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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 August 2007, 18:18 GMT 19:18 UK
Madeleine and the media
At the Edinburgh television festival this week, Kirsty Wark will interview the father of missing toddler Madeleine McCann.

In an article for the BBC's staff magazine, Ariel, she discusses the questions posed by the media's reaction to Madeleine's disappearance.

Kirsty Wark
By Kirsty Wark
Presenter, BBC Newsnight

It has become the picture that nobody tears down, Madeleine McCann's angelic face on posters downloaded and printed by people all over the world and stuck up in supermarkets, train stations, on airport jetties and in cinema foyers.

Kate McCann watches the release of 1000 balloons on the beach in Praia Da Luz.
The McCanns have worked hard to keep their campaign alive
The picture is emblazoned across Jonny Wilkinson's jersey, on Premier League team strips, and on Ewan MacGregor's bike. Madeleine McCann is everywhere, and nowhere.

I can't think of any other story, so prominent for so long, where there are so few facts.

TV reporters have done thousands of pieces to camera eeking out the few reliable details, newspapers have contained screeds about the McCanns whose faces are as well known as many celebrities.

The last time I typed their daughter's name on Google it offered up more than two million pages.

Sustaining interest

The McCann campaign has been unprecedented and we, the media, have been willing participants. If you were in the McCanns' position I am sure you too would do everything in your power, and seize every opportunity to keep the story on the screen, online and on 24 hour TV.

But how did they achieve such blanket - and on TV at least - such uncritical coverage when hundreds of children disappear every year?

Was it because the family and their close circle of friends knew how to create massive and sustained interest that had a fleet of satellite trucks racing to the Algarve, or was there something about this little girl's disappearance that triggered a kind of collective sensation akin to the death of Princess Diana, and an international conversation point on blogs and chatrooms? Or perhaps both?

Gerry McCann holds up a photograph of his missing daughter Madeleine during a press conference in June, 2007.
Gerry McCann will be speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival
There is also the fact that the McCanns are telegenic and articulate - and are doctors, and therefore regarded as respectable members of society.

The broadcasters did not keep their distance. The BBC helped to organise the original televised statement which was pooled to British and Portuguese television stations, probably in the absence of any input from the Portuguese police whose rules and operational methods are different from what we are used to.

And early on, on 10 May, the controller of News 24, Kevin Bakhurst, wrote in his blog:

"We will continue to try to provide the high volume of coverage and updates that the audience wants while respecting the family's privacy and needs and while striving to separate real developments from rumour."

Media 'events'

Since then there have been few real developments, so the McCanns in partnership with the media have staged a number of "events," the most famous being their meeting with the Pope.

Pope Benedict XVI meeting Gerry and Kate McCann in May, 2007.
Meeting the Pope, one of several key media events in the campaign
There have been regular photo opportunities, high profile supporters and recently a series of interviews.

Even when the coverage has not gone their way I suspect that they will consider it of little importance in comparison with the importance of keeping Madeleine's face on the front page.

They are incredibly well plugged into the media, and have a campaign organiser, a media advisor who is the godparent of one of their children and a former lecturer in new media, and a roster of loyal friends who give their time, energy and expertise.

They all think laterally about how to produce a new angle on the story. In that way they remind me of the producers on Newsnight, and it's been that way from the beginning.

Direct action

The morning after Madeleine's disappearance I was on my way to London to the programme, and at home in Glasgow, a neighbour whom we'd never met rang the bell.

She was one of Kate McCann's closest friends and she was very upset. She told my husband that Madeleine had disappeared and Kate and Gerry were frantic because the police had been slow off the mark.

They were desperate to get the story out and could I help? In fact the disappearance soon began running on all the outlets.

That kind of direct action has been a hallmark of the campaign. Creating a publicity engine and keeping the momentum up has given the McCanns a positive focus, and was achieved by them and their family and friends through an enormous amount of self discipline.

Has this tragic story created a "blueprint" for families who find themselves in similar terrible situations, or was there something unique to the McCanns?

We in the media should ask ourselves whether we would react the same way again, and again because the sad truth is that it will happen sooner rather than later.


Reproduced with permission from Ariel.



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