Why Madeleine McCann won’t ever be found: The effects of media trials on justice

Abeer Khan
Abeer Khan
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The story is intriguing, no doubt. A six-year-old girl who has been missing for over a decade has become a premise for profitable storytelling around the globe. But she is not the first missing child, even if hers is a story that evokes somewhat exceptional mystery and interest. What makes Madeleine McCann’s story the media phenomenon it has become? What effects does that have on real-world justice for Madeline McCann, the suspects, and other criminal cases tried by the media before reaching any court?

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Media trials and the sensationalizing of cases can influence trials in the courtroom for better or (far more often) for worse. The spectacle of trial by media can be understood and better critiqued using examples of real-world cases in India and the US, where being the two largest democracies in the world, both the media and the judiciary make bold claims of independence and autonomy.

In a time when media trials are prevalent, the democratic judicial principle of an accused being innocent until proven guilty has gone entirely out the window. This means that the judicial process becomes susceptible to compromise at the very outset. The raging rhetoric in the media begins to shape concrete public opinion – often one-sided or highly polarized, but seldom balanced – which in turn seeps into what should rightfully be an objective decision-making process confined to the expertise of courts and free from outside influence.

What happens when what should happen does not? And how can media trials be explained through tangible concepts of media and law?

Any effect that media trials have on real-world justice is founded on the fundamental premise that media messages can reach the general masses much more promptly and in a far more understandable manner than any information from a trial in a judicial court ever will. Whichever message reaches first has a natural head-start to forming public opinion, and in cases like the suicide of Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput, fueling public outrage.

Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput speaks during a press conference to promote his upcoming movie “Raabta” in Ahmadabad, India, on May 30, 2017. (AP)
Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput speaks during a press conference to promote his upcoming movie “Raabta” in Ahmadabad, India, on May 30, 2017. (AP)

In June 2020, Rajput was found dead at his apartment in Mumbai. A few days later, his father filed a case against his co-actor and then partner, Rhea Chakraborty, for abetting his suicide. What followed was a national campaign, headed by media channels, to vilify her. Chakraborty faced acute misogyny, accusations of drugging and abusing her deceased partner, and newsrooms nationwide all but sentenced her for the purported crimes.

Mortuary workers, security guards, distant family members, drivers – anyone even remotely connected to the case was springing up with false claims about knowing what happened to get their share of the limelight. This was only possible because journalists failed to do their job and ran stories without checking them for accuracy. Even after the post-mortem report and authorities concluded that the death was caused by asphyxia due to hanging, many social media accounts and some news channels continued to milk the narrative that there was foul play involved, including faux investigations discussing drug abuse, black magic or even the alleged reincarnation of the actor. A tragic incident that could have been a mental health discussion became a national tabloid-like drama of falsehood and toxic vilification.

In August 2020, Rhea Chakraborty filed a case with the Supreme Court, lamenting her unfair media trial and requesting action against media reports that had “blown out of proportion” surrounding Sushant Singh Rajput’s death investigations.

While the media’s role as a fourth pillar of democracy is essential in some ways to the judiciary, certain regulations stipulated by the Press Council of India can prevent the media from running parallel trials in newsrooms when reporting on judicial cases. Media is not only allowed to but must fulfill the responsibility of reporting facts, details of proceedings, and even the public’s opinion about a judgement. However, the trick is to keep in mind that any piece of editorialized information that goes out will potentially affect the verdict.

The Delhi High Court said, “media tries to influence judges by inadvertently exerting a strain” in a statement regarding a Netflix documentary about the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, which shocked the nation and called for legal revisions for crimes involving sexual violence.

However, media trials are not always on the wrong side of justice. The story of George Floyd’s murder due to police brutality in the US and the journey of how the officers were incriminated shows that media trials can help expedite justice, especially in cases involving victims from marginalized and underrepresented communities.

Protesters face off with police outside the White House in Washington, DC, early on May 30, 2020 during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd. (AFP)
Protesters face off with police outside the White House in Washington, DC, early on May 30, 2020 during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd. (AFP)

Police killed Floyd while in custody on May 25, 2020. Three Minneapolis police officers arrested the 46-year-old black man after receiving a call from a convenience store employee alleging that Floyd had used a counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes. About seventeen minutes later, Floyd was lying dead after being pinned on the ground by the police officers, despite his desperate calls for help and repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” One of the things that helped George Floyd get timely justice was the footage shot by bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s murder. Videos of his last moments took the media by storm, and the gross wrongdoing became difficult for the judiciary to ignore.

Where this discourse leaves the case of Madeleine McCann is hard to say. It has been over one week since police concluded a three-day search of a reservoir in southern Portugal for remains of McCann. The operation was initiated at the request of German authorities, who have maintained since 2020 that they are convinced Madeleine McCann is dead. The Portuguese police said material collected in the search will be handed over to German authorities.

Portuguese and German police search teams and vehicles are seen at the site of a remote reservoir near the area where British girl Madeleine McCann went missing in the Portuguese Algarve in May 2007, in Silves, Portugal, on May 24, 2023. (Reuters)
Portuguese and German police search teams and vehicles are seen at the site of a remote reservoir near the area where British girl Madeleine McCann went missing in the Portuguese Algarve in May 2007, in Silves, Portugal, on May 24, 2023. (Reuters)

However, authorities made no statements about what was found or the search’s explicit aim. It is hard to fathom what authorities hope to find 16 years later by combing the area near where the toddler went missing, so loopholes are plenty, making the investigation seem wishy-washy at best.

Is it better to work towards moving on rather than keeping feeble, painful hope alive? Perhaps yes, especially since the on-again, off-again investigation has become less about due diligence and more about the spectacle of sensationalism. There is plenty to learn about how media trials affect real-world justice. These examples teach media houses precisely what to do when covering unsolved crime cases – show restraint, stick to the facts, and speak truth to power. While media is an essential pillar of democracy, it must remain cautious of not stepping onto any of the other pillars. Its precarious responsibility lies in the fact that media can catalyze the judicial process and affect legal verdicts, so the focus should be on reporting the facts instead of running parallel trials in newsrooms.

Read more:

Prosecutors: Items discovered in Madeleine McCann search in Portugal to be examined

Search for Madeleine McCann case concludes at Portugal dam

Explained: The latest in Madeleine McCann case

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