The blunders of British media in the case of Madeleine McCann

Some of the British media is giving an image of the Portuguese police - and of the Portuguese people - as a lost Neanderthal tribe that survived the Stone Age and is still living in a remote corner of Europe, with its primitive traditions and culture. Other British journalists, reporting from Algarve, behave as if they were following a National Geographic expedition to study the not-so-long-ago-cannibal tribes in the deep jungles of New-Guinea.

Of course, they do it with the usual British refinement, putting a word here, a word there, an apparently simple question in the middle and, at the end, touching phrases like "Madeleine parents went to the Church to pray for her daughter and maybe, also for those trying to find her." Of course. With so much incompetence from the Portuguese police, only God and a miracle can take the investigation to a good end.

Let me remind that British police SPEND 13 DAYS SEARCHING FOR JESSICA CHAPMAM AND HOLLY WELLS AND THEY GOT NOTHING. Only after three members of the public found the bodies they were able to connect all the dots and arrest Ian Huntley, the Sohan Murder, on August 17. What a demonstration of incompetence, right?

One of the main points British journalists have been talking about is this “absurd” Portuguese law that forbidden police to give to the public details of ongoing investigations. It’s a law that exists in several other European countries – Holland has exactly the same law as we have. British media is talking about it as if it was something so primitive like executing convicted people by throwing them alive to a bonfire. British police, as far as I know, has the same modus operandi as Portuguese police. I never saw details of an ongoing investigation, in UK, coming to the public knowledge through a press conference, before the case is closed and the suspects arrested.

But British police has a couple of very good public relations officers that know how to entertain blood-thirsty tabloid journalists, willing to kill – or let someone be killed – to have a story that helps them to keep their jobs. Let me quote Mrs Ros Taylor, journalist at Guardian Unlimited, editor of the subscription paper review, the Wrap: “[…]In Britain, certainly, the voracious need of the media for new information has been a huge factor in the manner in which the police 'handle' such cases. During the Soham investigation, it was policy to offer some new piece of information to the mass of waiting reporters every day, in order somehow to take advantage of the huge coverage in investigating the possible whereabouts of the girls. The Portuguese police have not been conducting their investigation into Madeleine McCann's disappearance in this way.”

While the operation seems to have been flawed, she says, the value of appeals for a child's safe return is at best debatable.I know that British police makes a lot of high-profile, TV-prime-time oriented public appeals, in cases similar to this. And I wonder why they do it. Do British citizens with important information concerning a crime need to be almost coerced in going to the police and sharing that information? They don’t do it by their own initiative? Or is it part of that “circus” British police need to set up, in order to placate a pack of howling journalists, throwing them some old bones to chew?

When this case is closed – with a happy ending, I hope, from the bottom of my heart, as a father of two boys - and details are revealed, we will know that a lot of Portuguese citizens went to the police, in the days following the abduction of Madeleine, with information they though useful. Without the “debatable” public appeals, as Mrs Ros Taylor wrote.

The Portuguese law that orders a total silence during a crime investigation also allows police to release details of an ongoing investigation in case there is a situation of risk or danger to the public and the society [an armed criminal on the run, after killing somebody, and willing to kill again, for example] or when the release of those details is considered essential to help save or protect the life of somebody that is in danger.

This is not a case where the second exception can be used – in my opinion. The abductor can be a cool-blooded man, a professional, working for an international organized crime network; a sexual pervert, a paedophile that has done something similar before; or a woman with psychological problems, not able to have children (in Portugal, we had two or three cases like this, recently).If the abductor is an organized crime professional or a sexual pervert, he is on the run, trying to leave to country or hiding and waiting for a better opportunity to escape.

Don't forget the possibility that, one hour after the child disappeared, she could be already in Spain. And there is not only one road from Aldeia da Luz to Spain. There is one main road and five or six secondary roads. But if she is still in Portugal, in both situations above referred, the abductor should be taking a fundamental precaution: hiding carefully the child, because her face is well known of every Portuguese (and easy to spot, as we are a dark-haired people and blonde children like Madeleine are very rare).But he is not afraid of showing his face, or being seen by other people. Because he has been watching the news and he knows that police has no clue or tip about who he is, what colour is hair, how tall, if he is skinny or fat, long hair or bald.

Let's suppose he sees, on TV, a photo of him, or a sketch that is so close that allows people to recognize him. He will act immediately.He will do the first thing every criminal does, when he discovers police is on his trail, knows his identity, his name, his face, his last address: he will try to get rid of all evidence that can connect him to the crime. And the strongest evidence of the crime he committed, is having the little Madeleine with him. He could do it on two different ways. One, leaving the child, alive and well, near some place where somebody could find her quickly. I don’t want to mention the other possibility. But British police knows well this kind of possibility.

One last word about the list Daily Mirror published, concerning the ”Ten Blunders” Portuguese Police is responsible for, in this investigation. Police was slow to act, that’s a main idea. They were not called immediately, as Madeleine parents, friends and neighbours searched for her, during some time, in the surrounding area. When police arrived, they need to have some assurance that the child had been abducted. It’s a normal procedure, even for a “real” police, like the British.

“Child abductions and attempted abductions take place almost once a month in Cambridgeshire”, writes the Cambridge Evening News. I wonder if Cambridge police, once every month, cordons off main streets of access to the city and amass a huge force of officers, within one hour or two of receiving notice of a possible abduction.

Talking about amassing a huge force of officers let me tell you THAT AROUND 10% OF ALL PORTUGUESE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION OFFICERS (Polícia Judiciária, in Portuguese) WERE SENT TO ALGARVE, in less than 48 hours after the abduction. British journalists don’t see police everywhere and they report that fact as an evidence of incompetence. CI officers don’t use uniforms. They work in plainclothes. Both the national police (Polícia de Segurança Pública, in charge of patrolling the cities) and the militarized police (Guarda Nacional Republicana, that has responsibility on rural areas) have special CI units in every major precinct.Those men are working together with the 200 CID officers sent to the crime scene.

I hope that, in spite of the lousy job some of the British journalists are doing, in Algarve, Madeleine can be with their parents, soon. And I hope that, next time British journalists come to Portugal to report about something, they try to do some research, before. We, Portuguese, are no more living in caverns, or dressing with animal skins and hunting with arrows to have our daily meals. Next time, call some British expatriates living here and ask them those basic things that took you so long to discover, like the existence of a different legal framework in Portugal.Call the editor of "The Resident", an English language newspaper from Algarve. (There are five other English language publications in Portugal, you can find adresses and contacts here)

Talk with some Portuguese journalists. We can speak, we use computers (typewriters are a thing of the past..) we surf the Net and we even know how to send emails. Most of us, like me, have a good command of English, French and Spanish (I can also speak a little bit of Cantonese...)

Paulo Reis

PS – Forget to mention: our country is a member of the European Union


CORRECTION (May 28, 21:23): A reader called my attenction to some mistakes I did, in this opinion article, about Soham murders: "Your facts on the Soham/Huntly case aren't quite correct. The police found burned clothing and arrested Huntly on suspicion of kidnap and murder. The bodies were then found and more evidence and formal charges were brought. That isn't quite how you present it. Please check here:

The correction is made. My apologies for the mistake.

Paulo Reis


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