Distorted values

by Chris Bertram on May 13, 2005

The BBC radio news this morning has been dominated by hours of whining about “the takeover of Manchester United by a Michael Moore lookalike”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4542913.stm . Meanwhile the disappearance of hundreds (and possibly thousands) of African children from London schools is relegated to mere mention status. (Some of the children have been killed, many more are probably in some kind of slavery.) The relative importance the BBC assigns to these stories is also reflected on its main news page.



Nick Barnes 05.13.05 at 4:13 am

We don’t know that “some of the children have been killed”. We know that one boy has been killed, and according to the Met he was *not* one of these children.
Nor do we know that “many more are probably in some kind of slavery”. We don’t know where they are, or might be.
Yes, the Beeb’s news priorities stink. What’s new?


Yusuf Smith 05.13.05 at 4:17 am

The reason is probably because the problem of children coming into the country with distant relatives, enrolling in school and then disappearing is not new – it’s something the authorities have been aware of probably since before the Torso in the Thames was discovered a few years ago. I’m sure the BBC’s not the only news agency which would put this story below a controversial major corporate take-over. The ITN news site does not even have this story on their front page.


Joe 05.13.05 at 4:25 am

The nature of immigration makes this problem exceedingly difficult to address and solve. It also makes it much harder to report on than some petty sports conflict.

Maybe I’m the only one, but are there any kindred souls out here who just don’t *get* why sports matter so much to many people?


dsquared 05.13.05 at 4:28 am

Speaking of which, Manchester United is extraordinarily trivial. Going by market capitalisation and comparing to the £790m bid price:

Mersey Docks (£766m) and Carpetright (£767m) are roughly as important as Manchester United
MFI Furniture Group (£864m) is somewhat more important than Manchester United
First Choice Holidays (£910m), Greene King pubs (£945m) and Easyjet (£961m) are about 1.2 times as important as Manchester United
National Express (£1237m) is about half as important again as Manchester United
Carphone Warehouse (£1487m) is roughly twice as important as Manchester United, as are Associated British Ports (£1528m) and Barratt Developments (£1594m)
Mitchells & Butlers pubs (£1783m) and Burberry (£1871m) are considerably more than twice as important as Manchester United

getting into the bigger boys …

Scottish & Newcastle (£4077m) and Next (£4127m) are about five times as important as Manchester United

Scottish Power (£8208m) is ten times as important as Manchester United

National Grid (£16,538m) and BT (£17,846m) are twenty times as important as Manchester United

Our old friend Tesco (£24,337m) is thirty times as important as Manchester United (and much, much more if we measure by turnover rather than market capitalisation)

Barclays (£39,143m) is fifty times as important as Manchester United

GlaxoSmithkline (£73,573m) is 93 times as important as Manchester United

Vodafone ($91,014m) is 115 times as important as Manchester United

and, drum roll …

BP, the largest company on the London Stock Exchange, is, at £119,042m, almost exactly 150 times as important as Manchester United.

If there were any sensible news priorities, football would be mentioned maybe once or twice a month, tucked away like the minority interest it is.


Simstim 05.13.05 at 4:37 am

I’m hoping that dsquared isn’t being serious, otherwise equating “news priority” with market cap. would confirm at least one of my prejudices about economists.


dsquared 05.13.05 at 4:46 am

Well, semi-serious. People go on and on and on about football this and football that, but I do think it’s revealing that they put more actual money in the direction of a medium-sized pub chain or a chav fashion label.


reuben 05.13.05 at 4:48 am

Darn that Beeb (and all the rest of the media, too)! Giving massive coverage to a major shakeup in one of the nation’s single most talked about organisations!

I don’t mean to sound callous, and yes, hundreds of lives are far more important than a football club/business, but at the moment, and without more evidence, the disappearance story falls under the general heading of ‘really bad things happen to people all the time (particularly those from really poor places), and this may be yet another example of that’.

This has the potential to be a big story (and may well be a truly tragic one), but at the moment, what is the Beeb or anyone else supposed to do? Bring on lots of people to speculate about how these kids may or may not be back in Africa? How much air time are they really going to be able to fill with that?

Like it or not, the Glazer story is is a biggie, and it’s one that a lot of the nation is talking about – and not just because the media is all over it. Man U is one of the most significant and recognised institutions in modern English culture, and its fans are kicking up an almighty fuss about Glazer’s takeover.

As for the guy in the beeb article who says that if this were white kids, there’d be an almighty fuss, I think that’s exaggerated (though there is a grain of truth in there). If it were Eastern European white kids, would the story trump all other stories? Not likely. If it were British kids of any colour, yes, but that’s at least in part because British kids aren’t supposed to be able to fall through the cracks the way foreigners (particularly those from impoverished nations) currently can. It’s also because no matter how much we may care about the world, we quite reasonably expect more terrible things to happen to people who come from countries where more terrible things happen.

Most importantly right now, though, is the fact that there just aren’t enough facts to turn these possible disappearances into massive airtime. Perhaps the police (or Panorama?) will find out more, and then the story will get more coverage.


des von bladet 05.13.05 at 4:48 am

What’s “the BBC radio news” when it’s at home anyway? If it’s Radio Foopball (“Five”) then this is no more than you’d expect; if it’s Radio Hampstead (“Four”) then it’s rather more surprising; if it’s Radio Worldservice (by far the pick of the bunch and therefore only available by Interweb in silly old Blighty) then somebody had better check the ravens are still in place at the Tower.


Mrs Tilton 05.13.05 at 4:51 am

Though one takes Chris’s point, viewed from another angle this is a positive development.

Let’s see; it’s a major news item that some Yank is going to LBO MUplc’s ass, load it up with the acquisition debt and then no doubt strip it of its assets and leave it a mere shell of its former self (a marketer of nostalgia strip, perhaps). Meanwhile the disappearance of African children in London gets only a brief mention.

This should please those people who are always complaining that the media put all the emphasis on bad news.


Nick Barnes 05.13.05 at 4:53 am

Des: Chris is almost certainly referring to the Today programme on R4. I listened to it, and they did indeed spend an age wittering about some bladderkick team or other.


des von bladet 05.13.05 at 5:08 am

Well if you will go around listening to Radio Hampstead you deserve all you get, says me.

But instead of whininng about “priorities” why not start a rumour that Abramovitch-funded militias are kidnapping African children to train in secret foopball camps? Secret Islamist foopball camps!

It’d be the top news story for months, my detailed market research suggests.


mc 05.13.05 at 5:08 am

I agree with various previous posters that the news priorities angle isn’t worth worrying about – just a depressing fact of life.

But the story itself certainly is worth worrying about. And yes, the authorities are aware of it. For example, google on ‘operation paladin child’ – a joint operation by police, immigration service and social services looking into the surprising number of unaccompanied children coming to the UK from sub-saharan africa. The reassuring part of this exercise was that one of the initial hypotheses, that these children were being trafficked into the sex trade, was not backed up. But clearly this leaves other worrying possibilities open, esp some kind of more or less organised domestic slavery.

It’s disproportionately east european girls who are being trafficked into the sex trade, so the idea that ‘there would be more fuss if the children were white’ isn’t quite right. (Or are east europeans, like gypsies, the new blacks?)

I’m not sure either about the idea that the bbc can be excused for not doing more with the story because they don’t have enough to go on – they have already done plenty of stories on related matters which they could relate this to (climbie, of course; a recent newsnight piece on west african churches and child cruelty etc.) It’s just a harder story to cover – it’s very complicated, not a simple, soap-style, urgent (meaning urgent, not important) narrative like the MUFC one.

Oh dear – I started by trying not to talk about news priorities but seem to have got back into that, so I’ll stop there


reuben 05.13.05 at 5:28 am

I think MC’s got it pretty right, but one of the keys to what he or she is saying is in the line “they have already done plenty of stories on related matters which they could relate to this.” If this is an accretionary story rather than a blockbuster, then it’s not the type of story that’s going to be able to compete with other blockbuster stories, whether about

And the notion that the Man U news isn’t big because its finances are, in business terms, relatively meager, is laughable. Football is big news because millions of people love it, no matter how much less its turnover than BP’s or Whetherspoons or fashion. Frankly, a news sense that values human passion and support over monetary value strikes me as rather human and pleasant.


reuben 05.13.05 at 5:35 am

People go on and on and on about football this and football that, but I do think it’s revealing that they put more actual money in the direction of a medium-sized pub chain or a chav fashion label.

Apples and oranges?

I think it’s revealing that many people in the UK (particularly in London) will spend more on their homes than they do on their children. Yet still they tell us how much they love those kids.


Backword Dave 05.13.05 at 6:25 am

Reuben, that’s not really an enlightening comparison. Have you ever tried raising a child in a B & B? There’s not really a line you can draw around spending on children. Having a car is quite useful too. And some of that house price is market forces based on demand for certain state (ie postcode allocated) schools.


fist 05.13.05 at 7:06 am

Maybe some will return years down the line as centre forwards for Man Yoo et al, and speak out then.


reuben 05.13.05 at 7:22 am

You’re absolutely right, Dave – I should have picked a much better example.

All I was trying to do was point out the absurdity of Daniel’s implication that people say they care a lot about football, but, because they actually spend more money on non-football things such as drinks and eating out and clothes, they must be exaggerating how much they care about the game(or that because certain businesses are bigger than football businesses in financial terms they should inherently rate more column inches).

Wasn’t actually trying to make a serious point about children, housing, etc.


jet 05.13.05 at 8:23 am

I’d point out that whatever the phenomena, it has existed since forever. Roman public works provided far more health and productivity benefits to the working class than gladiator arenas, while costing magnitudes more of their tax money than the gladiator arenas. Yet it wasn’t going to the local irrigation ditch to watch the slaves dig away that got them all fired up and happy to be a Roman.
I think this can be explained with that word “Entertainment”.


David B 05.13.05 at 8:24 am

On the information available it seems to me impossible to judge whether the ‘300 African children missing’ story should be very worrying, mildly worrying, or not worrying at all. As far as I can see, all we know is that 300 African children (out of many thousands in London) were registered at London schools, are no longer registered at London schools, and the school authorities don’t know where they are. So what? Would the authorities know if they had moved back to Africa, to France (many of them are Francophone), or just elsewhere in the UK? The very fact that they were registered at school in the first place may be reason for doubting that they have been imported for voodoo rituals, sex slavery, or whatever.


MFB 05.13.05 at 8:36 am

Well, actually, David, yes, surely they would. African children are generated by the same sexual processes as other children, they are not slime moulds, they have families. Who have homes, and who (if they are leaving the country legally) do so by getting documentation by the British government. So the British authorities, surely, should know where those kids are. Otherwise maybe you do need those identity cards after all.

By the way, I’ve heard it said that London schools are hellholes, but is it really the case that so many kids can disappear from class and none of the teachers notice?

Also by the way, I gather that this was a number who had gone missing over a three-month period. Doesn’t that make it something to worry about?

But thanks for discussing the matter.


nick 05.13.05 at 9:47 am

With respect, Chris, I suspect that if it were Liverpool FC being taken over, you wouldn’t have been so aware of the disproportionate coverage. This isn’t meant to be a personal jibe: it’s just a reflection that people invest a lot of their lives into relatively trivial things.

Oh, and des von b: DAB and Freeview carry the World Service.


des von bladet 05.13.05 at 10:23 am

Nick: Thanks, I should ‘ve known that. I boycott DAB because it is rubbish and completely lacks Foreign channels and Freeview because it is TV, but still.

The foopball is a long way down on WS news, after Uzbekistan, African childrens, John Bolton, Ocitan’s possible retrial and a bunch of other stuff. If you want news for grownups, switch over.


Ray 05.13.05 at 11:07 am

mfb said “…African children …(if they are leaving the country legally) do so by getting documentation by the British government. So the British authorities, surely, should know where those kids are”

The missing children are children who are not turning up at a school they were registered with. That doesn’t mean that none of the British authorities know where they are, only that the school where they were registered doesn’t know where they are. A quote from the BBC story

“But Tim Benson, head teacher at Nelson Primary School in East Ham, London, and a National Association of Head Teachers representative, said most children were probably happily ensconced in another school.”


Ray 05.13.05 at 11:11 am

Sorry, the more relevant bit is just after that
“”We have quite a large number of parents or families who apparently go missing but actually just move on and don’t know that they have to inform anyone,” he said. “


Walt Pohl 05.13.05 at 12:21 pm

Joe: As a sports fan, I can offer you no insight into the phenomenon. When the Eagles lost the Super Bowl, I was depressed for several days, even though I told myself over and over again “This is a stupid thing to be depressed about.”


T.A. 05.13.05 at 12:27 pm

Call Malcolm Glazer what ye may, but a Michael Moore lookalike he is not. I stood near him once in the Tampa airport, and he’s pretty darn frail. Moore could probably eat him in one sitting. I’d say he’s more like a crash-dieting Bill Bryson.


stostosto 05.13.05 at 1:07 pm

I plead the Bill Shankley defense on behalf of the Beeb.


KCinDC 05.13.05 at 2:11 pm

For more shocking evidence of the state of media priorities, see this “On the Media” interview with the president of CNN, in which he explains why the amount of attention given to the “runaway bride” story was absolutely appropriate.


dipnut 05.13.05 at 2:28 pm

“It was all very headline-y and surface-y.”

That’s the CNN-y and president-y way to say trite and superficial, I guess.

Thanks, kcindc.


phil 05.13.05 at 2:46 pm

dsquared: stop procrastinating on your election redux. It’s very inadequate of you.


banana washington 05.13.05 at 3:06 pm

So the coverage priorities are:
Ranking by gross financial volume.
Ranking by level of measurable public interest, so that the degree of coverage reflects demand – even while public interest is driven, or at least heavily influenced, by coverage.
Or, ranking by whatever it is that makes it more important when African kids disappear in London, than when African kids disappear in Africa.


David B 05.13.05 at 3:25 pm

mfb: so far as I know, no official authorisation is needed for anyone to leave the UK. Why would it be? I suppose the airlines might keep some record of unaccompanied children on flights leaving the UK, but I doubt if there would be any central database.


Peter Parker 05.13.05 at 3:37 pm

Say waht you will about the BBC, or British press in general, at least they report the important stories when they get them.

The Washington Post, one of the most respected papers in the country/world has its FIRST article today about the Blair-MI6 meeting notes that show that the US was “fixing intel to policy”.

And where, praytell, was this article? Front page-above the fold? Nope. Front page-below the fold? Nope. A2? Nope.

A-[expletive deleted]-18.

read more here


JS 05.14.05 at 2:21 am

What is amazing about this BBC article is how misleading it is. As mentioned by a few posters above, these children have not disappeared. They just stopped going to school. There is no evidence that anyone investigated why. None is offered in the article. As suggested, they could have moved to other schools. They could also have left the country, or just dropped out.

In the US, according to this source, The average dropout rate for large urban school districts nationwide is 51 percent. That’s probably hundreds of thousands of kids “disappearing from school”.


des von bladet 05.14.05 at 10:46 am

As mentioned by a few posters above, these children have not disappeared. They just stopped going to school. There is no evidence that anyone investigated why. None is offered in the article.

– js

Despite an international search, police were able to find only two of them, Mr O’Reilly said. Most of those questioned said the children had returned to Africa.

– the original article

Which part of “despite an international search, police were able to find only two of them” is unclear, exactly?


Peter Clay 05.14.05 at 11:12 am

What astonishes me is the number of people here who imagine that the British Government should track children as it does cattle.

Births are registered. There is no obligation to register changes of address with the state if you do not have a driving license. Councils track names and addresses for tax purposes, but these are not correlated nationally, nor should they be. It is not compulsory to attend school: some children are homeschooled. It isn’t compulsory to register for child benefit.

What should happen is if a child is not attending school is the local authority should send a social worker to the last known address to investigate. That’s all.

Families have privacy rights too. It’s even in ECHR.


JayAnne 05.14.05 at 12:24 pm


Education welfare officers basically do what you suggest should be done, and don’t tell the police unless they think a crime’s been committed:



js 05.14.05 at 2:30 pm

Which part of “despite an international search, police were able to find only two of them” is unclear, exactly?

All of it, frankly. Do you think they sent Scotland Yard agents with flashlights to the five continents? If not, how do you understand “international search”? At most, they probably did a computer search (Interpol, or other similar database). How many kids in Africa do you think are on an international database? Consider also the following statements that don’t jibe:

Detective Chief Inspector Will O’Reilly said inquiries revealed 300 black boys… had not reported back to school in the three months before his death and were “lost into the system”. (Note also that the dead kid was found in September, so “three months before” means the summer. All they’re saying is, 300 African boys did not return to school after the summer.

a lack of immigration records makes them almost impossible to trace, police say. Hmm.. what good is an international search, then?

Most of those questioned said the children had returned to Africa. Why was this discounted as a possibility?

But Tim Benson, head teacher at Nelson Primary School in East Ham, London,… said most children were probably happily ensconced in another school.

This was a very badly written story, worthy of the Enquirer — or Drudge.


js 05.14.05 at 2:48 pm

This is how another news story put it:

There was nothing to suggest that they had been murdered, but a lack of immigration records meant police managed to trace only two of the missing children.

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