During Shannon Matthews disappeared ITV helped her family to record their own story
After Shannon was found, the Matthews family wanted the media to respect their privacy. Keir Simmons and his ITV News team did just that – by letting them record their own story
Monday 24 March 2008
Last Monday, ITV News broadcast the first pictures from inside Karen Matthews' home since her nine-year-old daughter Shannon was found after being missing for 24 days. What made this footage remarkable was that it was shot by the Matthews family themselves and was the culmination of a painstaking process of winning their trust. I hope the pictures provided an accurate reflection of the family.
During the long search for Shannon, I and the rest of our small team had spent much time drinking tea and getting to know Karen Matthews' friends and family, and we took a decision to give them camcorders in the hope that they might later provide us with pictures that we otherwise could not have got.
Shannon was found on Friday 24 March, and the news came through first with a text message, then with whispered rumours from members of the Find Shannon Campaign, and then with a flurry of phone calls. Thanks to the relationship we had nurtured, the Matthews family trusted me, our cameraman, Keith Edwards, and the producer, Matt Williams. They could have simply thrown us out and closed the door, but they let us film some very personal moments. That night, we were able to tell the story in pictures, not just words.
But then the shutters came down, and the camcorders came into their own. The big celebratory family party was due to take place on Saturday night at their home in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, but by Saturday morning a police officer was on guard outside the front door and family liaison officers were apparently advising the family to restrict their involvement with the media.
The effect of this strategy was that Karen and her family were only filmed in the street, looking understandably anxious, surrounded by cameras. It seemed an inaccurate portrayal of their real mood.
Our intention was to try to get more exclusive pictures for the Monday evening's bulletins, so we got a message to the family suggesting that they use the camcorder that ITV News had given to Karen several days earlier, and film the celebrations inside the house themselves – to record their own version of events. Of course, we were concerned whether they would use the camera effectively and honestly – but they had trusted us before, and this time we had to trust them.
When the big party happened on Saturday night, the media was shut out on the street. But indoors, the family were filming it all, even taking shots through the windows of the TV cameras and reporters camped outside.
It was a tense atmosphere when we got the camera back on Monday afternoon. There were some especially nervous moments, such as wondering, as we pressed eject, whether the tape was still inside. We were unsure whether there would be any useable footage at all. In all honesty, it was far from perfect, not least because I had left the night-vision switch on when I gave them the camcorder, turning everything a shade of green.
The filming was a little wobbly, too; this kind of camera work can never replace that of a professional camera operator. But what you did get was the family relaxed and being themselves. It was real. If we had been allowed in with a TV camera, I wonder whether the pictures would have been as genuine: the presence of a TV crew would arguably have distorted the atmosphere.
Trying to portray Shannon's family as honestly as possible was particularly important to us, given the raging debate surrounding the story. Questions had been asked about the fairness of the media in its coverage of a missing nine-year-old girl from a council estate. I hoped ITV News' contribution would be to give the viewer an honest picture of Shannon's world. The audience could then make their own judgments based on what they had seen. For me, television is at its best when it takes you into other people's lives, and I think giving someone a camcorder can help do that, bringing the audience into their world.
That's not to say there aren't real issues with such journalistic techniques. By handing over a camera to a member of the public closely involved in a major story, we handed over some control over what was filmed. They decided what to record – although we retained editorial control over what was broadcast. But then, clearly, on this occasion, the alternative was to have no footage at all. The challenge to us, as journalists, was getting the right balance between gaining the trust of Karen Matthews' family and keeping the trust of the viewers.
There was another issue, too. The camcorder video included many children. Despite the family having filmed it themselves, we took the decision to blur the faces of the youngsters. They didn't ask us to do that. We gave them a camera but we didn't give up our judgment.
Shannon Matthews' story is not simple, but then reality isn't simple. She comes from a council estate where life is hard for many people and where there are quite a number of "dysfunctional families". But then, whose family isn't dysfunctional? It's a close community, where everyone leaves their door unlocked, but also a place where many people suffer from poverty and low self-esteem. I hope that our coverage helped viewers to understand a little more about their lives, instead of just criticising them. But ultimately, that's up to the viewers.
Keir Simmons is a reporter for ITV News
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