I had been following up on one particular erroneous report that initially appeared in the Daily Express written by David Pilditch in December of 2007. I mention initially because the article has since been removed from the paper’s website although a copy of it has propagated on the internet. What caught my eye about this report was the journalists name as I had only just come across it recently when reviewing the Leveson Inquiry data. For the inquiry David made a brief statement regarding his reporting and movements between Portugal and the UK during the first months of the Madeleine McCann case.
However the story that caught my attention that he wrote had some air of mystery behind it since it was referring to an unnamed waiter at the resort where Madeleine went missing that contradicted statements and to quote David’s source ‘ described by police as their trump card’. Those of us who have followed those early unsubstantiated press reports will already have alarm bells ringing not only because the source is unnamed but the alleged ‘trump card waiter’ also is unnamed – all the hallmarks of a PJ disinformation exercise. I do want to make it clear at this stage that I am not implicating Pilditch in any deliberate intent to mislead readers with this story, only that his sources were more than aware of who he was and how he could be useful spreading disinformation under the pretense of reporting what we know now with hindsight was something completely fabricated to unsettle Madeleine’s parents and cast doubt on their veracity.
Masquerading as a tantalising investigative lead that promised much more, the story when analysed can be seen for what it is; to simply place into the public mind that Kate on discovering Madeleine missing went to the apartment balcony and screamed towards the Tapas bar “They’ve taken her”. To see how effective this very precise turn of fictional events has been just google for yourself any combination of ‘what did Kate McCann scream from the balcony’. Many websites will advise the reader that there is no doubt that this took place and out of all the people in the area who were in earshot only two witnesses came forward to confirm that this took place. One witness is the mysterious unnamed waiter and the second is the curious Charlotte Pennington. Additionally other staff at the resort have actually contradicted both these statements saying this never happened and had Kate screamed as she is said to have done they would have heard her as would a great many others.
Let’s quickly reference what actually happened with Kate from the person who is in the best position to tell us, Kate herself. In her own words Kate describes what she did when she realised Madeleine was missing.
“I just basically and quickly whisked around the apartment, like 15 seconds. I don’t know why. In my head, I was just thinking if someone’s been in and she’s cowering somewhere I guess is why I did it. And then i just flew out through the back, down the stairs to the restaurant. And as soon as the table was in sight, I just started screaming, Madeleine is gone. And then they all jumped up and we heard a neighbour saying, she must be there, she must be there. But obviously I knew.”
No shouting or screaming from the balcony. The first anyone knew what Kate had discovered was when she arrives back in the Tapas bar.
Her shouting, screaming and accusation of ”they’ve taken her” simply did not happen. The question I immediately asked myself was why was it so important for this lie to get out into the press and be reported across the world. So important in fact that a witness was now being conjured up out of thin air to state it was true.
I couldn’t answer the question. What did it matter how Madeleine’s disappearance was first communicated beyond Kate; it seemed such a minor thing to go to the great lengths of the ensuing deceit. However the story was disseminated to the eager press and it appeared around December 18th 2007. You can speculate as much as I can as to why the disinformation was spread, the most likely reason as I see it would be to discredit not just the McCanns but their friends as well. In certain conspiracy circles on the internet this is exactly what has happened.
Take a moment at this point to read over the statement that Pilditch prepared for Leveson with special attention to point 31 in which he says;
“In the absence of these critical sources or official comment that could be attributed to a named police source or authority, I took steps to obtain the relevant information by the best available route. I approached news/TV reporters who had solid contacts within the Portuguese police for information on the investigation and relied on the services of Mr Mitchell as a third party spokesman for Drs McCann.”
David Pilditch for Leveson
Wanting to investigate this to what I believed was a natural conclusion I followed up not with David Pilditch of the Express but David Curry formerly of the Associated Papers group to get an insight into news gathering that was undertaken in Portugal when these lurid stories were coming out. I suspected that if Pilditch was getting frustrated with the lack of police updates and was going to local journalists then he wouldn’t be the only one. At the time of writing to David I hadn’t made my mind up what exactly I intended to do with the information but on the probability that I quoted him on the internet I asked him to keep things impersonal and not to use names. I also didn’t want him coming back at me accusing me of misquoting him. This is part of his reply that I believe is relevant to this particular topic. Note that I have added the emphasis where I think David makes important points;
“There were quite a few local journalists who claimed to have insider information on the investigation and even one who claimed that the investigating team in an attempt to get around the Portuguese secrecy laws were deliberately passing on information to Portuguese editors and researchers. I recall one very big Portuguese freelance journalist who was always around in a particular restaurant offering stories and titbits on the investigation. It seemed to be his wife/girlfriend and him operation, both were huge so it was no surprise you could always find them in the restaurant. I believe he was giving out the insider investigation information and she was attempting to get business from translating for the UK journalists. I never had any dealings with either of them. Word got around that his wife’s translations were not accurate and his information by the end of 2009 was fraudulent as I expect his insider sources were. He later got in touch trying to sell pictures related to the McCann investigation but these never existed. I heard his wife or girlfriend left him because of the fraud and his lies.
Makes interesting reading and it does appear that local journalists were taking advantage of Portuguese secrecy laws to earn extra money from selling bogus tip offs and perhaps disseminating disinformation for an increasingly desperate investigation team. It wouldn’t be the first time such stories made the papers in Europe and over in the UK. A costly libel case in the UK saw the Express Group having to pay the McCanns and their friends substantial amounts of money due to copy that eventually ended up in their papers.
Its hard to understand as to why the Express ever allowed themselves to be exposed like this from what can only be described as a fundamental lack of due diligence on their part. To refer to Pilditch again, maybe this comment for the Leveson Inquiry more than adequately explains how the exploitation came about;
“The disappearance of Madeleine McCann was an extraordinary and unique event. As a news reporter with 26 years, experience I approached my coverage of Madeleine’s disappearance exactly the same way as I did all the other major running news stories I have covered during that time. My aim was – and always is – to interview witnesses, check out information from sources, and speak to individuals, investigators and officials involved in an attempt to discover the truth. The aspect that made the case truly unusual was the wall of silence and lack of guidance to journalists from police both in Portugal and the UK”
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