Jan 30 2008

McCanns and the Media: the debate

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 in to 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

Now some quotes from our speakers.

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’.”

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 Madeliene but critcised the ‘sloppiness and laziness’ of much journalism driven by ‘a commercial imperitive’ 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.

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32 Responses to McCanns and the Media: the debate

  1. astromum says:

    I’m the person that said that people comment on the internet and go on forums because they are frustrated with the news coverage. I think that is a valid comment and I am pretty insulted to be characterised as a sad soul with sick fantasies and bigotries.
    I think it was useful to the conference for someone like me to turn up and represent the ‘commentariat’ as this has been such a huge part of the McCann media story. Please apologize for your bigoted comments.

  2. E Fife. Scotland says:

    perhaps the media has lost touch with the “common” people. this for me has been a class issue. As Kelvin said, if this had been a single mum nipping across the road for a quick one with her mates she would be absolutely crucified for it and her children would be in care. Most people I know can not understand why the neglect issue has been swept under the carpet. Repeatedly saying it is within the bounds of responsible parenting makes me shudder. I wouldnt have left my handbag alone in a hotel room, never mind three children under 4.
    Spin has ruined the media. We can not trust anything now.

  3. Logicman says:

    How can we know anything….there is no evidence….either way….it is all conjecture….we should wait for a court case….it is the logical thing to do…..they are most likely just an innocent family.

  4. John (Uk) says:

    “The Internet provided an outlet for huge waves of sympathy for the McCanns 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 sick bigotries.”

    So the use of the internet is ok if you support the parents but not ok if you don’t? I’m afraid you will have to accept that much of the debate on the net has been completely rational and driven by sympathy for Madeleine which goes beyond blind affiliation to the parents. As has been said it is the the continual stream of inaccurate, contradictory and badly researched stories in the mainstream press which both produces much of the ‘chatter’ and cynicism. People are not as passive and easily manipulated as the media people seem to imagine and long for the kind of investigative reporting which has made a free press such a force for democracy in the past. We want a press which asks questions and strives for the truth. In this case when they found that they were not going to be spoon fed by the Portuguese authorities – because shock horror they have a different system and culture!!!! – they had no answer. To the point that even to the point that they couldn’t accurately report the distance from the Tapas Bar to the apartment a simple question of fact. The Mirror Forum which was closed down after pressure from the McCanns was symptomatic of this issue. Good, bad and horrific in parts it reflected peoples desire to be engaged and to comment – which if we believe in freedom of speech is their right. We thought that a free press was our protection against spin but clearly it isn’t.

  5. obiterdicta says:

    It will be interesting to see whether and how this plays out. If it plays out as I suspect then it will be another victory notch for the blogosphere against the complacent and lazy MSM.

    I’ve not seen any robust reporting in the main stream media. In fact some of the reporting in the MSM has been disgraceful. Describing the portuguese as “sardine munchers”is one obvious example.

    The more pointed and incisive questions are being asked in the blogosphere.The blogosphere is far more sceptical of the accounts given by the McCanns.

    Time will tell!

  6. Maggie says:

    I find it hypocritical of a person writing a blog (surely a sad occupation is it not?), to condemn people for joining a forum and discussing the ‘case of the century’. You have yourself joined those ‘sad souls’. Welcome to the dark side.

  7. Shesaidwhat says:

    We are not sad souls, I myself am a world famous Psychologist and co author of fourteen textbooks. I have six professional awards and am a member of Mensa. How does this make me a sad soul? Hypocracy at it’s worse.

  8. CharlieBeckett says:

    Thanks for the reaction so far. I’ll amend the text to make some points clearer. But on the drift of most of these comments I would say:
    I didn’t mean to say that people should only go online to praise the McCanns or that all people who criticise them or debate the issues are nuts.
    I am a strong advocate of debate online as an alternative to mainstream media – as my other posts on this blog show. I simply pointed out that some people who have gone online are vicious and unhinged. I made it clear that mainstream media has hardly been faultless on this story.
    Let the debate continue…

  9. Coldwater says:

    Must say I agree totally with Logicman, this poor family is beign demonised by internet ghouls. THe blogger was right IMHO they are sad souls whose life is empty. I can only think their vitriol stems from their jealousy of the McCanns obvious success in life, professionally and socially.

  10. Charles says:

    Possibly the most important thing to come out of the debate is confirmation of something I have suspected for some time.

    The British Public no longer believe the Media.

    I am sure there was a time when we did, and when the Nespaper at breakfast time published the truth. Maybe a biased truth, but at least something based on reality.

    Shame, really.

  11. astromum says:

    where is my apology charlie? I was there. I asked a polite question, there was nothing vicious and unhinged about what I said. I contributed to the debate constructively.
    As for the couple from the Madeleines law campaign, did you bother to talk to them and ask them questions? If they came across as angry, I think its understandable. The lack of good investigative journalism in the mainstream media, the uncritical reporting of the McCanns Pr campaign has led to this kind of frustration and fury.
    Condescending reactions such as you display and Roy Greenslade has displayed in his blog, and the pompous white middle aged middle class parade of establishment males that we saw last night doesn’t improve matters. Thank god for Kelvin Mackenzie and Steve hewlett.
    I understand why clarence Mitchell is supporting the McCanns. Its his job and I believe him when he says that he believes them. But the others were so biased. This wasn’t exactly a balanced panel of experts was it?
    You will see for yourself the bias of the media when they report last nights conference. The initial stories only reports Clarences Mitchells unsubstantiated claim that (British) police sources believe in the McCanns innocence and that they are not in fact suspects. Do you think that this story is a fair representation of last night?
    Actually the most significant story of last night is Clarence MItchells admission that he managed to have the Daily Mirror forum shut down! What does that say for free speech and democracy? Where’s the uproar about that?

  12. lst says:

    I am a strong advocate of debate online as an alternative to mainstream media – as my other posts on this blog show. I simply pointed out that some people who have gone online are vicious and unhinged.”

    Would this be your opinion of online comments left in the support or of the McCann’s or against?

    I myself have read some very twisted comments online in recent months from both sides, but the most vile and twisted, threatening and vindictive comments i have seen, seem to be from people who support the McCann’s

    Also I do not think this has been a class thing at all regarding them leaving their babies alone. It has been mentioned in the press that people who do not support the Mc Cann’s are jealous of them and this is were the negativity stems from, I think you find that the majority who think that its NOT RESPONSIBLE PARENTING leaving babies unattended is where this negativity is coming from and not cooperating with the police, not class.

  13. John (Uk) says:

    I agree with astromum above – where do we go in this country when internet discussion forums are closed because someone doesn’t like what they are saying? The forum was moderated and threads frequently deleted so it wasn’t exactly a free for all. The most interesting thing about it was that the views of contributors and (presumably) readers was completely at odds with the editorial line of the paper. Far from having been given a hard time the McCanns actually enjoyed almost universal support in the mainstream including and especially BBC and Sky TV news. On BBC 24 highly questionable breaking news strap lines remained for hours and sometimes days after they had been shown on the Mirror Forum to be misleading or wrong.

    I think the question for the media is rather like the question for politicians and is this:

    Why when all this energy for debate and enquiry exists do so many people fail or refuse to engage with the mainstream institutions? Fewer and fewer people bother to vote because they do not engage with political debate, fewer and fewer people trust what they are being told in the newspapers and TV news, it is described as apathy – but it is not. It is a form of distrust – the McCann media experience is a current and active example of this effect.

    Why not have a debate along these lines?

  14. gonzo says:

    Newspaper reporting has reached an all time low. The journalists [or it may be the editors or the owners] no longer report facts. For the last nine months whatever company I have been in and whenever the subject of this little girl has cropped up the result has always been the same everyone had misgivings about the whole case, there were too many inconsistancies, too many photos of the happy smiling parents [see the one with the T.Shirt thats the pits]
    After all this what do we read in the papers? We read how the whole nation is behind them and how everyone is full of sympathy for them, we never read any criticism. Many newspapers will not even allow a merest hint of criticism in their comments sections. I admit some peoples comments are way over the top but if a newspaper allows sycophancy then they should print other points of view too, or have no comments at all.
    Two things at least the newspapers could have done
    1. Walk the walk we have been told the distance was 50 yards [by Gerry at first] later told anything up to 120 yards. Many journalists out there
    couldnt they have done the walk and also told us the door could not be seen from the tapas bar. {Brunt at Sky finally did the walk and showed us the sights and distance} – poor journalism but they wanted us to read their news. – This was one of the first pieces of information fed to us, by the parents, that was definitely a lie.
    2. For the sake of the majority of the british public why did they continue
    repeating ‘everyone does it’. They even printed a Clarence Mitchell comment saying it was a British thing and it was what British parents did.
    It may be what jounalists do but it is not what the great majority of the British public do.
    I no longer buy a newspaper, I catch up online, and listen and watch the news with the salt cellar in my hand.

  15. lynnkx says:

    I note that the perceived hostility from the public towards the McCanns is judged to be caused by bigotry on the part of the lower classes..

    That is just too discriminatory for me to comment other than to say that anybody who thinks this could even have a grain of truth in it does not understand the ‘normal’ people in the UK at all imho.

    The general public are aware of the circumstances surrounding this issue and are aware of what the word ‘suspect’ means when it is applied by a policeman to an individual personally.

    What a shame that the clever people in the UK do not understand as much as they think they do.

    The problem with the public’s non-existant trust in the media is maybe caused by the condecending patronising superiorty pouring from the mouths of the media in tsunami style and daily all over the ‘nice-but-dim’ public??

  16. Loz says:

    I’m far from being a ‘sad soul’ but the reason I was driven to the various fora on the internet was the lack of honest, un-biased reporting from the British media.

    Where is the discussion about child neglect? It’s not a case of ‘there for the grace of God go I’ as I’ve never left my young children to fend for themselves anytime, anywhere – let alone in an unfamiliar apartment in a holiday resort.

    And why does the media find it so convenient to ‘forget’ that Kate and Gerry McCann are official arguidos (suspects) in the disappearance of their daughter?

    Why does the media continually undermine the difficult work carried out by the Portuguese police?

    Personally, there’s no entertainment to be had from the fact that Madeleine McCann is missing, but I, like many others, do seek justice for her.

  17. Richard says:

    Charlie says @ 12:05

    “Possibly the most important thing to come out of the debate is confirmation of something I have suspected for some time.

    The British Public no longer believe the Media.”

    no, don’t be so patronising, they do not believe the McCann’s or their shifting sand stories.

    If this was a UK crime the British public would be their peers in court , then what ?

    This is not a theoretical debate , or film, something happened and for the collective good the truth is required .

    The explicit racism in the implied comments about the Portuguese Police is disgraceful ,I never thought I would write this , but my country is becoming smaller , long memories in continental Europe will hold this against us .

  18. Eric Smith says:

    “I simply pointed out that some people who have gone online are vicious and unhinged.”

    Ironically making a wild statement like that without stating what behaviour you are referring to is little more than foaming at the mouth.

    Please tell us what opinions you observed being expressed that lead you to believe the commentators were vicious and unhinged ?

    There are unquestionably class differences here. The broadheet position is that the chief suspects are controlled professionals who show their emotions in private. This despite the obvious fact that both of them are from very working class backgrounds and Dr McCann’s behaviour on camera suggests that he has a very quick temper.

    My position on this generally is either that broadsheet journalists are being told what to write (no I don’t believe they have independence) or the education system has been dumbed down to a very dangerous level. There is a mountains of substantiated (by the McCann team) evidence against the suspects. Whether it is valid or not will be determined later but the constant mantra that we don’t know what happened is beyond credibility. The criticism of the Portuguese poice is in my opinion simple racism.

  19. Maggie22 says:

    This isn’t a class war Charlie this is fear!! Nice normal parents out in the real world don’t want a bogeyman to have stolen maddie! they would prefer the parents to be responsible because then they can feel safe.And for most it is a better option than maddie being in the hands of a monster.

    Having said that the press reporting on this case has been abysmal. The P.R. has been chronic! Clarence mitchell says he believes what he is paid to tell us. And he tells us adnausium but doesn’t even get his own story straight! I don’t think I can remember a time when even the P.R. man has changed his story as often as clarence has. I read the web sites but don’t contribute. As far as I can see [in the main] the people who write on them never say anything derogatory about the child and most only criticise the parents because they don’t feel they tell a straight true story consistently. The only consistent thing is there inability to respond appropriately to the charge that they neglected three babies! I don’t think they should have to parade their grief but they could have come clean and warned other people not to do such a stupid thing and been a bit more abject about there responsibility. Telling us that what he did was ‘within the realms of responsible parenting’ wont help gerry get respect. This might have gone some way to keeping public sympathy! In the end only the pj know whether they have enough to charge the parents, the rest is speculation and red top canonisation wont change that. I think they have been remarkably lucky in the coverage that they have had so far! the public who don’t have computers don’t know most of the story anyway and certainly most of them stopped caring that much anyway!

    I think there are far fewer saddos on web sites than you think! A lot of the sadder stuff seemed to me to be the same few under different names!

  20. Eric Smith says:

    I listened to as much of the podcast as I could bear. It is truly incredible that a discussion is taking place about standards in the British media including people like Clarence Mitchell and Kelvin McKenzie. This case has shown beyond all reasonable doubt that there are no standards and it beggars belief that a journalist has the audacity to criticise members of the public for their behaviour. Don’t they realise the incredibly low status they have ? McKenzie is is a grubby little creature carrying a pitchfork straight from Dante’s Inferno and what he does henceforth will never redeem him.

    Every single one of these media figures chooses to ignore the fact that head of the police investigation said he believed the McCanns were guilty. How many other criminal suspects get 100% support from the media ?

    How many journalists have questioned the role of Clarence Mitchell. Just how big does the elephant in the room have to be before someone writes about it ? He is apparently employed by a double glazing company because he so passionately believed in the McCanns’ innocence, he left his high profile government job to reopresent them. Apart from being silly, it would also imply he had integrity which is utterly incredible.

    I have no hesitation in saying I believe they are almost certainly guilty and that the whole media circus has been orchestrated by her majesty’s government and continues to be so.

  21. Christopher Mooney says:

    If you actually try reading forums, rather than just put your own personal slant on them, you’ll find that 80% of the people on their actually think the Mcann’s are guilty – or at the bare minumum – think that they are controlling the tabloid press to portray innocence. This seems quite obvious to me.

    People don’t trust the press, because it can be easily bought. It is in no way independent, poltically or commercially.

    When i’m reading “Murat’s girlfriend seen with blonde child”, it seems quite obvious that this is mud-slinging and PR, from team Mcann. The source and reasons for doing it are quite obvious.

    I do find it quite worrying that a reasoned debate on the story, seems to have not even discussed the Mcanns disasterous PR campaign.

  22. Christopher Mooney says:

    “I understand why clarence Mitchell is supporting the McCanns. Its his job and I believe him when he says that he believes them. But the others were so biased. This wasn’t exactly a balanced panel of experts was it?”

    He is being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to believe them. I doubt he was even there to debate. Just create a few “innocent” quotes/soundbites, to put in the next days Sun.

    If you actually read it, it went on something like “POLICE THINK MCANNS ARE INNOCENT” says Clarence Mitchell, in small print.

    If you don’t think this entire debate and subsequent story wasn’t just part of the whole campaign, then you should really wake up.

  23. CharlieBeckett says:

    This is to Christopher but applies more generally:
    Thanks for your comment. You say “I do find it quite worrying that a reasoned debate on the story, seems to have not even discussed the Mcanns disastrous PR campaign.”
    I don’t know if you were at the event or have actually read my post (and the linked articles) but the McCanns’ PR campaign was about 80% of the debate. In other words the opposite of what you say.
    I have read a lot of the forums and I am aware that much of the commentary there is critical of the McCanns. Again, if you had been at the debate or read my article that was very much what was said.
    Like many of the comments on this post people don’t seem to be either reading what was written or listening to what was said at the debate.

  24. peccavi says:

    1. The debate featured the paid spokesman of the chief suspects in a criminal investigation.

    2. The mainstream TV and newspapers in the UK have persistently reported the views of the suspects and their paid spokesman with very little independent thought or criticism.

    3. Newspaper forums and comments sections are observed to be heavily censored. There appears to be an orchestrated campaign by supporters of the suspects to disrupt these public forums.

    4. Those who beg to differ with the version of events propagated by the suspects and their entourage are stereotyped as Sun-reading thickos and internet cranks.

    Mr Beckett, which of the above statements do you not understand? Which are not relevant to the debate? Which do you disagree with?

    Mr Beckett, do you see the elephant in the room yet?

  25. Eric Smith says:

    Charlie I have read you article and am aware that it has changed at least twice to my knowledge. But this phrase remains “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”.

    I have frequented the mirror forum since September (I am interested in Clarence Mitchell’s involvement) and I am not aware of many instances where individuals disgraced themselves to the degree that Clarence Mitchell, Roy Greenslade or Kelvin McKenzie have on a daily basis. They are human beings entirely without merit or credibility of any kind. You cannot edit the Mirror or the Sun then return to the human race as if nothing had happened. You cannot tell the world the Mccanns are innocent when you haven’t a clue whether they are or not and expect to be anything but a figure of ridicule.

    I stopped reading the Guardian around fifteen years ago because it became (I exaggerate somewhat) a middle class version of the Sun or a left wing version of the Times, whichever you prefer. You can sum up the integrity of the British political and journalistic classes in two words, “Rupert Murdoch”.

  26. marisa says:

    The Mirror Forum on the hunt for Madeleine McCann has been the best thing since sliced bread! It was raw, real, very informative and enlightening. It was pulled because it touched too many nerves. There was(is) a collective gut reaction to Jekyl ‘n’ Hyde and their ‘gang’ for how they treated their children on a supposed family holiday, and their declaration that this is what British families do. However, their comments, their behaviour, their manipulation of the gullible public have left no doubts in the minds of the majority of people that the guilt is very close to home.

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  30. kitty says:

    I believe in ‘live and let live’ and in ‘the freedom of speech’ but this arguament is weighted towards the McCann’s. In an effor to keep their missing child in the media they place themselves in the limelight. I never buy newspapers or magazines and yet I was swamped recently by emails from the McCann camp asking for my support by sending copies of the said email to everyone in my mailbox. This breaks a position of trust and dare I say it, along with the other SPAM recieved, turning the innocent child into a comodity along side other sales – and we all know what they are…

    In keeping out the debate, thus far, I have reserved judgement but I now sway against the McCanns – they neglected and did not miss the children when they were enjoying a meal out with friends. Now they cry in public and blame the police – my message is, and will not come a surprise to anyone, the Police are not paid to babysit.

  31. Kate Hughes says:

    Charlie? your spot on when saying “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. The other one that dosesn’t wash with me is “If this was a single mother.” God Forbid that were to have been the case, the poor woman would have less of a say than the McCann’s. Makes me think of Leonra Cipriano. Little Joana has not been found. What we have to take into account is that people suffer from certain disorders and don’t think with a clear mind, this could be contribute to it. I’m not having a go at anyone who has such an illness. I’m more of the opinion of “There for the Grace of God go I.” K.H.

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