Thousands of missing children are paying the price for a system rigged against them. In March, Netflix released an eight-part documentary series The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann and with it the almost forgotten conversations about the case were reignited. The 3 May marked twelve years since the three-year old went missing from her hotel room in Portugal. The series features interviews with friends and investigators as it re-enacts the search for Madeleine. Commissioned after the success of similar true crime shows (Making a Murderer, Abducted in Plain Sight, The Ted Bundy Tapes, etc), the series does not offer any new facts, insight or even have a unique point of view. What it does successfully highlight is Britain’s twelve-year public obsession with the case and the racial and class bias hindering the media coverage of other missing children.
The £8 million series portrays the investigation with all the drama of a movie. The same cinematic styles were used in the reporting of the events as they unfolded in 2007 and in the years after. Like a thriller, the media coverage explored the ideas of good and evil, childhood innocence and the values of family life. To date, 600 individuals and 40,000 documents have been investigated in an operation that has cost the London Metropolitan Police £11.75 million, with the latest £150,000 instalment from the Home Office given in October of last year. The scale of this inquiry and the media response, not to mention the countless TV and YouTube documentaries, has ensured that Madeleine McCann is the most famous missing child in the world.
What makes the disappearance of this particular little girl so captivating? White and blonde, Madeleine was portrayed as vulnerable, with her family perceived as respectable and educated, with no criminal history. In her we saw a blonde angel, the image of virtue who the public rightly wanted to see returned to her parents. Madeleine McCann and her family deserved the nation’s sympathy and attention… just as all missing children do. However, it seems that if your child does not meet the ideal specifications, there will be considerably less support and sympathy. Here we see the dangerous repercussions of stereotypes made in TV and in cinemas. Where we have been socialised to see whiteness and associate it with innocence, film and TV have taught us to view blackness or brownness as synonymous with threat and “otherness”.
In 2006, a year before Madeleine’s disappearance, five-year-old Elizabeth Ogungbayibi disappeared. Despite going missing only a year before Madeleine and being of similar ages, Elizabeth did not receive media or official attention on the same scale. Elizabeth is not alone: Aamina Khan (age six), Sean Iregi (age seven), Heydari Nastaran (age seven), Moses John (age thirteen) … with a child being reported missing every three minutes in the UK, the list seems endless. Disappearing at home and on holiday before and after Madeleine, none of these children are recognisable to the majority of the public. None are receiving even close to the amount of taxpayers’ money spent on their hoped-for return.
This is not only a race issue. Shannon Matthews was missing for 24 days before police found her alive, being held in the house of the uncle of her mother’s boyfriend. The case received very different media attention, even though her disappearance took place just a year after Madeleine’s. In both cases, the media focused on the mothers, who have been described as representing both sides of the social class coin in Britain. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that Shannon Matthews’ working class background led to less interest in her case compared to Madeleine McCann’s: an inequality that was demonstrated in the drastically smaller reward money raised and media attention Shannon received in comparison.
If each of the children still missing had the same £11.75 million spent on them, how many would now have been returned home? Of course, Madeleine deserves a fair, thorough and professional investigation, but what can be done to ensure every missing child – regardless of race, status, or wealth – receives the same? The employment of reporters, journalists and management from BME backgrounds could serve to broaden media perspectives when reporting on these stories. Challenging the stereotypical characterisations in TV and cinema could create a more dynamic society ready to be empathetic to all victims and critical of race or classed-based bias in the media.
Dehumanising groups within our society has dangerous effects on vulnerable and ultimately innocent children. Failure to stop racism and classism in the media is to fail all of the missing children that have had the misfortune of not being born white, blonde and rich.