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McCanns Return To Praia da Luz
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Charles O'Neill and William Lauchlan - 1
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Appeals Court Lifts Ban On Amaral's Book
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McCanns Appeal To The Supreme Court
McCanns Announce Book Deal
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Contact/Links

LSE Event 30/01/2008

The first ever debate about the media and the McCanns, organised by POLIS, takes place on Wednesday 30 January at the LSE in London, titled 'The McCanns and the Media: Information or Entertainment'.

Guest speakers include Clarence Mitchell, Justine McGuinness, Kelvin Mackenzie, Roger Graef (producer of Channel 4 Dispatches documentary 'Searching for Madeleine') and David Mills (original producer of BBC Panorama documentary 'The Mystery of Madeleine McCann').

Full Podcast available below.

 
The McCanns and the Media: Information vs Entertainment, 30 January 2008
 
The McCanns and the Media: Information vs Entertainment LSE

Confirmed speakers: PR expert Justine McGuiness, McCanns spokesperson Clarence Mitchell, media commentator Roy Greenslade, McCanns documentary maker David Mills, Dispatches Executive Producer Roger Graef and former Sun Editor Kelvin MacKenzie. The debate will be chaired by broadcaster and Guardian columnist Steve Hewlett.

The McCanns and the Media

Date: Wednesday 30 January 2008
Time: 6.30pm
Venue
: New Theatre, East Building
Speakers: Clarence Mitchell, Justine McGuiness, Kelvin MacKenzie, Roy Greenslade, Roger Graef
Chair: Steve Hewlett

The McCanns were the biggest media story of 2007. This event goes behind the headlines to ask why it became a media obsession, whether information or entertainment triumphed, and what impact the coverage has as the case continues.

Steve Hewlett is a media consultant and former BBC editor. Roy Greenslade is a media commentator, columnist and blogger, and Professor of Journalism at City University. Kelvin MacKenzie is former editor of the Sun, firmly establishing it as Britain's biggest selling newspaper. Clarence Mitchell is a former BBC royal correspondent and now spokesman for the McCanns. Justine McGuinness is a PR guru who manages the Find Madeleine campaign.  Roger Graef was the executive producer of the recent Dispatches which featured the McCanns.

This event is free and open to all with no ticket required. Entry is on a first come, first served basis.

 
The McCanns and the media: join tonight's 'heated debate', 30 January 2008
 
The McCanns and the media: join tonight's 'heated debate' The Guardian/Greenslade Blog

Roy Greenslade / Events 02:45pm
Wednesday 30.01.08


I'm unsure what will emerge from a debate tonight about the media coverage of Madeleine McCann's disappearance. But, given the cast list on a rather crowded panel, it does promise to offer heat, if not light.

Among the speakers who have indicated that they will attend are two former editors: Kelvin MacKenzie, ex-Sun boss, and now a columnist, and Neil Wallis, ex-People editor and now the News of the World's executive editor.

From the Gerry and Kate McCann "camp" come Clarence Mitchell, their spokesman, and Justine McGuinness, manager of the Find Madeleine campaign.

Two TV programme-makers are also expected: Roger Graef, executive producer of the recent Dispatches about the case, and David Mills, producer of the recent Panorama which he then disowned.

There will be two regular Guardian writers too: Steve Hewlett, a former BBC editor and presenter of an interesting media series on Radio 4 at present, and myself.

Entry to the LSE's New Theatre is free. But it's first come, first served. And it all kicks off at 6.30pm.

 
The McCanns and the Media: The Podcast, 30 January 2008
 

The McCanns and the Media: The Podcast LSE

Speakers: Clarence Mitchell; Justine McGuiness; Kelvin MacKenzie; Roy Greenslade; Roger Graef
Chair: Steve Hewlett

This event was recorded on 30 Jan 2008 in New Theatre, East Building


The McCanns were the biggest media story of 2007. This event goes behind the headlines to ask why it became a media obsession, whether information or entertainment triumphed, and what impact the coverage has as the case continues. Steve Hewlett is a media consultant and former BBC editor. Roy Greenslade is a media commentator, columnist and blogger, and Professor of Journalism at City University. Kelvin MacKenzie is former editor of the Sun, firmly establishing it as Britain's biggest selling newspaper. Clarence Mitchell is a former BBC royal correspondent and now spokesman for the McCanns. Justine McGuinness is a PR guru who manages the Find Madeleine campaign. Roger Graef was the executive producer of the recent Dispatches which featured the McCanns.

Download of full podcast available here: mp3 (23 mb; approx 99 minutes)

or listen direct from LSE site:

 
McCanns and the Media: the debate, 30 January 2008
 
McCanns and the Media: the debate, 30 January 2008 Polis

Charlie Beckett
30 January 2008

The first ever debate about the media and the McCanns at Polis brought out some heated and painful issues. McCann family spokesperson Clarence Mitchell and former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie represented competing perspectives on a story that has gripped and disturbed the world for nine months.

Here are some of the points made that I felt represent how seminal this story has been (in no particular order):
  • The British public now don't trust you if you have a public relations advisor
  • The British public don't trust the media so they go to Internet forums to express their views on the case
  • 24 hour news has eradicated all the traditional caution over sourcing stories
  • Turning subjects in to celebrities now allows the public to suspend the usual sympathy for an invididual

Now here are some of the factors discussed that make this case so exceptional:

  • The fact that they were middle-class encouraged hostility
  • The fact the Portugese police did no press work mean a vacuum was created
  • This is a narrative without an end so it allows endless speculation
  • There is now a vicious cycle with Portugese and British media recycling stories without references, sources or facts
Now some quotes from our speakers.

Kelvin MacKenzie:

"This is beyond Lord Lucan, beyond Diana, beyond Shergar...if this was a single black mother then it would not have been the same story...the public is obsessed so newspapers make a commercial judgement, they know that putting Madeleine on the front page increases circulation by about 3%, it did so from day one and it still does. People who criticise the papers ought to think about that and ask themselves if they get their money out when they see a billboard with the McCanns name on it...It's a class war issue. Ordinary people don't associate public relations with the truth, though I think hiring Clarence was a great idea and I believe what he says. What is so unusual and incredible about this story is that they are the main suspects and so when we write about it we are saying 'they may be the killers'."

Clarence Mitchell made a stout defence of the McCanns' innocence and was clear about the money spent on promoting their cause. He thanked the media for the support they had given in publicising the campaign to find Madeliene but critcised the 'sloppiness and laziness' of much journalism driven by 'a commercial imperitive' which recycled stories 'entirely founded on misinformation, mostly wrong".

David Mills who produced a Panorama on the McCanns which he subsequently disowned felt that the British media had failed to address the real sotry which was the failure in police procedure and forensics in Portugal and the UK.

Former McCann public relations advisor Justine McGuinness felt that the way that Madeleine had been turned in to a celebrity by the media (although surely the PR had a role?) meant that the public felt she could be treated with the same callousness afforded to a Big Brother contestent – hence of the appalling vitriol and unsubstantiated rumour on some internet forums: "A missing child has been turned in ot a celebrity which gives the public the excuse to disconnect from human feelings because she has become a household name".

Former Mirror editor, now media commentator Roy Greenslade cited his own mother as an example of how the public still want to 'blame' the McCanns but he reserved his ire for the media. He sketched out how the media coverage went through four phases: sympathy (Overdone), scepticism (a sensible attitude), suspicion (based on nothing) and finally commercial cynicism. So the Express can print a headline, he said, that says "McCanns Split Over Maddie" which turned out to be simply a story that Gerry was going back to work while Kate was not. Greenslade said that the media has encouraged people to believe the worst about them and so it has now got to a point where people don't care about defamation – all reporting is at the level of gossip.

Roger Graef, who produced a film for Channel 4 about the McCanns said he found himself in demand by the international media. And yet the only thing he had to say was that there was nothing to say. There was one fact: that Madeleine was gone. And yet he found himself endlessly interviewed about how there was nothing to say. The fact that so many people now inhabit imaginary worlds of conspiracy around this story, he said, was partly because 'we cannot bear a narrative that has no end."

That is, of course, most true for the parents themselves. They dared to try to use the media (on advice from experts said Justine McGuinness) and that decision and the media came back to haunt them and to hunt them down. The media initially swamped them with support and then finally drowned them in bile. The media suspended its critical faculties when it first joined a campaign to find a beautiful white middle class girl and it never recovered its judgement in the rush to judgement and in the daily stampede for front page fodder. The Internet provided an outlet for huge waves of sympathy for the McCanns – it also provided a forum for legitimate debate and commentary – but it was also the dark place that some very sad souls chose to huddle together, sharing their sick fantasies and reaffirming each other's sad obsessions. A few of those odd people turned up at our debate demanding action against the McCanns and an end to 'spin'. But as Kelvin pointed out they represent a big part of the public who don't seem to trust anyone anymore. I am not sure if that's the media's fault, but it sure ain't doing a lot to correct it.

Our debate chairman Steve Hewlett has written a very good article on this for the Guardian which stresses the doubtful benefits of PR in cases like this. And Tim Black from Spiked has also written a report on the debate here.

Much more on this debate when my interns report back in – the podcast will be up when the LSE techies have done their thing. In due course, Polis will be publishing a paper on this issue. It's not a nice subject but I am convinced that it speaks volumes about the state of our media and the society that consumes it.

Thanks to the Media Society for their partnership on this event.

 
The McCanns' debate: from banality to an outpouring of bile, 31 January 2008
 
The McCanns' debate: from banality to an outpouring of bile The Guardian/Greenslade Blog

Roy Greenslade
January 31, 2008 12:15 AM


I feared that last night's debate on "The McCanns and the media" (see posting immediately below) would generate more heat than light. In fact, it generated neither heat nor light. Aside from some persistent interruptions from a group of misguided, self-appointed busy-bodies, the standing-room-only event at the LSE was marked by its banality.

That doesn't mean that we didn't hear interesting views, but - as a debate - it never took off. It didn't help that two-thirds of the panel were required to sit "off stage", thereby limiting the ease of participation. On the other hand, we did get a glimpse of the irrational prejudice blighting the whole affair.

It began well enough when Kelvin MacKenzie opened with a reasonably measured and thoughtful contribution that rightly pointed to several remarkable features of the McCanns saga that had helped to make it into what he hyperbolically called "the greatest story of my lifetime." But he mostly made a lot of good sense. Social class had played a part in the media's immediate interest and in helping to catch the public's imagination. He revealed that he had shown an understanding for the plight of Gerry and Kate McCann but readers of his Sun column had not.

He spoke of "10,000 emails" that were overwhelmingly hostile to the McCanns for having left their children in their bedroom unsupervised. His readers did not share his sympathy for the couple and, by implication, that had changed his mind somewhat.

I was altogether less enamoured with his defence of papers, especially the Express titles, for publishing wildly inaccurate stories. Kelvin's defence? Newspapers are commercial operations and you must expect them to publish stories calculated to increase sales. The temptation to ramp up circulation was too great to resist. That doesn't wash with me at all.

Next up was Clarence Mitchell, the official spokesman for the McCanns. He launched a broadside on a press guilty of carrying speculative stories without any basis in truth. Stories, incidentally, which he had often formally denied before publication.

He explained how British journalists relied for most of their stories on the Portuguese papers that also ran speculative and unverifiable material. After being spun in British tabloids, the Portuguese then picked them up the following day, pretending that the fact they had appeared in the British press was "proof" of their veracity. In other words, it was a constant recycling of gossip and innuendo, none of it based on fact.

Mitchell's concern about trying to deal with a rampant global media was echoed in the experiences of his predecessor in the role, Justine McGuinness. She spoke of the immense scale of media interest, implying that it was virtually impossible to cope with a hydra-headed media beast demanding daily, almost hourly, feeds.

Roger Graef
, producer of Channel 4's Dispatches on the mystery of Madeleine McCann's disappearance, spoke of the surreal, Kafkaesque nature of making a documentary in which there were (and are) no facts and about which no-one has any genuine knowledge, including the Portuguese police.

David Mills
is the man who produced a documentary for Panorama and then disowned it because key material - some of it critical of the Portuguese police - was omitted. He was concerned about the media's failure to hold the police to account and complained about the dearth of proper investigative journalism about the case.

So far, so good. But once the debate was opened out to the audience by chairman Steve Hewlett, it went nowhere helpful. A vociferous group who have formed an organisation called The Madeleine Foundation showed a lamentable grasp of debating rules by interrupting speakers and shouting out a string of offensive comments about the McCanns and their PRs.

Their anger may have been sincere, but it became abundantly clear that they are infected with prejudice. Many of the claims they made - about money donated to the McCanns' fund, about payments to PRs, about the McCanns' actions and relationship with the police - were obviously based on the inaccurate accusations and innuendos published by so many newspapers.

However, reflecting on the debate on my journey home, I realised that they represented the authentic voice of so many British people, the Sun readers Kelvin had mentioned and probably the readers of all popular papers. It is not pretty.

Their unconcealed bile, their lack of compassion for the McCanns, their sanctimonious statements about the supposed parenting inadequacies of the McCanns, do not stem wholly from poor reporting.

Certainly, false stories have contributed to their fallacious arguments. But they were uninterested in the rational statements of Mitchell and McGuinness. They took no notice of the subtle arguments of Graef and Mills.

They were the equivalent of those mobs outside courts in murder trials, deaf to facts, cocooned from reality by their own self-righteous demagoguery. Their major aim, outlined in a "manifesto" circulated within the lecture theatre, is to see the McCanns prosecuted for "abandoning" their children.

The newspapers that have retailed nonsense about this case do have a lot to answer for. But then so do the people, do they not? What the debate never touched on was whether the media could, even eight months' on, play a positive role to counter the misinformation that appears now to have taken such a grip among the population.

 
Mechanics of the McCann campaign, 31 January 2008
 

Mechanics of the McCann campaign The Guardian

Professional media management may have generated coverage of Maddy's disappearance, but it hasn't helped with public sympathy for the family

Steve Hewlett

Steve Hewlett
January 31, 2008 2:30PM


A Media Society/Polis debate last night saw Gerry and Kate McCann's current and former spokespeople - Clarence Mitchell and Justine McGuinness - discuss the media and the McCanns with Kelvin MacKenzie, Roy Greenslade and filmmakers Roger Graef and David Mills. I should say in the interests of transparency that I chaired the event in front of a packed house at the LSE in London.

The big question set out for debate by the organisers was how well (or badly) had the press and media done in their coverage of what must surely be the most reported story of the last nine months. Consensus among the speakers was pretty negative and Clarence Mitchell was utterly scathing, accusing some journalists of peddling information they knew to be wrong or unfounded - largely for the purpose of stoking up sales. MacKenzie, ex-editor of the Sun, cautioned the audience against being too censorious on the grounds that it was their fascination with the story that led newspapers - which are, after all, commercial entities - to deal with it so prominently and frequently.

MacKenzie then went on to say two things that in my view had rather greater resonance in the meeting than any of the relatively predictable press bashing - no matter how justified. He said that the public response to his Sun column, which he said was characteristic of Sun readers (ie somewhat downmarket in demographic terms), can be huge but was overwhelmingly negative towards Kate and Gerry McCann. Having left their children alone in the apartment while going out for a good time with friends has not gone down well - with the Sun's readership at least, not to mention quite a few folk in last evening's LSE audience.

This is not to suggest that most (or even many) readers think they're guilty in any sense; more that they've been complicit in their own misfortune by being less-than-attentive parents. This more starkly than anything else, it was suggested, reveals the class-based nature of public responses not so much to the calamity of Madeleine's disappearance as to her family's efforts since. And on that front MacKenzie went on to say - even more tellingly perhaps - that in the public mind PR and truth were rarely thought to sit comfortably together.

And there's the rub. Try as they might neither Clarence Mitchell nor Justine McGuinness could quite shake off the sense that the way they've managed this case might have contributed to some negative public sentiment towards the family. In place initially as what Mitchell described as "a buffer" between the shocked and distraught parents and the world's media, hungry for news about Madeleine, it's clear that what developed was a professional media management operation. With city PR firm Bell Pottinger on hand - primarily, we can assume, to defend the interests of their clients Mark Warner Holidays - as well as Justine and, latterly, Clarence with all their experience of Westminster spin, the McCanns could not have wanted for more professional advice. But as time went on media management itself - and once you've started feeding stories to the press to get control of the agenda, you really can't stop - began generating negative reaction from other parties.

Portuguese journalists found people close to the McCanns unwilling to speak for fear of breaking an agreement that Kate and Gerry would pre-authorise anything that was to be said in public. This is standard media management in Westminster or the City but it struck some in Portugal, who thought they were simply dealing with an utterly distraught family, as so strange as to be suspicious. The Portuguese police, however slow and incompetent they might have been, found themselves on the wrong end of a very high powered media onslaught - orchestrated and facilitated in no small measure by what became the McCann campaign. They may not have been ideally equipped or experienced to deal with the case of a disappeared child but they certainly weren't prepared to find themselves up against professional media managers.

In many ways, it's hard to see what else Kate and Gerry McCann could have done; offered the same kind of assistance, how many of us would have turned it down if we thought it might help to get our missing child back? Nevertheless, it's hard to avoid at least a nagging sense of unease about aspects of the "campaign" which would appear to be reflected in what some people think about Kate and Gerry McCann.

 
This is more than a case of 'media Maddieness', 31 January 2008
 

This is more than a case of 'media Maddieness' Spiked

Tim Black

Tim Black reports from a debate amongst leading journalists about the 'story of their lifetime': the abduction of Madeleine McCann and the subsequent public hysteria.

Tim Black
Thursday 31 January 2008

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, this infernal media machine churns out news, something new, something old, but always news – news recaps, news updates, and, of course 'the latest from our man on the scene'. But lately this glut of information has prompted unease. Last June, Tony Blair, citing the demands of rolling news channels for endless stories, and the shrinking but ever more vicious newspaper market, felt the media were behaving like 'feral beasts'. 'In these modes', he continued, they just 'tear people and reputations to bits, but no-one dares miss out' (1). While Blair's particular focus was on the media's treatment of politicians, particularly when the journo pack gets the faintest whiff of impropriety, these feral beasts were never just concerned with Tony's cronies. What matters, then, as now, is the story.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the strange case of the McCanns. What began last May as a tragic tale of a three-year-old girl who disappeared on a family holiday in Portugal has shifted focus. As much as 'our Maddie' still exercises the emotions, since the Portuguese press made them 'arguidos', or suspects, it is her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, who exercise the imagination. 'McCanns split by agony of Maddie', 'Why I can't keep silent about Kate', 'Locals jeer McCanns', 'Maddie Gran: I can't understand why they left the kids', 'McCann fund running short of cash'... It's not just the tabloids either. Even the London Review of Books scented blood, with Anne Enright declaring: 'I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I'm not proud of it).' (2)

Unsurprisingly, given its often callous nature, this pursuit of the McCanns has given rise to a bit of journalistic introspection. In an article entitled, 'I hang my head in shame at what my trade has made of the McCann story', Max Hastings, a former Daily Telegraph editor, was unequivocal: 'The story provokes in us the sort of guilt that our ancestors must have felt on finding themselves unable to avert their eyes from a public execution.' (3) Earlier this week, Blair's former press chief, Alistair Campbell was more bullish, accusing 'most of the media' of 'getting close to hysteria': 'It has been the worst example of recent times, on a par with coverage of Princess Diana, of some newspapers thinking the word Madeleine sells and finding literally any old nonsense to keep her name in that selling position on the front.' (4)

Last night, during a curiously fraught debate organised by think-tank Polis, The McCanns and the Media: Information or Entertainment, the panellists were less judgmental. Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor and current columnist for the Sun, called it the 'greatest story of my life'; Steve Hewlett, a Guardian columnist, noted it was the story of last year, 'if not the biggest, [then] certainly the most reported'; and David Mills, producer of a recent BBC Panorama documentary on the McCanns, which he later disowned, called it 'one of the best [stories] I've ever encountered in my career... it has everything.' Their professional enthusiasm is understandable; it's a story that has continued to hold the public's attention, or as MacKenzie would put it, 'sell papers'. If it didn't exist you suspect the media would have to invent it.

Which, in a sense, they have. For as a number of the panellists made clear, very little is actually known about the case. Whereas the British police tend to hold off-the-record press briefings to stymy endless press hypothesis, their Portuguese counterparts are conducting their investigation largely without media contact. What there is instead, to paraphrase criminologist Roger Graeff, producer of Dispatches: Searching for Madeleine, is an 'unbearable nothingness', a story that refuses to yield anything like a plot, let alone a resolution.

'Unbearable' is a telling adjective here. There are plenty of events, be they crime investigations or marital break-ups, about which we know very little. But that not-knowing does not often become an intolerable burden. As last night's discussion made apparent, what's striking about the McCann case is that an absence of facts is experienced by media and public alike as a lack of facts, a need which must be met. And met it is - by outlandish theories, opinionated speculation, and no little bile.

This is where the media are culpable. In the absence of any actual information, the media stops reporting and starts making the news. This is not to say that every McCann update is fabrication or fantasy, but that, in the absence of anything concrete, sheer opinion predominates. Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror and now a professor of journalism at London's City University, made this clear when responding to a question about whether the media had neglected its critical faculties. No, he argued, precisely the opposite is true: 'The media has overextended its critical faculties – it has become hypercritical.' To make the news, it is now necessary to have a view on Gerry's reticence, or Kate's tearless demeanour.

However, as 'commercially legitimate' as the endless coverage might be, it is not straightforwardly manipulative. News outlets, be they tabloid, broadsheet, or rolling news channels, are not cynically distracting us from internecine struggles in Kenya or Iraq with photos of Amy Winehouse's coke-encrusted nostrils or, in this case, footage of Kate McCann getting out of a car. Journalists' views may be distorted by their professional existence but they still arise in the same social world as the rest of us. Working in the Westminster village, it's understandable that many start to believe in the newsworthiness of parish gossip - 'have you heard what Gordon's said about Tony's legacy?' - but insofar as the McCanns have become, not just a media commodity, but an object for public debate, the hype, speculation and 'how I feel about Kate and Gerry' diatribes are experienced by many as perfectly valid forms of public expression.

As Mick Hume has pointed out (see The increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann), in the absence of any other collective experiences, national or otherwise, an event such as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann provides an occasion for an experience of solidarity, as specious as that might be. What's interesting is that as the McCann story increasingly concentrated on the parents' lives, so simple 'I feel your pain' emoting became something more febrile and sanctimonious. Greenslade, noting the 'incredible emotionalism' provoked by the McCann case, asserted, almost incredulously, that 'everyone is so heavily involved.' 'Self-identification', he concluded, 'is the key here'. But this doesn't just mean identification as in empathy, but identification as the process of forming one's own identity. To have a view on the McCanns has become a way of saying 'who I am'. Where mourning Princess Diana or wearing a 'Make Poverty History' wristlet became public expressions of one's inner self, the McCann case has allowed for a yet greater degree of self-articulation. One cannot only be against child abduction, but you can have a view on the McCanns as people too. Middle class, stand-offish, and suspect parents, or just a desparate family in search of their daughter? Either way, to have a view is to sign up to particular set of values, to share in a minimal, lowest common denominator morality.

And this explains, I think, why the event last night was so fraught. The increasingly angry interjections from the audience, especially towards Clarence Mitchell, the McCann's current spokesperson, were born of frustration with the management, indeed the authorship of the McCann story. There are a lot of stakeholders, to borrow a New Labour term, in this public debate who feel they're not being included. Their anger wasn't just an aversion to 'spin'. It was a frustrated desire to comment on the story, to narrate it, to take part, if you like, in what seems like a vital public conversation. As one audience member put it, 'I'm angry with the media because I can't get my point of view across'. 'If you look at the [online] forums', she continued, 'there's a collective gut feeling that something is amiss'. Having a view on the story, an investment in its telling, has become a form of belonging, of expressing oneself in public, either through sympathy or, increasingly, antipathy.

But this is public debate as a book club, albeit a particularly irate one. There's endless discussion of the story, argumentative speculation on characters' motivations, and frustration with the author. To the extent that everyone has an opinion on the McCanns, everyone has a virtue to vent - 'I'd never leave my kids alone' shouted one particularly angry audience member. The black hole that is the McCann case has not merely illustrated the bankruptcy of parts of the media; it hints at the degradation of the public sphere as a whole.

The following five articles are referenced in the piece by Tim Black above...

 
Media 'like feral beast' - Blair, 12 June 2007
 

Media 'like feral beast' - Blair BBC News

Tony Blair leaves office at the end of June

Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 June 2007, 19:11 GMT 20:11 UK

Tony Blair has said the media can operate like "a feral beast" and its relationship with politicians is "damaged" and in need of repair.

The prime minister said relations had always been fraught, but now threatened politicians' "capacity to take the right decisions for the country".

The arrival of web-based news and blogs and 24-hour television news channels meant reports were "driven by impact".

Mr Blair also said newspaper and TV regulatory systems needed to change.

In a speech to the Reuters news agency on public life, he said the media world was becoming more fragmented, with the main BBC and ITN bulletins now getting half the audiences they had previously and newspapers fighting for their share of a "shrinking market".

He said fierce competition for stories meant that the modern media now hunted "in a pack".

"In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no-one dares miss out," he said.

'Unravelling standards'

The result was that the media was increasingly "and to a dangerous degree" driven by "impact" which was, in turn, "unravelling standards, driving them down," he said.

Mr Blair, who will step down as prime minister on 27 June, admitted that New Labour's own attempts to "court" and "assuage" the media in the early days of his government may have contributed to the problem.

He said he had tried to have a dialogue with the media, through measures like on-the-record lobby briefings, monthly press conferences and the Freedom of Information Act.

But, he said: "None of it to any avail, not because these things aren't right, but because they don't deal with the central issue - which is how politics is reported."

He said people in public life, from politics to business, sport, the military and charities, found that "a vast aspect" of their job now was coping with the media, "its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points it literally overwhelms".

And he said there was increasingly commentary on the news, which could prove "incredibly frustrating".

Expecting to be rubbished

"There will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying, as there is coverage of them actually saying it," he said.

The current regulatory system, in which broadcasters and the press were subject to different rules and bodies, would need revision, he said, as internet broadcasting blurred the line between TV and newspapers.

And he said the relationship between public life and the media was in need of repair.

"The damage saps the country's confidence and self-belief, it undermines its assessment of itself, its institutions and above all, it reduces our capacity to take the right decisions, in the right spirit for our future."

Mr Blair concluded his speech by saying he had made it "after much hesitation" and he expected it to be "rubbished in certain quarters", but it "needed to be said - so I've said it".

The associate editor of the Sun newspaper, Trevor Kavanagh, said Mr Blair's comments were rather "sour" and "ill-advised" and out of character.

He added that Mr Blair and his government had received the most benign coverage of any leader in recent years.

That benign coverage only changed after the self-confessed "mistakes" made in putting the case for the Iraq war, not because of any change in the way the media operated, he said.

Liberal Democrat culture spokesman Don Foster said: "It's easy to blame the press for a loss of trust in politicians; a fairer analysis would point to his own culture of spin.

"Hints at the need for increased regulation of the press are deeply worrying. Politicians may not like what is sometimes written about them, but a free press is the best safeguard for accountability and against corruption and hypocrisy."

 
Diary, 04 October 2007
 
Diary London Review of Books

Ann Enright
4 October 2007


It is very difficult to kill a child by giving it sedatives, even if killing it is what you might want to do. I asked a doctor about this, one who is also a mother. It was a casual, not a professional conversation, but like every other parent in the Western world, she had thought the whole business through. She said that most of the sedatives used on children are over-the-counter antihistamines, like the travel sickness pills that knocked me and my daughter out on an overnight ferry to France recently. It would also be difficult, she told me, to give a lethal dose of prescription sleeping tablets, which these days are usually valium or valium derivatives, 'unless the child ate the whole packet'. If the child did so, the short-term result would not be death but a coma. Nor could she think of any way such an overdose would lead to blood loss, unless the child vomited blood, which she thought highly unlikely. She said it was possible that doctors sedated their children more than people in other professions but that, even when she thought it might be a good idea (during a transatlantic flight, for example), she herself had never done so, being afraid that they would have a 'paradoxical rage reaction' – which is the medical term for waking up half out-of-it and tearing the plane apart.

I thought I had had one of those myself, in a deeply regretted incident at breakfast on the same ferry when my little son would not let me have a bite of his croissant and I ripped the damn pastry up and threw it on the floor. She said that no, the medical term for that was a 'drug hangover', or perhaps it was just the fact that an overnight ferry was not the best place to begin a diet. We then considered the holidays with children that we have known.

How much do doctors drink? 'Lots,' she said. Why are the McCanns saying they didn’t sedate the child? 'Why do you think?' Besides, it was completely possible that the child had been sedated and also abducted – which was a sudden solution to a problem I did not even know I had: namely, if the girl in the pink pyjamas was being carried off by a stranger, why did she not scream? Sedation had also been a solution to the earlier problem of: how could they leave their children to sleep unprotected, even from their own dreams?

But sedation was not the final answer, after all.

If someone else is found to have taken Madeleine McCann – as may well be the case – it will show that the ordinary life of an ordinary family cannot survive the suspicious scrutiny of millions.

In one – completely unverified – account of her interrogation, Kate McCann is said to have responded to the accusation that the cadaver dog had picked up the ‘scent of death’ on her clothes by saying that she had been in contact with six dead patients in the weeks before she came on holiday. My doctor friend doubted this could be true of a part-time GP, unless, we joked, she had 'done a Shipman' on them. Then, of course, we had to row back, strenuously, and say that even if something had happened between mother and child, or between father and child, in that apartment, even if the child just fell, then Kate McCann was still the most unfortunate woman you could ever lay eyes on.

And we are obliged to lay eyes on her all the time. This makes harridans of us all.

The move from unease, through rumour, to mass murder took no time flat. During the white heat of media allegations against Madeleine's parents, my husband came up the stairs to say that they’d all been wife-swapping – that was why the other diners corroborated the McCanns' account of the evening. This, while I was busy measuring the distance from the McCanns' holiday apartment down the road to the church on Google Earth (0.2 miles). I said they couldn't have been wife-swapping, because one of the wives had brought her mother along.

'Hmmmm,' he said.

I checked the route to the open roadworks by the church, past a car park and a walled apartment complex, and I thought how easy it would be to carry my four-year-old son that distance. I had done that and more in Tenerife, when he decided against walking. Of course he was a live and not a dead weight, but still, he is a big boy. Too big to fit into the spare-tyre well of a car, as my father pointed out to me later, when it seemed like the whole world was figuring out the best way to kill a child.

'She was only a slip of a thing,' I said.

I did not say that the body might have been made more pliable by decomposition. And I had physically to resist the urge to go out to my own car and open the boot to check (get in there now, sweetheart, and curl up into a ball). Then, as if to pass the blame back where it belonged, I repeated my argument that if there is 88 per cent accurate DNA from partly decomposed bodily fluids found under the carpet of the boot of the hired car, then these people had better fly home quick and get themselves another PR company.

If.

Who needs a cadaver dog when you have me? In August, the sudden conviction that the McCanns 'did it' swept over our own family holiday in a peculiar hallelujah. Of course they had. It made a lot more sense to me than their leaving the children to sleep alone.

I realise that I am more afraid of murdering my children than I am of losing them to a random act of abduction. I have an unhealthy trust of strangers. Maybe I should believe in myself more, and in the world less, because, despite the fact that I am one of the most dangerous people my children know, I keep them close by me. I don’t let them out of my sight. I shout in the supermarket, from aisle to aisle. I do this not just because some dark and nameless event will overtake them before the checkout, but also because they are not yet competent in the world. You see? I am the very opposite of the McCanns.

Distancing yourself from the McCanns is a recent but potent form of magic. It keeps our children safe. Disliking the McCanns is an international sport. You might think the comments on the internet are filled with hatred, but hate pulls the object close; what I see instead is dislike – an uneasy, unsettled, relentlessly petty emotion. It is not that we blame them – if they can be judged, then they can also be forgiven. No, we just dislike them for whatever it is that nags at us. We do not forgive them the stupid stuff, like wearing ribbons, or going jogging the next day, or holding hands on the way into Mass.

I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I’m not proud of it). I thought I was angry with them for leaving their children alone. In fact, I was angry at their failure to accept that their daughter was probably dead. I wanted them to grieve, which is to say to go away. In this, I am as bad as people who complain that 'she does not cry.'

On 25 May, in their first television interview, given to Sky News, Gerry McCann spoke a little about grief, as he talked about the twins. 'We've got to be strong for them, you know, they're here, they do bring you back to earth, and we cannot, you know, grieve one. We did grieve, of course we grieved, but ultimately we need to be in control so that we can influence and help in any way possible, not just Sean and Amelie, but the investigation.'

Most of the animosity against the McCanns centres on the figure of Madeleine's beautiful mother. I am otherwise inclined. I find Gerry McCann's need to 'influence the investigation' more provoking than her flat sadness, or the very occasional glimpse of a wounded narcissism that flecks her public appearances. I have never objected to good-looking women. My personal jury is out on the issue of narcissism in general; her daughter's strong relationship with the camera lens causes us a number of emotions, but the last of them is always sorrow and pain.

The McCanns feel guilty. They are in denial. They left their children alone. They cannot accept that their daughter might be dead. Guilt and denial are the emotions we smell off Gerry and Kate McCann, and they madden us.

I, for example, search for interviews with them, late at night, on YouTube. There is so much rumour; I listen to their words because they are real, because these words actually did happen, one after the other. The focus of my 'dislike' is the language that Gerry McCann uses; his talk of 'information technology' and 'control', his need to 'look forward'.

'Is there a lesson here, do you feel, to other parents?'

'I think that's a very difficult thing to say, because, if you look at it, and we try to rationalise things in our head and, ultimately, what is done is done, and we continually look forward. We have tried to put it into some kind of perspective for ourselves.'

He lays a halting and agonised emphasis on the phrase 'what is done is done,' and, at three in the morning, all I can hear is Lady Macbeth saying this line after the murder of Duncan, to which her husband replies: 'We have scorched the snake, not killed it.' Besides, what does he mean? Who did the thing that has been done? It seems a very active and particular word for the more general act of leaving them, to go across the complex for dinner.

There are problems of active and passive throughout the McCanns' speech. Perhaps there are cultural factors at play. I have no problem, for example, with Kate McCann's reported cry on the night of 3 May: 'They've taken Madeleine.' To my Irish ears 'they' seems a common usage, recalling Jackie Kennedy’s 'I want the world to see what they've done to my Jack' at Dallas. I am less happy with the line she gives in the interview when she says: 'It was during one of my checks that I discovered she'd gone.' My first reaction is to say that she didn't just go, my second is to think that, in Ireland, 'she'd gone' might easily describe someone who had slipped into an easy death. Then I rewind and hear the question, 'Tell us how you discovered that Madeleine had gone?' and realise that no one can name this event, no one can describe the empty space on Madeleine McCann’s bed.

Perhaps there is a Scottish feel to Gerry McCann’s use of 'done'. The word is repeated and re-emphasised when he is asked about how Portuguese police conducted the case, particularly in the first 24 hours. He says: 'I think, em, you know, we are not looking at what has been done, and I don't think it helps at this stage to look back at what could and couldn't have been done . . . The time for these lessons to be learned is after the investigation is finished and not now.'

I am cross with this phrase, 'after the investigation is finished'. Did he mean after they'd packed up their charts and evidence bags and gone home? Surely what they are involved in is a frantic search for a missing child: how can it be finished except by finding her, alive or dead? Why does he not say what he means? Again, presumably because no one can say it: there can be no corpse, killed by them or by anyone else. Still, the use of the word 'investigation' begins to grate (elsewhere, Kate McCann said that one of the reasons they didn’t want to leave Portugal is that they wanted 'to stay close to the investigation'). Later in the interview the word changes to the more banal but more outward-looking 'campaign'. 'Of course the world has changed in terms of information technology and the speed of response, you know, in terms of the media coming here and us being prepared, em, to some extent to use that to try and influence the campaign, but above all else, it’s touched everyone. Everyone.'

The sad fact is that this man cannot speak properly about what is happening to himself and his wife, and about what he wants. The language he uses is more appropriate to a corporate executive than to a desperate father. This may be just the way he is made. This may be all he has of himself to give the world, just now. But we are all used to the idea of corporations lying to us, one way or another – it's part of our mass paranoia, as indeed are the couple we see on the screen. No wonder, I think, they will not speak about that night.

Then I go to bed and wake up the next day, human again, liking the McCanns.

 
I hang my head in shame at what my trade has made of the McCann story, 10 September 2007
 

I hang my head in shame at what my trade has made of the McCann story The Guardian

The media piles pressure on police to give answers, but suspects must live with an irremovable stain of suspicion

Max Hastings

Max Hastings
Monday 10 September 2007


Yesterday, just in case everybody else knew something that I did not, I rang an editor friend and asked for the word on the street about Madeleine McCann. He answered that no one has the slightest idea where the truth lies - despite the Portuguese police naming Kate and Gerry McCann as formal suspects in the investigation of her death. The case possesses everything headline writers could dream of: a pretty child victim; photogenic middle-class parents who are also doctors; apparently bungling foreigners. Amid a miasma of allegation and sensation, coverage is remorseless, speculation infinite.

The story provokes in some of us the sort of guilt that our ancestors must have felt on finding themselves unable to avert their eyes from a public execution. We shudder at the circus, sure of its repugnance but uncertain whom to blame. Crime in which children are victims causes police, media and public alike to take leave of their senses.

It has become the only truly heinous crime. Few people feel much hatred towards fraudsters, bank robbers, or even most killers. But no prisoner convicted of a crime against children is safe in jail. The trials of such people provoke gatherings of vengeful housewives who make the tricoteuses, the women who knitted beneath the guillotine, seem sisters of mercy.

In the case of Madeleine McCann, the public would like the guilty party to turn out to be a Portuguese with a long history of offences against children, who could reasonably be branded as a sex fiend - like the Spanish waiter who in 1996 killed the British schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson in France. If instead the McCanns are charged and convicted, anger will be all the more bitter, because people will feel that for months they have been deluded into wasting sympathy on them.

These remarks may sound ugly, but so is what is happening in Portugal. The McCanns now live in the shadow of declared police suspicion. If they are innocent, this is appalling. If there is evidence against them, natural justice cries out for them to be charged rather than merely denounced.

Child victims often induce police officers to act rashly, because they are under such pressure to produce a result. This is as true in Britain as it is in Portugal, as the officers probing the shooting of Rhys Jones might acknowledge - likewise those who investigated the 2002 Soham killings of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.

In the latter case, in a small East Anglian community, it was only days before Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr were arrested. In a city, identifying a killer is often much harder. Last year's search in Ipswich for the killer of five women became protracted. A succession of suspects were questioned, with identities blazoned across the front pages. Even when a man was eventually charged, it is hard to imagine that the lives of the earlier detainees have been, or ever will be, quite the same. Nobody will easily forget that they were deemed capable of being multiple murderers.

Such people surely deserve stronger protection under the law, as do the McCanns and Robert Murat, the British man formally named as a suspect earlier in the Madeleine inquiry. In his case, relations at home found themselves being quizzed by reporters eager to discover whether he had any history of sex crimes. Most of those arrested during the Rhys Jones investigation - and subsequently released - have been spared publicity only because they are minors.

It is widely suggested that the Portuguese police conducting the Madeleine inquiry have been incompetent. But British officers are just as capable of promoting false allegations when the heat is on them to make an arrest. During the search for Jill Dando's killer, I remember having a private conversation with two senior policemen. They told me a pack of nonsense, which I am confident that they themselves believed. Both said that they thought it most likely that Dando's assailant was somebody with whom she was already acquainted: "Her personal life was much more complicated than anybody realises, you know."

Their purpose, of course, was to convince the media that they were not sitting down on the job, that they were making progress towards an arrest. This is the usual motivation for police leaks, though cash handouts from reporters to junior officers also play a part. Either way, a duty of discretion is breached.

Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and such like got one big thing right in their fiction: detection as practised by professionals is often sadly inadequate. But in real life amateur sleuths can't fill the breach, so if police can't find murderers, nobody does.

A high proportion of homicides are domestic crimes, in which the guilty party is obvious. If these cases are stripped out of statistics, a dismaying number of murderers escape justice. When an arrest can be achieved only through what Hercule Poirot would call the use of the little grey cells, outcomes are elusive. I once heard a criminal barrister - today a senior judge - mock police procedures: "Their idea of detection is to decide which of the local firms to fit up for a given job!" He was not being entirely facetious.

The police, in their turn, have plenty to say about the cynicism of media and public. There is a readily recognised scale of popular sentiment about murder, at the bottom of which come gangland killings, especially black on black. If one drug dealer kills another, to most people it is a matter of indifference. Prostitutes receive only slightly more sympathy, because they are widely supposed to have brought their fates upon themselves. If enough of them die, however, as in Ipswich, serial murder generates a frisson of its own.

Popular sentiment focuses overwhelmingly upon the deaths of so-called innocent parties, above all children. Figures suggest that Britain, and indeed Portugal, are remarkably safe places for the young to grow up in. The chances of a child meeting a violent death are no greater than they were in the era of Victorian values.

But in this, as in all matters relating to crime, perception is unrelated to reality. Media coverage gives credence to a belief that European society is plagued by monsters stalking the young. When a child dies, every police officer knows that his or her force's reputation is at stake in identifying a plausible murderer.

These crimes sell a great many papers, which neither Iraq nor Darfur will do. Some colleagues would accuse me of an absurd squeamishness, because I hang my head in shame at what our trade, as well as the Portuguese police, has made of the McCann story. They would say the world has been ever thus, since the days of Jack the Ripper.

But it seems reasonable to recoil from the situation that now exists. Unless an outsider is caught and convicted of Madeleine's death, the reputations of the McCann family are irreparably damaged. Before charges or any trial, an irremovable stain of suspicion has been cast by police, and broadcast by the media. Even if the McCanns are indicted tomorrow, the principles of natural justice have been flouted in the most shameful fashion.

 
Campbell attacks 'culture of negativity', 28 January 2008
 

Campbell attacks 'culture of negativity' The Guardian

Campbell: said there had been a 'significant fall in basic standards'. Photograph: Martin Argles
Campbell: said there had been a 'significant fall in basic standards'.

Chris Tryhorn
Monday 28 January 2008 19.08 GMT


Alastair Campbell has lambasted the media's "culture of negativity", accusing newspaper and television outlets of sacrificing fairness and accuracy for speed and sensation.

Campbell, Tony Blair's former director of communications, said there had been a "significant fall in basic standards" in journalism despite the growth of traditional media's output and the publishing explosion on the internet.

He was also critical of coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, accusing "most of the media" of getting "close to hysteria, and some have stayed there".

"It is an interesting paradox that while we have more media space than ever, complaint about the lack of healthy debate has never been louder, with fewer stories and issues being addressed in real depth in a way that engages large audiences," Campbell said today, delivering the Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication, in memory of the late Daily Mirror editor Hugh Cudlipp.

"In an era of more pages, more space, more access, more talk, there is less said and done that is truly memorable," Campbell added.

"The growth in scale has been the upside of change; the impact on standards the downside. The forces of technological change and intense competition have created a distorting tension between speed and accuracy. The pressures to get the story first, if wrong, are greater sometimes than the pressures to get the story right, if late."

He said: "There has been a shift to what may be defined as a culture of negativity which goes well beyond coverage of politics. Of course, the idea of news as something that someone, somewhere would rather not see published is a good one. But it is partial.

"When a prevailing wisdom takes hold that news is only news when it is bad for someone, and especially someone in power, then it narrows and distorts the view of the world."

He added that the "old editorial rhythms" that allowed facts to be checked and stories considered before publication had been lost.

While the media easily became bored with stories, there were some that drowned out coverage of anything else, he added, citing the disappearance of Madeleine McCann last year.

"It quickly became a commodity in which most of the media got close to hysteria, and some have remained there," Campbell said.

"It has been the worst example of recent times, on a par with coverage of Princess Diana, of some newspapers thinking the word Madeleine sells, and finding literally any old nonsense to keep her name in that selling position on the front. Mature, stable and fair it is not. Unfair and exploitative it is."

Campbell left his job as Blair's press chief in 2003 partly because he had become "something of a symbol" of bad relations between the media and the political world, he admitted.

He said he was unsure whether things had improved, castigating the media's "language of extremes" and its avoidance of "shades of grey" in covering Gordon Brown's premiership.

"For the first few weeks, the breathless pavement standers told how Gordon Brown could do no wrong. Then the mood shifted, the prism changed, and he went straight from hero to zero. Tony Blair had travelled much the same journey.

"Neither phase of coverage was accurate, for either, because both remove what actually makes politics and life interesting, the shades of grey that provoke real debate. But shades of grey don't fit the formula," Campbell added.

He said there had been just "half a dozen genuine crises" during Blair's decade in power, but "hundreds described as such".

The problem for the media was that it was no longer taken as seriously by the public, he argued.

"The public know politicians may spin them a line, but they have a sense they are being spun someone's line every time they read a paper or listen to a pavement stander," he said.

Like politicians, the media had a problem with trust and turnout, he said, but was failing to address the challenges it faced.

 
The increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann, 15 August 2007
 

The increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann Spiked

Mick Hume: The increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann

The global crusade around missing Maddie seems more and more detached from the local police investigation in Portugal.

Mick Hume
Wednesday 15 August 2007

Back at the start of June, a month after Madeleine McCann disappeared, I suggested that, rather than gawping at her parents meeting the Pope, we might be better off looking at ourselves and asking 'what it says about our society that a family tragedy can be turned into a public spectacle, which, unless something dramatic happens, looks set to run for longer than Big Brother this summer' (1).

A hundred days after her disappearance, as Madeleine returns to the headlines in the UK and the campaign around her spreads further afield, I am afraid that now looks like a severe underestimation; in terms of both scale and timescale, the public spectacle surrounding her has far outweighed the fading star of reality TV.

Almost from the moment Madeleine was reported missing, there has been a stark divide between two things. On one hand, there is the actual police search for a missing four-year-old in Portugal, shrouded in secrecy by that country's laws. On the other, and having little or nothing to do with the case itself, there is the 'Maddie' phenomenon – a very public outpouring of mass emotionalism, led by the media but involving everybody from British prime minister Gordon Brown to thousands who have put posters in windows and posted messages on the internet. This has gone far beyond normal expressions of sympathy into the realm of emotional exhibitionism.

That divide appears starker than ever in the latest round of publicity. The investigation itself is now clearly focusing more than ever on events in the McCanns' holiday apartment on the night that their daughter disappeared. Tiny blood specks reportedly found there in a recent search have been sent to the UK for analysis. But before the results are known, the Portuguese police have this week stated publicly for the first time what anybody familiar with similar cases has surely thought – that it is most likely Madeleine is dead, and that she died on the night she disappeared.

Yet at the same time as the investigation has become more clearly local and focused, the Maddie phenomenon has been spreading further and further. The McCanns have launched a new 'channel' on the YouTube website, called Don't You Forget About Me. They say this is about reaching a younger generation with the Find Madeleine message and 'crossing borders', because 'the internet reaches the whole world'. The attempt to globalise the campaign, and raise awareness about missing children, has even reached into the White House, winning a message of support from First Lady Laura Bush who asked us all to 'Please tune into this new YouTube channel and join the...important effort to protect children in our global society.'

In practice, of course, there is nothing that 'the whole world' or 'our global society' can do to help find a four-year-old missing, now presumed dead, in a Portuguese resort. The only impact this PR campaign can have on the investigation is to prompt more false sightings and start more wild goose chases around the world – most recently in normally-sensible Belgium.

The Maddie phenomenon has become an emotional totem, a moral statement that 'the whole world' can sign up to in order to show that they are on the side of Good. The yellow wristbands are badges that show the world you care. It does not matter that the message on the wristband – 'Look for Madeleine' – is of no practical use. For many wearers, the real message is more like 'Look at me'.

The McCanns have certainly encouraged the spread of the moral crusade around 'our Maddie', through their highly professional PR operation. But the striking thing is the willingness of much of the media – not normally noted for its sentimentality – to follow their lead and jump on the bandwagon. What is more, the latest wave of coverage shows it has gone way beyond the sort of tabloid human interest story that some love to sneer at, and been taken to the heart of the liberal media establishment.

Like anybody else with something to promote these days, the McCanns have been giving a series of cross-media interviews to showcase their new YouTube initiative. Among other things they have appeared on the BBC's Heaven and Earth TV show, been interviewed by the magazine Woman's Own, and done a long interview for the Guardian, bible of the British liberal intelligentsia, which clearly recognises the Leicestershire doctors as two of its own. Noting that the interview was to publicise Don't You Forget About Me – set up 'in partnership with Google, YouTube and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children' – the paper declared that this website 'could become the focus of hope for thousands of families'. Where Madeleine is concerned, it seems, hype is not confined to the popular press. Gerry McCann is also due to appear as a guest speaker at the Guardian-sponsored Edinburgh TV festival.

The media determination to claim a stake in the Maddie phenomenon even started an extraordinary top-level turf war this week, as the heads of news at BBC and ITN exchanged angry messages about each other's coverage of the supposed Belgian 'sighting' of the missing girl, with each side vying to take the moral high ground over the Maddie affair.

Nor is it by any means just the media. All manner of public figures, from pop stars and footballers to Mrs Bush and even the Pope, have made a show of signing on to the Maddie crusade to demonstrate that they are on the side of the angels and to make an emotional connection with an audience. In the UK, Gordon Brown and his people were pushing it from the top of government even before he formally took over as prime minister. There have been reports letting it be known that Brown was in tears when he met the McCanns, and that he has frequently raised the issue with the Portuguese authorities. The Foreign Office has been helping to manage and promote the PR campaign. They arranged the McCanns' high-profile trip to the Vatican, where one 'family friend' quoted as making emotional statements to the media was in fact an FO official.

As for the public response to the McCanns, the mixed attitudes now becoming evident confirm that their case has assumed symbolic importance removed from the actual facts of the investigation. There has been from the start an air of the untouchable surrounding Madeleine's tragic parents, with much of the media apparently outraged by any questioning of them or suggestion that theirs was a lost cause. At the same time, however, the couple are being criticised increasingly openly, not only by the Portuguese media's wild allegations that they were somehow involved in Madeleine's disappearance, but more broadly for acting irresponsibly by leaving their children in bed while they went to dinner round the corner.

This schizophrenic attitude towards the McCanns reflects the dual symbolic status they have assumed in our media-shaped culture today.

First, they are seen as symbols of victimhood, and there is no higher source of moral authority nowadays than to have suffered pain and loss. This automatically places them on a pedestal of virtuousness – witness the slightly disturbing standing ovation they received from other holidaymakers outside a Portuguese church last weekend. Almost inevitably, like other high-profile victims before them, they are now being drawn into using their moral authority to front political campaigns. Thus they have used their new website to call for the introduction of more child protection laws based on the US 'Amber Alert system'. As I have argued elsewhere this week, such a system would likely do more harm than good, intensifying the unhealthy public obsession with the spectre of child abduction (2). But the McCanns' victim status means we are not supposed to question calls for some sort of 'Maddie's Law'.

At the same time, however, they are also seen by some as symbols of suspect parenthood – and few offences are deemed to be graver than that today. The pressure to conform to a tightly-policed version of 'good parenting' explains why the McCanns can now be criticised for making the perfectly reasonable assumption, shared by millions of other parents, that it was safe to leave their children asleep in a hotel room for a short while. The ease with which the spotlight of suspicion now falls on parents also explains why some are ready to give credence to stories of their involvement despite the lack of any evidence.

As we noted on spiked from the start of this sad case, outbursts of ersatz public emotionalism can be unstable and untrustworthy things. Because it is not rooted in any real relationship with the family, it can easily swing from pity to outrage and back. Those who are really making an emotional statement about themselves rather than the McCanns can do so just as easily through spitting bile as crying tears.

It is surely time that we all stopped trying to put ourselves in the McCanns' shoes, and instead tried to put the Maddie phenomenon into some sort of perspective. It is perfectly understandable that her haunted parents should want to carry on with the campaign, that they should refuse to leave Portugal and go back home without their daughter, that they should say they want to do something 'rather than sit back and not do anything'. The rest of us, however, should take a step back and finally try to separate the terrible case in Portugal from the moralistic global crusade being waged around it.

Gerry McCann says they wanted to set up the website 'to channel all this good feeling into something that will benefit other people'. That is a noble sentiment. But some of us do not get such a 'good feeling' about a wider society where many seem to think simply being opposed to child abduction is a cause for public displays of self-congratulatory self-righteousness. Neither do we all accept that a global campaign to raise 'awareness' – ie, anxiety – about child abduction will benefit others, least of all put-upon parents. And nor do we think it is a crime to say that, more than three months after a four-year-old went missing, normal life must be allowed to go on.

Mick Hume
is editor-at-large at spiked.

The following two articles are referenced in the piece by Mick Hume above...

 
Were you at the Vatican, too?, 01 June 2007
 
Were you at the Vatican, too? The Times

Mick Hume: Notebook
June 1, 2007


Who exactly was meant to benefit from the mass outbreak of voyeurism at the Vatican this week, as the world watched Madeleine McCann's parents praying with the Pope? (Or as a BBC headline put it, in a Lloyd-George-knew-my-father moment, "Pope meets Madeleine's parents".)

I am sure the McCanns, devout Catholics, will have drawn spiritual succour from their blessing. But what did the rest of us get out of effectively peering over their shoulders as the story topped the news bulletins? As the sober report in The Times described, "their audience lasted all of 30 seconds". Then it was "the inevitable press conference", which lasted rather longer. Gerry McCann said that the meeting in a packed St Peter's Square had been "more personal than I could ever imagine". Just them and the millions in the media audience.

Mention of a butterfly landing on Kate McCann moved Clarence Mitchell, described as "a family spokesman", to tell the press that this had almost made him weep: "It was as if Madeleine was with us, and was a good omen." Such superstition is now the stuff of news. The emotional Mr Mitchell is in fact a British Foreign Office liaison officer.

Before the Vatican trip the McCanns had already visited the modern confessional box of the media interview. The front pages of Saturday's papers read: Guilt will Never Leave Us (Sun); The Guilt Will Never Leave Us (Mirror); The Guilt Will Never Leave Us (Mail); Our Guilt Will Never Leave Us (Express); We Will Always Feel Guilty (Star). The quality papers, too, made headlines from the quote, a show of unanimity unseen since President Bush declared "war" on terror after 9/11.

The public focus on the story has little to do with any progress in the case in Portugal. It almost seems as if the less that is happening over there, the more it is in the news over here, a stream of Madeleine stories that keep people in the emotional maelstrom.

The McCanns insist that they have drawn strength from all the coverage. It remains to be seen what the longer-term effects may be of having their trauma nationalised. Of course, as they say, the guilt will always be with them. Let us hope that the McCanns are not always with us, turning up to be made an exhibition of years later, like the haunted parents of some past abducted children.

Nobody should blame the parents for trying to keep the story in the news. But that cannot explain why many others have felt the need to indulge in displays of emotional exhibitionism for "our Maddy" that go beyond normal sympathy. Nor is it any excuse for an outbreak of national voyeurism. No doubt if this is what audiences want, they must have it.

But perhaps we should first take a look at ourselves, and see what it says about our society that a family tragedy can be turned into a public spectacle, which, unless something dramatic happens, looks set to run for longer than Big Brother this summer.

 
Why the Amber Alert makes me see red, 14 August 2007
 
Why the Amber Alert makes me see red The Times

Mick Hume: Thunderer
August 14, 2007


Nobody should blame Madeleine McCann’s parents for doing whatever they can to keep publicising their missing daughter's case. But sympathy should not mean we have to support their latest demands for more child protection laws, based on the suspect US "Amber Alert" system.

In a video interview with the campaign's new "Don't you forget about me" slot on YouTube, Kate McCann calls for a faster co-ordinated Euro-response to reports of a missing child, and says Amber Alert puts America's laws "well ahead of the game". After Sarah's Law, will the next crusade be for Maddie's Law?

Let’s hope not. An Amber Alert system would likely do more harm than good, reinforcing society's overblown anxieties about child safety. It originated in the US after the abduction and murder of the nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in 1996. It starts from the recognition that a swift police response is essential (of 40 children abducted and killed in America in a year, 74 per cent were dead within three hours). But Amber Alert turns that into a media-driven PR exercise, with warnings flashed everywhere from the news to text messages and highway signs.

It seems strangely appropriate that Amber Alert is based on a system developed to disperse information after a nuclear attack, since child abduction appears to have replaced the Bomb as the object of a paranoid national obsession.

US officials claim loudly that 800,000 kids go missing a year. In fact almost all are runaways or result from custody disputes. Yet the official Amber Alert mentality has impressed mistrust of strangers upon the public psyche, as parents queue to have police photograph and fingerprint their children in readiness for when they, too, are abducted.

There have been moves to introduce similar systems here, such as the Child Rescue Alert in Sussex. Its first big test came after the reported abduction of a girl in 2003. She turned out to be safely asleep, and the planned text messages and motorway warnings failed. Yet the pointless PR stunt was hailed a "brilliant success" anyway, because it helped to raise public awareness – aka anxiety – about child abduction.

It is understandable that the McCanns should want to do something "rather than sit back and not do anything". However, when it comes to new laws the rest of us should try to separate their private pain from the public interest.

Mrs McCann says that she asks herself why she thought it was safe to leave her children in bed and go for a meal. "But it felt safe. You don't expect a predator to break in and take your daughter." No, and we are right not to expect it, even 100 days after Madeleine's disappearance. Let's remain alert for warning signs that society's sense of perspective has gone missing.

 
Madeleine: Information or entertainment?, 31 January 2008
 

Madeleine: Information Or Entertainment? Sky News

Angela Corpe
Sky News reporter Updated:08:46, Thursday January 31, 2008

There is no question that the McCanns were the biggest media story of 2007, but was the mass of media coverage information of entertainment?

The world is watching
The world is watching

The McCanns' spokesman Clarence Mitchell and former editor of The Sun Kelvin MacKenzie attempted to answer that question last night at the London School of Economics.

"The most significant story of my lifetime" was how Kelvin MacKenzie described it and one which he said will be in all our lives until Madeleine is found.

He told a packed auditorium that he received 10,000 emails from Sun readers after writing a piece which said we should have sympathy for the McCanns. Almost all, he said, told him he was a scumbag and that he had no idea how ordinary people felt.

"They said had this been a single black mother from Brixton I would have been saying she should be hung." And he admitted "you should all wonder if there may be some truth in that."

So why, on the one hand, was there such a public outpouring of support for the McCanns which raised £1.2 million pounds for the fund to find Madeleine, and on the other newspaper readers baying for Gerry and Kate's blood?

Kelvin MacKenzie described it as a "class war" saying people simply made up their mind from the very beginning.

As soon as the public found out that the couple had left their three children alone in the holiday apartment night after night, they fell into two categories; those who could empathise, who'd perhaps done the same thing themselves and realised how easily it could have been their child, others who felt the McCanns were somehow deserving of something happening, and that they should be charged with negligence.

The latter group were well represented at the debate - a couple handed out leaflets entitled "The Madeleine Foundation, combating child neglect".

In it they demanded the McCanns "tell the truth" about Madeleine's disappearance, asked for an investigation into the Find Madeleine Fund and called for Kate and Gerry to be prosecuted for leaving their children alone.

Even if the public had already made up their own minds, Clarence Mitchell said the coverage by some newspapers certainly didn't help.

The former Royal Correspondent for the BBC said he felt "shamed" as a journalist by the "appalling standards, sloppiness and laziness of journalism" and the lack of basic fact-checking which left him having to deny allegations on a daily basis.

Lawyers for the McCanns are still reviewing some of the coverage which Mr Mitchell said was not only "distorted, but wilfully misrepresentative at times of the facts as we known them".

Whilst co-operating with the media meant Madeleine's image was displayed all over Britain, mainland Europe and even North Africa is also meant the McCanns themselves came under the spotlight, and none more so than when they became "Arguidos" or suspects.

Do they have any regrets? I am sure they have many, but Mr Mitchell said the family remained grateful for the positive reporting since Madeleine disappeared, and he said he would defy any family in the McCann's situation not to do the same.

"The Media" he said "is a very powerful weapon" and it is, but it is also a double-edged sword.

 
Newspaper report(s) of the debate

 
McCanns 'not suspects in the UK': What Clarence Mitchell actually said about the support of the UK police and CEOP
 
McCanns 'not suspects in the UK': What Clarence Mitchell actually said about the support of the UK police and CEOP

By Nigel Moore
Updated: 11 July 2011

Following the LSE debate, it was widely reported by the media that the UK police had 'cleared' the McCanns and no longer considered them to be 'suspects' [at the time the McCanns were still 'arguidos' in the Portuguese led investigation]. This revelation was based solely on the following reported quote from Clarence Mitchell:
"I have also had briefings privately from the police and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) centre that also gave me complete reassurance that the authorities, in this country certainly, are treating this as a case of rare stranger abduction, as they call it."
Aside from a few minimal variations in wording, all the reports published that day were identical, which clearly indicates a single source for the pieces; almost certainly The Press Association.

The problem with such a system of news reporting is obvious. If the source material is incorrect or misleading, it will continue publication unabated and likely become accepted as 'the truth', based purely on the widespread level of reproduction - across broadsheets and tabloids.

Here are the actual words used by Clarence Mitchell (mp3 clip below):
'I've also had briefings privately from the police and CEOP, Child Exploitation Online Potection Centre, before I went out the first time, that also gave me complete reassurance that the authorities, in this country certainly, are treating this as a case of rare stranger abduction, as they call it.'
The crucial aspect of these private briefings is that they happened 'before I went out the first time', which strongly suggests they ocurred on 21 May 2007, on the day Clarence Mitchell met Gerry McCann for the first time, at Leicestershire police station. The very next day the pair flew out to Praia da Luz together.

In Clarence Mitchell's statement to Leicestershire Police, on April 28, 2008, he states, of his first meeting with Gerry Mccann: "It was a circumstantial meeting at Leicestershire Police station. At the time I was working as part of the Consular Assistance Group, representing the foreigners department. I was asked to return to Portugal with Mr McCann, where I met his wife. Later I became the McCann family’s representative and I developed a good personal and professional relationship with them."

Whilst Clarence Mitchell may well have told the truth, concerning the actual timing of the 'briefings', he was being misleading when he claimed the police and CEOP 'are treating this as a case of rare stranger abduction' instead of 'were treating...'. It seems clear there were no further briefings with the police, or CEOP, after May 2007 - at least none in support of Mitchell's 'rare stranger abduction' assertion - otherwise they would surely have been emphasised in support of his statement. Instead, he relies on information which was, at that time, nearly a year old - a lifetime in a criminal investigation.

Whether the original journalist omitted the clarification through human error or sound business judgement remains unclear, although it is ironic that Clarence Mitchell should himself have complained at the debate about "the sloppiness and laziness of some of the journalists, and the lack of independence of thought and checking of facts".

One thing we do know for sure is that by 7 July 2008, at the latest, the assistant chief constable of Leicestershire considered that: "While one or both of them [the McCanns] may be innocent, there is no clear evidence that eliminates them from involvement in Madeleine's disappearance."

Listen to Mitchell's quote here

 
Madeleine McCann parents 'not suspects in UK', 31 January 2008
 
Madeleine McCann parents 'not suspects in UK' The Telegraph

By Bonnie Malkin and agencies
9:42AM GMT 31 Jan 2008


British police do not consider Madeleine McCann's parents suspects in her disappearance, according to the couple's spokesman.

Clarence Mitchell said officials, including child protection workers, had assured him in private briefings that they were treating the case as one of "rare stranger abduction".

Mr Mitchell was speaking last night as he launched an outspoken attack on the "appalling" standards of some media coverage of the disappearance of Kate and Gerry McCann's daughter in Portugal in May.

Mr Mitchell, who acted as the couple's spokesman shortly after Madeleine went missing and reprised the role four-and-a-half months ago, said he was completely convinced of their innocence.

He told a packed theatre: "I have never once seen or heard anything from either of them to give me any cause for suspicion in any shape or form.

"I have also had briefings privately from the police and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) centre that also gave me complete reassurance that the authorities, in this country certainly, are treating this as a case of rare stranger abduction, as they call it."

But Mr Mitchell said he felt "shamed" as a former reporter by the "sloppiness" and "laziness" of certain journalists in covering the story.

Speaking at a debate on The McCanns and the Media at the London School of Economics, Mr Mitchell said: "What we have taken issue with, and our lawyers continue to review, is the aspect of coverage that is not only distorted but wilfully misrepresentative at times of the facts as we know them or the lack of facts.

"In that vacuum I'm afraid some very sloppy standards have crept in."

Mr Mitchell said he understood a story about Madeleine's disappearance could add 70,000 sales to some newspapers, meaning there was "a commercial imperative" to reporting on the case.

He assured the audience they could be certain that "every single one" of the negative stories they read or heard about the McCanns was untrue.

Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, another panel member at the debate, said the McCann story was "the most significant story in my lifetime".

He went on: "Without the finding of the child this story is going to be in all our lives forever.

"It will live beyond Lord Lucan, it will go beyond Princess Diana and it will go beyond Shergar."

 
Madeleine McCann: UK police don't suspect parents, 31 January 2008
 
Madeleine McCann: UK police don't suspect parents Liverpool Daily Post

Jan 31 2008

British police and child protection officers do not suspect Madeleine McCann’s parents of involvement in her disappearance, the couple's spokesman said tonight.

Clarence Mitchell said officials had assured him in private briefings that they were treating the case as one of "rare stranger abduction".

He was speaking as he launched an outspoken attack on the "appalling" standards of some media coverage of the disappearance of the Kate and Gerry McCann's daughter in Portugal in May.

Mr Mitchell, who acted as the couple's spokesman shortly after Madeleine went missing and reprised this role four-and-a-half months ago, said he was completely convinced of their innocence.

He told a packed theatre: "I have never once seen or heard anything from either of them to give me any cause for suspicion in any shape or form.

"I have also had briefings privately from the police and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) centre that also gave me complete reassurance that the authorities, in this country certainly, are treating this as a case of rare stranger abduction, as they call it."

But Mr Mitchell said he felt "shamed" as a former reporter by the "sloppiness" and "laziness" of certain journalists in covering the story.

Speaking at a debate on The McCanns and the Media at the London School of Economics, Mr Mitchell said: "What we have taken issue with, and our lawyers continue to review, is the aspect of coverage that is not only distorted but wilfully misrepresentative at times of the facts as we know them or the lack of facts.

"In that vacuum I'm afraid some very sloppy standards have crept in."

He singled out "the sloppiness and laziness of some of the journalists, and the lack of independence of thought and checking of facts".

Mr Mitchell said he understood putting a story about Madeleine's disappearance on the front page could add 70,000 sales to some newspapers, meaning there was "definitely a commercial imperative" to reporting on the case.

He assured the audience they could be certain that "every single one" of the negative stories they read or heard about the McCanns was untrue.

Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, another panel member at the debate, said the McCann story was "the most significant story in my lifetime".

He went on: "Without the finding of the child this story is going to be in all our lives forever.

"It will live beyond Lord Lucan, it will go beyond Princess Diana and it will go beyond Shergar."

He told the audience he received around 10,000 emails from Sun readers when he wrote a column defending the McCanns.

Nearly all the people who wrote to him said he had "no idea how ordinary people felt" and suggested the couple would have been condemned for leaving their children alone on the night Madeleine vanished if they were not white, middle class and respectable.

He said it was "definitely a class issue", adding: "I never once received an email which said 'we believe they did it'.

"But there is definitely an air of demanding punishments out there, that they should suffer and be charged with negligence."

Madeleine went missing from her family's holiday flat in the Algarve resort of Praia da Luz on May 3 last year while her parents ate with friends at a nearby tapas restaurant.

 
British police 'clear' McCanns of involvement in Madeleine disappearance, 31 January 2008
 

British police 'clear' McCanns of involvement in Madeleine disappearance Daily Mail

Last updated at 11:51 31 January 2008

British police and child protection officers do not suspect Madeleine McCann's parents of involvement in her disappearance, the couple's spokesman said.

Clarence Mitchell said officials had assured him in private briefings that they were treating the case as one of "rare stranger abduction".

He was speaking last night as he launched an outspoken attack on the "appalling" standards of some media coverage of the disappearance of Kate and Gerry McCann's daughter in Portugal in May.

In the clear: The McCanns' spokesman Clarence Mitchell says that British police to not suspect the couple were involved in the disappearance of their daughter

Mr Mitchell, who acted as the couple's spokesman shortly after Madeleine went missing and reprised this role four-and-a-half months ago, said he was completely convinced of their innocence.

He told a packed theatre: "I have never once seen or heard anything from either of them to give me any cause for suspicion in any shape or form.

"I have also had briefings privately from the police and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) centre that also gave me complete reassurance that the authorities, in this country certainly, are treating this as a case of rare stranger abduction, as they call it."

But Mr Mitchell said he felt "shamed" as a former reporter by the "sloppiness" and "laziness" of certain journalists in covering the story.

Speaking at a debate on The McCanns and the Media at the London School of Economics, Mr Mitchell said: "What we have taken issue with, and our lawyers continue to review, is the aspect of coverage that is not only distorted but wilfully misrepresentative at times of the facts as we know them or the lack of facts.

"In that vacuum I'm afraid some very sloppy standards have crept in."

He singled out "the sloppiness and laziness of some of the journalists, and the lack of independence of thought and checking of facts".

Mr Mitchell said he understood putting a story about Madeleine's disappearance on the front page could add 70,000 sales to some newspapers, meaning there was "definitely a commercial imperative" to reporting on the case.

He assured the audience they could be certain that "every single one" of the negative stories they read or heard about the McCanns was untrue.

Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, another panel member at the debate, said the McCann story was "the most significant story in my lifetime".

He went on: "Without the finding of the child this story is going to be in all our lives forever.

"It will live beyond Lord Lucan, it will go beyond Princess Diana and it will go beyond Shergar."

He told the audience he received around 10,000 emails from Sun readers when he wrote a column defending the McCanns.

Nearly all the people who wrote to him said he had "no idea how ordinary people felt" and suggested the couple would have been condemned for leaving their children alone on the night Madeleine vanished if they were not white, middle class and respectable.

He said it was "definitely a class issue", adding: "I never once received an email which said 'we believe they did it'.

"But there is definitely an air of demanding punishments out there, that they should suffer and be charged with negligence."

Madeleine went missing from her family's holiday flat in the Algarve resort of Praia da Luz on May 3 last year while her parents ate with friends at a nearby tapas restaurant.