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10 June 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 10:46am

Madeleine McCann is back on front pages. Why does our media give this sad story so much space?

Even during a pandemic and nationwide protests against racial injustice, this 13-year-old story still dominates the media. 

By Megan Nolan

For a while now I’ve felt that the words “conspiracy theory” have become a useful tool to suppress critical thought from ordinary people. As a proviso, I do roll my eyes as much as the next person at ­bonkers 9/11 reimaginings, and I see that many conspiracy theories are not just ­farcical but do devastating, real-world harm. For example, the conspiracy theory, led by Alex Jones, that the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was staged, and that the 20 ­children who lost their lives never existed.

However, there came a time in my life when I started to pay attention to politics beyond the bare minimum of skimming weekend broadsheet headlines, and soon began to realise that the extent of ­government corruption and cover-ups in many countries is so jaw-dropping and shameless that it far exceeds the implausibility of many conspiracy theories. 

It is not surprising that people end up cranks and start believing in all sorts of ­absurd things, when it has been proven over and over again that the people who rule us do, indeed, do terrible, barely imaginable things. Governments have killed innocent people and aggressively lied about it.

So I’ll admit when, on 4 June, the case of Madeleine McCann led on BBC News and was on the front page of the majority of the ­national press (the Guardian and the ­Financial Times being notable exceptions), I did get the tinfoil hat out. The headlines centred around a 43-year-old German man – currently in prison for sex offences against women and children – who had been identified as the “prime suspect” in McCann’s disappearance, after a three-year investigation by British, German and Portuguese police. 

How could it be, I thought, that during a ­pandemic and the largest civil rights uprising in modern US history, this 13-year-old story is dominating the media with such ease? Why, exactly, was this happening now of all times? And how could it be that so many professional journalists considered it the most pertinent news that day?

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But what’s more grim than a conspiracy theory is the simple truth that this sad story is still imbued with so much power by our media. The desire to cover the case in excruciating detail, year after year, has long seemed gratuitous and morbid to me. That there has been great public interest in the case is undeniable – here we had the perfect confluence of violence, class, paedophilia and mystery that prime tabloid fodder is made of. It’s not surprising that this was a big story. But the durability, the endlessness of it, is a separate matter. 

Year on year, the latest non-developments are covered at every opportunity with barely restrained glee. That the public will still read about Madeleine McCann and engage with the case as an active story is by now surely because of self-perpetuation. It has been ­decided that this is news, and will never cease being news.

In recent days, the headlines felt even more like relics than they usually do, obscene and hopelessly out of step with the current moment, so much so that it was almost darkly comic. There is a once-in-a-generation upheaval taking place, a mass uprising against racially motivated, state-sanctioned violence towards black people, and it is being brutally quashed by police. 

Meanwhile, the New York Times printed an opinion piece that called for the army to move in and suppress peaceful protest, and Donald Trump has now declared his intention to decree Antifa a terrorist organisation ­(Antifa meaning only “anti-fascist”). 

There are signs that this – unlike similar protests that eventually fizzled out after being suppressed – could be a significant uprising, the moment when the paradigm of total police power over vulnerable communities shifts, in the US and around the world. 

It is useful to remember that policing as we know it is a concept less than 200 years old. It might seem implausible to those of us who are comfortable and safe now, but things do change with great speed and totality at pivotal moments. This could be the end of something, and the beginning of something new, and it is happening during a pandemic. This time could hardly be more obviously torn from a history book.

It is ultimately no surprise that much of the media would rather focus on the story of one missing child than contend with this reality. It’s much more convenient to ­empathise with the heartbreak of a single family than to engage meaningfully with the context of these protests and riots – the heartbreak of whole generations of black people. It would suit them if we too got waylaid with thoughts of this lost child, ­instead of thinking of the black children lost to police brutality.

The news is not neutral. Acknowledging this is not to subscribe to the Trumpian fake news agenda, nor to be a conspiracy ­theorist, but simply to accept that most big media organisations are ­profit-making businesses within a capitalist system and have the allegiances that are implied by that ­situation. 

Newspapers are also, generally, owned and produced by a class of people with very little to lose if the status quo is maintained, and much to lose if it is lost. 

It may not be a shadowy conspiracy, but there are things many people who produce media would rather we didn’t see. Their default position is that de-escalation is the desirable outcome to each conflict; they are anti-chaos and anti-disruption. Equilibrium is a neutral moral good to them, because they are the ones benefiting in ways large and small from society as it is, rotten with ­classism and racism. 

Now more than ever is the time to object to their attempts at distraction, to decry the relentless manipulation of one child’s ­tragedy, to say: we’re going to keep on ­looking at what’s important whether you tell us to or not. 

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This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt