The broken priorities of the British Press

On the 28th of September, two huge stories broke in the British press. First came news of the senseless and tragic murder of Elianne Andam, a fifteen year old schoolgirl from Croydon. Then it was reported that someone had felled the Sycamore Gap Tree, an icon of the Northumberland landscape, planted nearly three centuries ago. In some ways, these two events were complete opposites: a young life cut short and a piece of heritage destroyed; one in the rural North and the other in the heart of south London. Still, the shocks caused by these two stories were deeply felt and widely recorded. But not equally.  

Take the BBC for example. At the time of writing, our national broadcaster has published four reports online concerning the death of Elianne Andam since the 28th of September. In the same time frame, its reporters have written nine times about the Sycamore Gap affair. The story is the same at the Guardian. Four articles on Elianne, fifteen on the Sycamore Gap. It shouldn’t have to be said that this feels wrong. When it is easier to find accounts that mourn a tree than an innocent girl, I can’t help but feel that our media has got its priorities incorrect. Even those publications who have given the two events equal attention are surely misfocused. The Telegraph has dedicated ten articles to Elianne and to the Sycamore Gap each – but in what world is the destruction of a plant as important as that of a life? 

There is an argument to be made, however, that the felling of a historical icon is somehow more “newsworthy” than Elianne’s tragic murder. The Sycamore Gap tree earned its fame for its uniqueness. It stood alone near Hadrian’s Wall for three hundred years, and this ancient isolation made it a noted site of beauty and wonder. Conversely, the unfortunate truth is that the murder of a teenager in London is not a novel story. Sixteen young lives have been taken this year alone, already surpassing 2022’s figure of fourteen. It is only in this sense that an act of vandalism could be considered more “newsworthy”. The Sycamore Gap tree will only ever be felled once; a teenager is murdered in London, on average, once every seventeen days.  

When it is easier to find accounts that mourn a tree than an innocent girl, I can’t help but feel our media has got its priorities incorrect.

But this is a dishonest comparison to make. To group all the lives lost to stabbings into one block is to deny each of the victims their personhood. No longer a name, but simply a number. And that is not even taking into account the gutting impact that each murder has on the communities who are left to deal with the aftermath. Elianne Andam will only ever be lost to the world once, same as the Sycamore Gap tree. Her passing is certainly more monumental.  

The uplifting news is that the public knows this. Compare the fundraisers started for Elianne’s family and for the Northumberland National Trust. Some of the many people who have felt the grief of Elianne’s passing have altogether donated £45,000 towards ameliorating our cities’ endemic problems. No one fundraiser for Sycamore Gap has come anywhere close to that number, with the most prominent of them hovering around the £5,000 mark. Grief can obviously not be quantified, but these figures clearly show a greater public outpouring towards the plight of Elianne and her family. The question then, is why this balance of concern is not reflected in our press.  

The answer, I think, is that the bastions of British journalism are still rooted in an archaic culture of the middle to upper classes. Few other people could empathise more with the English countryside than a young black girl. I can’t imagine that the fact that Elianne was a girl attending an independent school hurt the chances of her story appearing in the press; her murder was certainly reported more widely than the fourteen murders of teenage boys from less privileged backgrounds. In no way should that diminish the importance of Elianne’s story: her’s is as worthy of being reported as any other young life lost. Her story helps to keep the awful issue of stabbings in London at the forefront of the public conscience. But the relative silence surrounding the multiple murders of disadvantaged young men of colour speaks volumes.  

The answer, I think, is that the bastions of British journalism are still rooted in an archaic culture of the middle to upper classes.

Thankfully, British journalism is not entirely monolithic. The Independent, for example, has dedicated substantially more coverage to Elianne Andam than to the Sycamore Gap. What’s more, they have produced a graphic mapping all the murders of teenagers committed in London this year. It is work like this that stops such a harrowing issue from being simply reduced to a set of numbers. The Independent’s map and other pieces plainly lay out how endemic and how pressing the problem in our cities is. History provides ample evidence that popular media shapes our collective consciousness. We can only hope that the British press will learn to reflect the public’s prevailing concerns, and do its duty to ensure that no more tragically lost lives will be quietly swept under the rug. 

Image Credit: Sycamore Gap Tree (Acer pseudoplatanus), next to Hadrian’s Wall UK by Gordon Leggett, licensed under CC BY 4.0, Cropped from original. 

Image Description: The Sycamore Gap tree, next to Hadrian’s Wall.