“Cancer boy” deserves more respect from the media

A very sad story recently graced my Facebook timeline. But what was more upsetting was that it also graced the front pages of several national newspapers for none of the right reasons.

In July 2006, 4-year-old Fabian Bate was diagnosed with precursor B-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. I came to know of his story because his eldest sister, Oli, was in my year at secondary school. It wasn’t until 2011 that the world was first introduced to his plight.

Fabian and his family were swept up in a media whirlwind following a visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The couple were opening a new children’s cancer wing at London’s Royal Marsden Hospital, and took some time to visit some of the patients who would benefit from the development.

The press expressed their usual compulsory interest in the royal visit. A couple of days later, the story exploded into something sensational.

Following their visit to the Royal Marsden Hospital, the Duchess of Cambridge wrote a heartfelt letter to Fabian, noting her admiration of his “strength of character” and her hopes for his recovery. This was thought to be the Duchess’s first personal act of charity since becoming a member of the royal family. Cue media mayhem.

Kate's Letter
Kate’s hand-crafted letter (image courtesy of The Daily Mail)
Daily Mail
The news the following day (image courtesy of The Daily Mail)

Fabian and his family were asked to do countless interviews for national newspapers, magazines, and even television. The news even found its way across the pond, with American citizens eagerly lapping up any story containing the Duchess and her exploits.

NBC
The Today Show for NBC (image courtesy of NBC)

However, whilst on the surface all of this attention seemed hugely beneficial to raising awareness of the ways of a family life invaded by cancer, something wasn’t quite right. Everything seemed somewhat skewed – the main focus was seemingly Fabian, but the underlying one was most definitely the public’s obsession with Kate Middleton.

Prior to this, Fabian’s family had been dealing with the difficult circumstances in the way any family would: privately and peacefully. They had maintained a blog – Faith4Fabian – detailing Fabian’s journey for relatives, and many other families in similar situations sought succour from these accounts.

Two weeks ago, Fabian sadly passed away at the age of twelve. He was surrounded by his family and had enjoyed a final week full of fun, but the news was distressing all the same for his loved ones.

When the press got hold of this news, the media frenzy was reignited. Unfortunately the focus of the subsequent global stories was taken off Fabian and his family and shifted once again onto the Duchess and her anguish, citing how she “prayed for and inspired him”. Even more unfortunate was the headline The Daily Mirror decided to run with:

Mirror front page
Disrespectful and disgraceful (image courtesy of The Daily Mirror)

Many other journalists took a similar stance, zooming in on Catherine rather than the real hero of the story.

The media’s handling of sensitive issues needs to change NOW. The way Fabian has been treated in the press is not only disrespectful, but disgraceful. The press singled Fabian out because of his association with Catherine, placing additional strain on the family, to then reduce him to the anonymous “cancer boy”.

Quite frankly I think they would have been better off running no story at all.

The only positive to have come out of this circus is the publicity the story has given to the trust set up in Fabian’s name. The Fabian Bate Memorial Fund intends to provide financial and practical support to families enduring similar hardship, as well as fund research into alternative medicines.

Although Fabian’s story is devastating, even more upsetting is the fact that this type of event is not rare. Many families across the world are going through exactly the same struggle as the Bates, yet they haven’t had to deal with the added pressure of a media swarm. Of course, the sympathy, support, and condolences that have flooded in due to Fabian(/Kate)’s media attention can only have been looked on positively, but I still think the family should be left to grieve in peace rather than face this media bombardment.

I know Oli and her family take some comfort from knowing that Fabian is in a better place now, and my thoughts, along with those of countless others, are with them at this difficult time.

Bate family
A loving family (image courtesy of The Daily Mail)

Do you think the media were justified in their reaction to such a delicate subject? Let me know your thoughts by tweeting me (@lily_ash) or commenting on this post.

UPDATE: The Mirror have since altered the headline for Fabian’s story. Though still focused more on Kate Middleton than Fabian himself, the terminology is far more empathetic, and it is vastly superior to what was originally published.

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