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Monday, May 07, 2007 

Do we have to share in this voyeuristic misery?

There's something eminently distasteful in being forced to stare into the face of abject heartache. Since last Thursday, when Madeleine McCann was apparently snatched from the bedroom of the hotel where her parents were on holiday in Portugal, we've been deluged with the images and video of the worried parents, their anguish growing with every hour that their daughter isn't reunited with them, making increasingly desperate pleas for their child to be returned and for help. Yesterday Madeline's mother asked for everyone to pray for her, and today begged whomever's taken her to let her go.

It has to be questioned just what sort of role the media is playing in this, and about the whole morality of causing further discomfort to the parents when there is absolutely nothing that they can do to help. The parents' are between a rock and a hard place; if they refused to play the media's game, as it's unlikely that the police are involved in urging them to make public statements, then they could quickly find themselves accused of not being distressed enough, that somehow they could be involved in the kidnap. Instead, they're being backed into a trap where with each day that passes they're expected to be ever more upset, making increasingly futile gestures such as the ones today, begging the abductor to let her go when such pleas are almost certain to be ignored or go unheeded.

If the abduction had happened in this country, I might feel somewhat differently. As it is, there's nothing that anything of us here can do. We can't take part in any searches, we can't string up the nearest sex offender from a lamppost, all we can do is watch and indulge ourselves in seeing the misery of two people who have had their pride and joy taken from them.

The way the tabloids react to these sad cases is always a sight to behold. It's the worst nightmare which some of them scaremonger about, yet when it happens they almost wallow in the way the frightened individuals react, the Sun reporting every nuance about the service attended by Madeleine's parents yesterday, as if it mattered or gave any further insight into what they're going through. The current Sky News front page combines the mother's plea with a gallery offering "holiday snaps of youngster", so any aspiring paedo can at least jerk himself silly over the kidnapped girl's image.

This is in essence the monster that the 24 hour news culture has helped create. In the quest for ratings and constant updates, they demand every reaction be recorded, every uttering by a police officer be decrypted for any clues about the disappearance, and for the parents to edge themselves ever closer to complete emotional collapse. It's grief tourism, it's a voyeuristic desire to record the pain of someone else then throw it away once it's become old, and before we know it we're on to the next missing white woman or school shooting.

This model was perhaps set by Holly and Jessica, who've become so ingrained in the collective conscience that like the sites of massacres and battles they're now known by just those three words. We went from seeing the photographs of them in their Manchester United shirts and the CCTV of them going for their walk right up to their funerals. We shouldn't have perhaps been surprised that some people found themselves so involved in the disappearance that Soham itself became a popular ghoulish tourist attraction in the days and weeks afterwards. The Sun has helpfully this time provided us with a "Kidnapper's view" of the hotel, perhaps not seeing the sheer tastelessness of such a gesture.

The whole thing could not be more summed up by the mother's apparent request for the kidnapper "not to scare her", a plea so redundant considering that he would have terrified her in grabbing her in the first place that it ought to make everyone involved think about exactly what they are additionally putting the poor woman through. We're not gaining anything, they're not gaining anything, it's time that we knew when to pull the plug.

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