The danger of defamation

Four year old Madeleine McCann’s abduction in 2007 caused shockwaves throughout the world. Not simply because a child had been taken – but because of the incredibly high profile media battle her parents took on in trying to relocate their daughter and clear their tarnished names. The nasty jibes constantly heaped upon the grief-stricken couple, largely from the UK press, quickly turned the McCanns into an emblem of national disdain.

I tried to steer clear from as much of the coverage as I possibly could after the news broke four years ago. The story was undeniably tragic, but just as I feel celebrity illnesses are given more public sympathy than the afflictions of ordinary folk, so too did this particular case seem to trample on the hundreds of other child abductions reported in the UK alone each year. One high profile case should not negate or be made to seem more important than so many others of the same ilk.

Something that I also found somewhat perturbing was the incessant public vilifying of the McCanns as parents, the Portuguese authorities and any suspects who happened to get caught up in the case. Robert Murat, an English businessman, found himself at the centre of a tabloid scandal after being accused of Madeleine’s abduction. He later sued several publications for libel and revealed that he had received death threats and hate mail from the public – all because he was wrongly blamed by the papers. The speed with which his innocence was proven seemed to stir little sense of remorse within those who were so quick to declare his guilt.

The fourth anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance passed a few weeks ago, and with funds for the charity devoted to searching for her running low, her mother Kate has written an incredibly candid account of the events that took place in Praia de Luz. An extract was published in The Sunday Times’ News Review last week, and reading it was utterly chilling. Perhaps it was misguided of me to approach the article with no sense of trepidation, but we are so de-sensitised to so much we see and hear in the media that little becomes shocking anymore.

But what was most eye opening was reading about the speed and vigour with which the press began its assail on the couple. Simple things, such as the fact that Kate had always gone by her maiden name of Healy, were ignored in the pursuit of front page news. Every second sentence written at the time maligned the apparent coldness of ‘Kate McCann’ – a new identity built for a fictional tabloid villain. I don’t mean to suggest that the pair were blameless in their actions, but as my own father always tells me, no one teaches you how to be a parent. They did what they thought was best, and it’s all very well for people to disparage them with the benefit of hindsight, but this is unfair to a family who have suffered so much. Living with what they’ve done is surely punishment enough.

Chris Jeffries was recently pinpointed by the press after the murder of landscape architect Joanna Yeates. Just like Murat, the papers printed a defamatory character assassination of the eccentric schoolmaster, who was quickly dismissed from the investigation. Now suing for libel, he is likely to receive financial compensation, but no sum will ever eradicate the grave damage of such slanderous media attention.

I’m aware that this article may seem to be a rather damning indictment of the press in general, particularly the tabloids, but my main gripe is with the people who read them and then victimise others without being fully aware of the facts. It is not our job to pass judgement on the decisions of others, and when lives can so easily and irreparably be ruined as a result of our reactions, we have a certain duty to act with caution and awareness. We live and die by our mistakes, and ones made in innocence are surely better than those made in misguided ignorance.

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