McCanns’ win lesson to the tabloids?

The couple at the centre of a European missing persons case have won a substantial libel suit against two leading British newspapers.

Kate and Gerry McCann, both doctors, are the parents of Madelaine McCann, the three-year-old girl who disappeared from the couple’s holiday flat in the Portugese resort town of Praia da Luz in May 2007.

The case has confounded investigators. Initial reports suggested Madelaine had been taken from the apartment during the evening while her parents ate supper at a tapas bar down the road.

Then in September 2007 the Portugese police announced that Gerry and Kate were suspects in the disappearance. At that point the British tabloid press went into a frenzy. All sorts of weird stories began to emerge, including rumours that the McCann’s had killed the child and disposed of her body.

The story was weird too because the McCann’s had gone to the media and launched a high profile campaign to have their missing daughter returned.

The English tabloids reported all the rumours in front page splash stories and the McCann’s sued.

A court has ordered the Express and the Daily Star newspapers to publish an apology and pay an undisclosed sum (rumoured to be more than half a million dollars) to the couple.

It’s one thing to win a libel suit, it’s another to have suspicion of murder lifted.

There are parallels here with the famous “Dingo took my baby” story from Australia in 1980. In that case the child’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain, was chief suspect, she was tried and convicted, but then exonerated on appeal many years later.

In both cases the media portrayed the parents as weird potential killers who behaved in a bizarre fashion at the height of their grief.

We don’t do these stories very well. The cultural meme of “folk devils” is still strong and women who don’t fit the “nurture” mold are often vilified without justification.

There’s another interesting parallel the reported existence of DNA evidence in the form of blood in a car used by the couple. in the Chamberlain case the forensic investigation was flawed. In the McCann case the DNA match is not conclusive.

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