Always blame the mother?
Another day, another arrest in the case of teenager Scarlett Keeling in Goa: this time the suspect is accused of drugging, raping and murdering the 15-year-old, which suggests the local police have finally accepted the claims of Scarlett’s mother that the girl was murdered. Funny what a media campaign can do to change minds.
Meanwhile in Yorkshire, the media spotlight that fell on the disappearance of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews is rapidly fading. The story of the missing girl – unlike Madeleine McCann a year ago – has rapidly sunk from front page splash to inner page lead to also ran.
Instead coverage in both cases has spun into scrutiny of the lives of the mothers, their partners and where they live. The Mail bursts with indignation at interior shots of the caravans in which Fiona MacKeown is said to live with her “nine children by four fathers” – a fact repeated with the same salacious indignation by tabloid writers as the state of dress in which her poor daughter’s body was found.
Even on the Today programme, as The Independent rightly notes (see Missing Children and the Media: the Wrong Kind of Family), the same censorious tone was brought to an interview with Shannon’s mother and stepfather by Sarah Montague. “It’s a slightly complicated family picture you have, isn’t it? You’ve got seven children, by six fathers?” Montague asked with a voice that sounded to my ears at least tinged with incredulous judgment and smug outrage.
Instead of asking Montague what relevance that had to the case, Karen Matthews replied meekly as if she were being lectured by her “betters”: “Five.” Montague then spent the rest of the interview prying into the family set up and the relationship between Shannon and her stepfather. It made for unsavoury listening, a trial by media.
Meanwhile, Fiona MacKeown is being castigated as an unfit mother because her family fails to conform to middle England norms – even though her children are said by neighbours to be clean and well-behaved. That does not make her culpable for Scarlett’s murder. Nor does the number of children she has had by different fathers.
Of course her decision to leave a 15-year-old alone in a place like Goa was irresponsible and naïve to say the least. But the same culpability could have been levelled at the middle-class McCanns – doctors for God’s sake, a profession that never fails to tell the rest of us what is right and proper – in the week of Madeleine’s disappearance.
It’s worth remembering that they left three children under three in their cabin while at a local restaurant – a short walk away, but not in the same building.
The vitriol levelled at the two working class mothers was not flung at Kate McCann in the first days of her daughter’s disappearance – that came later, as editors looked for a new angle and grew tired of the McCann Media Circus they helped create. Instead, she was treated as the victim of a horrible crime, the grieving mother who needed all our help to deal with a terrible truth: a missing, possibly murdered and molested, child. But aren’t the two other women the same? Whatever their family set up, don’t they deserve same compassion? For God’s sake, what kind of society are we if the grieving mother of a disappeared and, perhaps, murdered child is not treated gently?
There is a nasty smell around all of this. Aside from the unsaid implication in this coverage that the more middle class a child is, the more valuable they are and worthy of blanket, hysterical coverage, no one seems to ask about the role of the fathers in making sure their daughters were safe – which in Gerry McCann’s case was the same as Kate’s.
In these three stories one fact remains the same: children are lost. It is a stark, brutal fact. But the treatment of the poor, single mothers by the media is far different to that meted out to the nuclear, conventional McCann family. These women are “pariahs”, “feckless” and, by inference and with a leap of logic that defies gravity, culpable in the fate of their children.
Now I understand why in recent years the name Fleet Street has morphed into Grubb Street.
In the meantime a nine-year-old girl is still missing.