Once in a while, a news story grabs the nation’s attention – and sends the tabloid press into overdrive. You’ll probably remember the case of Shannon Matthews, a nine-year-old girl who went missing on her way home from school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in February 2008.
At first, events appeared to be moving in a predictable – if grim – direction. Detectives knocked on doors. Sniffer dogs went through bins. A diving team searched the sewers. And Shannon’s mother appeared on television clutching a teddy bear and begging for the safe return of her daughter.
At home, we all hoped for the best – and feared the worst. Then suddenly, three weeks after the little girl went missing, Shannon was found alive. She had been hidden under a bed at the home of a family member.
Most shocking of all, the girl’s mother, Karen Matthews, had been an accomplice in her own daughter’s kidnapping. She’d been working in league with her boyfriend’s uncle in an apparent effort to share some of the reward money offered for Shannon’s safe return.
The story is told in a new two-part BBC1 drama, The Moorside, named after the council estate where Shannon and her mother lived. The story is largely seen through the eyes of Julie Bushby (played by Sheridan Smith), a woman who lived on the estate.
When she heard Shannon had gone missing, she sprang into action, organising daily search teams, printing and distributing posters, even commissioning T-shirts with the missing girl’s picture and the question: “Have you seen Shannon Matthews?” Today Julie is sitting opposite me.
We’re in an overly formal meeting room at a London hotel. Julie has travelled down from Dewsbury to talk to RT. The atmosphere is spiky; Julie is suspicious of journalists.
When everything blew up nine years ago, newspaper reporters attacked in print not only Matthews – it didn’t help that she’d had seven children with five different fathers – but also the estate she lived on, something that Julie still resents. Back in 2008, Julie was chair of the estate’s tenants’ association.
Sheridan Smith as Julie Bushby
Once Matthews had been unmasked as a liar, Julie reminds me, The Sun described Moorside as “like Beirut, only worse”. Even the politicians waded in: Conservative Party leader David Cameron – 18 months away from becoming Prime Minister – wrote that Shannon Matthews came from “a community whose pillars are crime, unemployment and addiction”, where the “role models are criminals, liars and layabouts”.
No wonder Julie is wary. How, I ask, does it feel to see an award-winning actor play her on screen? “Doesn’t bother me,” she sniffs. But, within a few minutes, she warms up. And she casts a new light on a story we all thought we knew. Matthews received an eight-year prison sentence for kidnap, false imprisonment and perverting the course of justice. While she was behind bars, she received visits from just one person. The very person who – aside from Shannon – deserves to feel the most aggrieved about her terrible deception: Julie Bushby.
Natalie Brown (Sîan Brooke), Julie Bushby (Sheridan Smith) and Karen Matthews (Gemma Whelan)
“I visited her every month for four years,” says Julie. Why? “Because I wanted answers. And, at the end of the day, she was a mate.” Is she angry? Julie shakes her head. “What’s the point? Anger just eats away at you.”
Julie talks me through the day Shannon went missing. “I was doing my ironing. Someone called up and asked if I would open up the community centre. I asked, ‘What for?’ She said, ‘Shannon’s gone missing off the estate.’ I thought she’d be back by tea-time. But I opened it anyway. The word got round the estate pretty quick and people started searching for her.”
Was there any sense of anxiety at that point? No, she says: “You were just on autopilot and you did what you could. I wouldn’t say there was any emotion at the beginning. Not that first night. We thought that maybe she’d stopped over at somebody’s house.”
Even when the search stretched into days and weeks, Julie didn’t lose hope. “She had to be alive. When somebody’s dead, the police always find something. A shoe, a coat. But they couldn’t even find the swimming costume [Shannon had had a swimming lesson on the day she went missing]. So if you can’t find any clothing, there ain’t a body.”
What did she think had happened? “Well, I just didn’t know.” Julie says she didn’t have any sense that Matthews was involved with Shannon’s disappearance. But she did begin to feel that Matthews was holding something back.
Moorside writer Neil McKay (of Mo and Appropriate Adult) says that the struggle to keep hold of her secret led Matthews to behave increasingly oddly. In one scene in the drama, Matthews is being interviewed at home by police when one of the officers’ mobile phones rings. The ringtone is Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. Matthews gets up from her seat, looks around for an audience and begins to dance. Hardly the demeanour of a woman who fears her daughter might be dead.
McKay says he was told the tale by one of the police officers in the room. There were other suspicious moments. On another occasion, says Julie, the man behind the counter at her local fish-and-chip shop gave her family a free dinner: “She replied, ‘Ooh. I’ll have to have one of my kids go missing more often.’”
Julie says that the key to understanding Matthews is realising that she is “a child in an adult’s body”. She began to revel in the fame that came with having a missing daughter. She says, “You’ve got to meet Karen to see how childish she is. On the letters she wrote to me from prison, she’d draw little trees and flowers in pretty colours, and write on the envelope ’sealed with a loving kiss’ and ‘best mates forever’.”
It’s for this reason – Matthews’s immaturity – that Julie call her “stupid, not evil”. She’s convinced that Matthews’s motive was not money – despite the fact that this has been reported as fact, without question, since the day of the guilty verdict.
“Everybody thinks Karen did it for the reward money. That’s the biggest load of crap going.” How can Julie know? Because, after being unmasked as a liar, Matthews was offered money to talk to national newspapers and TV shows, and “not once did she take it”. In any case, Julie says, Karen isn’t bright enough to have cooked up such an elaborate scheme.
The real story is more complicated, Julie believes. Matthews was looking to escape the clutches of her then boyfriend, Craig Meehan (who was subsequently convicted of child pornography offences). She’d moved Shannon out of her home secretly as a first step to leaving Meehan.
But before she could move out with the rest of her kids, pressure from friends and neighbours forced her to report her daughter missing. And then she was tied into the deception. This version of events is, says McKay, also the one many police officers on the case believe.
So where is Karen Matthews now? She was released from prison in 2012, halfway through her sentence, but didn’t return to Moorside. For her own protection, she has been ordered to cut all contacts with her old life. What, I wonder, will Matthews make of the TV drama? “I think she’ll like the attention, to be honest,” says Julie.
And Shannon? She is now 18. McKay says that a court order prevents anyone from making direct contact with her, but he has kept social workers informed of the project.
I leave my encounter with Julie rather puzzled about the relationship between her and Matthews. What does she get from her friendship with a woman she calls a “blatant liar”? “I don’t get owt from the friendship,” she says. “But she must be so lonely now. I just feel so sorry for her.”