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Society of Editors Website

The big stories of the past year

Chaired by: Kevin Marsh, BBC College of Journalism
Robert Peston, BBC Business Editor - the credit crunch
Clarence Mitchell, the McCanns story


News Stories of the last year- highlights or lowlights?

Report by Nicola Curtis and Gemma Casey
11 November 2008

The BBC's Business Editor Robert Peston and the McCann family spokesman Clarence Mitchell have spoken about the reporting of the two biggest news stories of the year; the credit crunch and the disappearance of Madeleine.

When asked whether the BBC was at fault over the collpase [sic] of Northern Rock, Mr Peston said: "That is total baloney."

After the emergence of the credit crisis rolling story, Robert Peston has become one of the most recognisable faces in the media, even attracting criticism for making the crisis worse. However, he was keen to defend the media's role in reporting the financial meltdown. He said that newspapers were not responsible for the economic mess we are in the midst of, but the "profoundly influential" nature of the media meant that it was more than an observer. He added: "I would like to think I have that kind of power but believe me I do not! What was happening was seismically important, but the media cannot take all the credit."

Despite criticisms of fueling the fear surrounding the economic situation, Mr Peston said: "One thing I regret is that I did not shout louder about it." He said: "When you look beneath the bonnet of this story, all is not what it seems."

In the reporting of the credit crunch, Mr Peston felt that some journalists were ill equiped to report on it accurately because of a lack of knowledge as to how the economy works.


Clarence Mitchell reflected on the role the media played in the immediate aftermath of Madeleine's disappearance and the long term lessons journalists must draw from the McCann's story. He described it as: "the largest human interest story in the last decade and an exceptional story beyond exception."

The British press in Portugal were described as "lazy". When they came up against the stone wall of the Portugese [sic] police they resorted to sitting in the local bar which became the newsroom. Allegations in the Portugese [sic] press became hard fact in British media, he said. This collective effect influenced public opinion in the wrong way. He added: "We are grateful to the media when it is fair and accurate, but when it is not we will draw the line reluctantly."

Since Madeleine's disappearance, he said 108 articles printed in the Express Group newspapers had been "grossly defamatory" and action was taken not to secure funds but to safeguard Kate and Gerry's good name. He said: "This story developed a life of its own and they felt a line had to be drawn."

Mr Mitchell said: "The case is still very much ongoing. The media are important partners in the search for Madeleine but we want fair and accurate reporting. We will engage with the media when it will be useful to the investigation."

The McCanns are working through the 30,000 Portugese [sic] police files privately in an attempt to discover new leads. Mr Mitchell said: "This story has the capacity to flare up at any given moment."

Blogs were crucial to both stories, changing the dynamics of the way they were broken and reported. Robert Peston's blog has become almost as famous as him, breaking the story of the financial crisis of Northern Rock before it was announced on the news.


The benefit of blogging, according to Mr Peston is : "You can get stuff out quickly and can always put a great deal of detail there. It reinforces your authority on a story and the comments people leave are incredibly valuable because they get you thinking about the story in a different way."

The McCann family utilised the internet immediately in the search for their missing daughter. Mr Mitchell said: "The internet has played a fundamental part in widening messages and debates. The internet gave the story media legs." However, there was to be a sting in the tale of this internet story. Blogs and forums refered [sic] to by Mr Mitchell as "hostile and negative" meant that the backlash towards the McCanns had reached the online world. He said: "The latter day lynch mob has gone digital."

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