Letter from London: Current Nightmares

Carol Nahra reports on how life and telly overlap in the UK.
December 8, 2008

It’s been a fortnight of grim tales from the domestic front in the UK. A couple weeks ago, a long simmering story of horrific child abuse, leading to the murder of a toddler known as Baby P, broke into a huge media frenzy and much collective soul-searching. And last week a court found 33-year-old Karen Matthews guilty of an almost unimaginable crime: drugging and kidnapping her own daughter, Shannon, in the hopes of reaping a public reward.

In both cases the long-running current affairs program ‘Panorama’ broadcast investigations as soon as the court cases concluded and restrictions on reporting lifted. And in both cases the program briefly became part of the story, as the rest of the media followed up its findings. Revelations in the Baby P ‘Panorama’ program placed the relevant social services on the defensive, leading to further investigations, and much debate about how, after more than 60 contacts with professionals, the child was still allowed to remain in a violent family.

The sad tale of Shannon Matthews seems itself to be a product of the media, with much speculation that Karen Matthews cynically hatched the kidnapping plot in the wake of intensive coverage of Madeleine McCann. It was possibly further refined by an episode of the popular BBC drama Shameless, which aired a month before Shannon went missing, with a very similar plotline.

‘Panorama”s Shannon Matthews doc was scheduled at the last minute, the day of Matthews’ conviction, pushing aside the popular period drama Little Dorrit, triggering a reported 4,000 complaints. But the gamble seems to have paid off nicely with double the ratings expected for that time slot. So while the BBC did apologize for annoying viewers, it defended the ‘Panorama’ doc as in the public interest.

Indeed current affairs documentaries deemed to be in the public interest regularly shape the news agenda here. Despite a reputation for being beleaguered, they are still a core part of life and culture to a degree that doc lovers in many countries envy. Of course, sometimes current affairs programming can be a bit too current – Channel 4 broadcast a special ‘Cutting Edge’ program in March, several days after Shannon was discovered under a bed of a distant relative after a three-week search. It focused on her parents’ story, and their despair as they ‘deal with every parent’s worst nightmare, a missing child, while finding themselves at the center of a media storm’. It was broadcast two weeks before Shannon’s mother was arrested for the kidnapping.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.