Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
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
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 dayspossibly
particularly in the first few dayswas 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
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
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
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 packthis is just UK press I am talking aboutof
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
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.