Deborah Orr: When it comes to reporting murder, race forms only part of the story

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The Independent Online

Sometimes I think I'm the only racist left on the planet - the only person who ever makes a lazy assumption, or has a stereotyped thought, based on sweeping cultural generalisations. Then some group of people is accused of "institutionalised racism" and you can see from their spluttering, knee-jerk denials, that they've been caught on the raw.

The latest volley of point-blank refusals to apply some self-analysis comes from the print media, smarting from Sir Ian Blair's suggestion that "almost nobody" could explain the level of interest generated by the Soham murder case in 2002, with the dazzling exception of himself. His attempt at elucidation featured the suggestion that the media was "institutionally racist", just like the police, a thought that might surely - considering that black executives at national newspapers are as rare as hen's teeth - be worth a moment of reflection.

Apparently not. The Daily Mail is incandescent, and has responded by featuring little reproductions of seven of its most scrupulously PC "black child killed" stories since 1997. I feel this is offset a little by Richard Littlejohn's comment a few pages on that the gang stealing valuable sculptures "just wanted something artistic to brighten up their illegal caravan site", but maybe that's just me.

Likewise The Guardian jumps to the defence of the print media, pointing out that Sir Ian claims that the murder of Tom ap Rhys Pryce attracted much more coverage than that of Balbir Matharu on the same day, when the latter in fact racked up 4,443 words in the national press, which was not much less than Rhys Pryce, with 5,525.

So why is it then that if the police give the same resources to every missing child, as Sir Ian Blair says, and the media is always keen to help as much as it can too, as it says, that so many missing children simply remain missing, with no one outside their immediate circle ever learning their name?

About 100,000 children under 16 leave home every year, with up to 1,300 still missing two weeks after being reported to the police. A heartbreaking 14,000 of the total figure are forced to leave home by parents or carers. Chief Inspector Tim Bonnett reckons that, of the children that were missing last year, only 300 are still outstanding. That is six children who have disappeared off the face of the earth every week in the past year. You couldn't tell that from looking at the papers, could you?

Yet, I don't think Sir Ian has it quite right about "institutionalised racism" being the problem. That is an element in the mix, but by no means the only one. There were various crucial elements that made the disappearance of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman into a huge story, and among them were the facts that they were pretty, white, prepubescent girls from stable and respectable backgrounds, and they went missing in August when there isn't much news.

There was little chance that the girls had run away, because they were not children from chaotic households. There was little chance they had been abducted by a stranger, because there were two of them. There was every chance that they had vanished so suddenly, so mysteriously and so inexplicably because they had been murdered by someone who knew them in the village. And that, in a nutshell, was why Soham was a "great story".

Because it was glaringly obvious from early on that something notably and unusually awful had happened to them, and, as the days when on, the media and its consumers were able to parade their sympathy and their hoping-against-hope sentiment while slaking their prurient curiosity. It would be nice to believe that the occasional piece of somehow-in-the-brickwork racism was our society's greatest problem. Sadly, it's just one of many unsavoury little secrets that people won't even admit to themselves.

Nature in all its glory and shame

Watching the later stages of Celebrity Big Brother, with Michael Barrymore remarking on how the dynamic in the house was similar to that of a self-help group, and George Galloway invoking the chant that comes from AA circles, "poor me, poor me, pour me a drink", it became clear to me why it is that the show is so nasty. Putting a bunch of celebrities into the Big Brother house does resemble putting a bunch of heroin addicts into a rehab group. With one important difference. The heroin addicts have the goal of being free of heroin by the end. The poor celebrities are rewarded instead by more of the attention that they crave but cannot cope with.

* Our friends from the country made a rare visit to our place in the inner city last weekend, and I think they were impressed. Not only had my husband seen a whale about a mile from our home, just a day before, but we also during lunch were visited by a fox, a raven and a heron. The country folk, who rarely see nature, were duly impressed, even though the robins I told them about failed to show. This trio of birds has been cavorting about in the local gardens for weeks. I can only assume that their usual territorial instinct, that generally causes them to fight like mad, has been cast aside since winters are mild now, and food is plentiful.

* Nicole Kidman recently appeared in The Interpreter, a film largely based in the United Nations building in New York. Obviously she made some interesting contacts while on location. She has just been appointed a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations, with a brief to publicise issues around women and violence.

As such she joins a long list of celebrity women doing the same, from Geri Halliwell, who publicised women's health issues, to Angelina Jolie who does the same for refugees.

I suppose this form of consciousness-raising must work for the UN, since the organisation is so very fond of it. Yet I can't help worrying that those representing the UN should be selected for their expertise or at least their articulacy, rather than their ability to attract the attention of photographers and editors.

It certainly burnishes the reputation of the celebrity in question, there's no doubt about that. But I rather think that nations should start united around the idea that these issues are important in and of themselves, rather than because a beautiful actor or singer implies that they might be.

I know that rich and high-profile people have done great things for charity - the inevitable Bono, the less inevitable Elton John, and the left-field Jemima Khan spring to mind. But these people became genuinely expert on the issues they championed, and gave their own wealth to their causes. The UN's more starry appointments can seem rather shallower and more self-seeking than is necessarily desirable - however well-meaning and sincere.