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History > 2008 > UK > Journalism (I)




Brits love to torture a 'bad mother'


April 14, 2008
From The Times
Melanie Reid


In a long media career, the persecution of Kate McCann is the cruellest thing I have seenMelanie Reid
How many centuries of accumulated spite and misogyny, I wonder, went into the latest twist in the Madeleine McCann saga. Did the British television presenters feel the remotest twinge of conscience as they sensationally reported - second-hand via a Spanish television station - the leaks from the Portuguese police portraying Kate McCann in the worst possible light, as a mother who had left her children to cry?

And did Britain's tabloid editors, themselves presumably sons of mothers and husbands to the mothers of their own children, flinch even a jot as they ordered the devastating headlines “Mummy, why didn't you come when we cried?” to be unfurled on their front pages alongside the face of the missing little girl?

I have seen, lived with and been party to many different kinds of sadism in a long media career, but I honestly think that this latest outbreak of malice towards Kate McCann is just about the cruellest thing I have witnessed.

Many serious writers have deliberately avoided discussing the case of Madeleine. Not because it is not serious, but because there was no enlightenment we could bring; nothing remotely we could add to the frenzy of distress, loss and bewilderment.

I have avoided reading or watching most of the coverage. It was too harrowing; the couple's grief too visceral to bear; and I could not stand the treatment they received from the macho, out-of-their-depth Portuguese police. For many of us, it was enough, briefly, to contemplate the horror of losing our own child. Anything more was prurience and soap opera.

But somehow we have passed a watershed. With this latest betrayal, picking deep at Kate McCann's emotional scars, we have regressed to the level of the medieval peasants reaching for the ducking stool. Although women suspected of being witches, I sometimes grimly think, received a fairer fate in their slow drowning than do modern women accused of being bad mothers, who are tortured to the point of mental disintegration.

And so it is time to speak out in defence of Kate McCann, a woman whom I have never met, but someone who is being sacrificed to society's tyrannical views about a mother's role.

Even in the enormity of her suffering it seems Kate McCann must be punished for failing to live up to idealised, romanticised - and wholly unrealistic - maternal standards. Her child cried the night before she disappeared. It is of no relevance to Madeleine's apparent abduction, but what a glorious stick with which to beat her already guilt-ridden mother.

Why do we do perpetuate this immense cruelty upon women? There is no justice in it. Kate McCann is just the latest in a long line of high-profile victims of the prevailing fatwa - that all mothers must be perfect, self-sacrificing angels. From Kate McCann to Louise Campbell (the mother of Molly/ Misbah, the Scots girl who fled to be with her father in Pakistan), to Britney Spears to Anne Robinson to Frances Shand Kydd, nobody loves to torture a perceived bad mother or a bolter like the British do.

Any sign of weakness, any suggestion of being “unfit”, any hint that a mother is compromising her child by seeking small freedoms or equality, and the judgment of society is absolute.

Behind the famous names lurk an estimated 100,000 ordinary women who are separated from their children for various reasons - everything from abduction to the mundanity of being the main earner in divorce. They must simply hide their pain, die a kind of psychological death for their loss and exist in the shadows. Some, like Paula Clennell, one of the five women murdered in Ipswich, simply give up all hope when they lose custody of their children. Their problems are too huge; the hole in their hearts too big to heal.

The taboo surrounding bad motherhood has always struck me as tantamount to pulling wings off butterflies. Vulnerable women, already heartbroken by their loss, must then face devastating social stigma. If women are honest, they admit the maternal paragon does not exist outside Catholic mythology. We all fail, and frequently. But women, terrified of being stigmatised, are often not honest.

You will find out why the media torture Kate McCann if you read the online blogs: it is because there is an audience desperate, as far as I can see, to join in any kind of attack on a bad mother. Everywhere I looked I found a harshness and a pitilessness - from both sexes - towards Kate McCann.

Women sanctimoniously pressed their own claims to maternal sainthood: “My sons are teenagers and I still don't leave them alone.” They were also horribly vindictive: “Sorry Kate, but you have only yourself to blame.” They even, outrageously, cited God: “You can never replace the time lost with your children which God has blessed you with.”

On the Daily Mail site, women criticised Kate McCann for being photographed smiling. “If I lost my child I don't think I would ever smile again,” they declared pompously.

The Daily Mirror website spoke for itself: “Sadly, due to persistent and serious abuses, we will no longer be hosting discussions regarding Madeleine McCann. We do not take this action lightly... but the level of debate on the Maddy forums has gone way beyond what we consider acceptable, with several recent incidents of extremely abusive postings, both against fellow users and the McCanns.”

A society, then, riddled with prejudice, which knows precisely how to attack women where they are most vulnerable, and thereby control them. I would like to reassure Kate McCann that she is not alone, but rather a member of a growing army of mothers who share her pain and her pariah status.

In a dark, lonely corner of purgatory, behind the sign “Maternal Failures Only”, there are a surprising number of her fellows who offer her only understanding, love and support. And this is a purgatory, she will come to learn, that traps only mild sinners, the undeserving and the desperately unlucky.

Brits love to torture a 'bad mother', Ts, 14.4.2008, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/melanie_reid/article3739770.ece






British Papers Blunder

in Missing Girl Case


March 20, 2008
The New York Times


LONDON — The headline, splashed across the front page of The Daily Express on Wednesday, could not have been clearer or more jarring. “Kate and Gerry McCann: Sorry,” it said.

The paper indeed had something to be sorry about. In the ensuing article, it admitted that much of its coverage of the case of 4-year-old Madeleine McCann, who disappeared during a family vacation in Portugal last May, was dead wrong. Especially the part where it repeatedly accused Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry, of murdering her and then covering up their crime.

“We acknowledge that there is no evidence whatsoever to support this theory and that Kate and Gerry are completely innocent of any involvement in their daughter’s disappearance,” the paper said. It added, “Kate and Gerry, we are truly sorry to have added to your distress.”

The apology came as the paper settled a libel case brought by the McCanns, physicians from Leicester, England, who said they had sued after unsuccessfully urging The Express and its sister papers, The Daily Star, The Sunday Star and The Sunday Express, “to show greater restraint in their reporting.” As part of the deal, the newspapers also agreed to read the apology aloud in court and to pay £550,000, or about $1,092,000, in damages, which will be contributed to a fund to help find Madeleine.

The apology and the payment represented a shocking U-turn. For months, papers from the Express Newspapers group used shady, innuendo-laced information, interviews with unidentified sources and leaps of logic to promote a disturbing theory: that Mr. and Mrs. McCann had killed their daughter, disposed of her body and then cynically pretended to be distraught about her death.

Although the McCanns have been named as suspects by the Portuguese police, the police have neither produced evidence against them nor charged them with their daughter’s disappearance. Mr. and Mrs. McCann have always maintained their innocence, saying they believe Madeleine was abducted.

Speaking of their families, the McCanns said, “Their pain over the loss of Madeleine has been compounded by having to witness the irresponsible and libelous reporting that we have successfully challenged today.”

It is highly unusual for British newspapers to correct errors, let alone apologize for them. It is even rarer for them to publish corrections or apologies that readers are actually able to find.

“Generally speaking, they’re tucked away toward the back of the paper,” said Paul Gilbert, a media lawyer at Finers Stephens Innocent.

Noting that The Star ran a similar mea culpa on its own front page on Wednesday, Mr. Gilbert added, “As far as I can tell, you’ve never had a situation where two papers have published apologies like this on the same day.”

In English law, the burden of proof in libel cases rests on the defendants, meaning that to win their case newspapers have to prove the accuracy of their statements. Clearly unable to prove in court that Madeleine’s parents had murdered her, the newspapers seemed to have no option but to settle.

“They were staring down the battle of a defamation claim, and it’s probably a cheap out for them,” said Leigh Ellis, a media lawyer at Gilhams Solicitors.

In the offending articles, The Express pursued such angles as Mrs. McCann’s demeanor after Madeleine disappeared — was she too cool, too unemotional? — whether Mr. McCann was hiding an explosive temper under his affable exterior, what they might have done with Madeleine’s body after her supposed murder and whether Madeleine’s blood was found in a car the McCanns rented after she had vanished.

A spokesman for Express Newspapers refused to comment on whether the articles had been or would be taken down from the Web. “We have nothing to add to what has been said in court and in our titles,” he said tersely, referring to the printed apologies. Then he hung up.

But articles of the type The Express has been printing are par for the course in the world of British tabloid journalism, and The Express is hardly the only guilty paper in the McCann case. Outside court, the McCanns’ lawyers suggested that the couple would consider pursuing other papers whose reporting had crossed the line.

Mr. Gilbert, the media lawyer, seemed to suggest that he had some sympathy for the newspapers, whose reporters have to contend with cutthroat competition and management demanding scoops.

At the same time, he said, the Portuguese authorities, unschooled in how to deal with the news media, seemed to be happy to provide the British newspapers with all sorts of half-baked theories disguised as official lines of inquiry.

“There was a lot of misinformation flying around, both official and unofficial,” Mr. Gilbert said. “It’s understandable that some of this stuff was going to be published.”

British Papers Blunder in Missing Girl Case, NYT, 20.3.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/20/world/europe/20madeleine.html




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