May 17, 2007
Trial by innuendo of the worst kind
The media are not helping the McCanns
My friend Lil is about to take her children on holiday to Madeira. “But I won’t be able to stop thinking about . . . you know” she says sheepishly.
“I should think we’ll be eating with them in the restaurant every night”. I’m sure that many parents are feeling the same. The long, dread wait for news of Madeleine McCann has gripped us for almost two weeks. But that has become a problem.
This girl’s looks, her middle-class origins, her parents’ fear and frustration, having to deal with authorities in another language, make so many people feel that “it could have been us”. But our very concern, our desire to know every detail, risks ruining yet more lives.
For the press pack in Praia da Luz has turned the story all too rapidly into “it must be him”. Robert Murat’s face has featured in almost every news bulletin and paper for the past 48 hours. But it is not remotely clear that he had anything to do with it.
The earliest TV broadcasts claimed that Mr Murat had been “arrested”. Had this been true, some coverage was inevitable.
The British press long ago ceased to have any respect for the Contempt of Court Act, which instructs journalists not to prejudice a fair trial. (It is astonishing that we have been allowed to get away with this.) But it soon turned out that Mr Murat had not been arrested. He was a “suspect”, but had not been charged. As the hours wore on, it became glaringly apparent that there was precious little evidence against him.
That did not stop the bandwagon rolling. Not at all. We learnt yesterday that Mr Murat “was always on the bouncy castle” at work events. Must be a monster, then. Picture editors picked the oddest shots they could find, and proceeded to pronounce solemnly on how weird he looked – although he didn’t look weird to me, just harassed.
I began to feel as though I was watching Arthur Miller’s The Crucible when Lori Campbell of the Sunday Mirror was interviewed about why she had tipped off the police. “I found him to be creepy,” she said of Mr Murat. “When he was talking to me he was vague about his background.”
Ms Campbell may emerge as a heroine, a quick-witted journalist with a gut instinct for something the police had overlooked. Or she may not. She was absolutely right to tell police of her suspicions.
But she was surely wrong to publicise them. Even if Mr Murat does turn out to be guilty, it does not help the investigation one jot for you and me to know his name right now. If he is innocent, he has been damaged for life. I think he meant it literally when he said that “the only way I will survive is if they catch Madeleine’s abductor”. In the twisted way of these things his denial, too, has become a story.
You can see how it has happened. The public fascination is overwhelming. Madeleine has featured on the Today programme as often as in the redtop press. Her parents have asked for media coverage to keep up pressure on the authorities. And the Soham murders are still horribly fresh in journalists’ minds. Ian Huntley was a loner who hung around at the scene offering help to the press.
So hardly anyone seems prepared to entertain the possibility that Mr Murat, as a bilingual neighbour, might have been sincere.
This is trial by innuendo of the worst kind. There was absolutely no reason to name this man; the Portuguese police still have not. The Times removed its photo of Mr Murat from the front page halfway through the night on Monday, replacing it with one of his mother’s front door, as editors agonised over whether there was a shred of evidence that he did it. But he remained on page three.
The Daily Telegraph the next day chose to picture all three people who have been questioned by Portuguese police on its front page: Mr Murat, his alleged girlfriend and her estranged husband. Hey, they all knew each other. They were probably the same people who were seen together at a petrol station on the night of the abduction.
Wow, they must be guilty!
Differences between Britain and Portugal do not excuse the jump to conclusions. It is true that the Portuguese will seek more evidence before making an arrest than would be the case in Britain.
But the Portuguese police have been ridiculed by a British press infuriated by their refusal to confirm or deny anything. Portuguese law forbids the police from making public any significant details of an investigation while inquiries are under way precisely in order to protect suspects from the kind of ordeal Mr Murat has suffered. It would be simply appalling if a judge was later to decide that he could not be tried.
It is not only because the story is abroad that the press feels uninhibited. Our treatment of Mr Murat echoes that of Tom Stephens, the first man to be named as a suspect by police investigating the murders of five women in Ipswich last year. He too had originally approached the press, which splashed the weirdest-looking pictures of him they could find.
A week later a completely different man was charged with all five crimes.
There is another point. In cases of this type, if abductors fear capture, they panic and kill. We cannot know if the wanton press coverage is limiting the police’s chances of bringing Madeleine to safety. If any of the three people pictured in The Telegraph is guilty, he or she will now feel cornered.
We all long for a happy ending. But our desire to be reassured that everything possible is being done should not take precedence over the truth. Mr and Mrs McCann seem to be holding their nerve a lot better than the British press. And they have much, much more at stake. Which is everything. What matters is to find this poor girl, not to indulge in sensationalist speculation that could do untold harm.
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