Shannon Matthews versus Madeleine McCann: A 'class war'?
Poor little Shannon Matthews. Too poor for us to care that she is lost?by Andrew Norfolk
Her family may seem feckless. Neighbours can’t afford to run a PR campaign. How the public spotlight faded on missing girl
Sarah Payne, smiling in her school uniform; Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, in their Manchester United shirts; Madeleine McCann, staring inquisitively with her distinctive bleeding iris . . .
The names and faces of these girls who have disappeared are etched into the public’s collective memory.
Camera crews camped out in their home towns for weeks or months. Donations totalled thousands — even millions — of pounds. Members of the public, many of them strangers, came in their hundreds to offer help and prayers for their safe return.
Yet the trauma and mystery surrounding the disappearance of one nine-year-old girl almost two weeks ago appeared to drift from public consciousness within days.
When Shannon Matthews vanished after leaving her primary school, there was an initial flurry of attention on the impoverished council estate in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, where she lived. West Yorkshire Police knew that they were dealing with a potential case of child abduction and threw unprecedented resources into their search. As the community pulled together, the satellite vans of the national media arrived on the hillside streets of Dewsbury Moor and for a few days Shannon’s name featured prominently on newspaper billboards.
But no longer. The search for a vanished innocent continues but Britain seems to have lost interest. This week the hunt appeared to have been classed as less newsworthy than the most minor developments in the search for Madeleine McCann, who disappeared nine months ago.
Is Shannon — a shy, timid, gentle girl — somehow deemed less worthy of our concern?
Dewsbury Moor is no Home Counties idyll, nor is it a Portuguese holiday resort. It is “up North”, it is a bleak mix of pebbledash council blocks and neglected wasteland, and it is populated by some people capable of confirming the worst stereotype and prejudice of the white underclass.
Karen Matthews, Shannon’s mother, has seven childen by five fathers. Shannon was thought locally to have a twin brother who lived with their natural father. It emerged this week that the two children were born a year apart. Their mother called them twins merely because they had the same father. When a female relative was giving interviews about the missing child on the day after Shannon disappeared, her husband loudly reminded her to charge “a fiver for a feel” \, then roared with laughter at his own wit.
Emotion-charged press conferences featuring distraught relatives are a feature of searches for missing children. No such media events have been possible in this case, because — despite considerable effort — it would appear that officers have been unable to find anyone who is up to the task. Last night Shannon’s best friend, nine-year-old Megan Aldridge, made a tearful televised plea for her return. Megan, who walked home with her friend on the afternoon she disappeared, appealed to her to “please come home”. She said: “I’m really, really sad, and if you know where she is just call and tell us where she is. We have all been really upset since she went away.”
The community has done its best to support the family and to raise awareness of the missing girl, but locals have neither the resources nor the know-how to operate the sort of slick publicity machine that has kept other missing-child cases in the spotlight.
Contrast the media-savvy McCann campaign with the brave efforts of Petra Jamieson, 30, a friend of Shannon’s mother, who managed to persuade her local branch of Asda to donate 24 white T-shirts on which the girl’s photograph had been printed.
After Holly and Jessica had been missing for a few days, two tabloid newspapers had offered rewards for information that totalled more than £1 million. In Dewsbury, locals scraped together the funds to print extra copies of the small posters distributed by the police. They took them in bundles to neighbouring towns and handed them out to passers-by.
However, last night The Sun newspaper offered a £20,000 reward for help in finding Shannon and offered to print posters to publicise the search.
A spokesman for the McCann family said they hoped that the search for Shannon would gain greater prominence. “Shannon is a vulnerable missing child and we’d hope that the media would focus on her situation and cover her plight in as wide and balanced a way as possible,” he said.
Most of the houses on Shannon’s road carry the poster in their front windows but one’s attention is all too easily distracted by the rubbish-strewn gardens, the smashed windows, the discarded broken toys.
Some neighbours are distraught but others seem only too ready to treat the drama of a missing child as a sort of exciting game that has relieved the monotony of life on the poverty line.
Since a week last Wednesday, a major police operation has been in progress, now involving more than 250 uniformed officers and 60 detectives. But as the police used sniffer dogs to search one house on Thursday, along the road hooded teenagers were swearing loudly to impress a gaggle of under-age mothers, one of whom filled the gap between drags on her cigarette by aiming a hefty kick at the crying toddler in her care.
Mrs Jamieson said: “The police have been absolutely brilliant, but it’s beginning to look as though no one else cares. It shouldn’t matter whether a kid who goes missing is from a rich family or a poor family.”
A deprived background, a dysfunctional family and a down-on-its-luck Yorkshire mill town: none of this is Shannon Matthews’s fault, yet it seems that she is paying the price.
Update: Graeme - Site Owner/Administrator. Owners of MadeleineMcCann.Co.Uk did the new site http://www.findshannon.co.uk/