Ben Goldacre drew my attention to several articles on the responsibility the media must take for increasing aberrant behaviour by their very reporting of it. He was talking in particular of suicide, following the death of Sylvia Platt’s son.
Details matter, as ever. Overdoses increased by 17% in the week after a prominent overdose on Casualty (watched by 22% of the population at the time), and paracetamol overdoses went up by more than others. In 1998 the Hong Kong media reported heavily on a case of carbon monoxide poisoning by a very specific method, using a charcoal burner. In the 10 months preceding the reports, there had been no such suicides. In November there were 3; then in December there were 10; and over the next year there were 40.
The copy-cat effect of media reporting has been adequately demonstrated in the case of Shannon Mathews. Karen Mathews is believed to have been influenced, not only by the McCann family saga, but also by the Channel 4 series Shameless depicting a dysfunctional family who staged the fake kidnap of the youngest son in an attempt to obtain a £500,000 ransom, which was screened in the month before Shannon vanished.
This week it has been announced that the McCanns and Chanel 4 will join forces to produce, not a genuine work of fiction, which could be damaging enough, but a work purporting to be fact – a documentary – detailing the method by which they allege their daughter was abducted from Portugal.
This is wrong on several levels.
All commercial media has one main objective : to raise revenue through advertising. The broadcast media rely on on audience numbers which are difficult to assess. So, programmes are broadcast which are more likely to ensure a large audience. The media themselves advertise forthcoming programmes to ensure large audiences. This enables them to charge higher advertising rates during and close to the relevant programme.
That is their ‘private interest’ – however, there is a larger ‘public interest’ which should be taken into account. The public interest is not best served by detailed examination of how a crime which could result in great distress to a young child ‘could be’ committed.
If, and hopefully when, the true facts of the crime are known, then there is an argument in favour of responsible reporting of the resulting court case; lurid speculation of the facts ‘as believed’ by the last people to see Madeleine McCann alive fulfill none of these criteria.
The Portuguese Police made available many opportunities for a reconstruction of the crime to take place last year, with the genuine parties invited to take part. Those people, including the parents, declined to take part, for reasons best known to themselves. That they are now prepared, for the reported sum of £10,000, to take part in a work of fiction by a commercial television company made in order to raise the advertising revenue of Chanel 4, is woefully irresponsible and misguided on the part of Chanel 4. It is difficult to see how this programme will comply with section 5 of the Ofcom code of Practice and I suspect can only lead to further demands for increased control over their output.
It has been reported that the young girl being used to portray Madeleine McCann is the daughter of Father Hubbard, the Anglican Priest closely involved in the McCann saga. Given that there is no evidence, beyond the suspicion of one member of the McCann’s party that she ‘may’ have seen something that ‘could’ have been a young child being carried home, which ‘may’ have been something more suspicious, it is difficult to justify the inclusion of this young girl in the filming. A young actress could have been used, but to sanction the inclusion of a young girl to illustrate the way in which someone she was closely associated with disappeared, never to be seen again, borders on the horrific. Little surprise that she was reportedly so upset during the filming that filming had to be stopped to console her. Is Chanel 4 not aware of section 1.27 of the Ofcom code?
In case Chanel 4 have lost their copy of the code, I reproduce the most salient section here.
3.1 Material likely to encourage or incite the commission of crime or to lead to disorder must not be included in television or radio services.
3.2 Descriptions or demonstrations of criminal techniques which contain essential details which could enable the commission of crime must not be broadcast unless editorially justified.
There is adequate evidence that this sort of programme can incite similar crimes. Given that there was sufficient opportunity to carry out a reconstrcution of this crime last year under the controlled and essentially ‘private’ conditions by the Portuguese Police, there is no editorial justification for making this programme in the manner suggested.