Keats wrote famously that beauty was truth and truth beauty. From a brilliant and fractured mind that was at root sentimental, it seems a promising angle from which to approach the media’s attitude to the almost-certain abduction of Madeleine McCann. Beauty in a little girl; but no truth whatsoever, because so far, there is none. Save for the laziness and promiscuous prattishness of the British media and the need to fill pages and airtime.
This is written roughly 50 hours after the disappearance of the child. I remain astonished that nobody has yet – to my knowledge - used the word ‘angel’, although that will doubtless appear if the worst is realised.
It would then be deployed because it is so depressingly obvious; because the media has deemed this appension apt, and thus shaped our language and thought processes. Ditto the fabulously coarse floral-nomenclatural cult of grief, common to the big tabs’ centres of revenue, swamps of thuggishness and kitsch like Scouseland and the East End – chrysanthemumed ‘Granny’, ‘Dad’, ‘Murdering Gangster Bastard’, the last of which the undertakers tend to shy away from – has been allowed to flourish. This is what the likes of Kelvin McKenzie and the thicker relativists deem culture- make of that what you will.
Madeleine is, as per what one hopes is a completely inappropriate phrase, a killer story. The little girl is photogenic, the shades of Holly and Jessica and Sarah and Jon-Benet hover close by. The child’s parents are transparently middle-class, professional, resolutely unchavvy, the constituency that the Daily Mail so covets. By the way, wouldn’t you just love to be at their next editorial meeting? Parental laxity or crazed foreign sex-maniacs? Answer – blame the mother. Or any woman. Mad Mel, the floor’s all yours.
Most TV news is now driven by a soundbitten, Murdoch-Dacreist discourse, so it was unsurprising to see the hordes descend on the Algarve to present us with, er, absolutely nothing except slightly nudge-wink suggestion and what is fondly and vainly regarded as human ‘interest’ – ie, the mother was ‘hysterical’ and the family ‘distraught’. What, really? Well, who’d’a thunk it?
Yet this idiocy and abuse of language in the face of extreme situations affects us now to our marrow, or so it seems. BBC News 24 interviewed an aunt of Madeleine McCann who spoke almost entirely in tabloidese: ‘the stress levels are through the roof’, a usage that can only have been learned not from family but from media agencies which seek actively to make money.
What the fuck... Lovely stuff, said the producer, rubbing his hands. Couldn’t have scripted it better.
Because stories like this, and their media coverage – watch those fingers go over the keyboard - have already written internal scripts for us. Yeah, Jean Baydrillard, you can stop smirking.
Even in our most desperate hours, we cannot escape the nullification of tabloidese, and the way it shapes thought, the way we speak and therefore the way we think. The fact it’s now on the box as well makes it an even more pernicious phenomenon.
The iconic status in the west of the infant Christ, all that Agnus Dei stuff, has meant that abducted and murdered children are always, perforce, idealised by those left behind. Even the recidivist member of an extended family of drifters, sorry, travellers, Fred Barras, when he happened to be at the wrong end of Tony Martin’s shotgun. This person was someone who liked ‘having a laugh’. Like all lovable rogues, really. Jeffrey Archer with a jemmy.
Teenage yobbos and thieves who don’t come back (another usage ascribable to the Great War) are always ‘full of life’ or ‘fun’ and would never hurt a fly. No, never, guv. At the very worst, when a complete, off-the-scale knife-wielding maniac buys the farm, it’s ‘he got in with the wrong crowd’, as if he had no choice.
All ‘victims’ – actually perpetrators - worth reporting thus necessarily enter a red-top lexicon of linguistically-created archetypes along with their victims, the real victims, similarly demeaned, featuring inter alia battling grannies, VC veterans, plucky mums-of-two, etc. Usages that, like clothes and other signifiers, cretinize and routinize our lives.
This absurd tabloidism is part of the British mind-machinery that creates a cult of childish innocence that apparently precludes any third party interfering in a child’s right to do as it likes, but absurdly imposes this totalitarin notion in a country with a world-renowned notoriety for its childcare. A country which nurtures urban mythology as truth; the commonplace bollocks of ‘we invented football’, of wardrobe uniformity, of phrases such as ‘at the end of the day’ and ‘move on’, of owning digital gewgaws, of Top Gear, all of it mind-rot in the name of something that its defenders call freedom.
Beauty? It (possibly) endures. Truth? Doesn’t.
Another quite appallingly stupid British cliché, the trashing of ‘shrugging’ indifferent foreign cops is now so commonplace it no longer warrants comment. The fact that police forces worldwide are overstretched and/or staffed by morons can’t be overlooked; there are currently many children missing in Britain. I am insufficiently tutored in police procedure to say whether or not a pretty little Portuguese girl’s disappearance in, say, the Cotswolds, would have merited any greater deployment of resources from constabulary but I know the BBC or Sky wouldn’t give a toss.
Naturally we hear little of this, because it is considered boring by media’s decision-makers; also, only a few potential Portuguese abductees may be comparatively attractive to the camera, and obviously British as Madeleine McCann, and therefore less media-friendly. Or perhaps because the story has broken on a quiet day, newsdesk speak for a Friday afternoon piss-up.
Oh, and while we’re about it, let’s not miss a chance to get an extra cliché out of the bag.
Stand by for the Sun’s brave stance – it was us what drove those indolent Portuguese bobbies into action. Just shows how rubbish Europe is. Like the little girl, the snatched innocent, the angel; this is the same old same old; the norms so many of us reflexively adhere to, unthinkingly, like walking on pavements and clipping back holly bushes or not allowing our sphincters to cack our pants.
So much better if Madeleine had been abducted in Britain. Where, as the De Menezes family will attest, the police know how to do things, like the way we do healthcare, transport, affordable good food, readable papers, watchable telly.
And that’s true, that is. It’s in the media, don’t you know. Plus, you can text us your messages if you think you’ve seen her.
Usual rates apply.