After Madeleine, will media life in Portugal ever be the same?

The disappearance of Madeleine McCann is set to go down in history as a groundbreaking event in Portugal.

Chief Inspector Olegário Sousa and his counterparts at the Polícia Judiciária have come on in leaps and bounds since the first chaotic press conferences given in the first days after Madeleine went missing.

Arriving two hours late for his international press debut address did not help his cause with the increasingly restless British media. And when questions and answers in Portuguese dominated the conference, insult was added to injury and his popularity rating was never going to be high.

Television cameramen almost came to blows on a couple of occasions as the chaos persisted at the Portimão town hall, the improvised setting of the initial press conferences.

Moving the venue of the conferences to the newly built and more spacious Portimão Arena was a stroke of genius, and in hindsight probably averted what could have resulted in an embarrassing skirmish between reporters.

Tabloids were silently being applauded by their broadsheet counterparts by saying what they could not when using headlines such as ‘Clueless’and ‘Not a clue’to describe the progress and manner in which Portuguese police investigations were being conducted.

All the while, local police still seemed intent on irritating the British press by launching what many have since indicated was a deliberate campaign to misinform.

Whether this lack of co-operation was orchestrated in an attempt to ‘play it safe’or whether it was based on the fact that important information had to be withheld due to existing laws, the outcome has left a question mark over Portugal’s ability to act in an emergency, combined with the preference for status quo to avoid change.

But British reporters were not alone in their need to verify information from ‘police sources”, judging by some of the inaccurate reporting and endless speculation in the Portuguese press.

Meanwhile, police handling of the affair grabbed interest and raised concerns at the highest level. The Prime Minister reportedly called in his very best spin doctors to assist in giving local police a crash course in press relations.

This appears to have resulted in a hurried, albeit belated, revision of police modus operandi when dealing with the foreign press.

Ch Insp Sousa (or Dr Sousa, as he is addressed by Portuguese media) has since climbed the popularity ratings to an extent that some British reporters are contemplating staging a dinner in his honour once the dust has settled in the reporting of this case.

Whether or not the UK media has enforced changes here in Portugal is undeniable, the real question is whether these changes will be permanent among the 1,300 detectives who are presently in the service of the Polícia Judiciária.

The Portuguese press, sceptical by nature, generally appear resigned to the fact that the iron curtain has been lifted only momentarily, and it will come crashing down once Britain and the world have moved their gaze away from Portugal. But there are those who have sworn to knock harder at the police’s door in the future, taking advantage of the dents caused by the UK media’s persistent haggling for information and leads.

Consensus is, while this has been a story that has stirred emotions the world over, it has admittedly been enjoyable to report.

Ian Woods of Sky News explained that his efforts and those of his colleagues have been consistently praised by the McCann family, those close to them and viewers in general and commented that ‘it has been a good experience”.

Sky News by general accord set the trend in this case, with its reports peaking, as had been widely anticipated, the day Madeleine McCann turned four. Ian Woods had been joined by Jeremy Thompson, Kay Burley, Anna Botting and Amanda Walker, as the village of Luz became the hub of activity on 12 May.

A mass pull-out was in motion the following Monday when the biggest media frenzy to date was to take place and keep Portugal in the headlines.

A villa fewer than 30m from the crime scene and belonging to Robert Murat, the sole suspect in the case so far, was cordoned off as it emerged police had strong evidence pointing to his involvement in Madeleine’s disappearance.

But the biggest event of the coverage in this case was, ironically, not covered by all those who had initially been summoned to the Algarve. At least half a dozen top journalists had touched down in the UK that day, after agreeing with their bosses that the case could be covered from a distance due to the lack of progress by police and by the vocabulary drought that was keeping the story off the early pages.

Most organisations, perhaps fearful of missing another ‘Murat event”, have decided to keep the minimal required resources on the ground so long as the McCanns are in the Algarve, though this position will probably be reassessed at the end of the month.

To an outsider, one facet of the British media that stood out was their camaraderie and factual reporting, which seem to have been greatly assisted by their rapid adaptation to a strikingly different atmosphere to the one they would have been accustomed to back in Britain.

From day one, journalists, be they from the The Sun or The Times, would compare notes to ensure the stories they were filing for the next day were as accurate as possible.

Having worked closely with ‘Fleet Street’s finest’for more than a fortnight, it will be much easier to encourage aspiring reporters here to seek employment in the media business.

It was with great suspicion that these reporters were received when they arrived in the Algarve at the beginning of May.

While most of Portugal (and many in Britain, who will share the critical views of Simon Jenkins in The Guardian of 18 May) will still need convincing and find this statement peculiar, it nonetheless remains true to describe the group of journalists deployed to Luz village as honest, humane and excellent ambassadors for their profession and country.

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