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Reporting Madeleine rumours

Peter Horrocks Peter Horrocks | 09:49 UK time, Friday, 10 August 2007

The tragic Madeleine McCann story and the enormous public interest in it have created quite a few dilemmas for BBC News (see previous blog entries here, here and here). Many of these have revolved around the lack of hard information in the case.

Gerry and Kate McCannHowever the situation that many facts are not reliably established has not stopped many of our press and broadcast colleagues from treating rumour as being newsworthy.

For instance, ITN led last week on a claim that a child like Madeleine had been sighted in Belgium. ITN headlined this with a lurid photo-fit of a suspect abductor with the words "Does this man have Madeleine McCann?"

The BBC gave little prominence to the possible Belgian sighting, on the basis that there have been many previous false sightings.

Yesterday it turned out that DNA tests had shown that the Belgian sighting is very likely to have been false.

However the endless reporting of Madeleine rumours is something BBC News sometimes needs to take account of. Millions of our viewers and users remain strongly interested in any information about her.

This week we have a team in Portugal to report the marking of 100 days since her disappearance.

At this time, some in the Portuguese press have been reporting unsubstantiated claims about the McCanns and their holiday friends.

We did not report those claims until the McCanns themselves responded in interview, when it was hard to understand what their responses were without some idea of the accusations.

It's an uncomfortable position. The BBC absolutely needs to distinguish between fact and rumour. But the enormous febrile and emotional atmosphere, enflamed by a media for whom this story is a potential commercial opportunity, have made that hard.

I can't help reflecting that all this mass of hysterical rumour stands in very stark contrast to the one incontestable sad fact - a little girl has disappeared in unexplained circumstances.


  • 1.
  • At 10:22 AM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • NB wrote:

Its unfortunate that some this case has turned into a media circus, the McCanns have been very media savvy and played the publicity game very well and encouaged the press and public interest. In so doing they have raised nearly £1 million to fund their worldwide travels and media campaign in search of their child. With the British police involvement there should be some progress. It seems the investigation was not done thoroughly from the outset and that it has taken 100 days to do the basic forensics. The media should keep an open mind and let the police draw the conclusions.

  • 2.
  • At 11:26 AM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • David M wrote:

How about just not reporting the story much - if at all? Nothing has changed since she went missing, has it? Report news, not rumours, speculation and grand-standing.

  • 3.
  • At 11:32 AM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • DaveH wrote:

The media in general - BBC included -has made a rod for its own back with this case. There were various peculiar features about it right from the start, yet the media descended and with little other news, the coverage was OTT (there is a 16yr old girl missing in Essex for two weeks right now, who has only been on the national news once). The McCanns were turned into virtual saints and heaven help anyone, who dared to criticise them at that stage.

However, things have changed. Inevitably other events have taken up the news and the story has drifted off, while the parents have tried to keep it going. Many sightings have been reported and Mrs. McCann never seems to be out of the tabloids or off the interview circuit. The locals have got fed up with the media coverage and dislike the blame being put on their local police - especially by the UK media just because the Portuguese police do not have news conferences every day and reveal all the details.

As time has gone by with all the coverage, questioning voices have been raised - and why not? Now the media are back to the St. McCanns, who response to every accusation must be reported. The whole lot of you are going to look a bunch of chumps if the current reports do take the investigation in a new direction. The BBC in particular should now reflect on its coverage in the initial stages.

  • 4.
  • At 12:02 PM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • Steve wrote:

I understand that the McCanns will obviously want to do all that they can to keep this tragic story in the spotlight. But it has to be said, certain quarters of the media have been downright shameful in how they've been milking the whole thing, and, in doing so, almost triviliasing it, almost serving it up as a dish.

For instance, this page demonstrates the last week of just one of our national newspapers...

(Given the way the paper in question also regularly uses a certain deceased Princess to sell more papers, you can't help but wince at this wall to wall coverage, and wonder at the state of mind of all the people who willingly lap all this kind of stuff up.)

I've also found ITV News and Sky News's coverage quite tacky in its quantity and its breathless presentation.

Of course anyone who dares to suggest that the coverage given by these media outlets might be disproportionate and mawkish and even morbid just gets hounded down for being cruel, callous and unkind, when in fact nothing of the kind is intended. Some of us just find it poor taste when a tragic real life event is extended into a mystery thriller by those looking to increase their ratings and sales.

At least the BBC, for the most part, seem to have the right handle on this.

  • 5.
  • At 02:11 PM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • David Mannion wrote:

Though I regard it as unseemly to squabble over such a tragic event as the one now engulfing the McCann family, I feel I must correct the impression made by Peter Horrocks concerning the reporting of the story by ITV News.

Peter points out that the lack of hard information has made coverage of the story difficult and then goes on to suggest that the paucity of established facts has not stopped other news organisations from treating rumours as newsworthy. He singles out ITV News for leading on the potential sighting of Madeleine with a man at a café in Belgium to which the BBC gave little prominence on the grounds that there had been many other sightings.

May I point out that, like the BBC, ITV News has given little or no prominence to the countless sightings which appeared to have no basis in fact. The Belgium sighting, however, was different. The person who believed she saw Madeleine was a highly credible witness, a professional woman who worked with children and often worked with the police. We sought and achieved an interview with the woman in order that we might establish for ourselves, her credentials and to question her about what she saw. The police in Belgium confirmed that they regarded the matter worthy of detailed follow up investigation. In my book this was a story and your article, Peter, amounts to little more than an excuse for missing it.

David Mannion
Editor-in-Chief, ITV News.

  • 6.
  • At 05:48 PM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • John Blacksmith wrote:

But the story that the child had been abducted was just a rumour!

  • 7.
  • At 06:44 PM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • Sandra wrote:

The McCanns should be charged with neglegt and with putting their children in danger. This should happen immediately!

  • 8.
  • At 11:17 PM on 10 Aug 2007,
  • you cannot stop licence fee payers from submitting comments wrote:

"However the situation that many facts are not reliably established has not stopped many of our press and broadcast colleagues from treating rumour as being newsworthy."

Yeah, like the BBC has never done this. Case in point: unconditionally accepting any anti-Israel propaganda as truth.

  • 9.
  • At 10:36 AM on 11 Aug 2007,
  • Paul Armstrong wrote:

There was a very sad case of a 17 year old girl found dead on the news this morning. The headline (BBC tv) was laughably about hire car charges and featured soem lady who might be £100 or so out of pocket. Laughable editorial decision. Perhaps Mr Reardon is right & the BBC is run by 12 year olds.

As for the McCanns. Time they went home and back to their jobs. The continued coverage is now approaching the obscene.

  • 10.
  • At 02:00 AM on 12 Aug 2007,
  • L Ayres wrote:

While my heart goes out to the poor little girl I cannot honestly hand on heart have sympathy for the McCanns nor congratulate any of the media for the handling of this unfortunate event.
So far the McCanns have been presented to the world as parents who have made 'a mistake' by leaving their children alone, would a couple who had low-income jobs at Tescos or possibly on benefits received the same attention? No they wouldnt have, they would have been hung, drawn and quartered for the neglectful way they treated their children.
Mrs McCann is a GP and would probably be extremely quick in reporting a family to Social Services if she discovered they were leaving their children alone, yet funny how once abroad the McCanns can do as they please. Had they done the same thing previously back in the UK?
The media should stop making them martyrs, all they had to do was hire a babysitter and their poor daughter would not be suffering. That may be a shocking statement to some but it is the truth and I highly doubt this will be approved for all to see as its not in line with the medias current flow.
My thoughts and prayers ARE with the McCann family members who were not party to this neglect and obviously for Madeleine, wherever she may be.

  • 11.
  • At 03:16 AM on 12 Aug 2007,
  • Sonja Miller wrote:

Officials now believe that madeleine may be dead but refuse the consider the parents as suspects. Bad idea. The fact that they can leave these children alone on an apartment while they wine and dine is indeed suspicious. I am not impressed with their acts of desparation and determination to find this poor unfortunate child. Parents that injure or kill their children always display these tpye of behaviour. I still hold out hope that the child will be found alive.

I don't get where this story is covered in an impartial way, even the introduction at the top of this page seems to state that the BBC is not using it's usual rules...

  • 13.
  • At 11:08 AM on 12 Aug 2007,
  • Jeanette Eccles Clapham London wrote:

Peter can I suggest instead of you blogging and taking cheap shots against ITV News that instead you sort the BBC News out, take this morning *News 24 on Sunday* this edition has got to be the very worst ever and for BBC News 24 that takes some beating.
Snooze 24 it should be called.

  • 14.
  • At 12:28 PM on 12 Aug 2007,
  • Alex D wrote:

Losing a child is most parents' worst nightmare. But children die every day in Africa and I don't see their parents' faces every time I open a newspaper or switch on the TV. The media need to get some perspective here.

The reporting of every rumour or supposed "development" is not responsible journalism. It is macabre voyeurism that unfortunately appeals to the basest human interest - and sells newspapers as a result.

  • 15.
  • At 01:03 PM on 12 Aug 2007,
  • Ali wrote:

Enough! I am absolutely exhausted of hearing about every new non-development in the McCann case.

I couldn't care less how many 'exclusives' ITV, BBC or any other opportunistic 'news' channel has to offer, this whole affair ballooned out of hand right from the beginning through irresponsible coverage from editors like David Mannion and Peter Horrocks. Less of the McCanns' on tour and more of some real news please.

  • 16.
  • At 12:28 PM on 13 Aug 2007,
  • MR wrote:

"Millions of our viewers and users remain strongly interested in any information about her."

What makes you so sure? I'd love to see the evidence to back-up this assertion.

Forget what ITN may have done. The BBC has reported non-story after non-story with regard to this case and, like almost every other British media outlet, has taken an out of proportion tabloid approach.

It goes without saying that it's a terrible tragedy that a child has gone missing after her parents left her alone in a holiday apartment. What needs to be answered is why the BBC has fallen into the same easy reporting as the commercial outlets, failing to acknowledge that the McCann case is just one of many and leading bulletins with reports of "nothing new yet".

  • 17.
  • At 01:10 PM on 13 Aug 2007,
  • Pepe wrote:

all these "information sources" have become a source of gossip and nothing else. You are doing all a good job at keeping people obsessing with the case in the UK and in Portugal. But newspapers and tv channels are not informing, and you are totally misleading the public. Of course in a free market the "consumers" show their displeasure by not spending money buying these news papers or tv channels. And that's maybe what will happen in the future. I for once won't buy the Guardian or the Times anymore and watch at all the news with increased distrust. ok. I'll save my money for something else.

  • 18.
  • At 02:28 PM on 13 Aug 2007,
  • Andy G wrote:

This posturing coming from the head of the same BBC News that featured a reporter hounding a Portuguese policeman early in the case because he wouldn't break the law by smashing a door down without a warrant? The BBC's coverage was as arrogant and perverse as anyone else's.

  • 19.
  • At 05:23 PM on 13 Aug 2007,
  • Carl Ellis wrote:

The BBC is hardly in a position to take cheap shots at other broadcasters as its own reporting has been very shoddy throughout this story.

Non-news story after non-news story has been given prominent space, yet all your reporters can do is say that there have been no new developments. Well, if there haven't been any developments, then how is this news. Do we need a succession of reporters stationed out in the Algarve telling us that nothing has happened.

As for the ITV News report mentioned, the BBC has been equally guilty of reporting such non-stories. Saturday evening bulletins lead with "McCann's 'heartened' after being cleared of suspicion" when in fact they hadn't been cleared of suspicion at all.

By saying they were, at the moment, "witnesses" not "suspects", all the Portuguese police had done was restate a fact - under Portuguese law someone is a witness until they have been declared a suspect.

Report such statements if you like, but please place them in context. Instead of flying out reporters to Portugal all the time, why not simply have someone following the case in London, who can therefore highlight the witness/suspect differences in relation to the McCann's being "heartened" (i.e. no one has been charged, but no one has actually been cleared either).

Also, would it be too much to ask for the BBC to measure the distance between the apartment and the Tapas bar? This seems to vary in reports from 50-200 yard/metres - surely it would have been a 5 minute job for one of your reporters out in PDL to actually measure it and ensure that the BBC is reporting *facts*, not vague estimates/distances given in McCann family press statements, etc. Measure the distance, then use this in *all* subsequent reports.

  • 20.
  • At 09:16 PM on 13 Aug 2007,
  • Kevin Jones wrote:

Could the BBC run an article on the advent of the European Arrest Warrant. I am somewhat concern that such a poorly resourced, technologically backward police force such as one has seen in Portugal investigating the Madelaine McCann case will have the automatic right to demand a suspects extradition from the UK.

  • 21.
  • At 09:29 AM on 14 Aug 2007,
  • akkadin akdin wrote:

Between the two irresponsible, selfish so called doctors a beautiful child was wasted. They could not afford twenty pounds childcare and yet they could dine out with friends leaving three children under the age of four on their own. How can they be trusted with patients if they can not look after their own child. They must be ill in the head, posing for the media, trying to get attention after it is too late. They should not be allowed to keep their other two children. The remaining children must be taken away from these two monsters and they should be locked up for ever.

  • 22.
  • At 01:58 PM on 14 Aug 2007,
  • kathryn wrote:


  • 23.
  • At 04:04 AM on 15 Aug 2007,
  • Billy Corgan wrote:

This whole thing reminds me of the death of Diana Princess of Wales: if you don't subscribe to the mass hysteria then you live in fear of being labeled as completely heartless.

I am sick to death of this tragic story being dragged out. How many children go missing in the UK each year - never mind Europe?!

The very sad fact is that Madeleine McCann fits the profile of a cute, blonde little girl with mediagenic parents. This has been backed up with a ream of sympathetic family photos released to the press. This recalls the picture of Holly & Jessica Chapman dressed in Man Utd shirts, which became the iconic image of the Soham murders - two cute girls in football strips.

Why is it that the media are only interested when the images are the right ones and the story ticks the right boxes? Can you imagine how much coverage this story would have received if Madeleine had been black/asian or, as has been noted above, her parents were on benefits?

I find the comments on this piece refreshing. I know I am not alone!

  • 24.
  • At 06:48 PM on 17 Aug 2007,
  • J Oliver wrote:

It is amazing that there is such a lack of sympathy for the Mccanns - they have certainly taken some hammer for their actions - I personally think that the blame needs to be laid at the feet of the person who took Maddy - its abad job if you cant leave your child tucked up in bed when you are 40 yards away without someone breaking in and stealing your child. I scan the news every day with great interest and concern over this tragic story and feel disgust at the way some of the media portray the slightest bit of possible new information. It just makes me wonder about other stories I read in the news - no doubt bulled up and exaggerated in order to sell newspapers - certainly not portrayed to tell us the real news.

  • 25.
  • At 09:28 AM on 19 Aug 2007,
  • Brassa wrote:

I am frantic for someone in the British media to say exactly what it is that journalists and broadcaster's in Portugal have been saying about the McCanns. Identify and translate who has said what, please.

Without this you're being sheepish and adopting some kind of honor code. Are you reluctant to point the finger eh?

The media have covered every insignificant detail of Kate & Gerry McCann. I am of the belief that the media is capable of covering the real investigation in the search of Madeleine McCann. A child cannot just disappear without a trace and the experts are baffled?

  • 27.
  • At 10:38 AM on 22 Aug 2007,

I am sick of people saying that the mccans should be charged with neglect. I think the fact that they might not see their little girl again is punishment enough. People should get off their high horses and show some compassion. This is every parent worse nightmare.

  • 28.
  • At 06:11 PM on 22 Aug 2007,
  • Thomas wrote:

Jenifer wrote: "I am sick of people saying that the mccans should be charged with neglect. I think the fact that they might not see their little girl again is punishment enough.

Sorry, it doesn't work like that. "Punishment enough" is not a reason not to proceed with a charge, although it might be a factor in sny subsequent sentencing.

  • 29.
  • At 08:09 PM on 25 Aug 2007,
  • Hugh Spicer wrote:

Am I the only person on the planet who believes this fiasco has gone too far.... we now have a "latest products" section on the "findmadeleine" website... I figure its time to get real here....

  • 30.
  • At 08:15 PM on 07 Sep 2007,
  • William Steadward wrote:

Can some one actually tell me the facts of this tragic event concerning the disapearance of madeleine mcann. there are lots of stories and speculation but has anyone actually done a report of the facts as they have unfolded?

  • 31.
  • At 12:00 AM on 10 Sep 2007,
  • Mel Grouvel wrote:

The media and public seem intent on seeking sensational headlines rather than tackling the problem. If those efforts and finances were applied to employing proper investigating and incident recording resources, perhaps the Portuguese Police would be closer to solving this case.
How much data on likely suspects such as demented couples or persons whom may have lost a child or as suggested abused children.
The net if databased to cover such people living, working or visiting the area going back over a 3-4 year period. may just give the leads that are needed.
The most common reaction of a child waking up and then running off to seek Mummy & Daddy. Then being lost and gotten into harms way has been discounted based on Kate's statement that the flat was broken into?
Surely, it is time for our forces to get to work on this investigation with the support and approval of the Portuguese authorities.
It is time for true European cooperation and support.
God speed they find this child unharmed and return her to her family.

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