Of the many possible angles to approach the terrible case of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, a tremendous shock to everyone in Portugal, the UK and arround the world, I decided to bring to this forum a communication point of view on this case.
In Portugal, one of the most residual PR/ Communication related debates is about how Portuguese justice deals with communication. The need to train Judges in Public Communication, the “Secret of Justice” law which prohibits the disclosure of some facts related with processes under investigation and its successive violations by the media, and the fear that some high impact trials might be biased by the pressure of public opinion – which explains a long lasting attempt by judges to clarify the difference between law and the “court of public opinion” – it all has been questioned here. But the Madeleine McCann case offers a wealth of possibilities to approach the issue of Communication & Justice. Two of my portuguese blogger friends (Renato Póvoas and Bruno Amaral) have blogged about the issue and inspired me write this.
The first thing to note was how foreign media took too much to understand the procedures and culture of Portuguese police, constrained by a legal context that was only understood very lately. (In fact, you might have noticed that the media chose to use the Portuguese word “arguido” to explain the quality that Portuguese justice applied to the McCanns). Of course, the Portuguese police was also not thoroughly prepared for a scenario of such heavy pressure from global mass media and from diplomatic sources, after all this was about Portugal’s image abroad. So, first question: if everybody was interested in knowing facts, but if the presentation of the police’s action was being biased because foreign media weren’t framing the legal constraints right, how could PR have helped Portuguese police to promote a better understanding of its action?
The second point to note in this case (probably resulting from the previous point) is that the media coverage soon became influenced by a “country” phenomena. Portuguese journalists where being left behind by the privileged relation that press agents working for the McCann’s had from the first moment with British media (especially with Sky News). This portuguese blogger tells how the British journalists where given special information and private press briefings by the McCanns press agent. But this was amplified after the turn in the investigations, following an (allegedly) finding of Madeleine’s DNA on the trunk of a car the McCanns hired 25 days after Maddie had disappeared and just before the McCanns left the Algarve and hired Michael Caplan, one of Britain’s top lawyers (specialized in extraditions) who apparently is being paid by Sir Richard Branson ((BBC reported on this)). So its not strange that while some media (mainly British) are focusing on the credibility of the couple and dismiss as absurd the idea that they might have some involvement with the disappearance, othermedia reports (mainly Portuguese) are emphasizing that Kate McCann warned the Sky News before she even warned Portuguese Police and the suspicious immediate reactions after she noticed Maddie’s disappearance. But it gets even worse now, after Clarence Mitchell (who had been appointed by British Foreign Affairs to assess the McCann’s right after Maddie’s disappearance, quits his job as press officer for Gordon Brown and joined the McCann’s team of now (allegedly) four press officers) as some British media have started to raise all sorts of doubts about the quality of the Portuguese Police action and the Daily Mail has even put up a poll to know if the Portuguese Police treated the McCann’s fairly (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/dmpolls/index.html?in_poll_id=18328&in_page_id=2006 ). Do you seen any connection here???
So second question: If the Portuguese Police understands that it is being the target of a “character assassination” campaign and that stereotypes against it are being thoroughly and widely explored, how should it react? There is a lot of pressure to come up with more findings and make the apparently strong evidences that led the McCanns to be declared “arguidos” conclusive. But taking into account the relevance and the experience of the McCann’s defence (both in the Court of Law as in the Court of Public Opinion), will there be any more space left for a peaceful and competent investigation?
You can find a tremendous amount of information and several amazing levels of analysis to the media coverage of this case in the Europe Media Monitor News Explorer website, which also allows to compare coverage in different languages. But again, from a PR point of view, we shall ask if the differentiated treatment given to Portuguese media wasn’t a good reason to explain the divisions in media coverage. Sorry if this sounds all too conspiracy-like, but I have been listening to the amazing Ira Basen’s Spin Cycles and can’t avoid an increasingly critical eye over this.
But we shouldn’t also forget the personal dimension involved here, and I urge you to visit Ellee Seymour’s blog who I met through a post at David Brain’s sixtysecondview. She does a tremendous service to the cause of finding missing children.