The McCanns and the media: A morality tale for our times?

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The McCanns and the media: A morality tale for our times?

John Mairdiscovered, relatives in the UK started workingthe media. Broadcaster Kirsty Wark got aknock on her Glasgow door within 48 hours ofthe disappearance. A neighbour was a McCanncousin. The campaign by ‘Team McCann’ tofind ‘Maddy’ was quickly launched. Central tothis campaign have been the McCanns’personal ‘spin doctors’ – Clarence Mitchell andJustine McGuinness.The McCanns and themedia: A moralitytale for our times?Since Madeleine McCann went missing fromher holiday apartment on the Portuguese coastin May 2007, the global media (assisted by herparents) has relentlessly pursued ‘the story ofthe century’. Here journalism lecturer andbroadcast producer John Mair reflects on someof the many ethical issues raised by the‘Missing Maddy’ coverageIt is the ’story of the century’ so far. Millions ofwords and tens of thousands of frames havebeen written, shot, published and transmitted.Yet, most of the coverage is speculation at best,invention at worst. What does the ‘MissingMadeleine McCann’ story tell us about themodern media worldwide?Mitchell, a former royal correspondent for theBBC, was initially sent by his employers, theBritish government, to manage the media inthe Algarve for the McCanns. He was replacedfor three months by Justine McGuinness whosebackground was in political PR. Later, Mitchellresigned as a government ‘spin doctor’ to jointhe McCanns full time in October as their‘spokesman’. He is paid by a salary of £70,000 ayear by a sympathizer, Brian Kennedy, thedouble glazing magnate. Mitchell works as, inthe word of television commentator MarkLawson, ‘the personal Alastair Campbell’ for theMcCanns. His work raises many ethical issues.I have produced two events with Mitchell(whom I knew while he was a journalist and ingovernment PR): one at the LSE on 30 Januarythis year (with polis@lse) and one last Octoberas part of the highly successful CoventryConversations series which I run weekly at theuniversity. Both were lively. Both were packedout with more than 200 attending each event.Both were recorded and are available aspodcasts. They form the basis of this article.Let’s begin with the facts. Three-year-oldMadeleine McCann disappeared from herparents’ holiday apartment in Praia de Luz onthe Portuguese Algarve on the evening of3 May 2007. They were away having a mealwith friends elsewhere in the Mark WarnerHoliday complex. Since then there has been aworldwide appeal and campaign to find herand three ‘arguidos’ or official suspects havebeen named by the Portuguese police:Madeleine’s parents Kate and Gerry and a localexpat in Portugal, Robert Murat.Those three facts have kept scores of journalistsin employ in Portugal, the UK and wider afieldfor the nine months since ‘Maddy’ disappeared.Some of the British press pack are still based inthe Algarve; some are back with the McCannsin Rothley, Leicestershire. The Portuguese pressare still active on the tale too.Saviour and protectorMitchell has come to see his role as the saviourand protector of the McCanns from the ravagesof the modern media. He admits that ‘Gerryand Kate engaged with the media from the off’but refers to himself as a ‘buffer’ betweenthem and the media. Back in May 2007, he sawfrom London that they were being overwhelmedand pleaded with his Central Officeof Information bosses to be allowed to go tothe Algarve to offer his services. He was.In that role, he tried as best he could to controland be the conduit for a press pack that wasgetting bigger and more hungry by the day.The ‘Missing Maddy’ story had captured theworld’s imagination; everybody in the presspack wanted a piece of the action and theirown angle. His phone rang and continues toring off the hookThe McCanns have been very media savvy fromday one or two. Once her ‘disappearance’ wasMitchell made sure of continuing interest byarranging a series of PR stunts in Portugal and30 Copyright 2008-1/2. Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. All rights reserved. Vol 5, No 1/2 2008 ARTICLE


een seen as victims. But they had just beennamed ‘arguidos’ and returned to Britain. Theymight even be the perpetrators of a dastardlycrime. It could have gone badly wrong forthem. In his first month back in the saddle,Mitchell managed to muddy the waters aroundthe case very successfully so that the negativeflow was at least abated.But at a price. Both at the public events and inthe blogosphere, he is a much-hated figure.Websites such as ‘the3arguidos.net’ are dedicatedto prove the McCanns guilty and Mitchella pure charlatan. The hatred of Kate and Gerryis based on their supposed neglect of children,their middle classness and their ease with anduse of the media. The traffic on the ‘Madeleine’sites is immense: so too the depth of the bile.They make for very unpleasant reading.Mitchell and, by one remove, the McCanns havesometimes, some may say often, over-steppedthe mark. Producing sketches of ‘suspects’ is notproperly their legal role. Nor the firm of Spanishprivate investigators employed (at a cost of£50,000 a month from the £1 million-plus‘Missing Madeleine’ fund subscribed to by thepublic) to follow up any ‘sightings’, howeverflaky and wherever. That is more PR than detectivework.The ‘Missing Madeleine’ story and the everpresentMitchell provide us with a moraldipstick on the modern British media.Populist, concerned, knowing its audiencebut at the same time easily manipulated,gullible and prone to laziness and lying.When (and if) Madeleine is ever found, onehopes the moral compass of tabloid journalismis there as well.Note on ContributorJohn Mair is a senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University. Heproduced ‘Missing Madeleine McCann: The perfect PR’ in Coventryon 18 October 2007 andThe media and the McCanns’ at the LSE on30 January 2008. Both are available as podcasts on the CoventryUniversity and polis@lse websites. Email: Johnmair100@hotmail.com32 Copyright 2008-1/2. Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. All rights reserved. Vol 5, No 1/2 2008 ARTICLE

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