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Wednesday, November 23, 2011 

A national disgrace.

If journalism was once the first rough draft of history, then in this post-whatever age of ours it can often turn into the only one. Where previously a lie could travel half-way around the world before truth could put its shoes on, then now it can prove all but impossible to correct, let alone shift from the minds of hundreds of thousands of people. Moreover, initial impressions are often those that stick: this most impressed itself on me in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, where the original, false, report from the police that he had jumped the barrier on his way into Stockwell tube station stuck and was still being repeated years later regardless of the IPCC reports and subsequent health and safety prosecution of the Met.

It is then all but impossible to put yourself in the position of the McCanns and try and even begin to comprehend what they went and are still going through. Of all the myriad mistakes made and abuses committed by the press in recent times, whether it be THE TRUTH, the smearing of Colin Stagg, the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone, or the Sun's despicable failure to properly fact check their Alfie Patten story to name just a few, the assault on the McCanns and it can only be described as such, will quite possibly never be beaten.

Getting it out of the way now, looking back through my own writing on the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, I too was guilty on occasion of utter heartlessness, and of voicing criticism of the couple that was simply too harsh. I was critical from the outset of their use of the media, both for the reason that such wall-to-wall coverage would in fact scare any potential kidnapper into keeping her hidden, perhaps forever, and also for how I feared that the media would in time extract their pound of flesh for the help they were so kindly providing. I also went slightly too far in suggesting that it was possible they could be involved, even though I still regard it as being a perfectly legitimate avenue for investigation considering the circumstances. Where I was completely and utterly wrong was in my failure to recognise that they desperately needed someone to handle the press for them, and also in criticising their Christmas message to their missing daughter.

This does rather pale into insignificance though when newspapers were publishing front page stories with headlines such as "MADDIE MUM ORGY FURY" and other inside page articles were implying, however obliquely, that the McCanns may have sold Madeleine into slavery to pay off their mortgage debt. The general level of crassness, insincerity and unconscionable cruelty that developed, away from the worst excesses, may well be best summed up by the Daily Mail's online poll which asked readers whether they thought Kate's tears were genuine. While Gerry McCann has previously given evidence to the parliamentary media committee, memorably describing how his daughter had been become nothing more than a "commodity" to the press, the McCanns' appearance today before the Leveson inquiry is the first time they've provided a full narrative of how they tried desperately to get the media to tone the sensationalism down.

First, in September 2007, the campaign manager for Madeleine's fund and their solicitor met with all the editors of the tabloid media, making clear that the most of what was being printed was not only untrue but also libellous and damaging the search for Madeleine. Coverage improved for a few days before it sank back into the gutter. Next, the chief constable of Leicestershire police wrote two letters, one a fortnight after the first, to all the papers. Nothing changed. Further meetings were set up, this time with Clarence Mitchell. Again, there was no difference in the coverage. More letters were sent, this time from their solicitors, threatening legal action against the Express and Evening Standard. It wasn't until January of 2008 that the McCanns, despairing of a return to the front pages, instructed Carter-Ruck to start legal proceedings against the Express group.

The Express being the Express under Richard Desmond (now in charge of Channel 5 it should be noted), first offered the McCanns a "platform", the implication being that they would receive favourable coverage in the future, as long as they also gave consent to be interviewed in OK! magazine. The Express group at least quickly caved in and made unprecedented front page apologies across their titles, as well as paying £550,000 to the Madeleine fund. The Daily Mail by contrast refused to make any such apology when libel proceedings were brought against them, instead making the case that any defamation had been "largely balanced" as they had also published many supportive stories. It's a novel legal idea that as long as you print some reputable material it balances out any lies and smears you might have also published about someone, but the McCanns nonetheless decided to accept the Mail's offer of printing adverts in their continental editions on finding Madeleine rather than embark on a protracted dispute with a paper they still felt they needed "good" relations with.

If there is one example which sums up the media's entire attitude to those they help and publicise, then it's the phone call from Colin Myler, the final editor of the News of the World, when the McCanns gave an interview to Hello! on their call for an improved alert system when a child is abducted. It's best to quote from Gerry McCann's witness statement directly:

How very dare the McCanns give an interview to some else? After all, those banners which had the News of the World's logo on them bigger than FIND MADDIE couldn't have come cheap. Despite caving in to this blackmail and giving the paper an interview, still the NotW's resident Glenda Slagg, better known as Carole Malone, wrote a piece on the anniversary of Madeleine going missing headlined "I wept for Kate but I still blame her" that Myler felt was perfectly appropriate to run.

It would took a lot to top the effrontery of that phone call, but still the NotW managed it. Publishing someone's private diaries without their permission on its own ought to strain even a jaded tabloid journalist's conscience, but to print a grieving mother's letters to her abducted child which were illegally obtained and which were also a bastardised English to Portuguese to English translation is just about as dishonourable as it gets, however much you dress it up as undermining previous libels. Kate McCann described it as being "mentally raped", to which there really isn't any response or counter-argument. The only person who comes out of the evidence with anything approaching credit is of all people, Rebekah Brooks, who effectively got the McCanns their formal review of the case, getting the Sun to splash on an open letter from the couple to David Cameron, partially in exchange for the serialisation of Kate's book. The same day the Home Office announced there would be a review.

How then are the tabloids responding to this litany of abuses? By doing what they've always done when called to account in any small way: ignoring the criticism as best they can. The only tabloid to mention it on their front page tomorrow is the Daily Star, and that focuses on the NotW printing Kate's diary. Far more important to the Sun currently is that Marina Hyde in the Guardian had suggested the paper had doorstepped counsel to the inquiry Carine Patry Hoskins, something they've quickly admitted they got wrong and have apologised for, a rather faster turnaround than the Sun usually manages. The Mail has the story slightly more prominently, but you still need to scroll down to see it. As for the Express and the Mirror, it's better just to forget it. As Dan Sabbagh writes, if nothing else Leveson has brought some much needed further attention to what was and still is a national disgrace. As for whether it will change anything or prick any consciences this far down the line, it remains highly doubtful.

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