OPINION: Search for Maddie holds media attention

How is it that the story of the heart-rending disappearance of little Maddie McCann has dominated print and broadcast headlines for a month?

It was an accepted media dictum, before Alastair Campbell claimed it, that no story had a natural front page life of more than ten days. And yet four weeks of the most intense grief imaginable has been sensitively and cleverly manipulated to ensure a continued top billing on news agendas across the spectrum, tabloid and broadsheet, TV and radio.

The media campaign has overshadowed, perhaps at times a shade too much, the activities of the Portuguese police. Face-to-face interviews, a controlled flow of poignant family photographs, and messages of support from Britain’s Prime Minister and King-in-waiting, as well as the incumbent pontiff, have contributed to a unique campaign. It has tapped into a mood redolent of the death of Diana where everyone wants to share the pain and the story shows no sign of loosening its grip on the media agenda.

It is a triumph for intelligent and at times brilliant media handling albeit by PROs who must occasionally be amazed at the 24/7 results. In their desperation, the McCanns have emerged as natural and empathetic interviewees. The steady release of family images, managed photocalls, briefings and the use of every conceivable online aid have yielded sensational results in terms of global awareness. In some ways, the campaign seems almost a modern equivalent of religion. All involved are determined to pay homage and make whatever sacrifices necessary at the altar of the media to bring about the miracle.

So are PR and media management the new leaders in the fight against crime? Or is this a one-off phenomenon born of the heinous theft of the beautiful child from a model family? 

A number of factors have contributed, I believe, to the longevity of the campaign. They include the fact that the principal victim is a child and that all the victims are patently good people. The parents, perhaps through their professional training as doctors, seem able to keep their grief under temporary control to meet the demands of the cameras. Also there is currently in the UK a genuine mood among many people, disillusioned with vital parts of the establishment – politics, religion, education – yearning to show community through shared suffering.

The Maddie campaign is awesome in embracing the ability of the media to tap into this through the suffering of one family, and with whom everyone can identify. It is, though, a one-off.  Pray to whatever religion that it succeeds in its main aim.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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