Reporting Madeleine rumours
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.
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.
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.