The Moorside (7 and 14 February, 9pm). It sounds picturesque, doesn’t it? In a literal sense, at least, it is accurate, because parts of Dewsbury are, like those of so many West Yorkshire towns, at once urban and quasi-rural. But there isn’t much that is lovely in Neil McKay’s depiction of the disappearance in 2008 of Shannon Matthews, aged nine, from the council estate (the Moorside) where she lived with her mother, Karen, and her mother’s boyfriend, Craig Meehan.
The Radio Times sells this series as a drama examining the “ties that bind despised communities with only themselves to rely on”, which might also have been a line that its producers used when pitching their idea to the BBC. McKay, though, has done his research and resists such easy romanticism. Even its more noble protagonists have motivations that are open to doubt.
Matthews disappeared for 24 days, during which time the police search for her became the largest for a missing person since the “Yorkshire Ripper” investigation. But she had not – as was feared – been abducted. Her mother and Meehan’s uncle, Michael Donovan, had drugged and hidden her. The cruel, mind-bogglingly dumb plan was that Donovan would eventually “find” Shannon, at which point he and Karen would share any reward money offered by newspapers. In December 2008, both were convicted of kidnapping and false imprisonment and given eight-year prison sentences. (Meehan, who was not involved with the kidnapping, was found guilty of possession of child pornography during the investigation.)
The Moorside tells this pathetic and troubling tale through Karen’s neighbour Julie Bushby, played gutsily by Sheridan Smith. In the weeks before Shannon was found, it was Bushby who rallied the community, organising marches and candlelit vigils to keep the girl’s name in the news. But if she (rightly) sensed that the media were tiring of the case because the family involved was poor and working class, something else, as McKay’s script makes plain, was also at play. The relish with which we saw her addressing the cameras wasn’t as unnerving as Karen’s comment that Shannon was “getting really famous now”. Nevertheless, it was all of a piece with it in a world seen through the prism of reality TV.
“We’re as good as anyone,” Bushby declared, sentimentality oozing from every pore. “We look after our own.” Such wishful thinking. Karen (Gemma Whelan) singularly failed to look after her own and she, in turn, had no protector: Meehan (Tom Hanson) was a creep and his relatives were bullies. Should we take her blankness for stupidity, or malevolence? Or was she also a victim? That this miniseries leaves you asking such questions is a mark of its ambition, its determination to be both factual and – another thing entirely – emotionally true.
Reluctantly, we stagger on to Good Morning Britain (weekdays, 6am), one of the three most mortally embarrassing shows on television (the others are The Pledge on Sky News and The Agenda on ITV). You may have noticed – and if you haven’t, might you be willing to give me a brief period of respite care in your social-media-free bunker? – that one of its presenters, Piers Morgan, is a) a devoted friend and defender of President Trump and b) apt to troll those who are not the above on Twitter and in the columns he writes roughly every five minutes for the Daily Mail.
What are the implications of this? In the UK, it has no precedent. For Morgan, the consequences could ultimately be very serious. But he won’t be the only one to find himself in disgrace should the gravest calamities occur. In the meantime, I don’t see that ITV can go on giving him a free pass, for all that he has his fans. What I knew of his activities elsewhere infected every bit of his banter I heard. Does his employer worry about this? Surely it must. When I emailed ITV to ask what it made of his activities online, a day-long silence was followed by the statement that it had no comment. On my third request, a “spokesman” noted only that Morgan is “well known for his views”. Too well known? We shall see.
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine