Friday, August 31, 2007

Families, eh? Mark Lawson, Guardian, 31.8.07

It has been the summer of the public mum and dad. First Gerry and Kate McCann and then Melanie and Stephen Jones, as if not already under intolerable emotional pressure from the loss of their children, have submitted to the stress of lengthy television interviews, trading their privacy for a possible solution to the disappearance of Madeleine and the murder of Rhys. And in a tragedy that is at present less final, the father and father-in-law of Amy Winehouse used a radio phone-in for an ill-tempered family summit on the best way of encouraging the singer to ditch drugs and drink.

Even in a culture in which privacy is a vanishing virtue, a significant shift seems to have occurred. A previous era gave children the injunction that they should be seen but not heard. The rule in the 21st century media appears to be that parents should be seen and heard vociferously. Yet there are already signs that this trend towards parental broadcasting comes at the risk of psychological cost to the families and voyeurism for the audience.
At the Edinburgh Television Festival last weekend, it felt deeply uncomfortable to see Gerry McCann interrupting his unimaginable family nightmare to fly to a media festival to appeal to the media to leave his family alone. A day later, I had to switch off the interview in which the Joneses described the searing horror of their bereavement, feeling that it was like reading secret diaries. Some will argue that these reactions suggest an absence of human feelings; I'd argue they indicate their presence.

Logic tells us that the last thing required by eyes sore from crying is exposure to TV lights, but the McCanns and the Joneses agreed to the ordeal for the same reason. Indeed, it seems reasonable to suspect that the second couple was influenced by the summer-long example of the first. The couples will have imagined a kidnapper or killer - or witness - watching the screen and being shamed into admission.

The tactic, though, was applied differently. Questioned on the outwardly calm demeanour which surprised some viewers, Gerry McCann revealed that he and his wife had been told that self-control might have most effect on a putative kidnapper tuning in. But, if such advice was given, it seems misguided. In a cruel kind of emotional theatre-reviewing of which Queen Elizabeth II was a victim in the week after Diana's death, the malevolent blogosphere gossip about the McCanns began with the observation that they were "not upset enough" when they appeared on TV.

There is no risk of that with Melanie Jones, who looked as demented with grief as we feel we might be in these circumstances, but, as often happens with modern TV, many viewers must have wondered if she should really be putting herself through this. Before it becomes the accepted wisdom for both police and media that participants in tragedies must speak in public, doctors and psychologists should properly study what the consequences might be for those who endure it.

But the couples' decisions to go public might also be practical. While some have argued, since that car crash in Paris 10 years ago today, that Britons have undergone some kind of emotional evolution towards greater self-disclosure, the climate described by the shorthand "Dianarism" has as much to do with technology as psychology.

In an earlier time of intermittent news bulletins, a story that wanted to stay in the headlines required one new development each day. Now new material is needed on the hour. And if it doesn't come it will be spun, demand overriding supply. Participants in a tragedy who choose to close the curtains and weep in private - the old way - know that reporters will, in any case, be standing outside the house speculating about how they are feeling. Already characters in a story being written by thousands of official and unofficial journalists, they might attempt to shape the narrative by providing some pictures and dialogue of their own.

But as the McCanns have discovered, media exposure, for whatever motive it's sought, makes a person famous and celebrity has consequences, of which the biggest is becoming fair game for personal comment, however hurtful or untrue. Accused of murder in Portuguese equivalents of the Daily Sport, which are conveniently reclassified as a "respected national newspaper" when the lurid rumours are recycled in Britain, they now suffer newspaper front pages speculating on alleged "cracks" in their marriage. God help the future tragic parent who has a lover, an unpaid parking ticket or a controversial opinion once committed to print.

More crushingly, as Gerry McCann seemed to acknowledge in Edinburgh, the belief that publicity would help the investigation is now questionable, the parents' appearances instead encouraging false sightings and false suspects. In the Rhys Jones murder, the parental exposure may be more useful, because of the suspicion that the killer was a child, more easily panicked by fear of consequence. But should Mr and Mrs Jones wish to return to private life after the funeral or after a trial, they may find they are assumed to be public property, pestered for regular updates on how they feel.

The easiest of these cases is the Winehouses and the Fielder-Civils. Something like this has happened in a million families: a disagreement over how a crisis involving a child should be handled, exacerbated, as often in England, by a class gap between the partners. It seems pretty straightforward, though, that Mr Winehouse and Mr Fielder-Civil would have been better served talking to each other or to Amy on a couple of mobiles rather than "the nation's conversation".

You can appreciate Mr Fielder-Civil's thinking. His son married a woman who is public property and so questions about what she's up to these days come not, as for most in-laws, in the high street but on the information superhighway. And so, because the public are discussing her, he ends up discussing her in public.

But his plea for fans to stop buying Winehouse records is naive because the music industry is not athletics: the spectators don't care if a performer is artificially assisted. And his intervention, followed by the response from the other side of the family, inflamed the story for another day, giving the paparazzi another excuse to follow around the troubled young woman these men were muddledly trying to help.

In May, the McCanns began the idea that publicity is the best response to family crisis, but recent comments suggest that they are retreating from the technique even as others adopt it. Instinct and history suggests that breakthroughs in the cases of these tragic children are more likely to come from decent policing and that Amy Winehouse's ability to beat addiction will be decided by her personality and treatment, rather than media appearances by her family. Distress is not always better shared and sometimes parents should be neither seen nor heard.

1 comment:

Educator-To-Be said...

Excellent post. Amy