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
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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times