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BBC 5 Live. Stephen Nolan interviews Clarence Mitchell, 07 January 2011

Original Source: BBC 5 Live:07 January 2011
Stephen Nolan interviews Clarence Mitchell BBC Radio 5live

With thanks to Nigel Moore for transcript

'Lively and fierce topical phone-in debate live from Manchester.'



By Nigel Moore

Stephen Nolan: Our last story, errr... of tonight. Nearly four years since their daughter disappeared, Kate and Gerry McCann have written a book about their ordeal. Tonight, I've been talking to the man charged with keeping the hunt for Maddie in the public eye. A hard job these days for Clarence Mitchell, the McCann's spokesman.

Clarence Mitchell: Well that's the fickle nature of the news media, isn't it, and the attention span of news desks. I mean the... the situation with Madeleine is still very much continuing and I'm still very much working on it on behalf of Kate and Gerry and all of the people who are... are helping them looking for Madeleine. Errm... I now work for a firm in London, Lewis PR, errm... but I'm still very much, as I say, active for Kate and Gerry and media enquiries still come in from around the world every day, in one form or another. Errr... All sorts of enquiries, interview requests, suggestions for features, sightings of possibly Madeleine. All sorts of things. They all have to either be passed on to the private investigators or we take decisions as to how we deal with them. So although I, and Madeleine, and the whole situation may not be in the news as much as it was, its still very active for me.

Stephen Nolan: And, of course, it... it's by the very nature of how news works that you're going to have that period that you've got to exploit, for want of a better word. You've got to get the maximum publicity because, you know, it will go away and it's gone now.

Clarence Mitchell: Well, I would argue that it hasn't gone completely. Kate and Gerry and myself are very grateful to the international news media, not just the UK, around the world for the continuing interest in Madeleine and whether she will be found. Errm... many, many families around the world of missing people have not had that luxury, if you like, where the media visit them at the start of their situation and then go away for good. That hasn't quite happened in Madeleine. I mean, look, here we are, nearly four years on, and still here we are discussing her on national radio. For that I'm grateful to the BBC and to you and your programme producers.

Stephen Nolan: How possible do you think it is though, Clarence, because you're a journalist at heart and you... you understand the amount of publicity you got; you understand that was exceptional. How... how possible is it that Madeleine is still alive given that level of publicity'

Clarence Mitchell: It is still possible that she is alive because there is no evidence to suggest that she isn't and that's the whole basis on which the investigation, the private investigation, continues to this day. In the absence of anything to suggest that she has been harmed or, as you suggest, has been killed, and there is no evidence to suggest that, then not only Kate and Gerry but everybody working with them will continue to keep going until an answer is found.

Stephen Nolan: Did the campaign cost a lot of money'

Clarence Mitchell: The campaign has cost a lot of money and continues to cost a lot of money and it's only happening because of the vast generosity of people around the world. If you remember an awful lot of money came in very quickly due to that publicity level that we were discussing. People responded and Kate and Gerry, everybody associated with them are immensely grateful to this day for every penny of it. It was all spent in terms of the investigation and running a private investigation in two countries, sometimes in several continents where if things have to be followed up around the world, is a very expensive business. All of that's been spent on various contracts, on various private agencies, errm... since... since it happened. At the moment, a small team led by Dave Edgar, a former RUC officer, errr... are... are still investigating and they are funded by the Find Madeleine Fund. We also, if you remember, had a number of settlements against certain newspaper groups, not least the Express, and all of the monies that were raised through that in settlement to Kate, Gerry and their friends went back into the fund and have been ploughed back into it. So the money is still there but it... it ebbs and flows as the investigative needs require.

Stephen Nolan: I want to talk to you, Clarence, about how the newspapers, errr... errr... dealt with Gerry and Kate in... in the context of what's happened in... in the Jo Yeates murder, as well, errr... of... of recent times. But before we do that, errm... what is your gut instinct because you've seen all the information and all the leads coming in' What's your gut instinct now as to what's happened' Are you comfortable sharing that'

Clarence Mitchell: My instinct has been, and remains, that there is a chance that she's alive and that's the basis we're all doing this. We wouldn't... if we thought there was no hope, you know, what would be the point of going on' But, because there is that absence of anything to suggest what's happened, it is just as logical to keep going. That's certainly what keeps Kate and Gerry going. Obviously, as her parents, they will maintain that. But for all of their supporters, people who are trying to help them, myself included, I honestly don't know what happened and therefore I've got to keep going, and as long as they want me to keep helping them then I'm happy to do that.

Stephen Nolan: Oh look, Kate and Gerry have recently said that they may need to face the fact that they may never face... they may never find their daughter.

Clarence Mitchell: Well, in their darker moments, of course, it was perfectly human, perfectly natural, to think that, but equally they're very rational and they think that until they know, they will keep ploughing all of their efforts into it. It's for Madeleine, it's their daughter for goodness sake and, of course, you or I would do the same, I would think. They've been very fortunate in having the resources and having the support because so many people have been kind enough to back them.

Stephen Nolan: When you get that world-wide attention, you see all different types of humanity because lots and lots of people are... are contacting you with information. And indeed some... some crazy people are contacting you with crazy information.

Clarence Mitchell: Anything that develops a profile, errr... as high as this case has, does attract all sorts of people. You're quite right. Errm... most of them, the vast majority, are well meaning and if information can be checked out and is credible or potentially credible then it goes through, not only to the British police, it goes through to the Portuguese police, and it goes through to the private investigators to be assessed; prioritised. It's very much a police operation. It's former British policemen that are working on it and then they will act upon it. Now amongst those, of course, there are the occasional slightly more lunatic things that are said.

Stephen Nolan: Did you get much nasty stuff'

Clarence Mitchell: There was a certain amount, errm...

Stephen Nolan: And what... what was that' People... people gloating that she'd been killed or what... what type of stuff was it'

Clarence Mitchell: I'm not going to talk about things that will lead inevitably, even now, to tabloid headlines about ghouls saying X, Y or Z. Some of the things that were said were awful, hurtful and, in cases where there was a direct threat, or any suggestion of anything happening, it went straight to the police and, in certain cases, which have never received publicity, police took action to stop it. To this day there is a very small but highly vocal minority online; the joys of the Internet. The Internet is a wonderful thing but it has its downside, as we all know. There is a very vocal but very small minority of people who believe Kate and Gerry were negligent and to this day they rail and rant against them. They are powerless, they know nothing and it... it's totally irrelevant. But we keep a... a weather eye on what they're saying and if action needs to be taken, in certain cases, then it is.

Stephen Nolan: So, share with me, what it is like for Kate and Gerry when there is this media onslaught suggesting that they might have killed their own children. What is that like'

Clarence Mitchell: Well... it... what do you think' It is just appalling. Errr... It is hurtful in the extreme but it... it is just dreadful. And, of course, what makes it all the more frustrating for them was that they knew that much of the coverage was based on either falsehoods, misunderstandings, deliberate leaks from certain quarters, that were then mistranslated, either through mistake or through deliberately. A story that would appear on a Monday in Portugal, saying something was possibly the case - which we knew wasn't true - would then become hardened up as fact on the Tuesday in the British press and then, on Wednesday, it would be repeated, 'as reported by the illustrious London paper X or Y'.

Stephen Nolan: And presumably, Clarence, you're on the phone to the editors of those newspapers warning them about legal threats. The lawyers are on the phone. You're on the phone trying to stop them doing this and continuing to do this'

Clarence Mitchell: I was trying to brief the reporters on the ground. There were three packs, if you like, of journalists at the height of it. There were journal... journalists on the ground in Praia da Luz - where we were - wanting... almost in tears some days, demanding lines because they were under pressure from their news desk to deliver a front page splash. And certain days we didn't have anything to say, or the police had asked us not to say anything, and I couldn't help them but the whole thing was a nonsense but it was driving sales of papers. I had a second group of journalists in Leicestershire, and in the UK, trying to get to Kate and Gerry's relatives, trying to dig up stories about them and what was going on back here. And then, I also had all the columnists who had... it had become, if you remember, almost the dinner party topic of choice, for a couple of summers. You know, obviously there were legitimate questions about child safety and, errr... parental responsibility. Absolutely fine for discussion, no problem with that at all. But occasionally the odd commentator would overstep the mark and say hurtful things. We would talk to journalists on the ground and we would talk to editors. It made a difference sometimes. Overall, in certain cases, it made not jot... not a jot of difference.

Stephen Nolan: I know... I know you'll understand the... the limitations as to how much we can talk about... about the... the Jo Yeates, errr... murder at the moment but there has been, errr... a... a man, Mr Jefferies, who has not been found guilty; is an innocent man in the eyes of the law. He's been released on bail. He has not been charged, and you will have seen the front page coverage on him, and he has not been found guilty. What are your thoughts'

Clarence Mitchell: I think, from a journalistic point of view, a lot of the coverage, in certain papers which I won't name, was... was very near the mark, in terms of breaching the Contempt of Court Act. The basic standard in law, quite rightly, is that any person is innocent until proven guilty and that is a matter for the police to prove.

Stephen Nolan: So, why is our media getting... doing this, and how are they getting away with it, Clarence'

Clarence Mitchell: There... there is this insatiable desire now to be first, to be fastest. The 24/7 machine, the monster that I used to work in, and you still work in, needs feeding all the time. And news desks, I'm not saying the BBC... the BBC, thank goodness, is one of the... is one of the most responsible organisations but some news desks almost fall over themselves and almost forget the law. At the end of the day, no matter what deadlines and yawning spaces of coverage you... you need to fill, there are still basic tenets of fairness and justice in this country and I'm very grateful they... they exist. They serve everybody's interest, not just the defendants but the journalists as well.

Stephen Nolan: It... it... it is his legal right that Mr. Jefferies is presumed to be innocent. That is his legal right. Do you feel sorry for him given the coverage that he has endured'

Clarence Mitchell: I feel sorry for anyone who finds themself, for whatever reason, at the centre of the media firestorm these days. It's always been bad. You don't... wouldn't want journalists on your door step, and that would have happened in the forties or the fifties, if necessary, but it was much more at a leisurely pace and was nothing like the onslaught that it is now with the competition.

Stephen Nolan: So, Clarence, what... what needs to happen' Does... does the PCC work, the Press Complaints Commission' Errr... Does there need to be a change of legislation' What needs to happen'

Clarence Mitchell: Well, we... we tried to resort to the PCC, at times, and they were very helpful in terms of logistical things, like keeping photographers away from the McCann's home. There were photographers camped outside their house, at the end of their drive, for six months. We even had paparazzi photographers, who normally do celebrity jobs in... in Los Angeles, turning up looking for them. And, you know, we had to patiently explain the McCanns were not celebrities, they didn't warrant this sort of intrusion and these photographers needed to be moved. Now the PCC were fantastic in that case, they were really helpful. But in terms of making the news desks and the editors in certain papers sit up and really listen, I'm afraid we had to, reluctantly, pick up the rather large hammer of defamation action and say, 'You will apologise, you will settle this, errr... on our terms, or we will go further'. And thankfully, after a lot of discussion - the Express group being the best example - finally agreed with us. Errm... But it was a reluctant action. You know, it shouldn't have got to that stage. But it wasn't of our making.

Stephen Nolan: It's interesting you talk about defamation because, of course, we see Nick Clegg very much pushing, errr... a bill and a proposal at the moment. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, obviously, in terms of relaxing, changing the defamation laws, errr... in... in this country.

Clarence Mitchell: Well, personal view, I... I think if anything there's... there's... there should be some argument for them to be slightly tightened up.

Stephen Nolan: Tightened up in the UK'

Clarence Mitchell: Well, because people... these days... or certainly there needs to be some sort of statutory reminder, not just to journalists but to all of your bloggers who are now online. These days a lot of people think, wrongly, that they can write what they like on a website. They are publishing that. It is a newspaper in all but name, an electronic version of it and the person responsible for distributing that material is legally responsible, certainly under British jurisdiction, for what they say in it.

Stephen Nolan: How on earth do you control the Internet' How does an Internet service provider know everything that's going onto their site and onto their channel' They don't, and that's the problem.

Clarence Mitchell: They don't.

Stephen Nolan: You can't control this beast.

Clarence Mitchell: This is... this is... this is the problem and this is what the politicians need to work out.

Stephen Nolan: So what would you do'

Clarence Mitchell: Well... hah... I... I would...

Stephen Nolan: Because you have been in the middle of one of the most high... prolific Internet campaigns that... that there will have been. So what would you do, given the experience you've had'

Clarence Mitchell: I would make it clear, if it's a... if it's a story around an... a crime. I would make it clear that the police, I think, from the first instance, have a remin... have a duty to remind journalists much more forcibly and clearly than they have done so far. In the Yeates case you mention, we saw the Attorney General having to come out and... and issue a warning around the coverage of Mr. Jefferies. Well, that's fine and absolutely proper but he should have done... that should have been done beforehand. A lot of young journalists are coming up through the ranks now who have not necessarily and this makes me sound like a bit of an old dinosaur but they have not necessarily come up through the... the traditional route of local newspapers, sitting in courts, watching juries, listening to verdicts. They don't necessarily know the finer points of defamation law, contempt of court, and I think a general reminder both in the journalistic industry, better training, errr... of the basic tenets of law and for the police, perhaps, in a high profile case, to sit down right at the outset and remind all of the covering media of their responsibilities. That won't stop online gossip. It won't stop tittle tattle. You're right. That can't be controlled. We watch what's said about Madeleine only when it enters the real world and goes beyond the keyboard and the screen in the middle of the night, then do we act. But in the... with responsible mainstream media I think there's a time for a reminder of some of the basics here that have... that have served journalism so well for generations.

Stephen Nolan: Just finally, Clarence, we... we understand that the McCanns obviously are releasing this book. Is this going to be, errm... a summary of everything we already know'

Clarence Mitchell: No, it's going to be Kate's story. Kate is writing it. Gerry, of course, is... is helping her but essentially it will be Kate's work. For... virtually from the first day it happened, errr... I was coming under pressure from various publishers, some of them very polite, but very persistent, saying they should write a book, or it should be ghost written. Kate and Gerry always said they didn't want to do that, they didn't feel the time was right, they had far more important things to do in the search for their daughter. They've now decided, and it's largely been driven by the need for funds for the... for the search to continue, that the time is right for the book to be written. Kate has been writing it for some months. She's probably finished about sixty to seventy thousand words and, errm... it's coming out on May 12th which is Madeleine's eighth birthday. It is designed to keep the search for her going. That is the simple reason.

Stephen Nolan: That's Clarence Mitchell talking to me earlier on tonight. That's it from the Nolan team for tonight. Thank you so much for your company. We'll be back tomorrow night, Saturday night, ten o'clock when you and I will talk about the big news stories of the day.


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