A missing person should never be used as an excuse to flog papers

A classic case of "the public interest" not being "what we want to know".

When someone you love goes missing, your world falls apart. It's the not knowing that crushes you the most, forever thinking that the worst could have happened, just wanting to know something - anything - about their fate.

Newspapers can help spread the message about the missing person, and if enough interest or publicity is generated, they can help find them and bring them home. It's one of the small ways in which the media, especially the printed papers, can act as a force for good, to do something entirely beneficial.

You can probably tell I'm not just empathising. So I know the importance, too, of ensuring that no undue publicity comes that person's way; of leaving them alone when they have been located; of knowing that each case is entirely individual, and that some things should stay private, and are none of our business.

Up until Friday, the press had been performing that benign, helpful role in trying to locate a missing teenage girl. At the point she was found, that changed. Their job was done, and they had done it very well - whatever they printed, it had the effect of keeping awareness high and making the chances of finding her greater.

Since then, it has been vile. Vile, vile, vile. Creepy. Leering. Mucky, prurient and despicable. Their job has been done, but they can't leave the story alone. It's a classic case of the press being given a "free hit" before any possible criminal charges have been brought. Instead of seeing their role as a responsible one which has been completed, they have seen the chance to flog papers, make money, exploit the interest for cash.

If you regard a teenager as being vulnerable to exploitation, yet you decide they are not vulnerable to having their face plastered on the front pages of every newspaper in the land, even though she's been found, there's something wrong. If you recognise the emotion of the event, but invade the privacy of her return home with long-lens photographs, there's something equally wrong.

This isn't a springboard for people to wonder what went on; it's not our place. It's not an easy opportunity to compare our teenage lives with the life of someone whom we don't know and who is no doubt going through a traumatic series of events. It's not a chance for us to decide that we can place this event on our moral scale of wrongness, though we don't know the full facts, and probably never will.

Local papers, as is often the case, are more responsible when it comes to this kind of story. When a missing person is found, the story ends; their details are taken off the internet, so their name doesn't remain up there forever more, and the case is closed. That's how it should be. That is how it should have been this time, with this case.

We don't have the right to exploit this girl, to trade off her name, to delve into this story. Our job has been done, and it's one of the rare times that the tabloid press can hold its head high and say it has done some good in the world. At least, it could have been. Now, it is a nasty, unpleasant creeping mess of speculation and feeding frenzy. It is a classic case of "the public interest" not being "what we want to know".

There is only one member of the public who matters in all this, and her family. That's all we should be thinking about, and caring about. That we haven't is a shame to the whole profession.

We don't have the right to exploit a missing person for sales. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty Images.
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David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.