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Should tragic events be dramatised on television?

Credit: BBC iPlayer

By Christopher Smith

In an age where a reality TV star is president of the United States, and memes are made of terrorist attacks, it feels ever-more difficult to distinguish between where the lines of virtual reality end, and truth and reality begin. With the case of Shannon Matthews and her abduction at the hands of her parents, then, is it wrong that her case has been dramatised? Have we transgressed beyond entertainment into seeking gratification from the horrendous?

Glamorisation of horrible events for the screen is nothing new, but as social media continues to dominate our personal lives, what comes is an ever-expanding pressure to document the personal. It seems unavoidable that the tragic will become blended in with the everyday. We are able to witness things from around the world, like ISIS beheadings, and sometimes influence them from our keyboard, like raising money for cancer charities.

When ‘The Moorside’ aired on the BBC, the reviews were conflicted, unsure whether to criticise the network for being ratings hungry, or feel sympathy for the Matthews family. I am unsure where to stand on this, as cases can be made for both. TV is naturally ratings driven, but with the BBC being dependent on license fees rather than money for adverts for films dramatising everything like ITV, I believe they have taken the risk of giving a voice to a case that divided the nation, whilst at the same time doing their best to stand back and capture some of these emotions that huge numbers of people felt at the time.

Shannon herself is currently in witness protection, developing into adulthood, despite this shaken childhood. The effects this will have on her life are unlikely to be positive, but this is not her fault. More than that, this attention is unavoidable, as she was brought into the public as an innocent, vulnerable victim who was abused for the sake of a profit in the wake of other high profile cases like Madeline McCann. With this in mind, should we expect that anything different would have happened from this? The BBC are simply taking a picture of what happened, as detached as possible, with the purpose of asking the audience to decide what they feel towards something like this, with the benefit of hindsight.

I would argue, therefore, that it is more important for the media to capture everything, big or small, joyous or tragic, because the second that an agenda is pushed into news, and particularly docu-dramas such as this is the second it loses its validity. Was the BBC glamorising personal tragedy? Very possibly, but at the same time they were following a trend or hyper-exposure to whatever we like at the click of a button. When we watch any biographical film or drama about a major figure, nothing is different, except the inbuilt moral duty we feel that we have to give the family privacy and space and allow this case to lie for good. Of course the verdict has been given, but particularly for those growing up and learning about this case for the first time, it is vital that, now time has passed, the public are able to look at this with the chance to see what they think.

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