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Monday, July 04, 2011 

The grim calculus of tabloid crime reporting.

There's a great contradiction at the very heart of tabloid crime reporting - much as they obviously want those who have gone missing to be found safe and well, or for a murderer to be caught - they also know that the longer the ordeal goes on for the relatives, the greater the potential revenue for the paper. Crime and violent deaths have always driven sales of newspapers, but it wasn't until the disappearance of Madeleine McCann that it became quite so clear how the stymieing of the decline was driving editors to demand their journalists keep filing stories, even if there was nothing new to report: the Daily Express with its day after day of "MADELEINE" front pages, leading to the eventual libel settlement with the McCanns, was previously considered the nadir of such abuses.

Now it seems we have a new low. Finding out everything about the relatives of someone who's gone missing, regardless of any suspicions they may have been involved has long been routine practice in such cases, and hacking their phones is a logical progression of that, especially as it's bound to lead to one sort of "exclusive" or another. Hacking into the voicemail of the victim however, well, it really does take the breath away. It's voyeuristic and distressing as it is to hear the heartfelt appeals which are often made for the missing person to come home or for anyone with information to come forward; for a newspaper to listen in to the unbelievably personal pleas which must have been left on Milly Dowler's phone would have been bad enough. For Glenn Mulcaire to then delete some to free up space, ostensibly so more would come in that he could then pass on to the News of the World, surely realising that it would suggest to her parents and friends that she was the one who had done so, even if they were to be disabused later of such a notion is as her family's lawyer has said, heinous. Whether or not Mulcaire himself was cynical enough to do it knowing exactly what it would suggest, giving a new angle to the story as Jamie puts out there is something we'll never know.

The tabloids themselves may well argue that even if they occasionally go too far in their reporting on such stories, they make up for it through campaigns against crime or through providing a space for the relatives themselves to speak out, as the Sun and the News of the World often have. It's difficult though to disagree with Gerry McCann, when he said to the parliamentary media committee that his daughter "was made a commodity and there were profits to be made". Regardless of the help and support the media, and through them the public provide, it's the harsh reality of having someone they love dehumanised twice over, first by the perpetrator and then by those they thought were on their side that often stays with them. Rebekah Brooks, who for so long fought for Sarah's law and for the public's right to know where convicted sex offenders live surely cannot stay silent this time round.

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