Last night I went to the Guardian conference ‘McCanns and the Media’ and here is my report. I have also included a couple of comments from other people who attended.
I arrived early to make sure of a seat towards the front. Then the speakers arrived. Clarence Mitchell and Justine McGuinness shook hands and didn’t look like they had met before.
Quite a lot of lone women in the audience but notably only one woman on the panel of speakers.
An incident at the beginning was noted by another audience member:
“Shortly after Clarrie walked in and stood up front – at this point less than 8 feet from where I was sitting, some young Christian-looking type walked over to Clarrie and handed him an envelope.He asked Clarrie to give it to the McCann’s. I knew there was money in the envelope – fairly thick maybe about 20-30 bills inside. The envelope looked clean and respected in a way some people treat an envelope with cash in it. I was close enough to read “Drs. Gerry and Kate McCann”.
Clarrie looked at the envelope, looked at me, then looked at the envelope again. When he later took the stage and had a seat, he placed the envelope in front of him and looked at it from time to time.”
Kelvin starts speaking: “This is the most significant story in my lifetime. There are only 2 known facts: 1) a child is missing 2) Her parents are the main suspects.
Every other story about the disappearance of Maddie is a spin-off of these two facts. Without finding the child this story will live in our lives forever. Uniquely, this was a middle class child who was kidnapped.
The Sun readership is mostly C1’s and D2’s. When I wrote a story sympathetic to the Mccanns I got the largest ever email bag, between 8 and 10,000 emails. 99.9 percent of them were against the McCanns. They said that the coverage was classist. There is some truth in that. “
Referring to the LSE audience Kelvin said:
“An audience like this is at odds with the population.”
“How a big story like this works in Britain: normally after two or three days, journalists covering the case would have been brought together by police, off the record, and they would explain what had happened. The journalists would be given by and large 95% of the story. Five per cent would be held back.
Newspapers would then run a wholly accurate story which would act as a warning in a dangerous situation and stop speculation.
It’s now been 272 days since Madeleine has been missing. All there has been is one 3 minute conversation between the Portuguese police and a UK journalist. The stories don’t come from the Portuguese police. Portuguese papers run opposing stories every other day. This is a problem for the McCanns. Everyone here is obsessed.”
Kelvin Mackenzie admits to being obsessed himself.
“When papers put the McCanns on the front page, there is a 2 to 3% rise in circulation.
The recent story with Ashley Cole, there is a rise of 2-3 per cent for the first day, maybe the second. With the McCanns it’s been that way for nine months.”
Steve Hewlitt asks: “Why are readers so negative? “
Kelvin: “Because of the neglect. It’s a class war issue. Punishment is wanted. It’s an incredible (good) idea to get a PR. They stop the parents from doorstepping, phonecalls etc. I believe that Gerry McCann has gone back to work. “
(Clarence nods but makes a point of saying that Kate McCann has not gone back to work and has no intention of doing so).
“Ordinary people however don’t associate PR with the truth. Now there are stories that Oprah and Barbara have offered all this money.”
Clarence: “Thats not true by the way.
“The PR was necessary but there is a downside. People are suspicious. Somebody needs to help the Mccanns in the modern era. Justine and I are a buffer so that the McCanns can get on with their lives to a certain extent.
I am trying to tell the truth.
The status of ‘Arguido’ is less perjorative than the word suspect. By the way the McCanns did not phone the press before the police. There are appalling standards of journalism. Journalists are lazy and not checking the facts. Sloppy standards with newspapers. I was with the McCanns for a month as a government advisor. Then they called me in to help them out. I am not suspicious of them. I wouldn’t do this if I was. Briefing from the police mean that I am very happy to defend them. I’m not usually a person that supports causes.
On average a front page puts on 70 thousand copies when they lead with the McCanns.
In todays world, with pressure to get broadcasting out, it means standards have slipped. The UK press lifts material from the Portuguese press which then recycles the UK press. It’s distorted. They should get a green award.”
Then an Irish guy interrupts and says: “With all due respect, we’ve listened to you for half an hour, we’ve heard all this before, stop rambling on”. He turns out to be from the Madeleine’s Law Campaign.
Steve Hewlitt asks some tough questions: “This is media management ? The Morroccan sighting was untrue. Was it appropriate for this new drawing of a man to be described as a suspect in the manner of the police?
Did the police have this info?”
Clarence: “Yes since May. And we asked Gail Cooper if the police had done a drawing of her description and she said no. So we commissioned one.”
Then Roger Graef [created the Dispatches documentary, and a criminologist] spoke. After he did the documentary he realized there was nothing really to say, as there were no facts. People are talking about nothing, just unsubstantiated rumour. No sources to confirm anything. McCanns did not want to work on the documentary or approve of it until Madeleine is found.
Graef tried to be amusing (failing miserably). He said that he was constantly being asked to comment on this story which has no substance to it. He was of the ‘Its disgusting how everybody treats the McCanns’ school of thought. Really couldn’t be bothered to listen to him. He annoyed me when he said that leaving your children alone when you are on holiday is perfectly normal and everybody does it.
Then David Mills (Panorama producer who pulled out) gets up: he’s another boring old male fart.
He says: “It raises issues about police procedure, forensic science in this country, and the British press. There are precedents in the US and there are many parallels between the Ramseys and the McCanns. “
He says something about the Ramseys being proved to be wholly innocent. (Don’t think thats true is it?)
Then a blonde woman sitting next to me catches me tutting and hands me a leaflet for the Madeleine’s Law Campaign.
Next it’s Justine McGuinness. She immediately comes across as more relevant than the two previous men.
She says: “The narrative of case is superficially easy to understand… this story plays to everybody’s common fears. The McCanns represent aspirational Britain. They’ve
worked their way up from a working class background to ‘media’ careers”
Everybody laughs at this Freudian slip.
She corrects herself: “medical careers I mean.”
She continues: “One editor I spoke to admitted that he changed how he covered the story based on the fact that the parents are doctors.
The McCanns made decisions at the beginning:
– to pool media access, no exclusives.
– The experts advised them to use the media.
– They made a decision to use electronic communications.
– And hits on websites had influenced editorial policy.”
“Everyone has a view. This story has gone in 4 phases:
1) initially- sympathy
2) skepticism, and it’s appropriate for journalists to adopt this tone.
3) Long period of suspicion
4) commercial cynicism.”
Greenslade asks rhetorically:
“Has the media gone too far? Yes
Has the internet removed editorial limits? Yes
Have the laws on defamation been breached- Yes, people unlike journalists don’t care about defamation, that’s the nature of gossip.”
Questions from audience start:
“What this the first missing child in the UK? No
Was this the first missing child case that used a professional PR? Probably.”
Clarence: “The portuguese police don’t engage with the media at all. When they went to the British police station and saw the media room, they were like, What’s this? Why you need this?(adopting slight Portuguese accent).”
Next question from audience:
“Does Article 8 ‘the right to privacy’ and Article 10 ‘the right to freedom of expression’ from the Human Rights Legislation conflict?”
Didn’t hear answer.
Angela from Sky News: (blonde who asked blonde question) “Was this story big because it was a slow news day?”
Kelvin: “No. The story was huge in itself.”
Lady from Madeleine’s law said angry stuff but can’t remember what.
Evening Standard journalist said something boring.
Madeleine’s Law lady: “What about the fund ? These private investigators. How much do they cost?”
Clarence: “The cost of agency 50K? But they are actually costing 7 or 8k but the rest is for operational costs.”
Another lady: “Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence?”
The woman next to me repeated Clarence Mitchells’ claim of ‘knowing’ that Kate and Gerry are innocent. However, Clarence Mitchell and the former Sun editor had said there was no real information – nothing came out of the police’s mouths. She then asked him:
“Based on the fact that there was no real information in the public domain, how does you know?”
“I know because I believe Gerry and Kate.”
She pushed him and stated: “So if you know because you believe, then you BELIEVE they are innocent. Therefore you don’t really know! ”
Then she said ” Something stinks here!”
Clarrie cowered and mumbled something about semantics, the lady sitting next to me got a nice bit of applause for her effort and Clarrie was really humiliated.
More questions from the audience.
Richard Peel, a PR guy, said something about letting off balloons.
Justine gets up and defends the decision to let off balloons.
I ask a question (nerves thundering through my ears): “These men here and Clarence in the past have said that it’s normal for British parents to leave their children alone when on holiday. This makes people furious.
This sort of media is not helping the McCanns. When the McCanns say they were sorry to leave their children alone, it’s always couched in very careful terms.
I was frustrated with what I was reading in the press, it wasn’t expressing my feelings and opinions, so I found the forums like the Daily Mirror which has been shut down (and Clarence says ‘Yes we got that shut down’) and now the 3arguidos. There are extreme opinions, both pro and anti. I’m a fence sitter who veers towards anti.”
“I believe that these forums and online comments express a kind of collective gut feeling that something is amiss. “
I then go on to say: “Please let me say one more thing: there is no investigative journalism any more. One poster, ellibean, went out to Praia da luz and filmed the distance between the tapas bar and the apartment. No journalist did that. They are all too busy sitting in the bar and using their exes (expenses).”
Clarence nodded his agreement about lack of investigative journalism.
Clarence Mitchell: “I’m not a PR. I’m a journalist. I’m not putting a spin on it. There is an image problem. I’m not criticising the police overtly.”
Steve Hewlitt: “Is it appropriate for the family to be doing this? You are not the police.”
Question from the audience about fund and Justine McGuinness’ wages.
Justine gets up: “I received £55,000 from the fund. Actually I was very generous to the McCanns. I worked very hard. I’m a professional. People have to earn a living”
Woman from Madeleines law shouts: “Now I’ve heard it all. It’s about a missing child. How dare you? “
Justine: “I worked 7 days a week. I had 50 voice mails every half hour. It was overwhelming.”
Turning towards Clarence in a plea for support: “I’m sure it was for Clarence too.”
Clarence pipes up and says:” Well I’m not being paid from the fund, I’m being paid by Brian Kennedy. (Slightly smugly I might add)
Then he says loudly, rising to the bait: “You want facts. These are the facts. The fund earnt 1.2 million from the website appeal. Even now Kate and Gerry are getting letters with small checks from small kids and old people. They are very grateful.
Now the fund is down to 570k. It’s been used for private detectives and poster campaigns in Spain”
Blonde Madeleine’s Law lady (I later find out her name is Debbie Butler) interrupts: “I go to Spain twice a week. I’m going tommorrow. I’ve never seen a poster there. It’s all spin, it’s a coverup.”
Then Clarence says “The fund will be down to 346k by end of March. This is publicly donated money. “
The fund raising was forcefully raised by the Madeleine’s Law couple. Clarence was quite vociferous about there being no fraud, no spin. Nobody got a chance to ask about money for other kids. Clarence did concede that the Mccanns were lucky in their coverage and that the fact that say, a black working class single mum from an estate in the same situation, would not get the same support,tells us more about the media than the McCanns.
I got the feeling the attitude was more well done them for achieving this. (Remember Justines words: the McCanns represent aspirational modern Britain and compassion for others probably doesn’t form part of that – this is my opinion only)
Clarence did say also that the head of Metodo3 investigation agency was misquoted about saying Madeleine would be home for Christmas, that he in fact said:
“God willing (Ojala) she’ll be home for Christmas”.
There was more but that’s the bulk of it. I probably missed out stuff but there will be a podcast.
The Madeleine’s Law people handed out leaflets to people.
Steve Hewlitt came up and thanked me for my question which was nice.
My impressions: that Clarence actually believes what he is saying. That the other guys David Mills and Roger Graef know nothing and are not impartial.
Justine McGuinness was well humiliated and shown up for career-building greedy guts. She is now the spokesperson for the libdems (oops).
But I wouldn’t say the conference was a Clarence triumph at all. Quite the opposite. He seemed to be pleading to be believed really. To be believed that he was doing this for all the right reasons and that he genuinely believed in the McCanns. On this occasion he was amongst his peers, the press and at the end of this whole story, those are the people whose respect he wishes to retain.
I’m surprised by the press reports coming out of this conference initially: their quotes do not reflect the content of the conference in my opinion. Steve Hewlett certainly put Clarence on the spot. Kelvin was to the point as always.
So despite the most part of the panel being “pro” McCann, hard questions were asked.
However they talked for an hour and we got to ask questions for less than an hour. So not many questions were asked. I had so much that I wanted to say it was hard to choose.
Martin Brunt, the Sky correspondant, was hurt not to be invited onto the panel. Steve Hewlitt wrote an interesting piece on this PR campaign which has simultaneously failed the McCanns miserably, by increasing suspicion of them, while maintaining their missing daughter in the spotlight.