Missing children and the media: The wrong kind of family?

The case of Shannon Matthews, the missing nine-year-old from Dewsbury, has developed a cruel overtone: an unspoken suggestion that, because of their lifestyles, her family deserve not our pity but our censure

For 23 days since her daughter went missing, Karen Matthews has answered questions. Some, such as whether she can identify discarded items of clothing and toys found near her home on an impoverished estate in West Yorkshire, are distressingly necessary parts of a huge police effort to find nine-year-old Shannon.

There is growing disquiet that other questions, posed by the media, have gone far beyond necessity and lifted the lid on an uncomfortable hypocrisy in British society. Yesterday, Ms Matthews, 32, and her partner, Craig Meehan, gave an interview to BBC Radio 4's Today programme about how they have coped during the three-week hunt for the missing schoolgirl.

Some 90 seconds into the interview, the presenter, Sarah Montague, sought to clarify why it was possible Shannon could have been unhappy and run away from the family home on the Dewsbury Moor council estate – a ramshackle but robustly proud community that even the local vicar describes as "an area of acute social deprivation".

Ms Montague said: "Perhaps we should explain. It's a slightly complicated family picture you have, isn't it? You've got seven children, by six fathers?"

A rising intonation on the last two words of the question betrayed a degree of uncertainty on the part of the interviewer. Ms Matthews, a woman who her friends say has barely slept for the last three weeks and spends a part of every day in uncontrollable tears, could conceivably have answered in a number of ways. She might have asked what relevance such an inquiry had to the hunt for her daughter, who disappeared on the afternoon of 19 February while making her way home from a school swimming lesson. Incredulity, anger or a resigned silence may also have been expected.

Instead, she quietly gave the correct number of previous partners with whom she has had a child: "Five."

The question was just one in a thorough examination of the couple lasting nearly seven minutes which dwelt significantly on the suggestion made widely elsewhere in newspapers and television reports that Mr Meehan, 29, a supermarket fishmonger, had acted violently in the past towards his stepdaughter.

The claims, based in part on remarks by Ms Matthews' parents last weekend that Shannon's brothers and sisters had allegedly seen her being hit by Mr Meehan, and his subsequent denials, have spawned a slew of sensational headlines: "I never hit Shannon", and "I never laid a finger on her".

Campaigners yesterday said that the tone – and dwindling quantity – of the coverage devoted to the hunt for Shannon betrays an ugly double standard and class prejudice in the media and society about how Britons respond to the grief and public distress of a family going through the grim limbo of a missing child. As one newspaper columnist put it: "I wonder if our media aren't just reacting to an unspoken mood in the country, a feeling that a woman who has seven kids by five different men and who isn't living with any of them, must be a pretty dire mother and so must bear some of the responsibility for her missing daughter."

Lyn Costello, co-founder of Mothers Against Murder and Aggression (Mamaa), which campaigns on behalf of victims of violence, said: "It is a truth that few people want to admit to but the amount of publicity and sympathy you get if you are the victim of a terrible crime in this country depends on your social status. The question asked of Karen Matthews about the numbers of her children and their fathers is very typical. How is that in any sense relevant to what has happened to Shannon?

"That interview was making a judgement on her as a mother and the way she lives her life. The media is vital at a time when a child goes missing but its values are skewed. If you lose a child and fit the profile of a nice middle-class family then the response is overwhelming.

"The case of Shannon shows it is somehow socially unacceptable to live in a council house and it is permitted to openly ask whether your partner did it. Whatever happened to being innocent until proven guilty? As a society, we are too quick to leap to judgements on people at a time of incredible distress."

Shannon's disappearance has brought inevitable comparisons with that of Madeleine McCann. So far, national newspapers have published 168 stories about Shannon's disappearance, including seven in The Independent. In the first 21 days after Madeleine's disappearance from a resort in Portugal, some 539 articles were produced, of which 22 were published by this newspaper.

In the same period, the reward fund for Madeleine's safe return stood at £2.6m. Contributors included Sir Richard Branson, J K Rowling and Wayne Rooney.

The cash reward for Shannon's return currently stands at £50,500, after The Sun newspaper yesterday increased its contribution from £20,000 to £50,000. The remaining £500 represents the savings of 66-year-old Winston Bedford, a neighbour of Ms Matthews who offered the money because he was unable to participate in the searches of Dewsbury Moor and its surrounding area.

Today, a family disco is being held at the Staincliffe Working Men's Club close to the estate to raise funds for the publicity campaign which has so far relied on parents sticking photocopied posters to lampposts around the town.

Julie Bushby, the chairwoman of the tenants' association on Dewsbury Moor and a friend of Ms Matthews, said: "We don't have the money that was available to others but we have to do whatever we can. Money is coming out of the pockets of the people who live here. People think we're drunk or high as kites on this estate. We're not. Ninety per cent of people here work for a living."

Such sentiments were echoed by Mr Meehan, who has strongly denied suggestions that he was violent towards Shannon. He said: "It's two families from two different backgrounds which shouldn't really get compared – basically a poor family and rich family. To me, the McCanns are like celebrities in other people's eyes."

The BBC insisted last night that the Today programme interview had been intended to give Ms Matthews and Mr Meehan the chance to respond to the claims made against them. A spokeswoman said: "As part of this it was felt that the background of the family was relevant to the interview as claims have been made that Shannon was unhappy at home and may have run away. We do not feel that this was a judgement on Karen Matthews or her partner and the way they live their life."

While the number of column inches and minutes of air time dedicated to Shannon's disappearance has waned, the same cannot be said of the police resources deployed in the search for her. A total of 300 officers and more than half the specialist sniffer dogs available to UK forces are now involved in the hunt, making it one of the largest operations of its type since the search for the Yorkshire Ripper in the late 1970s.

Some 2,000 homes have been searched, along with countless railway culverts, streams and areas of wasteland, while extensive investigations have been carried out on the links between Ms Matthews and her previous partners. The last potential sighting of Shannon was by two 12-year-old boys who believe they saw the primary school pupil crying while she sat on a wall on the estate. There have been no arrests.

West Yorkshire Police, who have said they are "gravely concerned" for the youngster, declined to comment on the coverage of the case, perhaps mindful of what happens when senior police officers express concern at the varying treatment of investigations by the media.

Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, was roundly condemned two years ago when he said he could not understand why the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham became "the biggest story in Britain".

Although forced to apologise for the remark, he maintained his assertion that factors such as race, gender and age of victims decided the publicity given to a serious crime. He said: "There are very large numbers of murders inside the black community that get almost no coverage at all. This is a difficulty that the police service and families have – we need the media. We really, really need the media. We work with them closely. Yet sometimes they cover one story one way and another story another way and it is very difficult to explain, especially to a victim's family."

The reasons for such variations are hotly disputed but experts insist the case of Shannon Matthews and the rush to judgement on her parents' non-nuclear family lifestyle is not isolated. A senior police officer, familiar with a number of high- profile missing person and murder hunts, said: "Editorial judgement is not something we can or should seek to influence. But it is correct that if you live in a deprived corner of a big city and you get murdered running with a gang then you will be a footnote. If you live in a nice house and your parents are professionals then the Daily Mail and everyone else will be knocking on your door."

Fiona MacKeown, whose 15-year-old daughter Scarlett Keeling was raped and murdered in Goa last month, complained this week that Indian investigators were "trying to change the media focus" when it was suggested she could face negligence charges after leaving her daughter in the resort under the care of a 25-year-old tour guide while she travelled elsewhere with some of her nine other children. She has said she was "naive". The Daily Mail joined the debate yesterday when its columnist Allison Pearson wrote: "I don't know what they call that in globe-trotting hippy circles. Back here on Planet Parent it's known as dereliction of duty."

Mrs Bushby perhaps spoke for many when she insisted that whether it is Shannon Matthews or Madeleine McCann who has gone missing, no difference should be drawn. She said: "We're not giving up. No way. Two children have gone missing, that's the point. Everyone feels the same when that happens: rich, pauper, whatever. It's the kid we're looking for isn't it? Not the mothers."

Trial by the 'Today' programme

Excerpt from an interview by Sarah Montague with Karen Matthews on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme:

SM: It has been suggested that she could have run away because of a lot of reports... that she was unhappy?

KM: No, she was not unhappy at all, she was fine on the Tuesday morning, and the Monday she were absolutely fine.

SM: Perhaps we should explain. It's a slightly complicated family picture you have, isn't it? You've got seven children, by six fathers?

KM: Five.

SM: And four children live with you?

KM: Yeah.

SM: It has been suggested Shannon was unhappy and she had run away.

KM: She's not the kind of girl who would run away.

SM: But have you considered if she was unhappy there?

KM: She wasn't.

SM: Karen, you'll know the reason I ask is because there's been a lot of coverage, not least from ... your parents and brothers, talking about how your children have a difficult relationship with Craig.

KM: No, that's untrue.

SM: I'm quoting your parents. "We've never seen him, Craig, beating Shannon with our own eyes. But the kids have said it has happened. They've suggested Craig was hitting Shannon."

KM: No. He hasn't. Never ever touched her. Never. I wouldn't be with a man who hit my kids. That's one thing I wouldn't do, is put my kids in danger.

SM: So when they say things like when they've gone round, one of the children on the stairs is crying, "I've asked the child what happened, and the child said 'Craig. Punch, punch punch. He punched my belly.' The child was shaking and crying."

KM: That's a lie.

SM: So why are your parents saying this?

KM: I don't know.

SM: What do you think happened to Shannon?

KM: She's got abducted, that's all I can say.

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