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
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.