Friday 18 May 2007

Devon Sims, aged six.

Sky News is the TV equivalent of the high street rags referred to as ‘Red Tops’, those daily journals with the lurid headlines that accuse you from the newspaper stands in the same way that equally illiterate morons emphasise every other sentence in emails using block capitals. Like the Red Tops, Sky News is very popular and on my site, democracy (unless I lose patience and put my foot down) generally rules so if it isn’t sport, then it’s Sky News that blares out of the satellite TV system. Any man that has been married more than a few years will have learnt to shut out unwelcome intrusions so I can happily conduct my day to day affairs oblivious of the constant, dire drivel of in your face, jump straight into the living room style journalism that characterises the network.

For the last two weeks, however, I have watched with increasing dismay, the coverage of the Madeleine McCann abduction. Instead of taking tea in my room every morning, I am now jumping out of the shower, dressing hurriedly and slurping my breakfast down while glued to the screen hoping like mad that I will see the breaking news banner announcing the little girl’s safe return to her anguished parents. Instead, it’s a feeding frenzy. The London studio has been emptied of its ‘top’ journalists (I say that in the loosest sense) and we are treated to live, on location reporting at its disgusting, vile worst. I have no doubt that the intense media interest will put pressure on the poor Portuguese police to redouble their efforts but, if I know the Portuguese, their love of family and all its values, they would be doing all they could anyway. Their own population would demand it. Such crimes are almost unheard of in Portugal and I can understand to a certain extent how the Portuguese press, reflecting popular opinion, suggests that this heinous crime could not possibly have been committed by a Portuguese national. And yet, completely forgetting so many equivalents that ended in tragedy and grief in UK, the British press have lambasted the Portuguese authorities for inefficiency and have completely ignored the constraints of the laws under which they operate. Laws, I might add, that do nothing to inhibit the ability of the police to investigate, indeed enhance it, and do much to protect the rights of the individual. If, as a policeman, I reacted to a tip off and kicked a citizen’s door in only to subsequently discover that the information was flawed, it is a damn sight easier to apologise to the individual and pay for a new door than see his whole life destroyed and his wife and children permanently traumatised by seeing their daddy’s photograph in all the papers under headlines proclaiming him all but tried and guilty of some disgusting crime. Shit sticks, even to the innocent and Sky are tossing a lot of it around. And none of it is helping the police to concentrate on the job in hand, which, surely, has to be more important than ratings? As a policeman desperately trying to find a poor little girl, I would love to operate in secrecy. Just see how many bloody doors I would kick in then.

Two weeks of this has left me feeling desperately sorry for the family, terribly concerned for the welfare of the child, pity for the Portuguese authorities and completely nauseated by Sky News.

Just when I thought that they had got to the very bottom of the sleaze barrel, they come up with Devon Sims. This is a Sky News exclusive. It could be exclusive because of the keen investigative journalism of the Sky News rep in China. It could be that Mr Sims approached Sky News for help in publicising his plight. It could also be that no reputable news agency was willing to touch the story in the manner it was finally aired. The end result, however, is that Sky got its story, and Mr Sims was left wandering down the road, clutching his son’s hand, no doubt into a heap of trouble and probably the waiting arms of the Chinese police.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the Sims case, Devon Sims is the six year old son of a British businessman and his now estranged Chinese wife. Sims senior has been working in China for over a decade and during that time he married a Chinese girl and had a son. Sadly, two years after the birth, the marriage fell apart. Even though the Chinese courts granted visitation rights, he has not been able to see his son for four years and has now resorted to kidnapping his boy off the street near to his school. While the Sims case cannot match the McCann case for tragedy, the report, or the manner of its reporting, was just as cynical. In addition, the parallels between Mr Sims situation and mine are uncanny.

I too, live in a foreign country. I also married a local girl and had a son. My marriage also broke down leaving me to tussle for access. Immediately after the break up, with boiling blood and no common sense whatever, I left the country with my son and returned to England. I was now jobless and the sight of my boy wandering forlornly around the garden in a strange country broke my heart. Whatever happened between his parents, he still had the right to see both of us. I got on the plane and flew back.

Mr Sims may have thought that the British Ambassador in Beijing could help him. Sky News were evidently aware of Mr Sims imminent arrival in Beijing on the night express since they were there to film it. Selecting that day to turn up at the embassy could not have been a coincidence with the UK Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett due to give a press conference at the embassy later in the afternoon. Mr Sims, obviously at the end of his tether and under increasing stress as the full realisation of what he has done dawns on him, could be excused for assuming that the Ambassador could do something for him. Sky may argue that they have provided valuable publicity for the Sims’ plight but they really should have known better than to be complicit in an act that will severely undermine Mr Sims’ position. Mr Sims could very likely go to jail. He will lose his job, if he hasn’t already lost it and will lose all rights to Devon. There would be no chance of him ever being allowed to holiday in UK with the boy. One may argue that he wasn’t enjoying any of his rights anyway so what other course of action was open to him? Just because it seems that all options have been exhausted cannot be an excuse for resorting to an act not only illegal, but self-defeating and with no chance of success. A far better story would have been the Sky news reporter dissuading Mr Sims from prosecuting the act and then accompanying Mr Sims to the Embassy so that he could hear for himself how, under the circumstances, it would be extraordinarily difficult for the British to intervene on his behalf. To be seen to support a felon, as Mr Sims is now, would be impossible for the British authorities. Had Sky prevented the crime and then used its influence to gain an audience with the Ambassador for Mr Sims, it could have set the scene for quiet diplomatic negotiation and still provide all the publicity desired. And what of the boy? Devon is at the heart of all this and one must question whether any of this is in his best interests. Hard though it is, in such situations parents must set aside their own feelings and be prepared to sacrifice certain ‘rights’. To be near my son, I have resigned myself to a life here in Angola and I will make the best of it. When the boy is sixteen, he can decide for himself.

The reporting in both cases, the McCanns and the Sims is shocking and shows a cynical disregard for the victims. Instead of concentrating on looking for Madeleine, the Portuguese police now have to divert valuable resources in managing the media to prevent their investigation being scuppered by indiscrete revelations. The degree of collusion in the commission of an ill-conceived and illegal act in China will never be known but again, the reporting was irresponsible. Whose interests are being served? The poor families involved? The right to know of viewers? Or simply ratings?

There is not much that I can do except hope and pray for both families. And stop watching Sky News.

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