Press standards, privacy and libel - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 168-179)


10 MARCH 2009

  Q168 Chairman: Good afternoon, everybody. This is the third session of the Committee's inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. I would like to welcome as our witnesses this afternoon Gerry McCann, his media spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, and Adam Tudor of Carter Ruck. Obviously we are going to be focusing this afternoon specifically on media issues but perhaps I could just start off by expressing, I think on behalf of all of the Committee, our sympathy to Gerry McCann for the ordeal that he and his family have had to undergo and also to express the hope still that Madeleine might one day be found. Before we come to questions, I know that you would like to make a short statement.

Mr McCann: Thank you. I am Gerald McCann, the father of Madeleine, who was abducted in Praia da Luz on 3 May 2007. Although elements of the media coverage have undoubtedly been helpful in the ongoing search for Madeleine, our family has been the focus of some of the most sensationalist, untruthful, irresponsible and damaging reporting in the history of the press. If it were not for the love and tremendous support of our family, friends and the general public, this disgraceful conduct, particularly in the tragic circumstances in which we find ourselves, may have resulted in the complete disruption of our family.

  Q169  Chairman: Can I ask you to say a little bit more about your impression of the reporting of the case and how it changed over time?

  Mr McCann: The first impressions really started on day one when we came back to Praia da Luz having spent the day in Portimao at the police station. Clearly, there was a huge media presence there already. My natural instinct was to appeal for information, for people to come forward. At that point we were desperate for information and desperate, as we still are, that our daughter could be found and we wanted people to help in that. That is why we spoke to the media and did our appeals. Particularly early on, there was a general willingness of the media, an engagement and a real desire to try and help get information leading to Madeleine's whereabouts. Fairly quickly though both Kate and myself, certainly when we were in the apartment watching the broadcasting, particularly on the news channels, and subsequently when we looked at the newspapers, saw that much of the content of the material, even within the first few days—possibly particularly in the first few days—was highly speculative. It was not at all helpful to us and we fairly quickly decided, for our own benefit, not to watch the broadcasting or indeed to read the newspapers in detail. Of course the speculation aspects are still ongoing in many respects until we all know where Madeleine is and who took her. There were elements as we went along where clearly we wanted to get the message out there and particularly the fact that, when it became apparent to us that Madeleine could quite easily have been transferred out of Portugal quickly, added a completely different dimension to us as parents and what we were trying to achieve. As you know, the Spanish border is only about 90 minutes away and we felt, if Madeleine had been moved quickly, our chances of finding her with a local investigation only would be quite slim. Therefore we wanted an international campaign as much as possible and for people to be aware of her being missing. We were put in a very difficult situation in that we are used to coming from a society where there is quite open engagement between law enforcement and the public in terms of high profile crimes, compared to the circumstances that we found ourselves in, in Portugal, where as a rule there is not any open dialogue between law enforcement and the public. That was difficult, particularly when we were being fed and researching the experience from North America where in cases of missing children there is a very strong belief that the public can help. There was undoubtedly a desire to help. As the weeks went on, particularly after we had finished our trips to countries where we felt there was potentially relevant information that may be got for the investigation, by staying on in Portugal we were surprised that the media interest did not die down, to be quite frank. We saw pressure, particularly on journalists, to produce stories when really there was not anything new to report. Probably that was the point where things became what I would call irrelevancies or half truths or suggestions were making front page news.

  Q170  Chairman: Your impression was that the newspapers wanted to go on reporting stories about Madeleine's disappearance and, if there were no new facts to report, they started to resort to making up things?

  Mr McCann: I totally agree with that. Prior to becoming involved in this experience, I always believed that, although there might be quite marked exaggeration to some front page headline stories, I never really believed that many of them could be absolutely blatantly made up. I believe that was the case with Madeleine.

  Q171  Chairman: Did you feel that once that point had been reached the majority of press coverage then become negative and unhelpful to you or were there specific worst offenders?

  Mr McCann: Obviously there were fictitious stories which were not necessarily libellous or defamatory and clearly there was another turn when we were declared arguido and it was a free for all really. A different process went on before that which was largely where Madeleine, I believe, was made a commodity and profits were to be made. As far as I could see, having front page news stories or indeed any stories in newspapers on a daily basis was not helpful to the search. There was that element, but that was not particularly damaging at that point other than that there was a lot of misinformation and we would have been spending all of our time if we were trying to correct it. There was something very early on which I was uneasy with and that was in terms of the confidentiality of the investigation, whether it be in this country or in a foreign country. I think there is information related to a crime that you do not want to be made public because only the witnesses who were there will know that information. It concerned me greatly that elements of the time line were becoming increasingly apparent through leaks and a desire to have every single bit of information known; whereas at the time I remember speaking to Kate and her other friends and saying, "In some ways, judicial secrecy is good because the abductor will not be able to get access to information that only we know." That was pretty quickly eroded and was disappointing. That is very different to the senior investigating officer, as would happen in a serious case in this country, providing information to the public to try and get further intelligence. That aspect of it was concerning even quite early on.

  Q172  Chairman: Do you believe that in the majority of cases the negative stories that appeared were completely fabricated or were there some people in the police who might have given them information which led them to write the stories they did?

  Mr McCann: Do you mean the stories arising in Portugal?

  Q173  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr McCann: The worst stories that were printed in this country were based on articles that had been directly published within Portugal. Often what we found was that they had been embellished and a single line that was very deep in an article within a Portuguese newspaper, usually from an unsourced source, was front page and exaggerated to the extent where we had ridiculous headlines and stories. I think the most damning thing of all of this and the most damaging aspect of all the coverage which Kate and I cannot forgive is the presentation that there is a substantial body of evidence that suggests that Madeleine is dead when there is no evidence in fact to suggest she has been seriously harmed.

  Q174  Mr Sanders: Are you saying that the media impeded your campaigning and the search for Madeleine?

  Mr McCann: I have made it clear that elements of the media were helpful in terms of the campaign. In terms of distribution of her image, it is incredibly powerful. There is absolutely no doubt about that. Subsequently the media were used by C-OP in terms of an appeal asking for tourists to come forward and there was a huge number of photographs uplifted and other information given. Elements of the appeal nature and awareness are there and are helpful but if you portray a missing child as dead and people believe she is dead without due evidence then people stop looking.

  Q175  Mr Sanders: Did you feel the need to appoint media help to raise awareness through the press or did you feel the need to do that to deal with unwanted media attention?

  Mr McCann: There are two elements. Right at the very beginning, Mark Warner had a media specialist, a crisis management specialist from Bell Pottinger called Alex Wilful, who was incredibly helpful to us and, in those early days, gave us quite simple guidance which we found particularly helpful. It was very much along the lines of: what are your objectives? What are you hoping to achieve by speaking to the media? Be very clear about what you want. That was very, very good because there is an element that they are there on your doorstep. Having never been exposed to media in any substantial amount previously, you are not quite sure where the boundaries are and what is expected. Having that protection and guidance in terms of dealing with it was very important. The Government sent out a media adviser who had expertise in campaign management, Cherie Dodd, who previously worked at the DTI and started talking about planning for us, how we could utilise the media in terms of achieving objectives and then subsequently Clarence came out. That was very important, one, to assist us in trying to get information to help find our missing daughter and, secondly, in protecting us from the media because the demands were unbelievable. To be thrust from being on holiday one minute into the middle of an international media storm and knowing how to cope with that is very difficult. What we wanted and still want is a partnership with the media when we have information which we think may be relevant and can assist the search, obviously drawing the lines between the search for Madeleine and the Kate and Gerry Show, which the media were much more interested as most of the facts came out. Drawing the line between those two things was much harder.

  Q176  Mr Sanders: It seems to prove almost impossible when you have that level of media attention to control it. It just becomes an uncontrollable vortex.

  Mr McCann: Obviously the circumstances around this story are fairly unique but we were never under the impression that we were controlling the media. We did not set the media agenda.

  Q177  Mr Sanders: I do not think you gave that impression.

  Mr McCann: For the record, I have to be categorically clear about this. The media decide what they publish and what they broadcast. Obviously we were asking for help and we got a lot of exposure and, even early on, unwanted exposure. It was more about influencing the content and being clear about when we were engaging about what we were hoping to get out of it.

  Q178  Adam Price: You mentioned a moment ago the pressures that you felt some journalists were facing in terms of having to deliver stories 24/7. Did any of the journalists that you would have met on a face to face basis ever express any sense of regret or remorse at some of the stories that they were printing or were they fairly brazen?

  Mr McCann: At the time the most damaging stories were published, we were not really speaking to many journalists face to face. Kate and I, despite the coverage, particularly after the first five weeks or so, have been in front of the media very periodically. Very rarely have we come face to face with a journalist whose name was by the byline or the story. We have had Clarence with us during most of this so he has dealt with it more. I know that Clarence has had apologies from journalists and there has been, "I wrote this but the headline was done by the news desk." There is clearly pressure on the journalists on the ground who are being funded on expenses and are under pressure to produce copy. There is pressure from the news desk to write a headline which does not necessarily reflect the factual content available for the story.

  Mr Mitchell: Gerry is absolutely right. The reporters on the ground were only doing their job. We are not critical of them in that sense, but they were under intense pressure from their news desks and within themselves as well. We had a pack—this is just UK press I am talking about—of UK reporters based in Praia da Luz who were looking at the front page that day. We also had another, smaller pack in Leicestershire trying to talk to relatives and people back here who knew Kate and Gerry at that end. We also had columnists writing legal pieces and all of them were competing on a daily basis to get their version of the story into the paper. I sometimes had the most ridiculous situation where I had reporters coming to me saying, "I have got to get a front page splash out of this by four o'clock this afternoon or my job is on the line." If I said, "Well, sorry, we do not have anything substantially new today" or the authorities either in Portugal or Britain did not want us to say anything, they would say, "We are going to have to write it anyway." They were apologetic in that sense but as a former journalist myself I understood the pressures they were under. Later in the evening I would get calls from Leicestershire or the London news desks saying, "We have got a better angle from the UK on this. What do you think about that?" It was like a one story news room in itself generating all these different pressures and, regardless of what we would say or do, sure enough the story would be on the front page the next day anyway. We had anecdotal evidence as well that was putting on massive sales for certain titles and that was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Madeleine stayed on the front page as long as she did, although there were lots of other factors within the story that, in pure journalistic parlance, made it a big story and kept that momentum going. We were credited with keeping that momentum going. A lot of the time we were not doing anything. It was the media feeding on it itself.

  Q179  Mr Evans: Do you think you got better treatment from the television news than you did from the printed press?

  Mr McCann: By and large the broadcasters have been more responsible. I would not say they have been without fault, particularly around the arguido time. There are elements that were too accepting of information that was becoming available from sources and we still are not sure where they are. Whether the coverage was all entirely appropriate I am not the best person to decide because obviously we are biased.

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