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
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.