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5 October 2012

Kay Burley’s insensitivity over April Jones wasn’t just her fault

The Sky News presenter’s style lacks compassion, but the feeding frenzy 24-hour news produces is also to blame.

By Steven Baxter

A team of searchers prodded a bag of sand with a stick, peered down into a riverbank and lifted up paving slabs. They were hunting for a missing girl, five-year-old April Jones, and they were doing it live on television.

Was this some kind of elaborate stunt to draw attention to the search, and to the identity of the suspect? If it was, the searchers were going about their business thoroughly. No, this was what it seemed to be: a live TV report of people looking for a missing girl, who might at any second discover her.

I sat watching, open-mouthed, wanting to turn over, but transfixed by what I was seeing. Perhaps I am as guilty as anyone, because I didn’t turn over in disgust. All I could think was: don’t find anything, don’t find anything. Imagine if they had. 

It’s tempting to look at the work of Kay Burley, whose interviews have marked her out for criticism in recent hours, and single her out as what has made Sky News’s coverage so unsettling. But even though her presentation has at times lacked the smallest sliver of compassion or humanity, she is no more than the most obvious symptom of a wider sickness. (Besides, there’s a little more than a suspicion of misogyny about some of the abuse hurled in Burley’s direction.)

There’s something else going on behind all this, something which we saw in the aftermath of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, the search for the killer of Joanna Yeates and the hunt for Raoul Moat: there’s a feeding frenzy, and the news-as-sport hysteria in which the human tragedy and heartbreak at the core of the story is forgotten in the search for new and exciting pictures.

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There are times when the feeding frenzy can do good, and the public has been mobilised as never before with the search for April Jones, given that it was the first occasion on which the nationwide child rescue alert was triggered. But there should be a point where the makers of news should begin to realise where the good they do becomes a cruel, cold, vulturous activity, which is less about raising awareness and more about raising ratings.

It’s by no means unique to this country. Last week, a man shot himself to death live on Fox, a kind of grisly horror which has become normalised in the age of rolling news, where real car chases are entertainment to be pored over and inserted with commercials. The network apologised for subjecting its viewers to the distressing sequence, but by then the damage had been done. If you point a camera at a person in an extreme situation who has a gun, there is a chance that something like that will happen. The question is: what is your overarching public interest in pointing the camera and showing the footage live in the first place?

Someone has to have the courage to stand up and say: put the cameras away, we have seen enough. Someone has to make that call not to show live footage of someone poking around in some bushes for what could be a human body. And to say that even though we can do this, there are some things we shouldn’t do, out of basic respect for other people, because that sort of thing should matter.

It does matter. Doesn’t it?