In the middle of the media scrum

In the middle of the media scrum
30 May 2007
Leicester Mercury

Leicester Mercury man Paul Conroy reports on the first month of the extraordinary McCann case
What you see on your TV screens is Leicestershire couple Gerry and Kate McCann standing shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand.

But if you could spin the camera round, you'd see something quite different - the massed ranks of journalists, photographers and TV cameras at the Portuguese family resort of Praia da Luz.

There must be about 100 of them, sweating under the hot midday sun, pens at the ready.

Hundreds of children go missing every year, of course. Each one is a tragedy.

The reason poor Madeleine McCann continues to attract such interest, almost a month on, is partly down to the canny, determined Rothley parents. They want their missing child in the news.

Gerry and Kate face the waiting press pack almost every day, Kate clutching the pink Cuddle Cat which her daughter would hold whenever she was upset and needed comforting.

Now, it is her mother's constant companion.

As they speak, just five yards to their right is the ground-floor apartment that Madeleine was taken from, 27 days ago.

The couple live in another, nearby apartment now.

The shutters to this one remain closed, covered in the red powder used by the police to highlight any fingerprints.

The McCanns speak briefly - usually it's the Scottish voice of Gerry, as Liverpudlian Kate holds his arm.

Then, as the couple turn to go, chaos returns to the press pack.

TV presenters leap to their feet to expand on the words that have been broadcast live: "We have just heard from Gerry McCann who spoke about how the family will not return home without their daughter..."

Journalists scrabble for a copy of the statement - printed in advance for just this purpose - before walking away with a mobile clamped to their ear as they relay the couple's words back to the office.

The media is sometimes accused of feeding on people's misery, squeezing every last drop out of the latest tragedy.

And, indeed, 100 journalists scrabbling to get a story back to their editors as quickly as possible is not a pretty sight.

This case has been different, though - this is a couple who want the media coverage, who feel they need it. The pair have spoken of going to "dark places" in the days after their daughter's abduction - but then taking a decision to act.

That means, effectively, being their own PR office.

Gerry and Kate McCann want their daughter back. To help get her back, they want to get her on the front pages of newspapers every day, all over the world, for as long as possible.

So, they and their helpers plan what to say, plan what to do, to make a new headline or a new picture for the press.

Gerry and Kate fear the day when they wake up in their Praia da Luz apartment and all the journalists' satellite trucks have gone.

The British press, for its part, has been careful to respect the couple's wishes. "Intrusion boundaries" were established in the first few days.

The photographers, for example, checked the parents were happy for pictures of the twins, Sean and Amelie, to be published.

Now, the two youngest McCann children have become so used to the flashes that they wave at the photographers.

While the Rothley couple have shown canniness in dealing with the media, the Portuguese police have been less assured.

Clearly, those heading the investigation were taken aback in the first few days by the way the British media works.

They seemed surprised when journalists began ringing the police with questions.

Some of the criticism of the Portuguese police may have been over the top, and some can be put down to cultural differences.

A Portuguese lawyer explained that, in Portugal, the "segredo de justica", or secrecy of justice laws, prevent the release of virtually any details about an ongoing investigation.

He said that would only be breached in exceptional circumstances.

But, as one British journalist asked at a press conference: "Isn't finding a missing child an exceptional circumstance?"

Pictures of police officers sheltering from the rain when they should have been checking cars at a road block cannot have inspired confidence either.

And a former British police officer criticised the way the police had protected the apartment where Madeleine was snatched.

He said: "It is the worst-preserved crime scene I have seen."

There have been a few twists and turns.

Portuguese law also allowed property developer Robert Murat to be made an arguido, or official suspect, which requires less evidence than would be needed to arrest him.

The news about this development came on May 14, at about 7pm. Journalists had gathered in their usual position at the police cordon for a statement by John Buck, the British ambassador to Portugal.

As the pack waited, news spread about a villa being searched nearby. Journalists discussed whether to stay to hear the ambassador or leave to look for the villa.

Minutes ticked by, the ambassador was late. Word then spread that the house being searched was just yards away and suddenly the pack broke into a mad sprint towards Casa Lilliana.

As the ambassador came out to address the media, all he could see was the backs of fleeing journalists.

The press pack crashed through a patch of bushes and small trees to line up against a new police cordon outside the investigated house, which is just 150 yards from the McCann apartment.

The reporters knew Robert Murat. He spoke both Portuguese and English, and spent a lot of time where the journalists gathered.

However, police sources said no evidence has been found to link him to the kidnapping.

Then, on Friday, came the description of a man who was seen "carrying a child" on the night of Madeleine's disappearance.

Some journalists questioned the importance of its release from the start, saying the authorities had known about the sighting since the four-year-old was abducted and must have looked into it.

So, the disappearance of Madeleine and the media coverage of it has produced a clash of cultures.

But, as Gerry McCann said: "I think it's fair to say that we expected a very British-style response, that you would expect if you were in a big metropolitan city, but you have to put that in context - we're in a tiny resort."

The Portuguese police have now been forced into holding press conferences and releasing scraps of information, which local journalists say never usually happens on any criminal investigation.

Chief Inspector Oligario Sousa, the public face of the police investigation, said he had never appeared before the media.

Asked whether all the publicity had helped the case, he simply replied: "No."

The McCanns may disagree.

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