McCanns, Libel and the press

Warning: This is a blog. It is personal opinion. There is no evidence that Kate and Gerry McCann killed their daughter then created a media storm to mask their evil deeds. If you do not wish to read personal opinions please read no further.

Now, generally speaking, I am not the biggest fan of the UK media in general and I am certainly not a fan of tabloid press. I find both the Daily Express and the Daily Star to be offensive, trashy newspapers. Despite this, today I feel sorry for them and, part of me feels there has been an interesting twist in the UK law courts. From the BBC news website:

Madeleine McCann’s parents have welcomed a libel settlement and apology from Express Newspapers for suggesting they were responsible for her death.

In a statement the McCanns said they were pleased that the newspaper group had admitted the “utter falsity” of the “grotesque” stories written about them. [followed by]

The papers said: “We acknowledge that there is no evidence whatsoever to support this theory and that Kate and Gerry are completely innocent of any involvement in their daughter’s disappearance. “

OK, on the surface this seems reasonable and for years the tabloid media has been getting away with printing nonsense stories. However, this has normally been seen as just the way the tabloids print “news”. The idea that they can now be taken to court where I think something interesting has happened.

First off, as a sort of position statement, I think that, while there is no evidence Kate and Gerry McCann actually killed Madeleine there are a few issues that strike me as odd. Not least of these is the very fact the McCann’s felt the need, while under so much pressure to find their daughter, to take out a libel action against the newspapers. There was a risk they could have lost, and if so the “find Maddie” fund would have had to cover their expenses. Even though they have won it brings them no closer to a conclusion to the whole sorry deal. All this, coupled with the very existence of a “family spokesperson” leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Compare and contrast this with the behaviour of Shannon Matthews mother when she went missing. In the early days there was no hint of rich benefactors funding a “find Shannon” account, there was no family spokesperson and, with the recent media hints that the mother was in fact to blame, no signs of a libel action. Why is that? Is it because Karen Matthews is pretty much a “working class oik” while the McCanns are upper middle class professionals?

Anyway, before I wander too close to the line at which the McCanns decide to take legal action against this blog (they can have every single penny this blog has earned to date if they really want…), the other ramification of this case is how it may influence others.

Keeping with the topical nature of the McCanns, lets use Robert Murat as an example. Here we have an example of someone who the general media has declared guilty since pretty much day one. In Mr Murat’s case this is not the newspapers making sly allusions that he may be guilty, pretty much everything written about him says he is the “one.” The Daily Mirror even printed an ironic tirade by friends of the McCanns heaping more suspicion on Murat:

Fiona Payne, Russell O’Brien and Rachael Oldfield insisted they saw him outside Kate and Gerry McCann’s flat on the night Madeleine, four, was snatched – despite his denials.

Despite all this, there is not one shred of evidence that Murat was the criminal. Can we expect to see a large scale libel action? (Well no, Murat doesn’t have a huge fund to bankroll such things…).

In fact, pick up any paper any time of the year and you will read articles in which people are made out to be things they are not. Suspects in rape cases are often named (with all the ensuing problems) but I can not recall a single time, when someone was found innocent, a retraction was published.

Using the Mirror as an example, a while ago a children’s TV presenter Mark Speight was implicated in the death of his girlfriend. For the whole time, he was linked in a manner that would make the casual reader assume the weight of evidence was against him, then today they print an article headlined: “Kids’ TV star Mark Speight won’t be charged over girlfriend’s death.” That is it. No huge payout to assist the investigation into her death, no front page apology. Just a short piece to say he wont be charged.

Amazing isn’t it.

At least now, thanks to the McCanns and their tireless crusade for justice, everyone who has a slightly negative mention in the press can use the vast fortunes of rich strangers to fund their legal defence cases…

[Cynical footnote: I sometimes wonder if the legal action was at least partially motivated by the fact the McCanns have pretty much dropped off the media radar, and since the Shannon Matthews case everyone had pretty much moved on - their donations may have even been starting to dry up...]

Commenting on excuses

In case commenting on comments isn’t pleasingly toroidal enough for you, this post is a comment on the BBC’s comments on its own coverage of the McCanns. (A piece by Peter Horrocks, head of TV News)

As someone who watches way too much Lawn Order for their own good, my immediate response to the Madeleine story was a mite cynical from the start.

My cynicism deepened as the parents became a media attraction for the whole world. There was huge public engagement in praying for Madeleine’s safe return. The parents got an audience with the Pope and attended services all over Europe. Sunday attendance of any number of Catholic churches was massively boosted by appealing pictures of a wide-eyed three-year-old girl stuck on their noticeboards and invitations to join in praying for her safe return..

I was appalled at the idea of belief in a god who must be an almost inconceivably evil bastard if he could easily save a three-year-old from a horrific fate but was too selfish to do it unless lots and lots of people asked him really really nicely.

But then I’m an atheist so I could hardly have an interest in people believing in a divine being that was at least as humane as the average non-omnipotent “sinner”. We all know god hates amputees. Maybe he feels the same aversion to 3-year-old girls.

The British media has turned this into a ubiquitous daily concern. Until a couple of weeks ago, the family have been presented as saints, who made a simple mistake. Every non-development of the case has been filtered through the wider families or the parents’ odd profesional spokespeople.

The xenophobia shown in the British media’s contempt for the Portuguese justice system has added another unpleasant aspect to the whole show. It is assumed that the Portuguese police are comedy Clouseau figures who couldn’t solve a crime that took place inside a police station without framing an innocent devout Catholic pair of English doctors. The Portuguese media was portrayed as completely irresponsible, when they first suggested the police line of enquiry might take that this turn. By the British tabloids. Yes, really. I did say the British tabloids.

Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the opposite direction. The formerly-sainted McCanns are now treated as fair game for public pillorying. The sound of the media desperately covering its own back is almost making an audible swoosh.

Even the BBC is in there, trying to justify its coverage in a pretty comical way. This piece tries to meet the critics who claimed that following the McCanns home in a helicopter and showng them on pretty well every news item, even when there is no news, is pretty unjustifiable. Their excuse is the extra millions of people who’ve watched the news because they have followed the story avidly. (Yes, obviously, that must include me.)

Debates about whether they’ve been treated in particular way because they’re of a certain class, for instance, is just speculation – individuals’ own views. People are entitled to their own views, but I don’t think that should form part of our news coverage.

I don’t think we have been biased in favour of them. In particular we’ve stressed all along, but especially in the past few days, how important it is not to refer to them by their Christian names. There’s a danger in over-familiarity. I know that many other TV and radio networks have been absolutely extraordinary, always talking about it in terms of sympathy and their feelings.

So what he is saying is that the fact that this is a professional couple has nothing to do with the more or less completely sympathetic coverage? Come on. Please. Does anyone believe that? Other children go missing on a distressingly regular basis but the cases get nothing like this level of coverage. If you doubt the class basis of the UK media concern, see the Observer’s May article as an example.

On the front page of most newspapers yesterday, the family portrait of the McCanns testifies to the image of middle class stability. No single parent – more easily accused of fecklessness – here. Gerry McCann is a cardiologist, his wife a GP. Exercising responsibility is ingrained in their respective professions. Yet the voices of critics challenging the McCanns’ considered decision are already being heard, fuelled by hindsight

This was basically saying – in unbelieving horror – people have even dared to challenge doctors’ right to leave their toddlers alone in a strange hotel room. That article goes on to say “Which of us hasn’t made mistakes with our kids?” and to claim, in contradiction of the evidence, that it would be OK, or at least a borderline case, under UK law. Obviously not for feckless single parents, of course, but these ARE doctors.

Another strand in the coverage is the McCann’s Catholicism. They are almost always referred to as “devout” Catholics. So obviously they couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong as Catholics don’t ever commit crimes… Their very Catholicism is in itself a mite eccentric by the UK’s social standards.

Very few people in the UK go to Church regularly. By Christian standards, Catholics are better attenders than Protestants but even Catholics don’t normally go to Church every week, let alone every few days. Young science professionals are particularly unlikely to attend any Church. Which makes it odder still that the family’s Catholic adherence has been a very central theme of the whole event. And that prayers – so blatantly proving ineffective – have been central to the exhortations to the public.

Returning to the BBC editor’s piece, the claim that the BBC didn’t call the parents “Kate” and “Gerry” is odd. This cannot by itself characterise the BBC coverage as completely objective. I love the “particularly in the past few days” bit. The writer is basically saying – well we may have been uncritically pro-McCann-family until the Portuguese police started “liking” them (in the old NYPD-Blue-speak). Now we’re afraid that we’ve backed the wrong horse, along with the rest of the media, and we’re stepping back a bit from our previous viewpoint.

During the whole course of this event, there have been only the slimmest bases for anyone in the media to present anything as “truth”. This situation is basically unchanged now from a month ago, but the media pendulum has swung from “saints” to “demons” and will probably swing back.

Apart from anything else, would it be possible to find a judge or jury who haven’t heard so much about this case that their opinions have been formed long before they hear any formal evidence? There would be no chance for anybody to get a fair trial.

The Law According to the Tabloids

Now my enforced hiatus is over, it is time for me to rant a bit about some of the borderline insane things the UK media has been getting up to during the traditionally quiet months at the end of summer. (What summer?)

Unusually, I think I am going to try and be a bit tactful about this and I really don’t want people to get the wrong impression here. Before I go on, I can not imagine the trauma and heartache that the McCann family are going through right now but I am going to use them as an example of the amazing double standards that the tabloid press can hold themselves to. This is in no way meant to imply that I think the McCanns are guilty of any crime.

Over the summer, the tabloid press (especially the Daily Express and the Sun newspapers) have been clamouring about how our (UK) society is going down the pan and coming up with such “common sense” solutions as harsher sentences, more police powers etc. Generally speaking anyone even suspected of a crime which makes it to the press is assumed to be guilty, and if a court finds differently there is outrage about how we need stronger laws etc. (For an example, see the nonsense that a terminally bad singer has been spewing out in the Sun (and alun’s excellent comment))

Almost daily we hear from a distraught relative about how the accused is actually guilty and anything which seems to say otherwise is just flawed. Opinion pages and talking heads on the TV go on about how our “human rights act” means the suspects are treated too lightly and this is preventing the police getting convictions. The trial by media is almost total and almost totally ignores the actual progress of the case or the final verdict. It goes as far as the farcical comment that if they are doing things which aren’t crimes it just means we don’t have strong enough laws… It is, in short, madness.

Stepping into this world of chaos, vitriol and bile we have the poor oppressed McCann family. After months of tabloid coverage showing the distraught family on their world tour to raise awareness of their lost daughter, and months of UK tabloid coverage saying how bad the Portuguese police are (largely because they don’t tell the press every single thing they do, but that is a rant for another day), recently there has been a slight change of events. Slowly the Portuguese press started to consider that the parents may have been involved in the death of the child.

Under normal circumstances this would have been the first line of investigation and, sadly, most child killers are family members (feel free to Google the UK Home Office statistics if you don’t believe me). In most serious crime cases, police officers being police officers, family members are the first to be suspected — especially in cases where there is no obvious signs of forced entry or violent struggle.

Now, slight sideline, there have been lots and lots of murders and abductions in the time since Madeleine McCann went missing. Can any one name any of them? If you search through the news footnotes (mostly local news items), the family are invariably picked as suspects and hammered by the investigators. Although not 100% relevant this is a snapshot from recent news here, here, here and here – all examples of relatives being found guilty of the torture and death of a child. If anything, it is pretty amazing to me that the McCann’s were not brought in by the police and interrogated for hour after hour to find out what happened. Part of me feels that the media circus which sprung up around the case almost from the onset caused this…

Anyway, eventually the Portuguese police have followed on from the media claims and begun to investigate the possibility that one or both of Madeleine’s parents may have been involved. It strikes me that if this was any other case this would be normal and perfectly acceptable. However this is not any old case, it is the McCann case… This means that the papers which print speculation that the McCann’s may be guilty get taken to court for libel (this must be making more than a few UK paper editors worry) and the UK news is now filled with tearful footage about how cruel the police are to even begin to suspect either parent. Even the BBC (which is now pretty much a tabloid as far as “news” goes) seems to be falling in step with the common idea that the McCann’s are saints who would never hurt a fly. Call me cynical but comments like this don’t make me feel the person must be innocent :

“They made a series of ridiculous allegations. Kate is a loving and caring mother who sincerely believes her daughter is still alive. She was absolutely horrified. Kate is a lovely mother to her children, she’d never hurt them. Anyone who knows Kate would say that to make an allegation of this kind about her is absolutely ridiculous.” (Family spokesperson Justine McGuiness)

Leaving aside the “Family Spokesperson” aspect, what criminal (this does not imply I think Kate McCann is a criminal) wouldn’t have a statement like this? Can you imagine the prelims to a murder trial where the defence spokesperson says “my client is a murderous scumbag who hates everyone and loves to kill people”? Does the family spokesperson really think this will sway the police? Obviously, yes is the answer to that – or there is a sinister undercurrent and the spokesperson is actually getting ready for a criminal trial but that is a route I wont go down for now, I will hold to good faith and assume Kate McCann is innocent.

The important part is the media reaction to all this. The local news and radio stations (sadly, I cant find any links at the moment) have been hammering on today about how cruel it is to interview Kate McCann, how ELEVEN hours in questioning is a monstrously long time and so on. On breakfast TV, I watched a reporter go on about what an ordeal Mrs McCann had undergone and the comparisons with the much fairer, reasonable English justice system.

This is mind boggling. Compare the compassion and feeling being poured out towards Mrs McCann with the vitriol and hatred thrown against people like the early suspect (Robert Murat) who was pretty much found guilty during the Trial by Media. Compare this with the demands for harsher laws, tougher police powers to question suspects and the like – all being touted by the same tabloids who are now saying how 11 hours is a long time to be questioned. Imagine how “tired and distraught” a terrorist suspect must feel after 28 days of police questioning. Ironically newspapers cry out how cruel it is to suspect Kate McCann, ignoring the speed with which they demanded the conviction of Mr Murat — not to mention the furore around any other suspect unfortunate enough to make the news pages. As always, the Sun Newspaper (in the loosest sense of the word) is truly blind to the irony and has the following “sun says” editorial comment:

PLODDING Portuguese police have not covered themselves in glory over their probe into the disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann.

For over four months her devoted parents Kate and Gerry have done everything in their power to help detectives find the missing girl.

But while cops have refused to give any public details about their investigation, the Portuguese media is now awash with rumours and innuendo leaked by police sources.

Yesterday, bungling police called Maddie’s tragic mum, Kate, in for yet another agonising grilling.

If this is just another fishing expedition, they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Hasn’t she suffered enough?

It is almost enough to make you want to vomit.

[tags]Madeleine McCann, Kate McCann, McCann, Police, Portugal, Portuguese, Media, Tabloids, Society, Culture, Philosophy, Rant, Law, Justice, Murder, Crime[/tags]