Reflections on the Shannon/Karen Matthews case

April 9, 2008 at 11:56 am | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 2 Comments
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After septicisle posted a ‘mea culpa‘ admitting that his eloquent and passionate posts on the Shannon Matthews case might now look rather silly in the light of her mother’s arrest on suspicion of perverting the course of justice, I thought I should post an explanation of why I don’t think he needed to, and why I won’t be doing the same.

For those of us who cringed through the (right-wing) media’s coverage of Shannon’s disappearance, we saw much of it as symptomatic of a wider cultural disdain for the poor and a compulsion towards viewing their problems through the myopic looking-glass of moral degeneracy. If only these people would become upstanding citizens, learn to speak properly, stop sleeping around and taking drugs, maybe we wouldn’t have these problems, so the whole tiresome argument goes. They’ll trot out the same shabby straw men – the welfare state, comprehensive schools, a ‘soft’ criminal justice system, liberals, Trots and hippies – as co-conspirators in this ‘societal collapse’ and will then invariably conclude that a return to Victorian values and bare-knuckled Thatcherism is the only way to save ourselves from certain doom.

It’s the same cliched argument-by-numbers that commentators have been using for over a decade now – the Shannon Matthews case was just a perfect opportunity for likes of Melanie Phillips & Allison Pearson to reheat it.

Trouble is, in order to impose this argument on the Matthews case, they had to twist their representations so much that they became a character assassination on a poor, undereducated woman who everyone assumed was worried sick about her missing daughter (that she may have known where she was all along is irrelevant – everyone writing at the time assumed she was a missing person).

Because Karen had five kids by four fathers, she must be a loose-legged slut who sacrificed her kids’ livelihoods for the sake of a drunken shag. Any other explanations for her fractured family – maybe the fathers were too pathetic to stick around, maybe they were unsuitable parents, maybe she was the victim of domestic abuse – were completely ignored. For the conservative argument to work, she must be was responsible, she must be villified.

And not only was Karen Matthews villified, but so was her family and, by extension, working-class families in Dewsbury Moor and beyond. All as a front for the furthering of a political agenda. This was what appalled me most about the initial coverage of Shannon’s disappearance, and though some of the facts in my earlier posts may now be out-of-date, I certainly won’t be retracting the arguments contained therein.

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  1. More than true. I ought to clarify slightly; I’m not apologising for levelling claims of snobbery at the media, as they still more than stand up. I was however wrong it seems to claim that Shannon wasn’t the victim of a chaotic domestic situation, as Allison Pearson wrote:

    But like too many of today’s kids, Shannon Matthews was already a victim of a chaotic domestic situation, inflicted by parents on their innocent children, long before she vanished into the chill February night.

    As I wrote, there’s obviously an awful lot still to come out, and it has to be said, Matthews is a terrific actor if it does turn out this has been a scam all along: she convinced me far more of her anguish than the McCanns ever did.

  2. Fair play, and your post today deserves a wholehearted ‘amen’.

    As an aside though, when we both end up writing similar posts on the same evening about the same topic (the gruesome Ms Pearson), you know we’re sharing far too much common ground!


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