Gerry McCann, father of abducted British girl, Madeleine, last week spoke with media lawyers and indeed, the media from across the world about his family’s experience and distress following the abduction of the 3 year old and the subsequent publication by the press of defamatory allegations against them.
McCann spoke at last Tuesday’s session on International Approaches to Reputation Management at the Campo de las Naciones, Madrid venue of the IBA conference. The session dealt with the different approaches that could be adopted by lawyers in various jurisdictions to protect their clients’ reputations.
On May 3 2007, Madeleine was snatched by a yet unknown abductor as she slept whilst her parents dined at the Portuguese resort town of Praia da Luz where the McCann family was holidaying. Her abduction sparked off unprecedented international media attention, initially sympathetic but which later turned hostile in the UK and Portuguese press.
Dr. McCann relived the agony, trauma and feelings of helplessness of his family in the months following their little girl’s disappearance. To add to that agony, the UK press which had initially been sympathetic, turned hostile and went to town with wild and unfounded allegations which implied that the McCanns, both Medical Doctors, had somehow been involved in Madeleine’s disappearance.
McCann, who spoke in an emotional laden voice, told the audience, ‘Many of the stories were written with little or no foundation’.
His presentation included a slide show that ended with a heartrending poster of his daughter headlined, DON’T GIVE UP ON ME. The poster had two photographs of Madeleine, one as at the time of abduction and the other, a computer simulated photograph to show how she might look, two years on, aged 6. The poster remained on the giant screen until the end of the 3 hour session.
McCann recalled the unwarranted media intrusion in his family’s personal life, saying that 200 journalists were camped out on their front lawn the day after they returned to the UK. Thereafter, they followed the couple even whilst out jogging and once on the golf course. Just the week before they had, he said, even followed his wife, Kate, into a dress shop!
He called for responsible journalism as he recalled some of the more scurrilous headlines by some leading British newspapers.
At the interactive session which included panelists from Canada, the United States, Belgium, Germany and his own lawyer, McCann explained why no family should ever have to go through what they went through again.
He also explained why, in spite of his counsel’s advice to the contrary, they decided to settle the cases out of court. The focus, he explained, was on finding Madeleine and they didn’t want to fight their battles on too many fronts thereby getting distracted. The fact they would have received much higher damages had they proceeded to a full trial was not enough to deter them from accepting a lesser sum for settling out of court.
The sum, almost half a million Pounds, went to the fund set up to find the missing child.
Their seven friends who had been on holiday with them and who were also libeled similarly sued and received sums in out of court settlements which they donated to the fund.
In addition, there were unprecedented front page apologies to the McCanns by the concerned newspapers.
‘There has to be a deterrent’ McCann asserted, ‘it’s not enough to say sorry, someone has to pay’.
By September of 2007 the media had turned against the McCanns causing them in Dr. McCann’s words, ‘unspeakable distress’.
McCann who gamely fielded questions from the sessions two co-Chairs said, ‘Our whole family could have been destroyed by this’.
He described the double edged sword nature of the media: they intruded upon their privacy and at the same time, provided an opportunity to help them out in the search for Madeleine.
There was a lively debate about where to draw the line between private and public boundaries for the press, with some speakers worrying about the danger of ‘feeding the beast’.
Others expressed the view that investigative journalism should not be curtailed as it very often had played a role in uncovering the truth. They referred to recent the Scott Peterson case in the United States where media investigations revealed that the grieving husband of a missing pregnant woman was actually the perpetrator of her hideous murder. They also pointed out similar cases like the Kelly Anderson case and the Jon Benet Ramsay case, the latter still unsolved even though accusing fingers had long pointed at the child’s parents. Ramsay’s mother recently died of cancer and so the truth may never be known.
McCann however insisted, ‘It is the Police’s job, not the media, to investigate. Our whole family could have been destroyed by this’.
A panelist also expressed worry that it was unacceptable for the press to be investigators, judge and jury stating that it was a dangerous trend.
McCann expressed the view that the effect of the libel complaints was more cautious reporting.
In hindsight, he said, whilst he would have made the same decision to engage the media to enhance the search, he would have withdrawn earlier from allowing them to photograph his family and would have taken legal action earlier against them.
In his recommendations he noted that the media was incredibly powerful and appealed to them to remember that there were ‘real people at the centre of every story’.
The intense debate left one wondering whether such parameters as discussed would apply in Nigeria. For instance, McCann’s insistence that it was the job of the Police and not the media to investigate.
The Nigeria Force, not in the best of times noted for its investigative prowess, had failed to solve almost all the high profile murder and assassination cases put its way over the last decade, since the advent of democracy. It has similarly failed to resolve murder cases of the lowly placed. In fact if anything, the Nigeria Police is more known for embarrassing and frequent cases of ‘accidental discharge’ as well as the deliberate gunning down of innocent citizens, the most recent being just last week in Yaba, Lagos.
Its record in the political arena is not different. More often than not, the Nigerian media has been the one to unearth facts which the Nigeria Police has either been reluctant or unable to fish out.
The question is: Would Dr. McCann’s view that the media should not investigate work in Nigeria?
in African Views on Global News