Dave, Maddie and the politics of grief

Cameron has been slated for his foray into the Madeleine McCann case, but he's not the only politician who sees opportunity in bereavement.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

It’s hard to know who comes out worst in David Cameron’s great clumsy intervention into the Madeleine McCann affair, where he has instructed the Metropolitan Police to review the investigation into the British toddler’s disappearance. Is it the Cameron government itself, which has been positively Pavlovian in its kneejerk political opportunism, and which in the process has turned policing from a practical initiative into a highly ritualised performance of supposed political grit? Or is it his critics, who mock this Maddie thing as a Rupert Murdoch-inspired Tory stunt, yet who themselves have loudly championed the politicisation, even the weaponisation, of other instances of individual grief?

On balance, it is probably Cameron’s critics, since their approach – critical of kowtowing to grief in this case, supportive of it in others – not only offers implicit backing to the broader problematic trend of empowering the bereaved. It also suggests that some people’s grief should be more valued than others’, that there should be a grief hierarchy, where politicians are encouraged to act on the demands of worthy grievers (Doreen Lawrence, antiwar military mums) but to brush aside the wishes of unworthy grievers (Kate McCann, Denise Fergus). This offers us the worst of both worlds: the undemocratic, emotionalist politics of grief, but indulged selectively, depending on whether the mum-in-mourning measures up to a liberal elite standard.

Cameron’s Maddie venture undoubtedly confirms how powerful is the PR impulse in his government. On the very day that Kate and Gerry McCann wrote an open letter to his government on the front page of the Sun (12 May), in which they implored him to devote more resources to finding out what happened to Madeleine in Portugal in 2007, Cameron got his home secretary, Theresa May, to write to Scotland Yard asking its officers to ‘do more’. It rather confirmed the sensitivity to media pressure of a government as flimsy as Cameron’s. Unanchored by political vision, detached from any meaningful constituency, this is a government easily swayed by the vagaries of PR and image promotion. Cameron seems to have instantly seen in the McCanns’ letter, not a moment of potential awkwardness that might require behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the family, but a shining opportunity to advertise his alleged skills of political leadership and commitment to British citizens.

As in all cases of PR politics, where the imperative is to send a speedy message about oneself rather than enact a thought-through policy, no one in the Cameron camp seems to have given a second thought to the small matter of consequences, of blowback. If they had – if they had behaved like actual political rulers, who must maintain good relations with the police and also avoid being seen as flighty – they would surely have deduced that their actions would rattle numerous cages. Predictably, the Metropolitan Police are annoyed, issuing both public and underhand statements critical of Cameron. And equally predictably, the parents of other disappeared toddlers are also annoyed, with one, whose 21-month-old son went missing on the Greek island of Kos in 1991, saying: ‘I look forward to the government offering the same support to all families with loved ones missing abroad.’

It confirms the detachment of PR politics from the world of the real that no one in government saw fit to put a brake on the prime minister or the home secretary’s actions. And it speaks to the immaturity and inexperience of our current rulers, to their lack of historical nous, that they are willing to use the police for narrowly PR purposes. Once a jealously guarded ‘body of armed men’, the final guarantors of political stability, now the police appear as little more than a body of press men to a government desperate to indulge in some political posturing in lieu of having any political convictions. The government has effectively asked Scotland Yard, not to carry out real policing (after all, what more can be uncovered about the McCann case, and from here in Britain?), but rather to act for the sake of being seen to act, to shuffle papers, perhaps, and make statements, all as publicly as possible. This is policing as ritual, where the aim is not to find something out but to make a PR parade of political seriousness. (And for all the police’s complaints about this political pressure, their own recent forays into PR and even celebrity policing rather undermine their current rage at Cameron.)

The mistake made by Cameron’s critics is to talk up the influence of external forces in this debacle. He has given in to the Murdoch media, we are told, or he has had his arm twisted by those alleged masters of political manipulation, the McCanns. A Guardian writer says Cameron has surrendered to ‘a newspaper belonging to News International, whose vast array of illegal hacking activities is already tying up some of our most diligent detectives’. (This is a bit rich, seeing as it is the Guardian‘s own new role as the supergrass of the modern media, constantly ratting on tabloid phone-hackers, which has led to all this time-consuming ‘diligent detective work’.)

Yet the truth is that it is the weakness of the Cameron government, the political emptiness of it, which draws it to PR stunts such as this Maddie intervention. In flagging up the allegedly awesome power of Murdoch and/or the McCanns, the critics miss the extent to which politicians of all persuasion in our ideologically anaemic times cherish an opportunity to partake in speedy, short-termist moral crusades. The key factor in this debacle is the wide openness of the government to PR manipulation, rather than the strength of the manipulators.

Indeed, one important fact that is overlooked by the liberal-leaning journalists who have slated Cameron for his Maddie mission is that the politics of emotionalism, the intervention into and the exploitation of family grief, is indulged by politicians on all sides today – often with the backing of those currently attacking Cameron. It makes no sense to describe this as a Tory stunt when everyone from Tony Blair to Ken Livingstone to the Guardian itself has in recent years elevated the bereaved as paragons of wisdom who have the authority to inform and shape the political realm. It’s just that – rather shamelessly and more than a little bit stomach-turningly – these liberal promoters of the political power of grief believe that only some suffering people are worth heeding while the rest can be written off as nutjobs.

So an editorial in the Observer says ‘Mr Cameron needs to be careful about presenting himself as some benevolent tsar, bestowing favours on petitioning subjects’. Others have counselled against further empowering the already media-savvy McCanns. Yet in recent years, a figure such as Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, has been empowered to an extraordinary degree by left-leaning politicians and commentators. By virtue of the fact that she suffered a terrible loss, she has been turned into a spokeswoman for everything from authoritarian clampdowns on the so-called knife culture to the supposed superiority of Ken Livingstone over Boris Johnson for London mayor. Indeed, Livingstone’s exhaustive exploitation of Mrs Lawrence for political gain makes Cameron’s Maddie moment seem almost civilised by comparison.

Likewise, some of the media currently attacking Cameron have been more than happy to weaponise grief. So during the Iraq War the Guardian described military mums who had turned antiwar after losing their sons as ‘the grieving parents who might yet bring Bush down’. ‘No one questions the wildness in the eyes of a mother or father who has just lost a son’, it said, explicitly revelling in the democracy-squishing, debate-neutering power of the politics of grief. In essence, it seems that some grief is good and thus worth exploiting, while other forms of grief are considered cheap and nasty. So where Denise Fergus, mother of murdered Liverpudlian toddler James Bulger, is referred to by respectable journalists as the embodiment of ‘hatred and vengeance’, with a grief that is ‘anachronistic, even threatening’, someone like Mrs Lawrence is treated as beyond reproach. Kate McCann was once seen as being of the Lawrence mould, but as a consequence of her outstaying her welcome in the media, and getting too cosy with the tabloids over the broadsheets, she is now seen as more like Fergus: another mad, moaning Scouse mum.

This grotesque hierarchy of grief, this elitist handpicking between good mourners and bad mourners, sums up the entire problem with the modern politics of grief. What we have here, in every tragic case from Fergus to Lawrence to McCann, is political and media actors hiding behind mourning mums for the purpose of pushing narrow political agendas – whether it’s anti-crime initiatives, the dogma of multiculturalism or just PR self-promotion. What attracts the political elite to the publicly bereaved is that in the absence of any moral certainty or confidence of their own, they can push the implacable grief of an individual as a justification for their actions. It also has the effect of dampening down political criticism and agitation – in the words of the Guardian, ‘no one questions’ those chosen as reputable political mourners. In one fell (and foul) swoop, politicians can morally justify their agendas and simultaneously silence their opponents.

The end result is that the McCanns and others never achieve closure, while political discourse gets closed down.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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