ex-BBC journalist built a career on professional detachment. Then, he
went to work for the McCanns
Clarence Mitchell with Kate McCann at a 2007
Berlin press conference
search goes on. "There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever, nothing, to
Madeleine has been harmed, let alone killed," insists
Clarence Mitchell, the former television reporter who speaks
for the family of the most famous missing girl in the world. Her face is
instantly recognisable. There is no longer any need to use her surname,
McCann. And yet, nearly two years since she vanished from the Algarve,
there is still no trace.
hard to say to Mitchell – who began as a dispassionate adviser and then
became a close personal friend of her parents – but there seems no
evidence to suggest the three-year-old is still living. "Obviously," he
says, "as time goes on,
Kate and Gerry
are finding it harder
and harder. But they are still firmly of the view that Madeleine is
alive and out there to be found."
months now they have turned down interviews, preferring to go through
the many files handed over by the
There is another
reason for their silence, too. "You reach a saturation point," their
spokesman admits. "People would say to us, 'Oh, it's tragic, but we've
almost had enough of Madeleine.' That was appalling to hear."
silence, Clarence Mitchell is re-emerging as a public figure in his own
right. On Friday he will speak at the Oxford Union, following in the
footsteps of Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa and Kermit the Frog. Now he is
giving his first personal interview since the days when he was a
familiar face on the BBC. He is doing it at the West End offices of
Freud Communications, which has hired him as a consultant. Dressed as if
to broadcast, in a light brown suit and dark blue shirt, he has two
BlackBerrys on his desk: one for Kate and Gerry, the other for everyone
he seems to be setting himself up as a public relations guru for
families in distress, including that of 16-year-old
who was stabbed to death in south London last year. The trial of Jimmy's
alleged killer begins at the Old Bailey a week tomorrow, and Mitchell
will be outside, representing the bereaved parents. Once again, he will
be on our screens. But despite seeming so familiar, Clarence Mitchell
has never really given anything away about himself. Why did he stop
reporting and reading the news? What then drove this 46-year-old man to
campaign on behalf of the McCanns, a couple he barely knew and who were
suspected of murdering their daughter?
"Everything I have seen of them, in all of the pressurised situations,
shows me a family who are suffering the loss of their child," he says.
"Everything they are doing, behind the scenes, convinces me of that."
so on message for a man who was hired in September 2007 to "salvage
their reputations" in the wake of the McCanns being named as arguidos,
or suspects, by the Portuguese police. Mitchell had already been with
them for a month, as a civil service media expert sent to help the
couple to cope with all the attention. But he returned in the pay of a
supporter of the McCanns, leading a publicity campaign "to
correct and balance the inaccurate coverage that was coming out and try
to get everything back on an even keel ... with a view to helping to get
worked, of course: they won £550,000 damages and a front-page apology
from the Daily Express, and last summer the police cleared them of all
suspicion. But Mitchell could not have known it would turn out that way.
"It was," he says, "gut instinct."
It was a
life-changing moment. Until then, his entire career had been built on
remaining calm and uninvolved in the most trying circumstances:
reporting for the Hendon and Finchley Times with the local MP, Margaret
Thatcher, bursting into the office; broadcasting from the M1 with the
wreckage of the Kegworth air disaster strewn in front of him; covering
wars in Northern Ireland, Kuwait, Iraq and the Balkans alongside the
likes of Kate Adie. "You see a lot of distressing things, whether that's
a war zone or a murder scene, but I have always found it relatively easy
to be dispassionate."
needed that skill most when sent on a story in Fulham in 1999. "There
was a rumour that Jill Dando had been in some sort of accident. The area
was taped off. There were detectives walking up from the house who told
us to ring the press bureau. I said, 'Look, I know Jill.' We were
friends. She used to called me Clarenzio. They said, 'She's dead, I'm
afraid.' It was dreadful." But he still filed reports from the scene.
"You just have to get on with it."
breakfast TV and the odd Six O'Clock News – "which nobody remembers" –
but by the time he left the BBC in 2005, his career had reached a
plateau. "I felt I had more to offer." Recruited by the Cabinet Office
to run the Media Monitoring Unit, he had a hard first week. "The Monday
was the G8 at Gleneagles. I was just about getting my head round the job
on Tuesday, then Wednesday we won the Olympics. Thursday was 7/7." When
the Foreign Office sent him to assist the McCanns – as he insists it
would have helped any family in that situation – he asked difficult
questions. "I was assured that from the perspective of the British
authorities, this was a rare case of stranger abduction."
left their very young children alone in a
holiday apartment while they went to a
tapas bar. He doesn't duck that, even if the response has been smoothed
by repetition. "They made a mistake at the time; they weren't with her
when it happened. They will always regret that, God forbid, possibly for
the rest of their lives."
terms, he says, Madeleine was "a perfect storm: her age, her appearance,
the location, the parents..." Columnists wrote about "people like us".
Picture editors loved Kate, to an extraordinary degree. "It would be sad
if it wasn't laughable: Kate was finding herself in Nuts or whatever
lads' magazine's top 10. You think, 'This is ridiculous.' But they can't
help how they look."
There's no truth, then, in the
report that he tried to get Kate to be photographed in a swimsuit?
"Utter bollocks." Gerry suggested it
without realising the
implications, he says, and was then persuaded otherwise. "A good example
of facts being distorted. Completely, 180-degree wrong."
had a home in Bath with his wife and children, two girls and a boy who
were aged 10, eight and one at the time. Why go back to Portugal? "We
had become friends. There was an emotional drive. I felt they had been
the victims of a heinous crime and very badly wronged in the way stories
was also his response as a father. "I have never had to analyse it like
this before ... but yes, this was every parent's nightmare, my own
included." Didn't he miss his own children? "At night, when I had a few
hours to myself, you did miss them more acutely, perhaps, than if it had
been a job of a different nature."
days Mitchell gets 40 per cent of his former salary as a retainer from
the Find Madeleine Fund. Kate is said by relatives to spend hours with
the files at home in Rothley, Leicestershire, while her twins are at
nursery. Gerry, devotes evenings to the case, after days as a consultant
at Glenfield Hospital.
the files have not revealed any substantial new leads," says Mitchell.
"And sadly, they have confirmed a lot of what Kate and Gerry feared:
that things haven't been done properly in certain areas, and certain
things hadn't been followed up." The detective agencies they hired are
no longer on the case. Have a dozen British former detectives and
security service agents been employed instead, as reported? "I can't go
into details, because the investigators don't wish me to. The
investigation is on a smaller scale, but just as relevant."
still a huge amount of material to work through: such as more than 3,000
"psychic tip-offs. Any verifiable fact in them – and some are very
detailed – has to be checked".
Meanwhile, his new life involves media training for corporations as well
as advising people such as the mother of Scarlett Keeling, who was
murdered in Goa, and the Mizens. "I do it pro bono, for free." Why?
"Because these people came to me in the direst of situations, with their
children dead. I'm not going to say no. Nor am I going to say, 'I'm
sorry about your loss. Here's my fee.'" Others would. "It's a
non-starter. I am a decent, caring human being. If I can help them, I
isn't he using this free work to build the kind of reputation that made
him attractive to Freud? "Not deliberately so. Honestly." Others have
compared the new Clarence Mitchell to a more obviously compassionate Max
Clifford, with whom he says he gets on well. "People are entitled to
their point of view," he says, as calmly as he says everything, on and
off camera. "But I am doing this for what I believe to be honest,
genuine, compassionate reasons."
making of a media expert
to Madeleine, and beyond
Born and educated in north-west London. Tries working in a bank after
school but hates it.
Joins Hendon and Finchley Times as a trainee reporter, which
brings him into contact with the local MP, Margaret Thatcher. "To see
the Prime Minister sweep into the office with Special Branch while you
are writing up the latest golden wedding is quite an experience."
Shift work on Sunday Express.
Joins the BBC in Sheffield as a radio reporter, before going on to
television in Leeds with Look North.
Breakfast News in London, then "fireman" sent where needed,
including extensive war reporting.
Made a BBC News presenter.
Joins Civil Service as director of Downing St Media Monitoring Unit.
Sent to Portugal to help with press attention in the McCann case.
September 2007 Quits the Civil Service to become spokesman for McCanns.
Extends help to other families.