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Missing children

Robin Bulloch | 15:11 UK time, Friday, 7 March 2008

Why aren't all missing children treated the same? A number of Radio 5 Live listeners got in touch, comparing the case of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews, who's been missing for two weeks, and that of Madeleine McCann. Some felt Shannon's case had been given considerably less attention. Here are a couple of the texts we received:

Radio Five Live logo"you give this story less attention than if she'd been a middle class kid left alone in an unlocked appartment. From james in read ing"

"Maddie's case is VERY different - kid left alone, abroad, much younger etc etc. Don't do the 'ooh, us poor northerners' line. Tim, Hull"

Did the perceptions match the facts? We asked reporter Cory Allen to compare both cases.


By Cory Allen.

Nine-year-old Shannon Matthews has been missing for over two weeks. She got off the school bus after a swimming lesson in Dewsbury West Yorkshire and never came home.

Shannon Matthews and Madeleine McCannThe similarities drawn with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann are stark; two little girls go missing without a trace. In both cases the police appear to have very little to go on. Madeleine was snatched from her bed in the night while her brother and sister lay sleeping in the same room. Shannon Matthews got off a school bus at 3.10pm on Tuesday, 19 February and never stepped foot through her front door. In Shannon's case the investigating officers have less to go on, due to a lack of witnesses. No-one saw which way she went.

For the past two weeks the media has been following the story of Shannon's disappearance with leading articles on all major networks and coverage in the press including her mother 32-year-old Karen Matthews appealing for her safe return on Mothering Sunday. But has the media been as enthusiastic in the sheer volume of coverage as that of the Madeleine McCann case?

If you look at the statistics as reported in the Belfast Telegraph nine days into the coverage of Madeleine there was 465 number of press stories compared with 242 of Shannon.

Big screen showing Madeleine McCann at UEFA Cup FinalIn the first two weeks, we heard something from the McCann family every other day and a campaign got underway very quickly with well-known people like J K Rowling, Bryan Adams, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo all getting involved. The England cricket team at the Test match against the West Indies at Lord's all wore yellow ribbons as well to make sure that Madeleine's name kept a high profile. Madeleine's aunt, Philomena McCann lobbied MPs. She had a personal meeting with Gordon Brown, the then chancellor, who offered support on "a practical and a personal level".

In Shannon's case, on Friday 29 February her picture was put up on the screen at half-time during the Carnegie World Cup Challenge between Leeds Rhinos and Melbourne Storm at Elland Road. Dewsbury MP Shahid Malik has been to visit Shannon's mother Karen Matthews and pop star Leona Lewis has donated money and also made an appeal.

Dewsbury residents wearing Shannon appeal t-shirtsThe reward offered for information leading to the safe return of Shannon Matthews is £25,000 and is made up of donations from a newspaper, a local company and £500 from Wakefield pensioner Winston Bedford, who is a neighbour of the family. Public donations are estimated to be in their thousands.

At the same two week point in the investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the reward for information leading to her safe return stood at £2.6m. Donations came from a range of sources including newspapers Stephen Winyard, Philip Green, Simon Cowell, Coleen McLoughlin, Sir Richard Branson and J K Rowling.

In terms of the police investigation, West Yorkshire police say 10% of the operational force is being dedicated to the task of finding Shannon and will be until she is found. That's 250 uniformed police officers and 60 detectives.

Police officers in DewsburyThe houses around where she lives are being searched with sniffer dogs and the backgrounds of her extended family and those close to them are being checked by police. In Portugal, around 100 local police and detectives were working on the case in those first few weeks looking for Madeleine.

The families and friends of both Madeleine and Shannon are desperate for good news, that their loved ones are somewhere safe. Both have publicly stated they believe that keeping the girls names high in the media news agenda will mean they are not forgotten and hopefully returned safe home one day.


  • 1.
  • At 06:13 PM on 07 Mar 2008,
  • jo wrote:

There is NO evidence that Madeleine McCann was snatched,as far as the Portuguese police are saying, she disappeared.

I wrote this in my blog a few weeks ago:

"...The main story is the nine year old girl who has gone missing in West Yorkshire. Let's hope she turns up soon as I get the feeling that the media and public won't be mobilised in the same way that they were for Maddie's disappearance. The girl isn't as photogenic, you see? And her parents are working class, unlike the dashing McCanns. Oh, I am cynical aren't I? I'm also right."

Depressingly accurate, isn't it?

  • 3.
  • At 10:23 PM on 07 Mar 2008,
  • John B. Min wrote:

We must develop social character wherein children are safe to come home from school.

This doesn't happen in highly faithful areas of the world, whether Christian, Judaic, or Muslim. This is because the areas have a deep faith instilled within them that indicate a pure morality in thought and action.

Thanks be to God and allow us all to drink from the water of goodness.

P.S. when I say highly faithful, I mean a local village or town where strong faith values are evident. This is also a result of close-nit networks that result from proximity as well as the unifying nature of common love and interest.

  • 4.
  • At 04:31 PM on 08 Mar 2008,
  • Simon Stephenson wrote:

So, would a good résumé of Cory Allen's piece be:-

1. Yes, we have given Shannon's case less attention than Madeleine's.

2. In determining how much coverage to give to a story, it's critical how much celebrity back-up we get. If celebrities aren't very interested there's no way we can devote much attention, however intrinsically important is the story. When we consider a story to be of newsworthy importance, we do our best to attract the celebrities to it, but this doesn't always work.

3. We're not really sure how much celebrity attention is sincere and how much is just down to the individuals concerned wanting to be associated with what's currently in the limelight. But this really doesn't matter. What we're here to do is to give coverage to whatever is most likely to grab the attention of the greatest number of people. In this age, what does this are celebrities, sentimentality and single-issue, often irrational, outspokenness - so that's what we follow.

4. It's therefore wrong of people to expect similar levels of coverage for similar types of story, because the actual content of the story is really quite a small part in the determination of how much attention it gets.

  • 5.
  • At 11:17 PM on 09 Mar 2008,
  • Joel wrote:

Call me cynical but I suspect the sunny algarve might have something to do with the difference in coverage..

At one point, I remember watching the maddie coverage and noted that the BBC seemed to have half a dozen reporters 'on location' - someone outside the apartment, one by Murat's house, one by the police station, one in a helicopter and one on a nearby hill acting as anchor-man. Absolutely crazy (and not what I pay my licence fee for).

Seems a crime to me when inconceivable numbers of children suffer all over the world on a daily basis without even making the news.

  • 6.
  • At 09:08 AM on 10 Mar 2008,
  • Cathy Groves wrote:

I do feel there has been a great difference in the coverage. Could it be because Shannon is not blond haired and blue eyed? Possibly because of her family background? Tellingly, the BBC Breakfast reporter this morning mentioned that Shannon's mother had 7 children by 6 different fathers. He was not trying to suggest that this made a difference to the coverage, merely that it complicated the police investigation as everyone who had links with the family had to be investigated. However I do feel that the stark contrast between Shannon's family and the highly articulate McCanns could be one of the factors in the disproportionate news coverage.

  • 7.
  • At 11:46 AM on 10 Mar 2008,
  • Jim Currie wrote:

The McCann case is not finished so Cory Allan is incorrect in saying the child was 'snatched from her bed in the night'. That's a personal opinion. Additionally; anyone who tries to turn these sad events into a 'north -south' thing are, themselves, very sad indeed. The facts are plain to see. Much more inside, priviledged influence has been brought to bear in the 'Maddie' case. I live in Portugal and have followed the both cases. The people here are astonished and puzzled at the 'Maddie razz-a-ma-tazz. Not a few synics here also wonder at the motives of the rich and powerful. Ronaldo for one - given that there are many in his homeland of Madeira who could do with a wee bit of his wealth!

  • 8.
  • At 05:19 PM on 10 Mar 2008,
  • Darryl Beresford wrote:

You do not seem to have given any analysis at all between the two levels of coverage, simply re-told both stories.

Replying to to comments such of this is a vital tool of communication between the BBC and we, the licence payers. The blog has completely failed to address or examine the issue it is supposed to.

Very disappointing.

  • 9.
  • At 10:54 PM on 10 Mar 2008,
  • Luke wrote:

Simon Stephenson, great post, you've hit the nail on the head.

Did the perception match the facts - Cory Allen hasn't answered the question, but Simon has, the answer being that the facts don't matter very much.

  • 10.
  • At 11:03 PM on 10 Mar 2008,
  • LYDIA REID wrote:

The parents of Maddie McCann joined with her extended family to constantly come up with ideas to keep her story in the media. they did this from desperation in the hope it would find their child. Not all families are that strong, not all families have the know how. I do believe the media could have tried to put more effort into this little girls case. It should not matter whether a missing child is Blond or with pink stripes, she is a child missing from home and needing the help of the public. We should also remember the parents of Maddie underwent the terrible trauma of being a suspect in the disappearance of their child this kept her story in the media. Would we wish that on all parents, I do not think so.
It may be this new family do not believe that a high media involvement will help find their child. It may be the police have advised against this. How can we judge.

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