May 4 - The Performance of a Lifetime

The First Statement, May 4

It was just after 10PM when the parents came out and made their statement to the media.

"Words cannot describe the anguish and despair that we are feeling as the parents of our beautiful daughter Madeleine. We request that anyone who may have any information related to Madeleine's disappearance, no matter how trivial, contact the Portuguese police and help us get her back safely. Please, if you have Madeleine, let her come home to her mummy, daddy, brother and sister. As everyone can understand how distressing the current situation is, we ask that our privacy is respected to allow us to continue assisting the police in their current investigation.”

This was the first statement, the famous occasion when Gerry McCann realised that the media had appeared "on the doorstep" in force and that he would have to deal with them. As Gerry later recalled, “...[it was] explained to me that either I interact with the media or we would be hounded by the press.” And Clarence Mitchell said at a public meeting that “the McCanns were unaware of the media interest until they returned from questioning that day, adding that “a lot of it was done” by friends and relations back in the UK.

Gerry McCann had much more to say about the sight of the assembled media and the problems, as well as the opportunities, it brought but it nearly always started with this astonishment at the appearance of the media pack that he had neither inspired nor expected but that he had, somehow, to react to. As with so much of the case “the narrative” became standardised - how he and Kate, as total beginners facing the frightening crowd of reporters had to decide to interact or run away; how, with the assistance of the Foreign Office media advisors such as Sherie Dodd and communications experts like Alex Woolfall brought in by Mark Warner, they learned how to cope with the insistent demands for interviews and statements and how they finally determined to use the media for their campaign, instead of being used by it, learning the ropes from these experts quickly – and all of it beginning on that Friday evening of May 4.

Addressing a hushed and extremely respectful audience of MPs of the Media & Culture Committee in the House of Commons in early 2009, a sober-suited Gerry McCann said: “The first impressions really started on day one when we came back to Praia da Luz having spent the day in Portimao at the police station. Clearly, there was a huge media presence there already."

Dr McCann did not see fit to speculate on just how the pack had reached Praia de Luz and who had summoned it. Perhaps it had just grown."My natural instinct," he added, "was to appeal for information, for people to come forward. At that point we were desperate for information and desperate, as we still are, that our daughter could be found and we wanted people to help in that. That is why we spoke to the media and did our appeals.”

So much for "the narrative". The MPs lapped it up. A few weeks later – a week is a long time in politics – Gerry & Kate were on the Oprah Winfrey show and they were asked a simple question, one which the MPs, who treated Gerry like a cross between Mahatma Ghandi and Barack Obama, hadn’t bothered with.

Oprah: And so when you came and realised that your daughter was missing and you're in a foreign country at the time you made a decision you know an effort to try to get her picture out to try to err engage the media. Is that true?

Gerry: It wasn't [sigh] so much a conscious decision after a few hours erm some of our friends were saying that we'd contact the media, contact the media you know at least Portuguese police were saying no, no media, no media and we were desperate at that point...

Quite what the assembled MPs would have made of an answer like that to a direct question we will never know but this was Showbiz now and on the small screen - especially once the "D for Desperate" word is mentioned - almost anything goes. In other words, however, and despite the flannel and the [sigh] Gerry didn't deny contacting the media – or arranging for the media to be contacted - well before they contacted him, and on the night of May 3/4. That was why the media pack was there.

In fact for all the plaudits they later received for their work with the media once their “campaign” got under way, and for all the recollections of people like Alex Woolfall of the planning and news management that they undertook together, nothing that followed was as astonishing as the achievements of Gerry McCann on May 4, before news management began to feature in “the narrative.” By the time that he and his stricken wife appeared to make that first brief statement to the media the outside world had already been provided with a version of events - without any of the information being directly attributed to him - which was thereafter virtually unquestioned and unquestionable.
Incredibly, at the time Kate McCann was giving her statement to the police that afternoon, as well as being reminded of the secrecy rules, the media were already carrying the full unsupported and inaccurate McCann version in detail, almost completely displacing any orthodox or neutral reporting of the disappearance. The main lines of the future “narrative” were already there, in print or broadcast report: the “lack of support” for the parents in their hours of need; the “lack of urgency” in the police response; the clear “evidence” of entry by an intruder; the “need” for publicity; the unprompted denial, even at this ridiculously early stage, that the parents had been in any way neglectful or at fault. At ten in the morning, indeed, just an hour before his first interview in Portimao, when he must have had many things on his mind, Gerry McCann was still using his mobile, talking to Patricia Cameron this time, adding details that were to appear in the media within the next few hours.

All the information was “deniable”, as though provided by a skilled politician or an experienced PR man not a shocked parent, for not once did Gerry McCann say these things himself directly to the public media: it was all done using the clan and “friends”. Nor was he forthcoming to the unsuspecting officers looking for his child about his role in mobilising the media and his conscious breach - or rather explosive destruction - of their no publicity rule. It was not, needless to say, merely about the release of "a picture": by the time the police car carrying the pair pulled into Portimao police headquarters that morning Sky had been well briefed with the parents’ story. And so had GMTV. So had BBC1 news. So had BBC 2 Newsnight. So had all the important UK dailies.

Much later, after the police files were released and the completely fictitious nature of the “jemmied shutters” claims was exposed, attempts were made by defenders of the pair to claim that all this was simple confusion – the parents, they said, had never made any such claims, it was shocked and anxious relatives who had seized on agitated early news from the pair, including misunderstandings, and had then passed on minor inaccuracies when contacted by the media.

The explanation is untenable; it is untrue. The evidence clearly shows that Gerry McCann, far from passing on to his circle only chaotic first impressions or mistaken interpretations of what had happened immediately after the disappearance, quite clearly hammered home certain key information for many hours after the disappearance which he intended them to pass on to the media. Madeleine’s uncle, Michael Wright, made this quite clear on the same day. Speaking from the grandparents’ home in Liverpool, after pointing out that they were in “a hell of a state,” he said, “Everyone has been up all night. I spoke to Gerry and he wants as much publicity as possible if it helps.” And there is a repetition again and again of certain "facts" and themes from different people which cannot have been the chance result of misunderstandings: as is well known in information theory when a number of independent sources carry the same data then it derives from a common source.
The circle of friends and relatives provided the deniability. This same circle – mostly part of the Glasgow/Liverpool clan of which we have spoken before, with its intense, almost atavistic clan loyalty and solidarity against the outside world — also provided the mainstay of indirect and deniable information from the parents over the coming months, although with the later formalization of the “campaign” and the growing influence of the media professionals like Woolfall, Dodds, McGuinness and Mitchell their contributions became a good deal more measured and disciplined.

At no time early on – not once - did any of them report Gerry McCann as asking them not to repeat his comments to the public, or that he and they were bound by confidentiality. Nor is there any mention by them of Gerry, later in the day, telling them that the forced-entry and other information he had given them had now been found to be incorrect. Quite the contrary.

Tellingly, exactly the same techniques were used by the same clan members at the only other period of critical pressure during the McCanns’ long Portuguese stay after May 4, when the professional media advisors were silent, disengaged or in disarray. When the pair were made arguido and questioned by the police about their possible role in the child’s disappearance the same charade of “silence” from the parents was maintained while versions of what had happened to them - extremely anti-police and including the fictional stories of suggested plea bargains -were provided for the world media after being passed on in phone calls intended for publicisation. The technique was identical and identifiable. No, the evidence is unarguable that, just as at arguido time, Gerry McCann knowingly used the clan as conduits for a version of events, as well as an appeal for help in finding a missing child.

Of course any family would want to help one of their own in distress. And the willingness of the tight-knit clan to help mobilise the media wasn't wrong, or a conspiracy to hide the truth - that much is obvious. Nevertheless, just as relations between the police and parents were permanently soured when the PJ discovered that Gerry McCann was briefing against them via others, so the way in which a number of the McCanns' relatives threw themselves into the spin game of deniability and non-attribution, of the dishonest language of the "close source" and the "family friend", and all the other techniques of news control exacted a distant penalty. Those who looked closely at what was coming out from "the McCann Team" asked themselves why these methods were being used from May 4 onwards.
The saccharine tributes paid to the pair for their eventual "mastery" of the press could not conceal, after all, that news management, as practised in politics and public relations, is essentially about withholding and distorting news and arranging misinformation: that is its function, that's what the friendly word "spin" means. How was it that a decision to bring public awareness of a missing child to the world on May 4, before the engagement of experts or government advisors - to throw light onto darkness - slipped so seamlessly into a machine for spinning, disguising and limiting information? Why? What was the gain? The case papers show that there was very little confidential information about the circumstances of the disappearance to be withheld from possible miscreants, surprisingly little in fact, despite what Kate McCann implied until those papers were opened to public view, so what other reasons could there be?
This is the question that has surrounded the case since the beginning and it is impossible to avoid concluding that had the parents handled the media without assistance and in a frank - or, like the Tapas 7, a silent - manner they would have gained immeasurably. Yes, their campaign was "brilliant" to the deformed and morally crippled judgement of the "Crisis Management" and presentation industry, and it raised millions, but at what a terrible cost! The seeds of the rumours about them, the mad theories on the internet, that they had done away with the child, that it was a pre-meditated act, that the child wasn't even alive on May 3, all that revolting fantasy had its beginning in that question - why? Why weren't they frank and open?

The clan can't be criticised for coming to the aid, as they saw it, of their own and then being born along on a wave of public hysteria and the excitement of being at the centre of an enormous drama, and they were used by others as much as they used. But if only the Sherie Dodds and other government media experts had been sent to advise the family instead of the parents - especially in the virtues of restraint and silence! But that isn't the way the world goes round.

In the publicity blitz of May 4 a pattern emerges, an understandable pattern but nevertheless a disturbing one: not only are a limited number of particular themes present, such as the unjustified certainty of an abduction as well as "colour" items to make the story more dramatic and gripping, but there is a startling contrast between the inaccuracies and vagueness surrounding the disappearance itself, such as the "jemmying" material, and the perfectly detailed and quite un-vague nature of those matters which could be described as being in the parents' defence. There is no mention in the parents' description of their motives for seeking publicity of covering apparent, but never made explicit, vulnerabilities. But that is what happened. Why?

The London evening Standard's story can be taken as a typical example of the processes in action on May 4. As in almost all the numerous reports that day the relatively factual and neutral statements of Mark Warner administrative staff members like Sylvia Baptista, or John Hill the resort manager, were swamped by the much more dramatic feeds from Gerry via the clan and "friends".

Sylvia Baptista told The Standard (not by any means a tabloid paper): "Everyone in this small village has been looking for her. There's only about 500 people living here, and all the village has been searched. There have been police using dogs and all the staff have been trying to find her. I understand the police are searching the rest of the Algarve and checking airports, and checks have also been made in Spain." She added: "We don't know if the child opened the window and walked out or if someone else came in.”

But preceding this relatively accurate and unbiased quote The Standard reported the completely false statement that “A rear window of the ground-floor apartment had been partly opened and the shutters appeared to have been lifted. One report suggested they had been broken.” It added, significantly, “Fingerprints were taken from a window sill outside her room.”

This laziness - or misdirection - with the facts of the disappearance of the child was in stubborn contrast to the way the much less important matter of the parents' activities was reported. “The McCanns,” said the story, “were eating at a tapas restaurant in the Mark Warner Ocean Club complex but had been checking on their children every 30 minutes. The restaurant is within sight of their apartment.” No vagueness there, no possible "misunderstandings" by relatives of "early panicky comments" by Gerry. Dead on.

After this a “family friend” whom we have heard from before provided the necessary blast of colour: “Jill Renwick, from Glasgow, told the The Standard: "Maddy is gorgeous. She has white blonde hair. She is active and chatty and intelligent, not shy. She is four next week and starts school this year.” Miss Renwick added the dramatic but thoroughly untrue detail that “Kate and Gerald are rushing about looking for her."

And then the abduction story, which we heard from M/S Renwick before, was delivered, together with another reminder of how careful and responsible the McCanns were: “Mrs Renwick said she feared Madeleine had been abducted: "The shutters had been broken open and they [sic] had gone into the room and taken Madeleine." That showed, shall we say, a certain unfamiliarity with the facts but, when she reverted to the parents' conduct, M/S Renwick was much more well-informed and careful. “They were watching the hotel room and going back every half- hour. The parents went out about eight, went back in at nine the [children] were fine went back in at 10 and she was gone."
Once again, spot on.
Perhaps M/S Renwick's next comment was her own - or perhaps not. “She said," The Standard continues, "the McCanns had chosen the resort because it was family friendly. [Untrue; the resort was not, as we have seen, chosen by the McCanns but by David Payne] This is the first time they have done this,” she added [untrue; it was not the first time they had done this] They are very, very anxious parents and very careful," she said. [As we have seen earlier, in Praia de Luz the parents had in practice been neither very anxious nor very careful].
And then The Standard had this: “Michael Healy[this was Michael Wright], the missing girl's uncle, added: "There has been some negative spin put on this, with people criticising them for leaving the kids and going on the tear.” Mr Healy added, “But it's nonsense, they were close by and were eating within sight of where the children were and checking on them. Other members of the group were checking on her as well. No one was rip-roaring drunk.”

How have news reports about a disappearance, or "desperate efforts to get publicity for Madeleine" led to this? How have Kate's dying-fall mutterings to Oprah Whinney about involving the media because of "...absolute helplessness,absolutely desperate. I mean, this is our daughter who we love beyond words, and every second is like hours..." led to this mutation to a pre-emptive defence of themselves? How has "the natural appeal for information" that Gerry McCann described to members of Parliament morphed into denying that they were drunk?
"Negative spin" and "criticism." How could there be any spin or criticism of the parents by Friday afternoon when these were the very people telling the world what had happened the previous night for the first time and when the pair hadn't even given their statements to the police?

The report had, in embryo, all the marks of Gerry McCann’s instinctive and inspired skills as an operator, establishing matters which appeared in the media from then on as fact: physical evidence of forced intrusion, [untrue] the “fact” of abduction,[no evidence] character reference for their parenting qualities,[gratuitous and in this context not accurate] pre-emptive defence of their conduct and child supervision on May 3 [unsubstantiated spin]. All without a single direct quote from Gerry McCann.
Faced with this irresistable stream of spin, colour and melodrama deriving from the horse's mouth and in which facts were by no means getting in the way of a great story, John Hill, the modest and level-headed Ocean Club manager had as much chance of getting his version of events into prominence as a gnat on the wall of apartment 5A. Though he was the man on the spot and had more much more reliable information about the night of May 3, the police effort and the state of the apartments than either of the McCanns, as well as being a neutral witness, his words were slowly drowned to death by the Gerry McCann version.

“It's still questionable as to whether it's an abduction,” said Mr Hill correctly, in other reports that day, but his view was usually low down near the bottom of the page, after the inspired clan productions. “There was no physical evidence as yet that the girl had been abducted,” he said, but he could have been speaking to an empty room or or addressing the breakers on the beach at Praia de Luz., for all the impact his words had. “The staff at the Ocean Club were still hoping to find her nearby,” he added mutedly.

Poor Mr Hill. Nobody wanted to hear this stuff, not when the other story, complete with wonderful details of Madeleine’s angelic appearance and bubbly personality neatly clothing the defence of the parents, was so readily available. Indeed another Healy clan member, Brian, the aged, credulous and malleable father of Kate McCann immediately rubbished Mr Hill’s claim that there was “no sign of a break-in” that day in the UK Guardian, a newspaper with a famous reputation for sober reporting and accuracy. Mr Healy, said that his son-in-law had given him “the facts” on the phone. In a bravura performance in which every “fact” except Gerry’s name was untrue he told the Guardian, “Gerry told me when they went back the shutters to the room were broken, they were jemmied up and she was gone. She'd been taken from the chalet. The door was open." Fate was stacking up against The Version According To John Hill.
There was one more element to put into the “narrative” that day before it was complete and fully formed – the supposed inadequacy of the police effort. Mr Hill – and with our knowledge that Mark Woolfall, brought in by Mark Warner to manage the media was already approaching Praia de Luz we can perhaps see the clouds gathering over this lonely witness of reason – ventured to the press that the police had done a fine job, deserved no criticism – where could any criticism have come from at this early stage? - and had been “tremendous”. Really? Remember the mobile phone in Gerry’s hand at ten that morning in Portimao while he waited to be called in to give his sober statement? He was then about to ring Patricia Cameron for the second time.

"It was frustrating for him because between 5am and 7am the police seemed to do nothing, they were standing about," she told the BBC, dutifully repeating what Gerry had told her in that call, “we [who was we?] feel that what's been going on in Portugal has been ineffectual.” Well done Trish. And to back it up the ever-helpful Jill Renwick (again!) also contacted the BBC later. Ms Renwick made no bones about it: the McCanns, she said, felt let down by the Portuguese police.

Almost the last, sad, moment of Mr Hill’s fifteen minutes of fame before this lonely provider of objectivity fell silent was his confident assertion that day that the windows to the apartment had not been forced open and that as far as intruders were concerned the apartments featured some “highly professional” locks. This was no way to fit into the scheme of things and soon afterwards Mr. Hill’s authority to make statements on the case – statements that in almost every instance were accurate - was abruptly curtailed by his employers and by Gerry McCann’s mentor Mark Woolfall: with that his claims began to disappear from the prints and John Hill was history.

Mr Woolfall was given a handsome tribute by Gerry speaking to the House of Commons committee. “Right at the very beginning,” he said, “Mark Warner had a media specialist, a crisis management specialist from Bell Pottinger called Alex Wilful, [sic] who was incredibly helpful to us and, in those early days, gave us quite simple guidance which we found particularly helpful. It was very much along the lines of: what are your objectives? What are you hoping to achieve by speaking to the media? Be very clear about what you want.”

Gerry McCann, added that his advice "was very, very good because there is an element that they are there on your doorstep" (the doorstep again!) before giving further handsome credit to others: “The government sent out a media adviser who had expertise in campaign management, Cherie Dodd, who previously worked at the DTI and started talking about planning for us, how we could utilise the media in terms of achieving objectives.”

And of course – how could one forget? – “Subsequently Clarence came out. That was very important, one, to assist us in trying to get information to help find our missing daughter and, secondly, in protecting us from the media because the demands were unbelievable.”

Volumes had been written about how these figures helped the parents by the time Gerry McCann entered the House of Commons committee rooms with his papers and briefcase, accompanied by the undertaker-like figure of Clarence Mitchell. It suited everyone involved, for different reasons, to agree with this portrait of a tyro thrust into the limelight, facing up to the media mob on “the doorstep”, gathering himself to make his brief statement before retreating to start learning the media game at the hands of his masters.

Gerry McCann was far too modest. Alex Woolfall described the parents as giving [from May 4 onwards] “no indication that they thought she had been snatched...their early assumption was that she had wandered off and had an accident or been taken in by a well-meaning stranger” (!) This says almost as much about him as it says about them - but Smart Alex is impervious to these ironies and Gerry is clearly happy for Mr Woolfall to retain his own beliefs as to who was really running whom. In reality Woolfall had almost nothing to teach Gerry: he was a natural. Before these experts had said a word to him, in just under twenty-four hours of unassisted and frenzied activity he had put out a version of events that seduced people into its soap-opera mendacity and beside which other narratives stood no chance.
Particularly, it must be said, the police version.
Even as the pair looked down on the struggling media mob below them, their incarnation as celebrities, not victims, taking place before the eyes of the world, the poorly paid, shirt-sleeved members of the PJ, some of them dead-tired after a fifteen hour day, were in their cigarette smoke-filled crisis room, struggling to put this scattered jigsaw of a case together and locate a missing child. They couldn't make it fit, as one of the troubled detectives, in confidence, told a journalist on the Diario de Noticias, they just couldn't see it as an abduction. None of it added up.
Months later, when the gloves were off all round and the parents had been made arguidos, the words of the bemused officer were used as the sole basis of a story fed to an influential English newspaper by "Team McCann."

"A propaganda campaign against Kate and Gerry McCann started within 24 hours of Madeleine vanishing," the report stated. "While the police were secretly spinning their doubts about the McCanns to the media," [ the one comment to the JDN on May 4, nothing else ] "the couple were faithfully obeying Portugal's strict laws preventing them from speaking about the investigation."

History is written by the winners. Gerry McCann's achievement on May 4 had been a staggering one.