1.Everyone shall possess the right to freely express and publicise his thoughts in words, images or by any other means, as well as the right to inform others, inform himself and be informed without hindrance or discrimination 2.Exercise of the said rights shall not be hindered or limited by any type or form of censorship Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, Article 37.º

The forgotten victim in the McCann case

The Times August 25, 2007
by Matthew Parris

Do you have a mother? Have you ever shared a house with her? Might you have dealt with anyone a couple of years past his teens who (for all you know) could have boasted to someone else about seducing an underage girl? Might you be separated from a spouse and conduct another affair? Might you love your daughter? Might you have a cellar in your house? Might you assist local efforts to trace a missing child?

Well watch out, because if any toddler should go missing anywhere near you, and you were to be (not unreasonably) questioned by police, the British press could have had you hanged, drawn and quartered by Monday.

A life has been destroyed after the abduction of Madeleine McCann. Perhaps two, for we do not yet know Madeleine’s fate, and perhaps we never will. But for Robert Murat, the one-time suspect whom much of the British newspaper industry and parts of the Portuguese media casually decided to convict, a life lies in ruins. There is no redemption for Mr Murat now, not if the Angel Gabriel should appear on television to exonerate him. The name alone brings a shudder.

But nobody closely involved with this case believes any longer that Mr Murat is anything but an innocent man. For the rest of the world, however, glancing in passing at headlines and skimming news reports over its coffee, the name Murat is now synonymous with “creepy oddball and obvious suspect”.

His reputation will not now be rescued even by the arrest and conviction of anyone else. Imagine today giving your name at a hotel reception as Robert Murat — or Colin Stagg, or Sally Clark. Linkages between a crime and a name are set up in the public imagination and persist even after the story has changed direction. “Robert Murat — wasn’t he the one suspected of taking Maddie? Or cleared of it? Whatever. Mixed up in it anyway.”

For the record, Robert Murat is an Anglo-Portuguese man in his early thirties who has separated from his English wife, has a girlfriend estranged from her own husband, and is sharing a house with his mother, not far from where Madeleine McCann disappeared. After her disappearance he volunteered to help. He hired a car for a few days. His house has a cellar. He has a friendly business connection with a 22-year-old

Russian IT operative, Sergey Malinka, who was (it was reported) claimed by a workmate once to have boasted about underage sex. Mr Murat and Mr Malinka have spoken to each other on mobile phones. And Mr Murat has a four-year-old daughter who (somebody says) looks like Madeleine. Oh — and he’s blind in one eye.

Allegations have swirled around about computers on which pornographic websites have been accessed; but as a large proportion of computers worldwide would answer to that description and the claims have been neither confirmed nor elucidated, I shall not pursue these.

Now watch the British media at work. Exercising a courtesy not extended to Mr Murat, I shall name neither papers nor reporters. Let the headlines (in italics) and reports that follow provide a handy journalists’ guide to assassination-by-innuendo.

“ MADDIE SUSPECT BEHAVED JUST LIKE HUNTLEY: Kidnapping has weird echoes of Soham case. The prime suspect in the kidnap of Madeleine McCann interfered in the investigation as soon as the search for her began, it emerged yesterday. Briton Robert Murat, 33, even tried to comfort Madeleine’s distraught parents, Kate and Gerry, in the hours after she was snatched . . . One holidaymaker said: ‘There was a feeling that his behaviour was similar to that displayed by Huntley.’ Murat was said to have volunteered to act as a translator . . .”

“ Maddie: Russian ‘pervert’ quizzed by cops. A Russian computer ace linked to suspect Robert Murat was being quizzed last night . . . Sergey Malinka, 22 . . . who helped Murat, 33, set up a website – was picked up in a police swoop . . .

“ HUNT FOR MADDIE: POLICE IN NEW VILLA SWOOP COMPUTER RAID. . . Malinka, 22, said he . . . worked on a computer owned by the one-eyed Briton . . . Meanwhile it emerged there is an underfloor chamber at [Murat’s] home, 100 yards from where Maddie, four, was snatched as she slept in a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz a fortnight ago . . .”

“ Revealed: The cellar in suspect’s villa. . .‘There is a hole in the floor that we used as access when we were putting all the pipes in, so it’s big enough for a man to get down inside.’” “ His girl is the spitting image of Madeleine. Robert Murat has been pining for his four-year-old daughter Sofia, a ‘spitting image’ of missing Madeleine, friends revealed yesterday . . .”

“ Sex secret of Madeleine suspect: Briton ‘shared’ the wife of pool cleaner at villa. While friends and relatives portrayed suspect Robert Murat as a devoted family man, a darker picture emerged of an irritating oddball who loves to be the centre of attention. A one-eyed estate agent, former car salesman and turkey farm worker . . . it also emerged that Murat was caught up in a bizarre love triangle . . .”

“ One minute the Murats were happy with their new life in Portugal, the next their marriage was in tatters . . . his wife never said why it ended FAMILY FRIEND: Friends of Robert Murat’s ex-wife told last night how she suddenly walked out on him — but she would not say why.”

“ A PHONEY ALIBI? 11.40pm call on the night she went missing. Murat told police he was at home in bed” . . . Detectives are said to be concerned that though Murat and Malinka claim to be only business acquaintances they were captured on CCTV speaking animatedly . . . Murat also rented a hire car for three days after the abduction, possibly after he realised he was under police surveillance.”

“ The police haven’t told the family what is on Murat’s computer. They want to shield them. . .” . . . And so it went on for about a week: a week in which Mr Murat saw his good name torn apart. The damage done, a cautionary note then crept in . . .

“Despite the discoveries, nothing was found to connect Briton Murat to Madeleine . . .”

And, months later, nothing has been. There is speculation that the Portuguese police will formally exonerate Mr Murat soon. I don’t even know he is innocent. But I do know that, though “innocent until proved guilty” is a counsel of perfection, and though it is sometimes impossible to write useful reports without fingering guilty and innocent alike, there are still limits — cloudy though they must necessarily be. Reporting in this case has smashed right through them.

The whole disgusting business, the whole media-driven infatuation with this little girl and her parents, the whole sick, morbid, sentimental campaign of news generation and news manipulation, has been a disgrace to the British media.

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