Reaping a whirlwind

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am

Death or murder always brings out the sick and cynical, usually in 'humorous' form, be it a sick joke by e-mail or one told in a pub. With the now famous case of four-year-old Madeleine McCann, however, there had not been one such joke in the 130-plus days following her disappearance in Portugal on May 3. It was testament to the power of Kate and Gerry McCann's media appeal for information to help find her. It had built a solid, global wall of sympathy and support.

But now comes the question of the media's role in the investigation. Could the way it participated - or didn't - have had an effect? A couple of police media experts seem to think so, and the effect is negative.

Seldom has there been such a high-profile, well-orchestrated global appeal to help solve a crime as in the Madeleine case. has had millions of hits, the McCanns are household names. Madeleine's picture is recognisable from Washington to Hong Kong. Few police forces could wish for more in a high-pressure but stalled inquiry. But the unprecedented press coverage is a double-edged sword, something the McCanns realised well before last week's dramatic twist.

High-profile crimes prompt intense interest and the media appeals that go with them are highly risky, criminologists and detectives say.

The media coverage can start to affect the investigation - perversely, in the case of the Praia da Luz resort, where locals tired of the circus, and fearing for tourism, heaped even more pressure on police to get a result that, some say, has pushed the investigation in the wrong direction: the McCanns.

'From an investigation point of view I'd bet the police are incredibly frustrated by the McCanns' high-profile media campaign. It adds pressure, especially where police cannot, by law, publicise or share details of the inquiry with anyone, not even the family,' says Martin Innes, criminologist at the Cardiff School of Social Sciences, an expert in police and media.

Frustrated very early on, especially over the inept and, at times, shambolic police inquiry, the McCanns set off a public media campaign. Footballers wore yellow 'Find Maddie' armbands, millions of e-mails were sent, celebrities were enlisted, even the Pope was visited; all in the name of putting Madeleine's name and face in the public eye.

Professor Innes says media interest affects inquiries so much that vast resources are allocated based on the expected degree of media coverage. 'It does impact heavily on operations. No senior officer wants their force to look incompetent.'

The more high-profile the story, the more intense the pressure.

'Media interest can raise tensions within the team, making officers think more about ways to satisfy the media than solving the case,' Professor Innes says.

'The media pressure has intensified, with 24-hour news, radio, internet; it is news at a very high pace, totally out of step with the slow methodical pace needed in a police investigation. The McCann media coverage really [put pressure on] the Portuguese police.

'It has been a very slick media campaign but one which has contributed little to the inquiry. That must frustrate officers.'

Of course there are many benefits of a police appeal: it helps flush out the guilty, making them act strange; pressures friends and family to turn in suspects; circulates photos and descriptions; and garners more witnesses.

'It also aids transparency,' says Rob Mawbey, a criminologist at the University of Central England.

Dr Mawbey says that since the mid-1990s all British police have had a media strategy.

The murder of two 10-year-old girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in 2002, pushed the tactic into overdrive. It included an appeal for help by soccer star David Beckham, the girls' hero. 'Police had a daily press conference.'

Scotland Yard set up a press office in 1919, says Dr Mawbey, not just to start a media channel and further inquiries but to prevent officers from profiting from leaking details.

'Perhaps this is a problem in Portugal,' he says. 'Information is leaking out. There are always a few loose tongues in any investigation, but there seem to be more than most in Portugal at the moment. It seems almost policy.'

Professor Innes says that modern times demand modern methods. 'Crime-solving is easier when it is localised but nowadays a lot of witnesses hail from elsewhere. Police need to cast the net wider.'

The McCanns realised the need for this. They launched an international campaign - encouraged by the British government, and handled by a public relations expert - because of fears Madeleine had been taken abroad.

Says Professor Innes: 'There is another truism - by far the most crimes are not solved by cracking pieces of detective work, by a Sherlock Holmes, but by solid, reliable information from witnesses who come forward usually after publicity. DNA advances help, but witnesses decide cases.'

Sadly, in the case of Madeleine, it hasn't helped at all. No reliable sightings have been made since she disappeared from a villa in Praia da Luz, where she was sleeping alongside her twin siblings, Amelie and Sean, while her parents dined nearby.

'In Portugal, a good investigation always tests its own hypothesis, and I'm not sure if the hypothesis coming out of the police investigation is testable,' says Professor Innes. 'This is the No1 criminal case in the world now and perhaps sub-optimum decisions are being made in reaction to reports.'

Intense media coverage has a history of perverting police inquiries. The case can run away from the police after an 'information burst', says Professor Innes. 'All information has to be processed.

'Appeals help and hinder. A lot of time the investigation can't process all the data.'

Media appeals can also lead detectives down the wrong path and attract malicious callers. 'A classic example was the Yorkshire Ripper serial killings in the '70s - a hoaxer misled police for months with a confession on tape,' Professor Innes says.

Dr Mawbey recalls the case of Fred West, who killed at least 12 women. 'In 1994 police-media relations were not very sophisticated. Gloucestershire constabulary was a small regional force, with little expertise in serial killer crimes, but suddenly had the world's media breathing down its neck. The same may be happening in Portugal.'

The media almost started running the West case: it besieged police headquarters, started its own parallel inquiries, followed its own leads and spoke to witnesses before police. 'Some tabloids even set up their own information hotlines and ran them in tandem with police appeal lines,' says Dr Mawbey.

There's a danger the media can get to witnesses before police, as happened recently in the Ipswich prostitute murders. 'The newspapers were interviewing witnesses before police, buying up their stories. Police had to sift fact from fiction.'

The media will come out badly in the McCann case, says Professor Innes: 'If the family is found to be involved, they will be seen as being used as a propaganda tool. If they're not involved, the media will be seen to be insidious for placing the couple under an unwarranted cloud of suspicion.

'Portuguese police are acting like the UK police 30 years ago. They should realise the old adage that making information secret gives it more value, hence the leaks from within the inquiry, the rumours, claims, and counterclaims which have so damaged the inquiry.'

So why is the media so interested in the McCanns? 'Any serious crimes involving children create intense interest,' says Dr Mawbey. 'We also have here a professional, middle class couple, holidaying abroad whose child has been snatched. It brings out the fear that 'this could be us'.

Obviously this does not happen so much when the victim's family is not so eloquent, media savvy and photogenic as the McCanns, he adds.

Some British tabloids have hinted that the calm, controlled manner of the McCanns implies guilt. It is a dangerous equation. It happened in Australia in 1980 when Lindy Chamberlain, adjudged by many as being too calm and focused, was jailed for killing her child when in fact a dingo snatched her.

Not so famous a case, however, is that of Tracie Andrews in Britain, who coldly exploited the media in 1996 with tearful television appeals to find her boyfriend's road rage killers. Andrews killed him. She is now serving life.

Says Professor Innes: 'The public is becoming increasingly sceptical, with such cases as Andrews', and with new revelations from Portugal. People are thinking, 'uh oh, we've been here before'. If the McCanns have anything to do with this, no one will ever respect a family appeal for help ever again.'