Saturday, May 19, 2007


Asked for her views on British reporting of the disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann in the Algarve, a Portuguese journalist who has lived in London for fifteen years, said that once the tabloids had written off the local police as useless foreigners, they then condemned the search dogs as equally useless because they too were foreign.
It was a light hearted comment on the reporting of a story in which there has often been very little to report.
The coverage, which has almost ignored the fact the child would not have disappeared if her parents had not left their very small children home alone, has been a spin doctor’s dream.
A great deal of credit must go to Alex Woodfall, the top PR man seconded to the Mark Warner holiday village by the Bell Pottinger Group, whose boss, Lord Bell, was Margaret Thatcher’s PR guru when she was Prime Minister.
Day after day there have been relentless, sympathetic, upbeat reports of sightings of suspicious white vans, a man taking pictures of children on a beach, two men and a mystery blonde talking to a child near a supermarket, a lurking man with dark skin and finally a suspect – though there is not enough evidence to charge him.
At times the pictures have seemed almost straight out of Hollywood - with long shots of Madeleine’s parents walking hand-in-hand alone on a deserted beach, the camera crews at a discreet distance.
Sky News devoted the child’s fourth birthday to a ‘day of special coverage.’
Condemning the secrecy of the Portuguese police on one hand, reporters have interpreted it as a sign of hope on the other.
It took a reporter from The Times, in a phone call from the distance of London, to the get the head of the local Portuguese police to admit they had got nowhere and there were no suspects - before Robert Murat became an arguido. This, as Sky’s crime correspondent, Martin Brunt, admitted, left reporters hot on the story on the ground feeling deflated.
But they have not been alone. Criminologists, retired detectives, psychiatrists, psychologists, a bevy of politicians, sports celebrities like David Beckham and people who have only a remote connection with the McCann family have all got in on the act and on the telly.
Breaking the Foreign and Commonwealth Office habit of being unhelpful to Brits in trouble abroad, our man in Portugal, John Buck, has twice shown up at Praia da Luz and FCO have sent a press officer to help the McCanns.
Labour Party Leader and PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown, who one day condemned the cult of celebrity, joined in the celebrity sympathy the next and has since said he will do anything he can to help.
Sometimes it has almost seemed as if people in the public eye were afraid not to be seen joining in the global publicity.
Now, in the continued absence of concrete information from the stonewalling Portuguese police, the coverage has become largely reports on the promotional efforts of the newly launched brand, Team McCann – an assortment of the lawyers, PR people, family and friends led Kate and Gerry McCann to keep Madeleine’s media profile high.
To date, though their web site has had a reported 75 million hits, the team has received less than £100,000 in contributions to the ‘fighting fund’ to pay for their expenses and the McCanns prolonged stay in Portugal.
With the seas of flowers, yellow ribbons, posters, cards, pictures on T-shirts and cuddly toys, there has not been such a display of media and public emotion since the death of Princess Diana a decade ago.
The same spiritual and emotional vacuum which existed when Tony Blair became Prime Minister is still there as he leaves.
As builders will not finish the conversion work on Tony Blair’s house in Connaught Square for several weeks, the reason he is clinging on at 10 Downing Street until June 27 may be just to keep a roof over his head in London. But at least he has a home to go to – unlike poor old former French President Jacques Chirac, who has swapped the splendour of the Elysee Palace for camping in a rent free apartment on the Quai Voltaire until he can get a place of his own. Perhaps the view over the Seine of the Louvre will help to compensate him for the loss of grandeur.
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