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October 1, 2007

Madeleine McCann coverage: Did we get it right?

By Press Gazette

The Press Complaints Commission has received one complaint from the McCann family over the thousands of articles which have appeared since their daughter’s disappearance on 3 May.

It is over the accuracy of an article which appeared in the Sunday Express. However, Press Gazette understands that the complaint was made by the McCanns’ former spokesman and that there is a question mark over whether it will be proceeded with.

Otherwise, a PCC source said they believe the McCanns’ relationship with the British press remains ‘pretty good”.

A ‘handful’of members of the public have contacted the PCC to express their concerns about ‘the coverage as a whole, including TV and radio”.

A PCC spokesman said: ‘Considering the number of articles published, it is not an awful lot.”

The McCann family now has a full-time press office headed by former BBC reporter Clarence Mitchell.

When asked about the family’s perception of the media coverage, a spokesman said: ‘The developments focusing on the McCanns as arguidos were not something they were particularly happy with, and since then they have hired lawyers to support them in their response to enquiries from Portuguese police.

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‘They are a little weary but happy with the new movement away from them as suspects.

‘We have been inundated with media enquiries, both nationally and internationally, and now the feeling is that Mr and Mrs McCann want to get back to life as normal.

‘They are pulling back from one-on-one interviews and now there are just going to be the weekly pooled briefings with Clarence Mitchell.”

The media verdict

Paul Johnson, deputy editor, The Guardian

“The McCanns put the story there and sought media exposure for their own reasons, but I’m afraid that does have consequences. It stirs up enormous public interest.

We have tried to lay out the story in all its twists and turns, but our guiding principle has been to do that in a calm manner and not treat speculation as fact.

One (British) paper is crudely obsessional. This is a paper that accused a Madeleine suspect of behaving just like Huntley; saying her body was thrown into the sea; and running a headline saying ‘Madeleine alive”.

Then there was odious speculation in some papers suggesting that Gerry wasn’t the father. It is a reflection of treating every bit of rumour and innuendo, as fact.

We’ve had one particular reporter there on and off who speaks Portuguese. They have concluded that the Portuguese police were briefing the Portuguese papers almost as a way of getting back at the British press, which had accused them of incompetence.

The British press as a body was sticking the boot into the Portuguese judicial system – that we probably don’t understand too well – and also sticking the boot in about the police methods of inquiry.

There does seem to be a reaction by the Portuguese police and we know that the Portuguese papers had three or four off-the-record briefings from the police. These stories appeared in the Portuguese press and then were recycled.”

Peter Horrocks, head of TV news, BBC

“The audience clearly does want it, [as shown by] circulation figures and, more particularly, audiences for TV news bulletins, for continuous news channels and online sites. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the level of coverage is right, and there have been times when there has been too much.

At times when there’s been no new news to report, a number of newspaper and TV organisations have filled that space with speculation of an evidential or a psychological nature which isn’t very well founded.

It’s been right that all of us have given a lot of space to this story, not just due to the level of public interest but also a number of things that it’s thrown up around care of children, around the potential for children to be snatched, policing, and about different judicial systems. All those things have been genuinely interesting issues that deserve space, but probably not as much space as was filled by some of the speculation.

The difficult period was a few weeks ago. Some of the things which were being reported in the Portuguese press became part of the case that appeared to be put to the McCanns, and so some unsubstantiated or uncorroborated information sometimes does turn out to have a grain of truth in it. That’s a genuine journalistic dilemma because of a lack of clear sourcing with this story.

We’ve proceeded on as cautious a basis as possible and we’ve been very clear to attribute information to sources where possible. If we don’t know that something’s true, we’ve made that absolutely clear.

‘I think we [the BBC] have been more restrained [than other broadcasters] – in particular we’ve been careful not to dwell purely on the emotional side of it. We’ve said to presenters that they shouldn’t refer to them as Kate and Gerry and they shouldn’t over-personalise it. We’ve also said they shouldn’t be speculating about what the McCanns may be thinking. I’ve heard presenters and correspondents on other networks saying ‘One’s heart goes out to them’and ‘What trauma they must be going through”.

It’s an emotional story in its own right, and it doesn’t need emotional reporting in order for the audience to respond.”

Yvonne Radley, news editor, Gcap’s Leicester Sound

When somebody courts the press like the McCanns did in the initial stages, you can’t expect that to stop if the situation changes like it did when they became arguidos.

From our point of view as journalists it is very difficult dealing with PR companies rather than the people directly affected: Gerry and Kate or their relatives.

Normally you’d knock on the door and talk to people, but now it’s like a media machine.

Richard Bettsworth, deputy editor, Leicester Mercury

I think it’s an extraordinary idea that there is pro-McCann coverage and anti-McCann coverage. The McCanns have lost their four-year-old daughter who has been abducted from their holiday apartment in Portugal.

They have done nothing wrong. The idea that it is somehow wrong to be pro-McCann, to show support and try to help them is extraordinary. If it turns out they are guilty I would be utterly astonished, and I think most of Britain would be. I think they are entirely innocent.

I am very pleased that we have maintained a consistent line throughout and have not been swayed by speculation that the McCanns are guilty of something.

I understand why some people feel there has been too much coverage, but I wouldn’t say there has been. There is massive interest in this story and people are publishing a lot of information because there’s that appetite for it.

There has been a difference between local and national coverage. One example is when the McCanns came back to Britain they specifically asked that the media to respect their privacy now they are back in Rothley. We have done that and do not station reporters or photographers on a speculative basis in Rothley. We continue to report as and when.

A lot of the national media have continued to station people there despite that plea for privacy. What can possibly be gained from stationing people in this village? There’s nothing to report on.

Ian Herbert, reporter, The Independent

We do a lot of work to establish contact with Portuguese journalists and to establish how valid they are as sources and how valid their stories are. It’s not just a case of taking those stories and running with them; there is a lot of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Not only are UK journalists trying to establish the credibility of lines running in Portugal but we are also trying to get an understanding of the Portuguese legal system, which is key to this story and is hard to fathom. There are next to no police officers who you can actually go to; the police just don’t work that way in Portugal.

Personally, I have found the Expresso newspaper has been very useful, and Sol, which is very well connected to the police.

Gary Jones, head of news, Daily Mirror

You will get saturation coverage because this is almost a unique case. There has been a huge amount of speculation because nobody knows exactly what happened.

There’s a lot of wading through ridiculous theories which shouldn’t appear in the media, but they are out there and people are aware of them. It’s a disservice to your readers to ignore them.

We called the idea about Madeleine being put in an incinerator a ‘crack-pot theory”, but some of our competitors have taken it seriously. There’s been a huge amount of conflicting information, much of it spurred by the Portuguese police.

Murat was placed very firmly in the frame and then it then turned on Madeleine’s parents and there was a feeding frenzy because no one expected that to happen.

Every newspaper has written something everyday, from The Mirror to The Times. There’s not an incredible amount of fact around. As long as the reader understands what is speculation then that’s fine.

Kate Squire, managing editor, BBC Radio Leicester

It has obviously been a huge story for Leicester, so initially there was a huge wave of empathy and outpouring of feeling. As a local station we responded to that and reflected on it in the villages where Kate and Gerry work.

We were talking to the people they work with and getting different kinds of interviews there and we’ve been very sensitive to that, but we’ve also had to remain objective. We haven’t really speculated.

My breakfast presenter lives in the next village to Rothley and his children go to the same nursery as the McCann children, and so there is a real connection there. The people in Rothley feel a connection with Radio Leicester.

We’ve found it difficult when the national crews and world media descend in one of our villages because it’s very hard for one of us not to be tainted with their brush.There is no doubt that people in Rothley are now fed up with the media.

I think they still see us as a little bit differently because we’re there fighting their corner. We’re also dealing with the concerns of local people. For example, the businesses in Rothley are suffering because people aren’t going into the village to shop any more, because every time they do they’re stopped by reporters and they’re getting fed up with it.

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