Monday, October 29, 2007

The UK's Tabloid Press Play a Sly Game

Where to start in the case that has gripped the British public for near to the last six months? How do we wade through the mire of speculation, spin and sometimes pure nonsense being bandied about? Should we go out on a limb and mention insinuations of high level if not political interference in a criminal investigation? Could the parents be guilty of involvement in their daughter’s disappearance? Will the missing child ever be found? and if so, will she be alive?

The McCann case still dominates the headlines of the UK’s tabloid press. It makes appearances in the broadsheets, albeit the predominantly Tory publications; the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Sky News has a special web-page devoted to the story. And countless forum members and amateur web sleuths daily post their opinions on each and every development.

So lets state the facts we are sure of before we continue. On May 03 of this year a British child, Madeleine McCann, daughter of Gerry and Kate McCann was reported missing from the family’s hired holiday villa in Praia de Luz, the Algarve, Portugal. The British media reported it as an abduction. On May 15 Robert Murat, an ex-pat Anglo-Portuguese was declared a formal suspect (an aguido) by Polícia Judiciária officers investigating the case. On September 07 and 08 both parents were also declared formal suspects after hours, (in the case of Mrs McCann 20 plus hours) questioning. On September 09 the parents and their two other children, returned to their family home in Rothley, Leicestershire. As far as I can ascertain these are the bare bones of the affair. There are other secondary facts, such as the Find Madeleine Fund, Leaving No Stone Unturned (a fund/web-site set up to facilitate people who wished to contribute financially in helping search for the missing child). The parents high-profile visit to the Vatican where they met the Pope on his Sunday walk-about before St Peters. (This was not an audience as has been reported – audiences with the Pope are reserved only for Heads of State etc). The help of the UK’s FSS, (Forensic Science Service) in gathering and analysing forensic evidence. Liaison by Leicestershire police. A number of highly public sightings, all of which led to nothing. And the fact that the child is, of course, still missing. (though that perhaps should be the main primary fact in this case)

For the British public this story has been confounded by two particular aspects. One, the fact that the Polícia Judiciária are not permitted under Article 68 of Portuguese Penal Code to comment on an investigation while it is still taking place. Therefore there is in fact very little known, or very little that can or has been substantiated. This, added to general ignorance about the judicial processes and legal systems of other EU states has fuelled a sense for many that the investigation is haphazard and shrouded in secrecy, if not downright dissimulation. Secondly, in the initial stages of the story the media, particularly the tabloid press, were used and happy to be used in an effort to publicise the child’s face in the hope she could be found. All of which no doubt boosted sales and permitted at least some journalists to bask in the warm glow of ‘doing good’ in the dangerous and sensationalist world many of them seem to inhabit.

Now subsequent to the parents being made Formal Suspects you can speculate on whether they are involved in their child’s disappearance or not. If we are to believe what has been leaked to the press, (from both the police and the family), the investigation as of the moment is focused on the theory that Mrs McCann somehow was responsible for the accidental death of her daughter and that her and her husband conspired to cover this up with claims of an abduction. We have been assured that the Polícia Judiciária (PJ) have DNA evidence that places the body of the child in the boot of a Renault Scenic hired by the parents 25 days after their daughter’s disappearance. (whether dead or alive, we are not sure) We have been told that ‘cadaver dogs’ trained in tracking the scent of a corpse, detected just that on Mrs McCann’s clothing and a bible she was using. The same dogs reacted positively to the car’s door handle and followed a trail to a nearby church. All of which has been vehemently dismissed by the parents. Then, refuted, by various spokespeople from the McCann PR machine, now under the stewardship of ex government media-monitoring man, Clarence Mitchell. Despite, of course, the Polícia Judiciária having yet brought charges.

But perhaps the strangest element of this case is the sense of frustration. It is a little like trying to chew on cotton wool. In the absence of hard fact the British tabloids have taken to a daily roller coaster of innuendo and refutation of said innuendo. And they have, frankly, been having their cake and eating it. For instance they have managed to keep the possibility that the parents are involved in their daughter’s disappearance in the headlines without having to actually suggest that. Simply put, they cover themselves by picking up on what the Portuguese press have been reporting 24 hours previous, (the Portuguese press, it has to said are a lot less sympathetic to the parents) , then running it in the context of ‘outrageous slurs’ or ‘new smears’ on Gerry and Kate. This is then usually followed by a refutation from Clarence Mitchell who challenges these ‘smears’ and ‘slurs’, (they are often repeated again in full) with an explanation of ‘his’ own (sometimes ridiculously weak), and a further reiteration of the fact that the parents are 100 percent innocent. Now I have to say, if I was either of the McCanns I would be very unhappy with this. Surely the way to deal with ‘outrageous slurs’ or ‘savage smears’ is to sue for libel if there are grounds to, or failing that, to meet such ‘nonsense’ with dignified silence. Also the very presence of such a prominent PR spokesperson tends to set in motion a sort of professional jockeying for position between editors and the requisite spokesperson.

Editors have to deal with political pressure and PR all the time. They have to be careful who they offend, or who they do not offend, for in a highly commercial market they do not want to find themselves out in the ‘information’ cold. Yet editors also defend their right to control what goes in their publications often with a vehemence. They, most importantly of all, are aware of keeping their proprietors happy, that is making sure circulation figures do not drop.

Witness last Wednesday’s TV interview with Antena 3, a Spanish commercial TV network. Much was made in the following morning’s press of Kate McCann, who has been consistently accused of not showing enough emotion in public, breaking down and crying. Nearly all the tabloids carried images which purported to show Mrs McCann’s tears. Well, I must say, I looked and looked hard. All I saw was evidence of one tear. A small tear at that. No wailing and distraught display of grief there. So I watched the excerpts from the interview, only to be struck by one thing. Indeed I could have been watching a woman who is guilty and trying to cover up something, who was performing a scripted interview and seemed to be undemonstrative at the best. It also could have been a woman who simply is not comfortable before a camera, does not easily show her emotions in public and is under considerable pressure and strain. My point is, depending on where I was coming from it was possible to read what I wanted to see into what was there.
Friday’s press followed this story with reports that in a phone-in 70% of viewers in Spain still thought the couple were guilty. (and one hopes GMTV were not handling the call-lines). Again the see-saw. It was another example of having your cake and eating it. This was ostensibly reported under the guise of ‘parent’s shock’ and a savaging of Spanish TV psychologists who criticised the interview as a performance. However the story was printed. Those who are convinced of the couple’s guilt had their piece of information; their ammunition. (Spokesperson Clarence Mitchell’s response to criticism of Kate’s tears was the ‘public complained of not having tears and when they got them, they criticised them as unreal’. Which to me is as close as he will ever get to admitting he secretly considers himself ring-master in a circus).
Sunday’s papers then carried a story in which John Stalker (former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police) under the headline ‘McCanns are hiding a big secret’ again re-iterated his belief that neither parents could have murdered their child. To which one wants to shout, ‘with no disrespect Mr Stalker, no-one, I repeat no-one has yet accused them of murder. The allegation would appear to be one of ‘covering up accidental death’. But notice the innuendo of murder, secret, refutation, innocence, guilt. There is a little here for everyone.

The McCann case has shown the tabloid press at its cleverest – which to many will mean its most abject. They have juggled all the balls skillfully. No doubt this has kept their sales up. They are playing to all the galleries concerned; those who think the couple are guilty, those who think the couple are beyond reproach and those who are being paid to keep alive the public image of caring parents who are the victims of a dreadful abduction.

Perhaps here I should nail my colours to the flag pole; I would like very much to believe the parents are innocent of any involvement in their daughter’s disappearance but remain unconvinced. Reports of DNA evidence, though yet to be officially verified, do not, for me fall under the description ‘smear’ and ‘slur’. I am however prepared to let the police do their job and if they have a case no doubt they will bring a prosecution. And it would seem some criticism of their competency, certainly in the early stages of the investigation is warranted; though this does not justify the xenophobic and jingoistic tone of some reporting. It would also seem the McCanns have been offered plenty of support in the form of financial aid to meet what could be considerable legal expenses. With the services of one of the UK’s top law firms and president of the Portuguese Bar, Mr. Rogério Alves any fears of them being set-up would seem to be tenuous at the least.

There are no winners in this case. Save the media; particularly the tabloid press. They have kept this story simmering and bubbling for near to six months. All with only a paucity of real news. If this story has a conclusion and whatever happened on the night of May 03 is eventually disclosed or the version we are at present aware of vindicated, then it may just become evident that we have all been victims, the McCanns included, of the now increasingly self-evident fact that news and journalism are now no more than another form of entertainment. Another form of faux-celebrity. In a cut-throat commercial marketplace any form of responsibility, of need to know has been abandoned in favour of short-term monetary gain. We no longer have news but non-news.

While all the time, the whereabouts or fate of three year old child is still unkown.

Copyright (C) Peter Millington Oct 2007