensitivity surrounding the high-profile case of Madeleine McCann, the then three-year-old who disappeared from a Portugese holiday resort last May.

As a number of reviewers have pointed out, the plot of Gone, Baby, Gone bears at least as much relation to the Shannon Matthews case as to that of Madeleine McCann. A young girl, Amanda, goes missing in Boston, generating enormous police and media interest. The girl’s drug addict mother, Helene, seems uninterested, but her aunt is desperate and after initial inquiries draw a blank, she turns to the young local private detective Patrick McKenzie (played by Affleck’s brother, Casey) and his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan), to do the kind of asking around that the police seem incapable of.

What follows is driven by McKenzie’s peeling away of one layer after another in his efforts to get at the truth. As such, Gone, Baby, Gone is a superior whodunnit - with the usual murder replaced by a kidnapping - and there are all the usual twists and turns along the way.

It could easily have ended up as an entertaining, if lightweight, popcorn flick, in a similar vein to the film adaptations of John Grisham’s novels. But Gone, Baby, Gone proves to be considerably more interesting than that; it asks difficult questions and doesn’t provide easy answers. With a good script (co-written by Ben Affleck) and a top drawer cast, including the ever watchable Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman, plus an Oscar-nominated turn from Amy Ryan as Helene, there have been few better films in recent years.

The film asks what rights a degenerate mother like Helene should have? It quickly becomes obvious that if she had been a responsible parent, her child would never have been abducted. Even if little Amanda is found, the film asks, wouldn’t she be better off living away from such a feckless woman? This moral question has increasingly practical consequences. For example, the authorities in the UK are taking an evermore interventionist stance in relation to children; the notion of parental autonomy is under attack. Should those who ‘know better’ be granted the final say over the welfare of a child? Is being a parent a privilege, not a right?

Helene is an extreme case; a woman who prefers to get drunk and snort cocaine with her deadbeat boyfriend over looking after her child. In a way, she’s a cardboard cut-out flunky who is used to pose a stark ethical dilemma. But things don’t need to go anywhere near that extreme for the state to intervene today. On both sides of the Atlantic, children have been taken from their homes simply for being too fat, even if they are generally healthy and well looked after. More broadly, and less dramatically, there is a constant drone of advice to parents about what they should be doing, with the implication that children are vulnerable beings who can be screwed up by the slightest neglect.

Gone, Baby, Gone shows us the potential consequences of piling in to ‘do good’ before all the facts are known. As the plot unfolds, we are constantly asked to reassess the situation and determine what would be the best thing to do - especially in a killer finale, where McKenzie is left with a veritable judgement of Solomon. Society has traditionally decreed that the relationship of parent and child is a special one that should only be violated in extreme circumstances. As the film shows, outsiders should think carefully before leaping in based on assumptions about what is ‘best for the child’.

The film also reminds us of the resilience of people, most particularly children. Certain parents have often been messed up and useless, yet produced smart, independent children - forced to mature before their time in order to get by. Conversly, parents who dote on their kids and give them everything can sometimes produce losers. Children are not simply the product of their parents’ actions; successful individuals can’t be churned out by following the ‘correct’ parenting strategy.

Finally, a message to the director, Affleck. Please stick to writing scripts and directing movies. Your days of leading roles in turkeys like Pearl Harbor should be gone, baby, gone.

‘Our Maddie’ makes a media comeback 
Tim Black -  Spiked - 13.08.2008
The silly-season resurrection of the McCann tragedy shows that this was always a cynical, elite-scripted drama. It seemed to have ebbed from public consciousness. The frontpage splashes had become less frequent; the shrill commentaries had died down; even the celebrity-endorsed campaigns had dwindled. That people’s interest waned is hardly surprising. It is over 15 months since three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared from her parents’ rented apartment in the Portuguese holiday resort of Praia da Luz. In that time, we have come no nearer to knowing what happened on that fateful evening. Unsurprisingly, last month the Portuguese police decided to shelve the case due to lack of evidence. Yet in the past few weeks, what looked to have run out of steam has been desperately cranked back to life. Once again, it seems, ‘Our Maddie’ is news. Once again, the front pages of the tabloids and in-depth features in the broadsheets ask what became of Maddie and whether her parents were treated fairly by the Portuguese police. One partial explanation for this resurrection of interest is the release of the Portuguese police’s investigation files, some 20,000 pages of documentation. In the summer period when parliament is in recess and major news stories are traditionally in short supply – otherwise know as ‘the silly season’ – the police files are the gift that might keep on giving. So far, they have not disappointed.
According to an email only seen now, the Guardian reported, ‘intelligence suggests that a paedophile ring in Belgium made an order for a young girl three days before Madeleine McCann was taken’ (1). In a case in which fact and fiction have been playing fast and loose with one another, this ‘intelligence’, all too predictably, came from an unverifiable source. Not that the absence of anything beyond hypothesis has inhibited the frontpage speculation. Indeed, the absence of hard evidence at the heart of the Maddie phenomenon has been its lifeblood. With nothing known beyond the barest of facts, anything, no matter how macabre, can be guessed at. And what better than a mail-order paedophile ring based, of course, in Belgium? In lieu of evidence, good old-fashioned prejudice will do. Indeed, over the past year, two pictures showing obviously Muslim women carrying or walking with a blonde-haired girl have been splashed under the headline: ‘IS THIS MADDIE?’ Well, Arab women with a European-looking child – it’s got to be dodgy. Continuing with the current Belgium fixation, ‘Madeleine McCann “seen again” in Brussels’, announced the Daily Telegraph (2). The Sun went one further with its frontpage: ‘“I sold an ice cream to Maddie”.’ This literal scoop was provided by Belgian ice-cream man, Antonio Migliardi. It wasn’t any old ice-cream, he explained; it was chocolate ice-cream. The Sun knew it was on to something: ‘McCann family spokesman Clarence Mitchell confirmed that chocolate was Maddie’s favourite ice-cream flavour.’ (3)
The revamped press speculation hasn’t stopped at a Belgian paedophile ring. ‘“I saw Madeleine in Venezuela just weeks ago - and even spotted the tell-tale mark in her eye”, claims new witness.’ The Daily Mail’s witness, an English tourist, reckoned that he had spotted Madeleine with three Latino women. Clearly possessing the courage of his conviction he ‘decided to get a good look to make sure it was her so I could come back to England and report it’ (4). It’s easy to sneer at the strange, depressing return of the Madeleine McCann story. Too easy, in fact. And that tells us something. While the resurrected coverage of Our Maddie still features the same unfounded speculation, the same snidey attitude towards the Portuguese police, and the same half-baked commentaries on the parenting skills of Gerry and Kate McCann, the simple truth is that it no longer really resonates with the public at large. What once appeared as a spontaneous coming together, a socially galvanising moment around this one family’s tragic loss, has now, in the all-too-palpable gap between the public’s shrugging ("haussement d'épaules") and the media’s shrilling ("stridence"), revealed itself for what it was all along: a top-down, stage-managed display of contrived emotionalism. The sense that the disappearance of a three-year-old girl had united a nation in compassion and, later, in angsty interrogation of her parents, has now receded. As the press tries to revive the embers of public emotion, it testifies to the truth of the Maddie phenomenon. It was never a popular groundswell of compassion, but an elite-scripted event, soliciting the rites and rituals learnt AD (After Diana).
Little wonder journalists were so excited by it. At a debate earlier this year, Kelvin McKenzie, former editor and current columnist for the Sun called it ‘the greatest story of my life’; and David Mills, producer of a BBC Panorama programme on the McCanns, called it ‘one of the best [stories] I’ve ever encountered in my career… it has everything’. (5) But it was not the public telling the story. It was always a moment of private grief exploited by an elite struggling to find a narrative in which society might meaningfully engage with itself. Now, with each ridiculous headline, the cynical core of the media and cultural elite’s manipulation of a private tragedy comes ever more to the surface. And the saddest thing of all is that in turning a family tragedy into a volatile commodity, an object for public mourning and anger, the genuine loss of the McCanns has been trivialised. Like stories of pregnant transsexuals, or talking dogs, it’s just another tale in the morass of silly season distractions.

(1) Madeleine McCann may have been kidnappe to order, Guardian, 7 August 2008

(2) Madeleine McCann ‘seen again’ in Brussels, Daily Telegraph, 12 August 2008
(3) I sold an ice cream to ‘Maddie’, Sun, 12 August 2008
(4) ‘I saw Madeleine in Venezuela just weeks ago - and even spotted the tell-tale mark in her eye,’ claims new witness, Daily Mail, 10 August 2008
(5) See This is more than a case of ‘media Maddieness’, by Tim Black, 31 January 2008