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Resort turned upside down by media

Original Source: BBC: 16  MAY  2007
Alison Roberts
BBC News, Praia da Luz  Wednesday, 16 May 2007
The disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann and the huge media interest it has generated has turned a sleepy Algarve resort upside down and presented the Portuguese authorities - above all the police - with unprecedented challenges.

The search for four-year-old Madeleine and the faith and fortitude of her parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, have been the subject of untold column inches and radio and television broadcasting hours not only in the UK and Portugal but also in neighbouring Spain and across Europe - even around the world.

The McCanns themselves have thanked the media for keeping their daughter in the public eye, no doubt hoping that the more newspaper pictures that are out there and the more posters people feel moved to put up, the more likely she is to be found.

Local media interest

Their relatives back home have been adept at creating media events there, leveraging moral support into financial pledges for a fund to be used to help find the little girl.

All this has further piqued the interest of the Portuguese media - which covered the story extensively from the start, not least because this is a country whose people adore children.

If anything, local media gave Madeleine and the investigation into her disappearance even more prominence than did the British in the week of Tony Blair's announcement that he was stepping down.

But the presence of large numbers of British journalists on the ground - literally, in the case of the street outside the McCann's holiday apartment - was clearly instrumental in prodding locals into more activity.

"We didn't have anyone here at first," said Augusto Freitas, a reporter for national broadcaster Radio Clube Portugues.

"But then it started to take on an international dimension - it's gathered momentum.

"Even media outlets that weren't here felt obliged to come. They realised that it was almost impossible not to."

'Very British case'

After all the complaints from British journalists about poor communications on the part of police, local journalists are, Freitas adds, now faced with a Foreign Office-appointed spokeswoman for the McCann family who does not speak the local language.

"This is a very British case," admits Mr Freitas.

"The parents are British, resort staff are British and now so is the suspect. But it is a strange situation - her not speaking Portuguese."

The new developments in the case early this week - with the formal declaration of a 33-year-old British man as a suspect after the interrogation of him and two other people and searches of five houses - have prompted a rethink by British news editors who had scaled down their presence in Luz.

"We were here for a week then went back on Sunday," said Justin Sutcliffe, a photographer sent out by the Sunday Telegraph.

"But then on Tuesday they decided to send us out again. I just about had time to do my laundry."

The story seems finally to have taken on more solid form, he points out.

"Towards the end of last week there were a lot of rumours that people were running around and discounting. This is the first concrete thing that has definitely happened, and the first that police have commented on."

Character dissected

The villa - less than 100 yards from the McCann's holiday apartment - from which the man later declared a suspect was taken, is inhabited by a retired British nurse, Jenny Murat, and her son Robert.

The next day, with his life and character ruthlessly dissected by the British tabloids, he reportedly said he was being made a scapegoat and that only if Madeleine's abductor is found will he survive.

Meanwhile, other foreign media have been piling in.

Spanish journalists were among the first to arrive, but television teams from as far afield as Scandinavia - as well as international agencies such as Associated Press of the US - have put in appearances.

Sabine Michel, a reporter for Germany's N24 and Sat1 television channels, says the story of parents having a child snatched after leaving her momentarily unattended strikes a horrific chord with people everywhere.

"This case has an emotional impact in Germany, too - it's the kind of story that crosses borders."

It is, she makes clear, not just British journalists who have been frustrated by the dearth of reliable information.

"Of course it was difficult to get details," she says. "We're not used to this - in Germany police are more under pressure to make information public.

"I hope the fact that they're not saying much means they have a plan they don't want to reveal, rather than that they're in the dark.

"But when no-one knows anything there's no check on speculation."

Still, in just the week or so she has been in town, she has noted a development in the way police handle the media, from the chaotic free-for-all of the briefings early last week to yesterday's more controlled and technically well-supported press conference.

She was impressed with how "sensitively" the British media have treated the McCanns - remaining a respectful distance from them when they went down to the beach, for example, and not snapping close-ups of their twins.


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