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1 October 2012

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".

By Steven Baxter

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.

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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.