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
Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.