My former sketchwriting colleague, Simon Hoggart, has a maxim he would cite when any of us parliamentary sketchwriters were tempted to showcase a genuinely and intentionally funny MP. Humorous journalists, Simon would warn, had no business giving a platform to would-be jokers in the world of politics. Humour was our trade not theirs. We should never laugh with them: only at them. In our sketchwriters’ guild it should be a union rule not to encourage competition from unpaid amateurs. ‘We make the jokes around here.’
In an altogether darker and sadder way, I wonder whether, in their relationship with the news media, this is the mistake Kate and Gerry McCann have made. As with humour, so perhaps with pathos. The couple have seemed (though for the most understandable of motives) to be trying to orchestrate the pathos. But we do the pathos around here.
For I have sensed almost from the start of this whole, sick business an undercurrent of resentment towards these parents on the part of a British media which has not quite warmed to the thing we feed on. It is our job to exploit, to use, victims among the general public. We do not, however, quite like to be used by them. This could explain a certain relish (laced of course with generous protestations of sympathy) in the press and broadcasters’ treatment of the woes that now beset the couple as they face accusations from the Portuguese police.
Without believing in any of the latest accusations, there will still be some among whom there persists a curious feeling that the couple had it coming. The truth is that for some time the world of professional journalism has found the couple just a little bit irritating. The reason is that they have appeared to have been marketing their own tragedy. And it is we who market tragedy around here.
The irritation is well-hidden, of course, and would be universally and emphatically denied. But behind the pictures of Mrs McCann holding that almost inevitable pink cuddle-cat — pictures the press corps have actively encouraged and been happy enough to frame and project on to front pages everywhere — I have often enough heard from colleagues a sotto-voce cluck of disapproval: how come that cat’s always in shot?
Journalists who well know how to insinuate a soft toy into a story about a tragic couple get unnerved when the tragic couple steal a march on them and do so themselves — or seem to. Journalists and camera people delighted to catch an impromptu and tender moment as a grieving mother carries and cuddles her sleeping toddler feel almost cheated when these pictures are handed to them on a plate. When the McCanns publish their own blog on the web, a print media with appetite enough for the leaked email or private letter is unsure whether or how to republish.
Journalists well-versed in the techniques of creating ‘news pegs’ to give a flagging story ‘new legs’ become faintly disapproving when the individuals they are covering appear to have taken that process into their own hands and to be news-pegging and new-legging with some aplomb. Journalists skilled in ferreting out relatives, friends, friends of relatives and relatives of friends in order to introduce new voices into a narrative are somewhat taken aback when the victims at the centre of their story give the impression of doing the job for them — and all but handing out contact details for ‘today’s family friend’. When what might have been a private visit to the Pope was made very public (to the satisfaction, no doubt, of a media-savvy Vatican too) there were plenty to wonder, in private, who was using whom.
Thus (I believe) Kate and Gerry McCann have proved too helpful for their own good; too knowingly aware of where the media are coming from and what they want; and too artful and resourceful in providing it. The McCanns have proved unwisely media-wise.
It is easy to see why they did it. First, because they could: their careers and education equipped them to handle the news media on their own terms, and told them (as all media courses for non-journalist professionals now teach) how to keep ‘control’ of the story, and ‘manage’ its ‘development’. It seems, too, that at the outset they were offered advice by one or more friends in the media, and took it.
Second, they did it because they were persuaded, or persuaded themselves, that their overriding concern must be to place and keep the story of their daughter’s disappearance at the centre of world attention, putting as wide a public as possible on the alert for any trace of her, making her face recognisable worldwide, and — in short — enlisting half of humanity in her search. It’s a perfectly defensible strategy, though an alternative approach (to cool rather than inflame a story) can be defended too, and the media’s unquestioning assumption that all publicity was self-evidently to the good could be seen as self-serving.
Self-serving or not, it chimed with the strategy Madeleine’s parents had chosen; not much else was happening in the world; and the whole thing went stratospheric. The faint sense of disgust that many in the media (and perhaps among the public too) now feel is not unmixed with self-loathing. And the fact that Mr and Mrs McCann have almost seemed to be egging us on gives us someone else to blame.
We should not blame them. But we should see in their latest and perhaps last miseries a lesson. So slick has the modern media become at manufacturing and nurturing a story, so wise has so much of the public become in the media’s ways, and so uncomfortable are we all beginning to feel about the process, that any sensible individual caught up in sensational news of any sort would be ill advised to be too smart about it. The world knows how to recognise news management, and it leaves a nasty taste. What fragile self-esteem we journalists have as journalists is best flattered by leaving us to pull the strings on the puppets in our play. We don’t like it when the puppets pull back, and I don’t think our readers do either.
So if the media spotlight should fall upon you, innocent bystander, and you should wish to manage the news to your best advantage, here’s a tip. Don’t try to manage it at all. Or if you must, don’t let it show.