Couple's trial by new media a vicious affair
James Button September 24, 2007
Spiritual solace ... Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing British girl Madeleine McCann, leave the Catholic Church of Sacred Heart.
It is one of the biggest stories in years, regularly topping the lists of most-read articles on newspaper websites. Put it on page one and sales soar by 30,000, one tabloid editor says. At the top of its website, between the categories UK News and World News, Sky News lists the subject simply as Madeleine.
Nearly five months since her disappearance we still do not know the fate of the British girl Madeleine McCann. But we have learnt a few things about the media and their relationship with the public - all of us.
I do not mean simply mainstream media, but the online world of websites, bloggers and instant public feedback. The old and new media have not just reported the McCann story. They have changed it.
After Madeleine went missing on May 3, British reporters invaded the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz. They wrote reams of stories about the alleged incompetence of the investigation: the failure to seal off the crime scene, properly interview witnesses and take DNA samples.
Fair or not, the coverage incensed the investigators and stung the national pride of the Portuguese press.
It began to run allegations, some clearly leaked by police, that were damaging to Kate and Gerry McCann: their accounts had inconsistencies; they and their friends were "swingers" who had drunk 14 bottles of wine on May 3; finally and explosively, that Kate McCann had accidentally overdosed Madeleine with sedatives then tried to hide the body.
British tabloids mocked many of these stories yet, hedging their bets, also reported them. The most lurid example was the Daily Express, which ran a headline, "Gerry may not be the father", above a story that began: "The smear campaign in Portugal against the McCanns continued yesterday…"
The resulting spiral - unsourced British reports of unsourced Portuguese reports - created a perfect storm: huge media fascination with almost no facts to feed it.
The McCanns are partly to blame. Well-educated doctors, they have hired spin doctors and tried to harness the media to their cause. Their stated reason is understandable: they want to keep the focus on finding their daughter.
But the journalist Matthew Parris wrote in The Spectator last week that their savvy media strategy - down to Gerry McCann's daily blog and constant photos of Kate McCann clutching Madeleine's pink cuddle-cat - was starting to hurt them. With both reporters and the public alert and resistant to spin, the McCanns had proved "unwisely media-wise".
Parris is onto something, but I am not sure it is the media that have turned against the McCanns. While some have reported dodgy rumours, the overall British coverage has been sympathetic, and sceptical the McCanns had a role in Madeleine's disappearance.
The online public, however, has been far more hostile. When the Daily Mail last week ran an article, "McCanns' DNA dossier to demolish Portuguese police's 'pathetic' evidence", the 60 readers who emailed feedback to this positive story came out two to one against the McCanns.
Evi Labi of London wrote: "It's terrible for a child to disappear but would it be possible to get some peace from the McCanns' organised and very well-orchestrated publicity?"
A newspaper in the McCanns' county of Leicestershire had to close an online discussion forum because of vicious comments about the couple. More than 17,000 people signed an online petition asking social workers to find the McCanns unfit parents to look after their two-year-old twins. An internet poll found that only 20 per cent of Britons thought they were completely innocent.
What does this tell us? Perhaps what Graham Greene once observed: that everyone everywhere believes what is bad. Some readers found Kate McCann "too composed" and "cold". But Lindy Chamberlain was said to be cold, as was Joanne Lees before she was cleared of involvement in the death of Peter Falconio.
Is it everyone, though, or is it the on-line world? Old media are usually constrained to report facts and to show where they differ from rumour. New media, while they may improve and democratise journalism in many respects, allow anyone to trot out the wildest opinion or theory, unconstrained by rules of evidence.
The blogosphere, like talkback radio, is full of people who simply like to sound off. It all shows why the law matters. Trials allow evidence to be tested, rumours to be upheld or scotched. But there may never be a trial in this case: Madeleine's presumed killer may never be found.
Although the tide of the investigation seemed to be turning in favour of the McCanns, they may live on with a vague air of doubt hanging over them. If they are innocent, as the known evidence suggests, that would be desperately unfair, though even such an injustice pales before the monstrosity of having their daughter snatched from their lives.
James Button is the Herald's correspondent in London.
"Maddie's Jammies. Where is Maddie?" - Amelie, May 2007 - "Maddie's Jammies. Where is Maddie?"
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