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Reporting The Hunt For Madeleine: Media and police collide on the Algarve

Original Source: INDEPENDENT: 21 MAY 2007
Published: 21 May 2007
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 of them.

"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 suspect near 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 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 the road.

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.


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