In my perfect world, children wouldn’t disappear mysteriously and journalists would report only what they know to be true. We live, alas, in a world that is far from perfect.
Why can’t we admit that there are some questions to which we don’t yet know the answers? Why can’t we let the police (yes, even the Portuguese police) get on with the job? By all means, let’s scrutinise them, and report what they say and do … but do we have to do so much guessing?
If a criminal inquiry is under way, do we really expect the police and prosecutors to give us hourly updates? Are the demands of rolling news channels and the constantly updated news websites now so overwhelmingly important that a refusal to satisfy their endless need for fresh material is tantamount to evidence of incompetence or worse?
Of course, we want to know what happened to a missing child. Mystery and crime have sold newspapers since the year dot. I’m not naïve. And I know that police make mistakes. I know there are miscarriages of justice. (Guildford Four, anyone? Birmingham Six?) I know that media hysteria can sometimes play a significant part in judicial cock-ups. And I also know that the media can often play a valuable role in righting wrongs.
But that’s not what’s happening now. No one has even been charged, let alone brought to trial. We have no idea what evidence the police have collected, and we won’t know unless and until it is presented in court. Then, and only then, will we begin to be able to make up our own minds.
I’ve been in this business long enough to know something about competitive pressures. I know and understand why TV news channels and newspaper websites want to be first with the latest twist in a long-running story. But this has plumbed new depths of absurdity. We might just as well read detective stories as some of what’s been written over the past few days.
The former editor of the Daily Telegraph and London Evening Standard, Max Hastings, who is not exactly a shrinking violet, wrote this week that he hangs his head in shame at how our trade has been behaving. So do I. And I’m angry, too, because I would much rather have written this week about the Iraq war testimony in Washington, or the reports of an Israeli air attack on Syria last week, or the deepening crisis in Pakistan. Instead, despite our best efforts to keep our own reporting from Portugal to the absolute minimum, I find the agenda has been hijacked.
Oh, didn’t I actually mention what this is all about? Sorry about that … but you knew anyway, didn’t you? (Apologies to readers overseas. A quick look at the website of any UK news organisation will reveal all …)
By the way, I’ve helped put together an online photographic essay with the picture agency Magnum, to mark their 60th anniversary. It looks back at six decades of conflict photography around the world. I do hope you’ll take a look and listen to the commentary … it’s at http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essays/conflict.