British journalists have been baffled by the Portuguese police in the search
for Madeleine McCann, and vice versa. Has the press been a help or a hindrance?
Ian Herbert investigates
The Madeleine McCann case has created some surprises for Inspector Oligario
Sousa, the public face of the Portuguese police inquiry, whose eccentric press
conferences have become required viewing for those who hang on the inquiry's
every twist and turn. The difficulties of handing out a press statement is one
"You are not a child. If you don't stop I will not give it," the
school-masterly Mr Sousa says on Thursday evening as journalists jostle for one
of 30 he dishes out ahead of what is, in the loosest sense of the word, a
briefing. There are no new facts in the statement (Mr Sousa doesn't seem to think
his appearances necessarily warrant any) but ITN's Geraint Vincent tears his
copy in the tussle, and the BBC's Richard Bilton shakes his head in resignation
as his is wrenched from his hands.
That's how things get when a global story like this is so bereft of genuine new
detail each day. When it was reported two weeks ago that a roadblock had been
put in place in Nelas, a town six hours north of Praia da Luz, Sky TV's
chartered flight was already in the air before news arrived that this, like so
many other possible sightings of Madeleine, was yet another false alarm. The
Sun has made it over the Spanish border twice, after putative sightings of a
Seville and at the border town of
Ayamonte. And when
nothing is moving, there is always the pitched battle over Madeleine reward
posters to pass the time. When the News of the World assumed its place at the
table here, the Saturday before last, its people set about ripping down The
Sun's efforts and substituting their own. Sky's Kay Burley, jetted over to
substitute for Anna Botting that weekend, was overheard reporting this felony
to Rebecca Wade, but the carnage continued apace.
And then, just when the police and a critical British media - baffled by the
local segredo de justica law which prevented so much as an e-fit being revealed
- seemed to be on different planets, the latter went and provided the former
with their best lead to date. Such were the media suspicions about the Briton
Robert Murat (subsequently Mr Sousa's "chief suspect") that on
another slow Monday seven days ago, journalists were deliberating the merits of
pursuing him as a story. Those who set off in search of Mr Murat's villa did
not know it was 160 yards from the McCann's apartment and already being
searched by police. At two minutes to 7pm, word had it that the villa was being
searched and an appearance by the British Ambassador, scheduled for 7pm, was
abandoned as journalists made a mad sprint to the site. Suspicions registered
with police by the Sunday Mirror's Lori Campbell had, it seemed, been looked at
after all. She was immediately propelled to a place in front of the TV camera.
At times in the last week, the relentless pursuit of detail on the 33-year-old
Mr Murat seems to have relegated the four-year-old child with the floppy hat
and the bunch of tennis balls to a subsidiary part in this script. The launch
of the findmadeleine.com website, for instance, barely earned a mention in some
papers last week. Word has it that the McCanns'
UK relatives are concerned that the
focus on Madeleine, who could be overseas, is being lost. Symbolically, when
the Briton was named as a main suspect, the TV crews and the attendant scrum
abandoned their spot outside Madeleine's apartment - still stained with the red
forensic powder - and decamped en masse to the suspect's villa, 160 yards down
Gerry and Kate McCann are apparently not watching much of the television now
being broadcast outside their apartment block, though one of their many private
agonies came when their daughter's face did keep appearing on the screen as
they watched, early in the inquiry. Madeleine's twin brother and sister, Sean
and Amelie, would point, according to Mrs McCann's friend Nicky Gill, who was
with her in Praia da Luz for a time. "We would all blow kisses," she
said. The gradual release of a hastily assembled album of photographs and the
McCanns' occasional statements, invariably made for the main 8am bulletins, are
designed to keep this story running. Privately, Mr McCann has said he dreads
the media moving off. The arrival of a Foreign and Commonwealth Office press
officer to provide a more direct link to the couple this week has helped.
Of course, in a tiny resort like this, the worlds occupied by the media and its
subjects have a nasty habit of colliding. On Wednesday evening, when Gerry and
Kate McCann walked within a stone's throw of a newly established police cordon
at the home of Mr Murat's website designer, the response of a few Portuguese
photographers was misinterpreted by journalists a few feet away as a sign that
the designer was emerging. It started a noisy, dusty stampede towards the
McCanns which can only have bewildered them as they walked down towards church.
It was an excruciating moment.
Some here believe that the British presence, in all its insatiable intensity,
has shaken the Portuguese police service from a secrecy which is an overhang
from the Communist regime, which remained until the revolution of 1974.
"Things only change when the pressure is on," said Paul Luckman, publisher
of The Portugal News. "I've never seen the police so helpful as they are
now. We are getting more information than any of us ever have. It's brought
about a total change in attitudes."
That said, the relentless police leaks to the Portuguese press suggest that the
segredo de justica law is not quite as watertight as it seems. A British civil
engineer who, at 10am last Monday, told police about a hidden cavity beneath Mr
Murat's house after hearing about the police inquiries there was called within
four hours by the Portuguese tabloid 24 Horas and asked for an interview.
"I asked them how they'd got my name and number," said the engineer,
Des Taylor. "They said: 'The police let us have them.' "
Amid the melee, Mr Sousa certainly seems to be growing into his role. Those
press conferences, peppered with elaborate syntax and a colourful vocabulary,
have become rather resonant of Josť Mourinho. Journalists from the respected
Portuguese TV channel Sic believe that a telephone he received shortly before
delaying Thursday's conference for 30 minutes was from his superiors, telling
him to wait until a competing parliamentary debate was concluded so he would go
live to the nation.
So, The Independent inquires, is he finally becoming rather attached to the
British scrum, which has helped with his suspect? "They're getting to
appreciate our secrecy laws and we're getting to appreciate them," Mr
Sousa replies. "There's a centre ground." So all this clamour might
actually be helping the inquiry? That suggestion, it transpires, is stretching
diplomacy a little too far. "No," says Mr Sousa. And he marches off.