Be cautious of new McCann ‘evidence’ until charges are made, Professor warns

Thu 11 June, 2020
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As a new suspect comes to light in the prolific Madeleine McCann case, an academic from the University of Bedfordshire has advised the media mustn’t get ahead of itself as speculation can and has caused more harm than good.

Previously the BBC’s Home Affairs Correspondent for 13 years, award-winning former journalist, Jon Silverman, joined the University in 2007 as Professor of Media and Criminal Justice with the School of Culture and Communications – the same year that three-year-old Madeleine went missing.

Having experienced several high profile cases whilst working for the BBC between 1989 and 2002, this event struck a chord with Silverman as he’d worked on a similar case in the 90s, which saw the disappearance of 21 month old toddler, Ben Needham, who vanished on the Greek island of Kos in 1991 and has – to this day – never been found.

Commenting on why the narrative of cases like these continue to appeal to audiences of UK and international media, Silverman said: “These stories resonate very strongly with the public, particularly parents, and go through similar patterns of response – first shock and intense sympathy for the parents; then anger at the kidnapper or abductor; then blame for the parents who are deemed irresponsible for allowing the child to be taken; and, finally, criticism of the perceived incompetence of the police and other authorities. It’s a template which you can overlay onto the McCann case as well.”

Described by the Telegraph as the ‘most heavily reported missing person case in modern history’, Silverman says that the media’s coverage of this and other similar cases is also academically interesting, partly due to the influence of aesthetics: “Madeleine McCann is a highly photogenic child – blonde and angelic looking – and it has been suggested that if she had been black or Asian, the tabloids would not have shown the same sustained level of interest.”

In 2002, Silverman co-wrote the book, ‘Innocence Betrayed: Paedophilia, the Media and Society’, prompted by the abduction and murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne – a white, blonde child wearing a gingham shirt at the time she was taken. The book explores the subsequent ‘naming and shaming’ media campaign against sex offenders launched by the News of the World which experts believe did more harm than good. Similarly, it can be said that highly inaccurate media speculation over the years has not helped the McCann inquiry.

Professor Jon Silverman & his 2002 book

Discussing the significance of the latest evidence on BBC Radio earlier this month, Silverman said: “We can speculate for as long as we like – and goodness knows over 13 years there have been so many sightings and tip-offs and false leads – but just because this man is a convicted sex offender and committed burglaries in the Algarve area around the time that she was taken, and the fact that he reportedly said something in a bar in Germany in 2017 which suggested he had some intimate knowledge of Madeleine's disappearance, all these things still remain circumstantial until proven otherwise.

“This is the first time in these 13 long years that the focus has been on one specific individual and this man’s criminal profile certainly matches the sort of person who is thought to have taken Madeleine McCann, so all these circumstantial facts give added strength to the case.

“But I should say that we need to be cautious because there is clearly no conclusive forensic scientific or DNA evidence that places Madeleine in either of his two vehicles that we've heard about, otherwise this man – Christian B – would have already been charged.

“The difference between the approach taken by Scotland Yard and the German prosecutor is striking. For the German authorities to say that they have evidence that Madeleine is dead whilst also admitting that they do not have a body and may not be able to charge the suspect, is both very curious and unusual, and so has re-awakened media interest in a case which may never be solved.”

When asked why a conclusion is so important for the McCann family, whether or not someone is charged and convicted, Silverman said: “While it's impossible for most of us to put ourselves in the position of Kate and Gerry McCann, the not knowing aspect of this case must be absolutely appalling and every time the story resurfaces in the media it raises hope and then triggers the awful realisation that their child may be dead, so there's all sorts of emotional aspects to this. 

“It's not just a journalist’s story, it’s an extraordinary human tragedy, whatever we discover in the end.”

Professor Jon Silverman can be found tweeting via @SilvermanJon. Further information about journalism and media courses available with the School of Culture and Communications can be viewed here: www.beds.ac.uk/howtoapply/departments/culture-and-communications/courses/

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