Row over BBC’s real-life kidnapping drama

A true story: Sheridan Smith says the themes of ‘trust in human nature’ inspired her. © BBC One

Last night, the BBC aired an emotional drama about the search for Shannon Matthews — a missing girl who was kidnapped by her own mother in 2008. But is the story appropriate entertainment?

In February 2008, Detective Constable Christine Freeman was assigned to the case of a missing nine-year-old girl in West Yorkshire. Shannon Matthews had disappeared from outside her school. It was out of character for her to run away. And Freeman feared the worst: even if she had not been taken by someone with sinister intentions, she may not have survived the freezing winter weather.

But her mother, Karen, seemed unconcerned. Freeman recalls a moment early on when her mobile phone rang. Karen got up and began dancing to the ringtone, Brown Eyed Girl. ‘I remember thinking this is really odd.’

The scene is retold in the first instalment of a new BBC docudrama called The Moorside, which aired last night. But the show’s main focus is not Karen, Shannon, or even Freeman — it is a neighbour, Julie Bushby (played by Sheridan Smith), who organised the community’s search for the missing girl.

In the end, Shannon was missing for 24 days. The police questioned 1,500 motorists, searched 3,000 homes, and spent £3.2m looking for her. Bushby printed t-shirts. The Sun offered a £20,000 reward for information — and then £50,000.

But Freeman’s gut instincts proved correct. Shannon was eventually found at the home of one of her mother’s friends. Soon afterwards, he and Karen were arrested and accused of faking the kidnapping. In January 2009, both were sentenced to eight years in prison. They had ‘lied and lied and lied again,’ said the prosecutor.

The bizarre tale was one of the major news stories of 2008. British tabloids went from emotional appeals on Karen’s behalf, to attacking her as ‘evil’ and a ‘devil in disguise’.

Shannon is now 18. She lives with a new family under a different name.

But her grandparents have called the dramatisation of her disappearance ‘sick and disgusting’. Shannon’s experience was ‘a trauma, a tragedy’ they said this week — and ‘she deserves to be left alone.’

Fact and fiction

They are right, say concerned viewers. It is too soon to be making entertainment out of this story; it is not even ten years since the disappearance. The impact it could have on Shannon as she begins her adult life is completely unfair. No matter how good the show is, it will never be worth the risk of dragging up so many traumatic memories for a young person who went through hell.

But the show’s creators argue that they offer a far more nuanced portrayal of events than Britain’s tabloids — who assumed Karen’s only motive was the reward money. In The Moorside, she is seen as a troubled woman far out of her depth. This is the true job of a real-life drama, say some: to be entertaining, yes, but also to challenge our assumptions about a story we thought we knew.

You Decide

  1. Should the BBC have made a drama about Shannon Matthews so soon after the traumatic events of her life?
  2. Who do you trust to tell the story more fairly: newspapers or a docudrama?


  1. In pairs, compare what you know about The Moorside to another drama based on a true story. Is one a more ‘acceptable’ topic than the other? Why?
  2. Write the opening scene of a docudrama about a news story that interested you in 2016.

Some People Say...

“Some topics should never be made into entertainment.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I didn’t watch the programme. Why should I care about it?
For one thing, it involves the story of someone your age, or not much older than you. How would you feel if the worst thing that ever happened to you was made into a drama and watched by millions of people? On a more profound note, it also probes questions about the purpose of entertainment. Is it pure enjoyment? Or should it be challenging?
How does Shannon feel about it?
It is impossible to know. She is not known to have had contact with her mother since the arrest, and a court order prevents anyone from making contact with her. However, the show’s screenwriter said he kept her social workers informed about the project.
How can I watch it?
The first episode is on BBC iPlayer, and the second part will be shown next Tuesday at 9pm.

Word Watch

The Moorside
This is the name of the estate in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, where Shannon and her family lived in 2008.
1,500 motorists
All figures as reported by The Telegraph on February 4th 2017. The operation was the biggest police search in the county since the Yorkshire ripper, a serial killer who was eventually caught in 1981.
Karen Matthews and Michael Donovan (who was the uncle of Karen’s partner at the time) were charged with kidnap, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice. They were released four years later.
The Moorside was written by Neil McKay and produced by Jeff Pope. The pair also made Appropriate Adult, a story about the serial killer Fred West. In See No Evil they tackled Myra Hindley and Ian Brady — the couple responsible for the ‘Moors murders’ in the 1960s.
Those close to Karen say that she could not have planned such an elaborate scheme for money. Instead, they say she had been planning to leave her partner, and had arranged for Donovan to pick Shannon up from school. When she was reported missing, things got out of hand.

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