Kay Burley's insensitivity over April Jones wasn't just her fault

The Sky News presenter’s style lacks compassion, but the feeding frenzy 24-hour news produces is also to blame.

A team of searchers prodded a bag of sand with a stick, peered down into a riverbank and lifted up paving slabs. They were hunting for a missing girl, five-year-old April Jones, and they were doing it live on television.

Was this some kind of elaborate stunt to draw attention to the search, and to the identity of the suspect? If it was, the searchers were going about their business thoroughly. No, this was what it seemed to be: a live TV report of people looking for a missing girl, who might at any second discover her.

I sat watching, open-mouthed, wanting to turn over, but transfixed by what I was seeing. Perhaps I am as guilty as anyone, because I didn't turn over in disgust. All I could think was: don't find anything, don't find anything. Imagine if they had. 

It’s tempting to look at the work of Kay Burley, whose interviews have marked her out for criticism in recent hours, and single her out as what has made Sky News’s coverage so unsettling. But even though her presentation has at times lacked the smallest sliver of compassion or humanity, she is no more than the most obvious symptom of a wider sickness. (Besides, there’s a little more than a suspicion of misogyny about some of the abuse hurled in Burley’s direction.)

There’s something else going on behind all this, something which we saw in the aftermath of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, the search for the killer of Joanna Yeates and the hunt for Raoul Moat: there’s a feeding frenzy, and the news-as-sport hysteria in which the human tragedy and heartbreak at the core of the story is forgotten in the search for new and exciting pictures.

There are times when the feeding frenzy can do good, and the public has been mobilised as never before with the search for April Jones, given that it was the first occasion on which the nationwide child rescue alert was triggered. But there should be a point where the makers of news should begin to realise where the good they do becomes a cruel, cold, vulturous activity, which is less about raising awareness and more about raising ratings.

It’s by no means unique to this country. Last week, a man shot himself to death live on Fox, a kind of grisly horror which has become normalised in the age of rolling news, where real car chases are entertainment to be pored over and inserted with commercials. The network apologised for subjecting its viewers to the distressing sequence, but by then the damage had been done. If you point a camera at a person in an extreme situation who has a gun, there is a chance that something like that will happen. The question is: what is your overarching public interest in pointing the camera and showing the footage live in the first place?

Someone has to have the courage to stand up and say: put the cameras away, we have seen enough. Someone has to make that call not to show live footage of someone poking around in some bushes for what could be a human body. And to say that even though we can do this, there are some things we shouldn’t do, out of basic respect for other people, because that sort of thing should matter.

It does matter. Doesn’t it?

Kay Burley live on Sky News during the search for April Jones
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty
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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear