Whatever did happen to Madeleine McCann? Who took her? Why did they do it? Is she still alive? The answers to all of these questions remain as mysterious as ever, yet they are still very much at the forefront of the western psyche. I don’t think there’s a British person alive today who doesn’t want to know what happened to the wide-eyed toddler with the halo of blonde hair.
But does anyone lend a thought any more to the 276 Nigerian girls who vanished into the abyss a mere six months ago, 219 of whom are still missing? And what about their parents, seven of whom have been killed by explosions organised by the very group their daughters are being held under? They died before learning of the schoolgirls’ fate and increasingly, it seems, so will we.
In the weeks following the girls’ kidnapping by terrorist organisation Boko Haram, Twitter was awash with celebrities and politicians wielding signs demonstrating their support in the search for the missing girls. Media coverage was rife, and Facebook groups campaigning for the girls unending. But when the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag died, it seems that our concern was buried alongside it.
There has been frenzied outrage about female circumcision in Africa, incessant speculation about the missing plane in the Indian Ocean, and in the wake of the widely documented Ebola crisis, Britain has taken the informed decision to send over 700 troops and medics to Africa to help fight the spread of the disease.
Yet still nobody has been sent to find the missing schoolgirls. Britain sent out a plane to help look for the girls, but it broke down en route. This unfortunate event has proven an ironic yet effective metaphor for the west’s approach to the cause itself. It seems, in fact, that nobody much cares whether or not ‘our girls’ are brought back. The reason for this could be a simple one; that they are, in fact, not ‘ours’ to bring back.
‘Missing white girl syndrome’ is a well-known affliction of western media. White, middle to upper class females who have disappeared from their homes are given a disproportionate amount of media coverage when compared to that of their missing black counterparts. Even less coverage is given to citizens of countries that are distant from the west, geographically and of course culturally.
A human life is worth more, it seems, if you are white and western, than if you are the comparatively less fortunate combination of black, female, and poor, like the schoolgirls currently in the hands of dangerous Islamic extremists. To even be considered page space, you must have been at the centre of something dramatic. Malala, the Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban because she fought for female education, has become a heroine in western media –partly because of her feminist efforts but more so because she survived. The situation of the girls held in the African jungle has so far remained static and thus their story has drifted into the obscure. In this particular case it seems that no news is, well, exactly that.
This is just another example of the enduring misaligned morals of the media. Why is there such a longstanding preoccupation with missing white females? Why does one person’s skin colour and background deem them more important than another’s? It seems western culture has taught us to be interested only in those we can associate with aesthetically. This makes them more familiar to us and therefore more worthy of our attention. Their cases impact us more directly than a couple of hundred kidnapped girls in Africa.
As a result, headline space is given to stories less serious, less urgent, less horrific yet apparently more important because of their geographical and cultural proximity: in other words, we only want to know about the things that more directly affect us, the western elite, and how we can protect that. Did anyone really know what Ebola was until a westerner contracted it? Exactly.
However, we must also take into account the ever prevalent game of cat and mouse between the media and its audience. Does the fact that the girls have disappeared from our newspapers, screens and radios reflect the media’s belief that their western audiences are not interested, or is it us who think that the media don’t care?
Either way, the media has a staggering ability to rouse, or eliminate, public interest, and not enough is being done to maintain the awareness of these girls and the horror of their situation. Where broadcast platforms have an overriding power in capturing public interest, instead we read stories about benefit fraudsters, celebrity weight fluctuation and TV bake-offs, none of which matter to anyone, yet we are spoon fed this nonsense because it is, depressingly, what appeals the most to western audiences.
The media has now ceased to broadcast any coverage whatsoever relating to the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls and their captors, and as a result the situation is deemed unimportant. This is wrong. It is time we utilised our power as an audience, and stopped allowing the media such a strong influence over what is and is not important on an earth we all walk, in a world where every human life should matter, whether it sells newspapers or not.