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'This is awful. I can't stop watching'

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Column Following the first Gulf War of 1991, the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard made the famous statement that "the Gulf War did not take place". It was seized on by academics, journalists, and pub intellectuals in the English-speaking world as a prime example of the absurdity and irresponsibility of French philosophy. When he died earlier this year, it was this bizarre comment of his that the obituary-writers fixated on. What did Baudrillard mean by it?

The point Baudrillard was trying to convey was that the broadcasted images of the war had become a separate, autonomous entity, bearing no relation to what might or might not have been happening in a desert thousands of miles away. Media content had taken on a life of its own. What we were shown via CNN was like a stage play.

In the same spirit, we might now say that "Madeleine McCann's disappearance did not take place". The media has been the principal actor in the drama right from the outset.

The press conferences, the videos broadcast at sporting events, Gerry McCann's weblog, and - above all - the drama and speculation whipped up by the tabloid press, all amount to a festival of inter-linking content. Add to this the fact that there is a murder mystery at the centre of it (or is there?) and the whole question of what has really taken place becomes fundamentally unanswerable.

There are a number of things to notice about this. Firstly, the frenzied interest in the Madeleine story is fuelled by the lack of hard reality, rather than quelled by it. Once again, "the medium has become the message", but this in itself is not necessarily a new thing. One might say the same thing about the Gospels - where the leading character has grown in reputation, thanks to the shortage of hard empirical evidence about him. But the unfolding of the McCann story also tells us something much more contemporary about our media consumption, which flies in the face of contemporary wisdom about the digital, on-demand age.

We, the media?

We are familiar with the notion that consumers are now active participants in the media. The "people formerly known as the audience" produce their own content, decide when and how to watch television, and entertain themselves by spying on acquaintances via social networking sites.

We are also familiar with the idea of reality television. Big Brother allows us to watch real people doing real things, while prime time television in the UK is now dedicated mainly to factual programming - at least inasmuch as it is a "fact" that the relevant couple were captured on camera painting their own kitchen.

What is so irresistible about the McCann drama is that it gives us neither of these things. We are not viewing something that has been produced or manipulated for our entertainment or convenience. The story is (still) happening in real time.

Consider the pace at which the story unfolds. Nobody is in control of it, which means it occasionally gets quite dull. We can't fast forward or time-switch. We're not invited to phone in and vote for which suspect we would like to see arrested. Key scenes and pieces of information are kept from us in a way that would defeat the point of a show like Big Brother. But we find this all the more compelling.

The one nod to conventional broadcasting principles is that the ratings have mattered right from the beginning. When there was a risk that they might slump, David Beckham was drafted in to speak on the matter, thus giving the story a new boost.

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