Grâce à la liberté dans les communications, des groupes d’hommes de même nature pourront se réunir et fonder des communautés. Les nations seront dépassées.
Friedrich Nietzsche (Fragments posthumes XIII-883)

08 - JAN - débat MC et Médias (LSE)

L'affaire MC a été le plus commenté des faits-divers de 2007. Pourquoi cette affaire est-elle devenue une obsession médiatique, c'est l'information ou le divertissement qui a triomphé, et quel impact a eu la couverture sur l'enquête en cours ?

C'est le premier débat sur ce thème, deux perspectives sur cette troublante affaire sont en concurrence, celle du spin doctor des MC, Clarence Mitchell, et celle de l'ex-rédacteur du Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie. 

Affiche de mai 1968

McCanns and the Media: the debate, 30 January 2008

Charlie Beckett - 30.01.2008  
The first ever debate about the media and the McCanns at Polis* brought out some heated and painful issues. McCann family spokesperson Clarence Mitchell and former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie represented competing perspectives on a story that has gripped and disturbed the world for nine months. Here are some of the points made that I felt represent how seminal this story has been (in no particular order) :
>The British public now don't trust you if you have a public relations advisor
>The British public don't trust the media so they go to Internet forums to express their views on the case
>24 hour news has eradicated all the traditional caution over sourcing stories
>Turning subjects into celebrities now allows the public to suspend the usual sympathy for an invididual 

Now here are some of the factors discussed that make this case so exceptional :
>The fact that they were middle-class encouraged hostility
>The fact the Portugese police did no press work mean a vacuum was created
>This is a narrative without an end so it allows endless speculation
>There is now a vicious cycle with Portugese and British media recycling stories without references, sources or facts

Kelvin MacKenzie : This is beyond Lord Lucan, beyond Diana, beyond Shergar...if this was a single black mother then it would not have been the same story...the public is obsessed so newspapers make a commercial judgement, they know that putting Madeleine on the front page increases circulation by about 3%, it did so from day one and it still does. People who criticise the papers ought to think about that and ask themselves if they get their money out when they see a billboard with the McCanns name on it...It's a class war issue. Ordinary people don't associate public relations with the truth, though I think hiring Clarence was a great idea and I believe what he says. What is so unusual and incredible about this story is that they are the main suspects and so when we write about it we are saying 'they may be the killers' (1)
Clarence Mitchell made a stout defence of the McCanns' innocence and was clear about the money spent on promoting their cause. He thanked the media for the support they had given in publicising the campaign to find Madeleine but criticised the 'sloppiness and laziness' of much journalism driven by 'a commercial imperative' which recycled stories 'entirely founded on misinformation, mostly wrong".  
David Mills who produced a Panorama on the McCanns which he subsequently disowned felt that the British media had failed to address the real sotry which was the failure in police procedure and forensics in Portugal and the UK. 
Former McCann public relations advisor Justine McGuinness felt that the way that Madeleine had been turned in to a celebrity by the media (although surely the PR had a role?) meant that the public felt she could be treated with the same callousness afforded to a Big Brother contestent – hence of the appalling vitriol and unsubstantiated rumour on some internet forums: "A missing child has been turned in ot a celebrity which gives the public the excuse to disconnect from human feelings because she has become a household name". 
Former Mirror editor, now media commentator Roy Greenslade cited his own mother as an example of how the public still want to 'blame' the McCanns but he reserved his ire for the media. He sketched out how the media coverage went through four phases: sympathy (Overdone), scepticism (a sensible attitude), suspicion (based on nothing) and finally commercial cynicism. So the Express can print a headline, he said, that says "McCanns Split Over Maddie" which turned out to be simply a story that Gerry was going back to work while Kate was not. Greenslade said that the media has encouraged people to believe the worst about them and so it has now got to a point where people don't care about defamation – all reporting is at the level of gossip.

Roger Graef, who produced a film for Channel 4 about the McCanns said he found himself in demand by the international media. And yet the only thing he had to say was that there was nothing to say. There was one fact: that Madeleine was gone. And yet he found himself endlessly interviewed about how there was nothing to say. The fact that so many people now inhabit imaginary worlds of conspiracy around this story, he said, was partly because 'we cannot bear a narrative that has no end."
That is, of course, most true for the parents themselves. They dared to try to use the media (on advice from experts said Justine McGuinness) and that decision and the media came back to haunt them and to hunt them down. The media initially swamped them with support and then finally drowned them in bile. The media suspended its critical faculties when it first joined a campaign to find a beautiful white middle class girl and it never recovered its judgement in the rush to judgement and in the daily stampede for front page fodder. The Internet provided an outlet for huge waves of sympathy for the McCanns – it also provided a forum for legitimate debate and commentary – but it was also the dark place that some very sad souls chose to huddle together, sharing their sick fantasies and reaffirming each other's sad obsessions. A few of those odd people turned up at our debate demanding action against the McCanns and an end to 'spin'. But as Kelvin pointed out they represent a big part of the public who don't seem to trust anyone anymore. I am not sure if that's the media's fault, but it sure ain't doing a lot to correct it.

Our debate chairman Steve Hewlett has written a very good article on this for the Guardian which stresses the doubtful benefits of PR in cases like this. And Tim Black from Spiked has also written a report on the debate here. Much more on this debate when my interns report back in – the podcast will be up when the LSE techies have done their thing. In due course, Polis will be publishing a paper on this issue. It's not a nice subject but I am convinced that it speaks volumes about the state of our media and the society that consumes it. Thanks to the Media Society for their partnership on this event.

* Polis est un think tank sur les médias et la société fondé par Charlie Beckett et mis sur pied en collaboration par la London School of Economics and Political Science et le London College of Communication.  

The MCs' debate: from banality to an outpouring of bile
Roy Greenslade - The Guardian - 31.01.2008

RG se plaint que l'audience ait été ouverte aux vociférations d'opposants des MC. 
I feared that last night's debate on "The McCanns and the media" (see posting immediately below) would generate more heat than light. In fact, it generated neither heat nor light. Aside from some persistent interruptions from a group of misguided, self-appointed busy-bodies, the standing-room-only event at the LSE was marked by its banality.That doesn't mean that we didn't hear interesting views, but - as a debate - it never took off. It didn't help that two-thirds of the panel were required to sit "off stage", thereby limiting the ease of participation. On the other hand, we did get a glimpse of the irrational prejudice blighting the whole affair. It began well enough when Kelvin MacKenzie opened with a reasonably measured and thoughtful contribution that rightly pointed to several remarkable features of the McCanns saga that had helped to make it into what he hyperbolically called "the greatest story of my lifetime." But he mostly made a lot of good sense. Social class had played a part in the media's immediate interest and in helping to catch the public's imagination. He revealed that he had shown an understanding for the plight of Gerry and Kate McCann but readers of his Sun column had not. He spoke of "10,000 emails" that were overwhelmingly hostile to the McCanns for having left their children in their bedroom unsupervised. His readers did not share his sympathy for the couple and, by implication, that had changed his mind somewhat.

I was altogether less enamoured with his defence of papers, especially the Express titles, for publishing wildly inaccurate stories. Kelvin's defence? Newspapers are commercial operations and you must expect them to publish stories calculated to increase sales. The temptation to ramp up circulation was too great to resist. That doesn't wash with me at all. Next up was Clarence Mitchell, the official spokesman for the McCanns. He launched a broadside on a press guilty of carrying speculative stories without any basis in truth. Stories, incidentally, which he had often formally denied before publication. He explained how British journalists relied for most of their stories on the Portuguese papers that also ran speculative and unverifiable material. After being spun in British tabloids, the Portuguese then picked them up the following day, pretending that the fact they had appeared in the British press was "proof" of their veracity. In other words, it was a constant recycling of gossip and innuendo, none of it based on fact.
Mais ce fait-là, le recyclage continuel de pseudo-nouvelles, que ne l'a-t-il dénoncé, que n'a-t-il essayé de l'enrayer !
La politique, en fait de désinformation, a clairement été celle du chèvre-chou. 
 Mitchell's concern about trying to deal with a rampant global media was echoed in the experiences of his predecessor in the role, Justine McGuinness. She spoke of the immense scale of media interest, implying that it was virtually impossible to cope with a hydra-headed media beast demanding daily, almost hourly, feeds.

Roger Graef, producer of Channel 4's Dispatches on the mystery of Madeleine McCann's disappearance, spoke of the surreal, Kafkaesque nature of making a documentary in which there were (and are) no facts and about which no-one has any genuine knowledge, including the Portuguese police. David Mills is the man who produced a documentary for Panorama and then disowned it because key material - some of it critical of the Portuguese police - was omitted. He was concerned about the media's failure to hold the police to account and complained about the dearth of proper investigative journalism about the case.
So far, so good. But once the debate was opened out to the audience by chairman Steve Hewlett, it went nowhere helpful. A vociferous group who have formed an organisation called The Madeleine Foundation showed a lamentable grasp of debating rules by interrupting speakers and shouting out a string of offensive comments about the McCanns and their PRs.

Their anger may have been sincere, but it became abundantly clear that they are infected with prejudice. Many of the claims they made - about money donated to the McCanns' fund, about payments to PRs, about the McCanns' actions and relationship with the police - were obviously based on the inaccurate accusations and innuendos published by so many newspapers. However, reflecting on the debate on my journey home, I realised that they represented the authentic voice of so many British people, the Sun readers Kelvin had mentioned and probably the readers of all popular papers. It is not pretty. Their unconcealed bile, their lack of compassion for the McCanns, their sanctimonious statements about the supposed parenting inadequacies of the McCanns, do not stem wholly from poor reporting. Certainly, false stories have contributed to their fallacious arguments. But they were uninterested in the rational statements of Mitchell and McGuinness. They took no notice of the subtle arguments of Graef and Mills. They were the equivalent of those mobs outside courts in murder trials, deaf to facts, cocooned from reality by their own self-righteous demagoguery. Their major aim, outlined in a "manifesto" circulated within the lecture theatre, is to see the McCanns prosecuted for "abandoning" their children. The newspapers that have retailed nonsense about this case do have a lot to answer for. But then so do the people, do they not? What the debate never touched on was whether the media could, even eight months' on, play a positive role to counter the misinformation that appears now to have taken such a grip among the population.

Mechanics of the McCann campaign
Steve Hewlett - The Guardian - 31.01.2008
Professional media management may have generated coverage of Maddy's disappearance, but it hasn't helped with public sympathy for the family.
A Media Society/Polis debate last night saw Gerry and Kate McCann's current and former spokespeople - Clarence Mitchell and Justine McGuinness - discuss the media and the McCanns with Kelvin MacKenzie, Roy Greenslade and filmmakers Roger Graef and David Mills. I should say in the interests of transparency that I chaired the event in front of a packed house at the LSE in London. The big question set out for debate by the organisers was how well (or badly) had the press and media done in their coverage of what must surely be the most reported story of the last nine months. Consensus among the speakers was pretty negative and Clarence Mitchell was utterly scathing, accusing some journalists of peddling information they knew to be wrong or unfounded - largely for the purpose of stoking up sales. MacKenzie, ex-editor of the Sun, cautioned the audience against being too censorious on the grounds that it was their fascination with the story that led newspapers - which are, after all, commercial entities - to deal with it so prominently and frequently. MacKenzie then went on to say two things that in my view had rather greater resonance in the meeting than any of the relatively predictable press bashing CM incapable (?) de contrôler le prévisible - no matter how justified. He said that the public response to his Sun column, which he said was characteristic of Sun readers (ie somewhat downmarket in demographic terms), can be huge but was overwhelmingly negative towards Kate and Gerry McCann. Having left their children alone in the apartment while going out for a good time with friends has not gone down well - with the Sun's readership at least, not to mention quite a few folk in last evening's LSE audience. This is not to suggest that most (or even many) readers think they're guilty in any sense; more that they've been complicit in their own misfortune by being less-than-attentive parents. This more starkly than anything else, it was suggested, reveals the class-based nature of public responses not so much to the calamity of Madeleine's disappearance as to her family's efforts since. And on that front MacKenzie went on to say - even more tellingly perhaps - that in the public mind PR and truth were rarely thought to sit comfortably together.

And there's the rub. Try as they might neither Clarence Mitchell nor Justine McGuinness could quite shake off the sense that the way they've managed this case might have contributed to some negative public sentiment towards the family. In place initially as what Mitchell described as "a buffer" (tampon) between the shocked and distraught parents and the world's media, hungry for news about Madeleine, it's clear that what developed was a professional media management operation. With PR firm Bell Pottinger on hand - primarily, we can assume, to defend the interests of their clients Mark Warner Holidays mais payée ensuite un demi million de livres pour maintenir l'affaire MC à la une - as well as Justine and, latterly, Clarence with all their experience of Westminster spin, the McCanns could not have wanted for more professional advice. But as time went on media management itself - and once you've started feeding stories to the press to get control of the agenda, you really can't stop - began generating negative reaction from other parties.

Portuguese journalists found people close to the McCanns unwilling to speak for fear of breaking an agreement that Kate and Gerry would pre-authorise anything that was to be said in public. This is standard media management in Westminster or the City but it struck some in Portugal, who thought they were simply dealing with an utterly distraught family, as so strange as to be suspicious. The Portuguese police, however slow and incompetent they might have been, On voit quand même à quel point, d'une manière générale, les journalistes et donc le reste du monde sont tombés dans le panneau de la police portugaise incompétente, bravo Mr Mitchell pour cette charge médiatique surpuissante ! found themselves on the wrong end of a very high powered media onslaught - orchestrated and facilitated in no small measure by what became the McCann campaign. Tout se passe effectivement comme si les campagnes de sensibilisation à la disparition de MMC avaient été en fait des campagnes de sensibilisation à l'incompétence de MMC, donc trouvable. They may not have been ideally equipped or experienced to deal with the case of a disappeared child but they certainly weren't prepared to find themselves up against professional media managers. Absolument, en témoigne l'initiative aux ingrates conséquences d'essayer de ménager la chèvre et le chou en envoyant un policier tenu au secret de l'instruction en conférence de presse ("il présentait bien" fut l'argument !) In many ways, it's hard to see what else Kate and Gerry McCann could have done; offered the same kind of assistance, how many of us would have turned it down if we thought it might help to get our missing child back? Tout simplement les gens qui croient que la police est encore ce qu'on a fait de mieux pour lutter contre la criminalité. Nevertheless, it's hard to avoid at least a nagging sense of unease about aspects of the "campaign" which would appear to be reflected in what some people think about Kate and Gerry McCann.

This is more than a case of ‘media Maddieness’  
Tim Black - Spiked - 31.01.2008 
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, this infernal media machine churns out ("débite") news, something new, something old, but always news – news recaps, news updates, and, of course ‘the latest from our man on the scene’. But lately this glut of information has prompted unease. Last June, Tony Blair, citing the demands of rolling news channels for endless stories, and the shrinking but ever more vicious newspaper market, felt the media were behaving like ‘feral beasts’. ‘In these modes’, he continued, they just ‘tear people and reputations to bits, but no-one dares miss out’ (1). While Blair’s particular focus was on the media’s treatment of politicians, particularly when the journo pack gets the faintest whiff of impropriety, these feral beasts were never just concerned with Tony’s cronies. What matters, then, as now, is the story. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the strange case of the McCanns. What began last May as a tragic tale of a three-year-old girl who disappeared on a family holiday in Portugal has shifted focus. As much as ‘our Maddie’ still exercises the emotions, since the Portuguese press made them ‘arguidos’, or suspects, it is her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, who exercise the imagination. ‘McCanns split by agony of Maddie’, ‘Why I can’t keep silent about Kate’, ‘Locals jeer McCanns’, ‘Maddie Gran: I can’t understand why they left the kids’, ‘McCann fund running short of cash’… It’s not just the tabloids either. Even the London Review of Books scented blood, with Anne Enright declaring: ‘I disliked the McCanns earlier than most people (I’m not proud of it).’ (2) Unsurprisingly, given its often callous nature, this pursuit of the McCanns has given rise to a bit of journalistic introspection. In an article entitled, ‘I hang my head in shame at what my trade has made of the McCann story’, Max Hastings, a former Daily Telegraph editor, was unequivocal: ‘The story provokes in us the sort of guilt that our ancestors must have felt on finding themselves unable to avert their eyes from a public execution.’ (3) Earlier this week, Blair’s former press chief, Alistair Campbell was more bullish, accusing ‘most of the media’ of ‘getting close to hysteria’: ‘It has been the worst example of recent times, on a par with coverage of Princess Diana, of some newspapers thinking the word Madeleine sells and finding literally any old nonsense to keep her name in that selling position on the front.’ (4)
On sait maintenant que Madeleine's Fund avait payé pour cela.

Last night, during a curiously fraught debate organised by think-tank Polis, The McCanns and the Media: Information or Entertainment, the panellists were less judgmental. Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor and current columnist for the Sun, called it the ‘greatest story of my life’; Steve Hewlett, a Guardian columnist, noted it was the story of last year, ‘if not the biggest, [then] certainly the most reported’; and David Mills, producer of a recent BBC Panorama documentary on the McCanns, which he later disowned, called it ‘one of the best [stories] I’ve ever encountered in my career… it has everything.’ Their professional enthusiasm is understandable; it’s a story that has continued to hold the public’s attention, or as MacKenzie would put it, ‘sell papers’. If it didn’t exist you suspect the media would have to invent it. Which, in a sense, they have. For as a number of the panellists made clear, very little is actually known about the case. Whereas the British police tend to hold off-the-record press briefings to stymy endless press hypothesis, their Portuguese counterparts are conducting their investigation largely without media contact. What there is instead, to paraphrase criminologist Roger Graeff, producer of Dispatches: Searching for Madeleine, is an ‘unbearable nothingness’, a story that refuses to yield anything like a plot, let alone a resolution
‘Unbearable’ is a telling adjective here. There are plenty of events, be they crime investigations or marital break-ups, about which we know very little. But that not-knowing does not often become an intolerable burden. As last night’s discussion made apparent, what’s striking about the McCann case is that an absence of facts is experienced by media and public alike as a lack of facts, a need which must be met. And met it is - by outlandish theories, opinionated speculation, and no little bile. This is where the media are culpable. In the absence of any actual information, the media stops reporting and starts making the news. This is not to say that every McCann update is fabrication or fantasy, but that, in the absence of anything concrete, sheer opinion predominates. Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror and now a professor of journalism at London’s City University, made this clear when responding to a question about whether the media had neglected its critical faculties. No, he argued, precisely the opposite is true: ‘The media has overextended its critical faculties – it has become hypercritical.’ To make the news, it is now necessary to have a view on Gerry’s reticence, or Kate’s tearless demeanour. However, as ‘commercially legitimate’ as the endless coverage might be, it is not straightforwardly manipulative. News outlets, be they tabloid, broadsheet, or rolling news channels, are not cynically distracting us from internecine struggles in Kenya or Iraq with photos of Amy Winehouse’s coke-encrusted nostrils or, in this case, footage of Kate McCann getting out of a car. Journalists’ views may be distorted by their professional existence but they still arise in the same social world as the rest of us. Working in the Westminster village, it’s understandable that many start to believe in the newsworthiness of parish gossip - ‘have you heard what Gordon’s said about Tony’s legacy?’ - but insofar as the McCanns have become, not just a media commodity, but an object for public debate, the hype, speculation and ‘how I feel about Kate and Gerry’ diatribes are experienced by many as perfectly valid forms of public expression.

As Mick Hume has pointed out (see The increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann), in the absence of any other collective experiences, national or otherwise, an event such as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann provides an occasion for an experience of solidarity, as specious as that might be. What’s interesting is that as the McCann story increasingly concentrated on the parents’ lives, so simple ‘I feel your pain’ emoting became something more febrile and sanctimonious. Greenslade, noting the ‘incredible emotionalism’ provoked by the McCann case, asserted, almost incredulously, that ‘everyone is so heavily involved.’ ‘Self-identification’, he concluded, ‘is the key here’. But this doesn’t just mean identification as in empathy, but identification as the process of forming one’s own identity. To have a view on the McCanns has become a way of saying ‘who I am’. Where mourning Princess Diana or wearing a ‘Make Poverty History’ wristlet became public expressions of one’s inner self, the McCann case has allowed for a yet greater degree of self-articulation. One cannot only be against child abduction, but you can have a view on the McCanns as people too. Middle class, stand-offish, and suspect parents, or just a desparate family in search of their daughter? Either way, to have a view is to sign up to particular set of values, to share in a minimal, lowest common denominator morality.
And this explains, I think, why the event last night was so fraught. The increasingly angry interjections from the audience, especially towards Clarence Mitchell, the McCann’s current spokesperson, were born of frustration with the management, indeed the authorship of the McCann story. There are a lot of stakeholders, to borrow a New Labour term, in this public debate who feel they’re not being included. Their anger wasn’t just an aversion to ‘spin’. It was a frustrated desire to comment on the story, to narrate it, to take part, if you like, in what seems like a vital public conversation. As one audience member put it, ‘I’m angry with the media because I can’t get my point of view across’. ‘If you look at the [online] forums’, she continued, ‘there’s a collective gut feeling that something is amiss’. Having a view on the story, an investment in its telling, has become a form of belonging, of expressing oneself in public, either through sympathy or, increasingly, antipathy. But this is public debate as a book club, albeit a particularly irate one. There’s endless discussion of the story, argumentative speculation on characters’ motivations, and frustration with the author. To the extent that everyone has an opinion on the McCanns, everyone has a virtue to vent - ‘I’d never leave my kids alone’ shouted one particularly angry audience member. The black hole that is the McCann case has not merely illustrated the bankruptcy of parts of the media; it hints at the degradation of the public sphere as a whole.

(1) Media like feral beast, BBC News 12 June 2007
(2) Anne Enright: Diary, London Review of Books 4 October 2007
(3) I hang my head in shame at what my trade has made of the McCann story, Guardian 10 September 2008
(4) Campbell attacks ‘culture of negativity’, Guardian, 28 January 2008

The McCanns and the media: A morality tale for our times? 
John Mair - 01.2008 - 
Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. Vol 5, No 1/2 2008
Since Madeleine McCann went missing from her holiday apartment on the Portuguese coast in May 2007, the global media (assisted by her parents) has relentlessly pursued ‘the story of the century’. Here journalism lecturer and broadcast producer John Mair reflects on some of the many ethical issues raised by the ‘Missing Maddy’ coverage. It is the ’story of the century’ so far. Millions of words and tens of thousands of frames have been written, shot, published and transmitted. Yet, most of the coverage is speculation at best, invention at worst. What does the ‘Missing Madeleine McCann’ story tell us about the modern media worldwide?

Let’s begin with the facts. Three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared from her parents’ holiday apartment in Praia de Luz on the Portuguese Algarve on the evening of 3 May 2007.They were away having a meal with friends elsewhere in the Mark Warner Holiday complex. Since then there has been a worldwide appeal and campaign to find her and three ‘arguidos’ or official suspects have been named by the Portuguese police: Madeleine’s parents Kate and Gerry and a local expat in Portugal, Robert Murat. Those three facts have kept scores of journalists in employ in Portugal, the UK and wider afield for the nine months since ‘Maddy’ disappeared. Some of the British press pack are still based in the Algarve; some are back with the McCanns in Rothley, Leicestershire. The Portuguese press are still active on the tale too.
The McCanns have been very media savvy from day one or two. Once her ‘disappearance’ was discovered, relatives in the UK started working the media. Broadcaster Kirsty Wark got a knock on her Glasgow door within 48 hours of the disappearance. A neighbour was a McCann cousin. The campaign by ‘Team McCann’ to find ‘Maddy’ was quickly launched. Central to this campaign have been the McCanns’ personal ‘spin doctors’ – Clarence Mitchell and Justine McGuinness. Mitchell, a former royal correspondent for the BBC, was initially sent by his employers, the British government, to manage the media in the Algarve for the McCanns. He was replaced for three months by Justine McGuinness whose background was in political PR. Later, Mitchell resigned as a government ‘spin doctor’ to join the McCanns full time in October as their ‘spokesman’. He is paid by a salary of £70,000 a year by a sympathizer, Brian Kennedy, the double glazing magnate. Mitchell works as, in the word of television commentator Mark Lawson, ‘the personal Alastair Campbell’ for the McCanns. His work raises many ethical issues.

I have produced two events with Mitchell (whom I knew while he was a journalist and in government PR): one at the LSE on 30 January this year (with polis@lse) and one last October as part of the highly successful Coventry Conversations series which I run weekly at the university. Both were lively. Both were packed out with more than 200 attending each event. Both were recorded and are available as podcasts. They form the basis of this article.

Saviour and protector
Mitchell has come to see his role as the saviour and protector of the McCanns from the ravages of the modern media. He admits that ‘Gerry and Kate engaged with the media from the off’ (dès le départ) but refers to himself as a ‘buffer’ between them and the media. Back in May 2007, he saw from London that they were being overwhelmed and pleaded with his Central Office of Information bosses to be allowed to go to the Algarve to offer his services. He was. In that role, he tried as best he could to control and be the conduit for a press pack that was getting bigger and more hungry by the day. The ‘Missing Maddy’ story had captured the world’s imagination; everybody in the press pack wanted a piece of the action and their own angle. His phone rang and continues to ring off the hook. Mitchell made sure of continuing interest by arranging a series of PR stunts in Portugal and elsewhere: a ‘visit’ by the McCanns (devout Catholics) to the Pope (in reality a brief handshake from the Pontiff), another to North Africa to ‘find’ Madeleine, yet another to the USA. He even used his experience as a royal correspondent to organize ‘pools’ for radio and television journalists rather than packs on the trips. Plus regular beach and other photo ‘ops’ with Kate and Gerry in Praia de Luz. To avoid visual fatigue, at regular intervals new photographs or videos of ‘Missing Maddy’ have been released. If the oxygen of publicity was needed for this story to keep its ‘legs’, then Clarence was the gas generator.

To this day, he is still the master of the media trick – a ‘suspect’ drawing here, another there, keeps the hungry hacks fed. If invasion of privacy is problematic for the McCanns then they might be said to have invaded their own privacy aided by their spin doctor. That having been said, the UK media at least have proved restrained in some respects: there are, for example, few pictures of Madeleine’s younger twin brother and sister in the public domain. The PCC rules there. Mitchell has opened windows to the McCanns and their plight but those avenues have been carefully chosen and orchestrated. ‘There is nothing to hide,’ he says. ‘We have no problem with investigative journalism on this at all as long as it’s responsible.’

The use of PR and press manipulation
There are more questions to be asked in general about the use of PR and press manipulation in such a high-profile and tragic case. It is not all one way traffic on the McCann side. The Portuguese police are allegedly bound by tight secrecy laws on this and any criminal investigations. Yet they seem to leak like a sieve especially to their local journalist friends. Qui le dit ? ‘Stories’ mysteriously appear as ‘rumours’ from the police in the Algarve, then via the internet reappear in London and elsewhere as firmer before bouncing back to Portugal as ‘fact’. As Mitchell puts it: ‘The British press on this are just lifting stuff willy nilly from the Portuguese press…They then re-run it over here which is then picked up by the Portuguese press the next day and the respected British press have run this story so it must be true.’ He continues: ‘Where it has been a hindrance is where reports are unattributable, unwarranted and unsubstantiated, and in some cases downright hurtful.’
‘Missing Madeleine’ has been one of the first major news stories of the internet age. That has been double edged. ‘Rubbish is reported in one country and then the media in each country feeds on it and it becomes another angle on a story,’ Mitchell says. ‘The media feeds on itself. They wait to be spoon-fed in a wash spin-cycle, where they recycle the positions. If there were green awards for recycling it should go to the British and Portuguese press.’

Mitchell may be a former ‘hack’ (pirate informatique) but after nine months of feeding the hungry horses of modern journalism, the poacher (braconnier) turned gamekeeper has not come out with an entirely positive view of the British press and their ethics. He laments the appalling standards, the sloppiness, laziness and lack of independence of thought and fact-checking. What especially annoys him is the tendency of the press to fill the void of no real new facts or developments in the story by simply embellishing, reporting unsubstantiated rumours or making it up. He is harsh in his judgment of this journalism: What we have taken issue with and continue to review is the aspect of coverage that is not only distorted but willfully misrepresentative of the facts, or the lack of facts. In that vacuum, some very sloppy standards have crept in. It is entirely founded on misinformation, misunderstanding, or willful distortion in the vast majority of cases, and I would say in the vast majority of cases that you have read or seen about them you can disbelieve absolutely, every single one of them.
À commencer peut-être par l'histoire de l'effraction du volet et de la fenêtre, une rumeur que Mr Mitchell a mis 6 mois à réfuter... et encore parce que le documentaire "des experts" avait établi devant des millions de téléspectateurs qu'il n'y avait pas eu d'effraction. 

Special opprobrium for the Express
Mitchell’s special opprobrium is reserved for the Daily Express, which has positioned itself almost as the ‘Official Missing Madeleine McCann newspaper’ with a ‘story’ virtually every day, many as front page splashes. Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie said at the LSE they had been ahead of the game on this, ‘the most significant story of my lifetime,’ but Mitchell sees baser motives. ‘It’s a story that sells papers; an average front page story can put up 70,000 copies on a mid-market tabloid such as the Daily Express such is the financial imperative.’ That coverage (and profit) has come at the price of the trust of ‘Team McCann’. ‘We are not happy with the Express, nor the Express group,’ explodes Mitchell, threatening litigation may not be far off.
Même pas contents d'empocher 550 mille livres ?

Mitchell is a skilled operative in spinning for his clients. When he resumed his position in late September 2007, the tide of public opinion was turning against the McCanns. They had initially been seen as victims. But they had just been named ‘arguidos’ and returned to Britain. They might even be the perpetrators of a dastardly crime. It could have gone badly wrong for them. In his first month back in the saddle, Mitchell managed to muddy the waters around the case very successfully so that the negative flow was at least abated.

But at a price. Both at the public events and in the blogosphere, he is a much-hated figure. Websites such as ‘’ are dedicated to prove the McCanns guilty and Mitchell a pure charlatan. The hatred of Kate and Gerry is based on their supposed neglect of children, their middle classness and their ease with and use of the media. The traffic on the ‘Madeleine’ sites is immense: so too the depth of the bile. They make for every unpleasant reading.

Mitchell and, by one remove, the McCanns have sometimes, some may say often, over-stepped the mark. Producing sketches of ‘suspects’ is not properly their legal role. Nor the firm of Spanish private investigators employed (at a cost of £50,000 a month from the £1 million-plus ‘Missing Madeleine’ fund subscribed to by the public) to follow up any ‘sightings’, however flaky and wherever. That is more PR than detective work. The ‘Missing Madeleine’ story and the ever-present Mitchell provide us with a moral dipstick on the modern British media. Populist, concerned, knowing its audience but at the same time easily manipulated, gullible and prone to laziness and lying. When (and if) Madeleine is ever found, one hopes the moral compass of tabloid journalism is there as well.

John Mair is a senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University. He produced ‘Missing Madeleine McCann: The perfect PR’ in Coventry on 18 October 2007 and ‘The media and the McCanns’ at the LSE on 30 January 2008. Both are available as podcasts on the Coventry University and polis@lse websites. Email:

Madeleine: Information Or Entertainment ?
Angela Corpe (Sky News) - 31.01.2008  
There is no question that the McCanns were the biggest media story of 2007, but was the mass of media coverage information of entertainment? The world is watching.
The McCanns' spokesman Clarence Mitchell and former editor of The Sun Kelvin MacKenzie attempted to answer that question last night at the London School of Economics."The most significant story of my lifetime" was how Kelvin MacKenzie described it and one which he said will be in all our lives until Madeleine is found. He told a packed auditorium that he received 10,000 emails from Sun readers after writing a piece which said we should have sympathy for the McCanns. Almost all, he said, told him he was a scumbag and that he had no idea how ordinary people felt. "They said had this been a single black mother from Brixton I would have been saying she should be hung." And he admitted "you should all wonder if there may be some truth in that."
So why, on the one hand, was there such a public outpouring of support for the McCanns which raised £1.2 million pounds for the fund to find Madeleine, and on the other newspaper readers baying for Gerry and Kate's blood? Kelvin MacKenzie described it as a "class war" saying people simply made up their mind from the very beginning. As soon as the public found out that the couple had left their three children alone in the holiday apartment night after night, they fell into two categories; those who could empathise, who'd perhaps done the same thing themselves and realised how easily it could have been their child, others who felt the McCanns were somehow deserving of something happening, and that they should be charged with negligence.

The latter group were well represented at the debate - a couple handed out leaflets entitled "The Madeleine Foundation, combating child neglect". In it they demanded the McCanns "tell the truth" about Madeleine's disappearance, asked for an investigation into the Find Madeleine Fund and called for Kate and Gerry to be prosecuted for leaving their children alone. Even if the public had already made up their own minds, Clarence Mitchell said the coverage by some newspapers certainly didn't help. The former Royal Correspondent for the BBC said he felt "shamed" as a journalist by the "appalling standards, sloppiness and laziness of journalism" and the lack of basic fact-checking which left him having to deny allegations on a daily basis. Lawyers for the McCanns are still reviewing some of the coverage which Mr Mitchell said was not only "distorted, but wilfully misrepresentative at times of the facts as we known them".
Whilst co-operating with the media meant Madeleine's image was displayed all over Britain, mainland Europe and even North Africa is also meant the McCanns themselves came under the spotlight, and none more so than when they became "Arguidos" or suspects.
Do they have any regrets? I am sure they have many, but Mr Mitchell said the family remained grateful for the positive reporting since Madeleine disappeared, and he said he would defy any family in the McCann's situation not to do the same. "The Media" he said "is a very powerful weapon" and it is, but it is also a double-edged sword.