By: CECÍLIA PIRES
COVERING A NEWS story with the international exposure of the Madeleine McCann case is one of those moments in a journalist’s career that will live with them forever.
Madeleine McCann’s disappearance led to an incredible influx of reporters to Portugal, and specifically to the little Algarvean village of Praia da Luz.
For some of them, this was their first time in the country but many had already been in Portugal and the Algarve on holidays or work assignments.
That is the case with Jane Hill from the BBC. “I had been in Lisbon and in the Algarve once, but only for a short holiday”, she told The Resident in a rare relaxed moment between live link-ups with the London based studio, from where BBC news updates are broadcasted worldwide.
This is the third time that Jane and her producer Sara Halspenny have been to the region since Madeleine’s disappearance on May 3. “We first arrived on May 4, travelling from London thinking that this was going to be one weekend’s coverage. Unfortunately, we were wrong.”
In May, Jane and Sara, who also had the misfortune of seeing her luggage disappear on that first trip, stayed for about 10 days in Praia da Luz. They came back for five days in August on the “100 days” mark for five days and, most recently, when Kate and Gerry McCann were named arguidos or suspects in the case. They have stayed on since then.
“It was absolute adrenaline. I remember the first night when we just slept for two hours,” said Jane Hill. “We had to be constantly up to date with information and always expecting that Madeleine was going to be found at any moment.”
The first professional, and cultural, shock came when they wanted to get information from the Portuguese police and they were met with absolute silence. “It was difficult to explain to our viewers, and also to the people at the office in the UK, that Portuguese police was not talking,” said Jane.
An astonished “What!?“ was the normal reaction.
“People in the UK are used to seeing the police explaining what is happening in these sort of investigations. It’s a way of stopping speculation,” she added. She remembers the first press conference she attended in Portimão as “one memorable moment!”.
In an effort to maintain contact with the police spokesman, there were always some members in the crew that speak Portuguese.
“The BBC normally hires native language speakers when covering news events abroad,” said producer Sara Halspenny .
Including locally-hired people, the BBC crew numbered almost 20 people in the first weeks, including reporter, producer and technical teams to provide material for the BBC News, BBC Online and BBC Radio.
The human side of the story was for both, journalist and producer, the most fascinating aspect of the case.
“Obviously, nobody has the moral authority to judge the parents for leaving the children alone,” said Jane Hill. “The way this all happened, with them changing from victims to suspects and all the tension around the case, it has been fascinating for those who follow it as a news coverage.”
According to Sara Halspenny the case has also had many challenging moments: “It has been a very strange case, with a lot of speculation.
“Our viewers expect us to stick with the facts but also with the updates. Sometimes it is difficult to explain them that a specific piece of new information may not be exactly as reported in the other media and that balance is a big challenge because you must keep the interest in your story,” she said.
One day after speaking with The Resident, on September 20, Sara went back to the UK and Jane stayed on for a couple of days more, “just in case”.
For the London based editors, the news coverage in the Algarve in the Madeleine case is slowing down and viewers are looking for news from Rothley in Leicestershire, where the McCanns’ home is. Both Sara and Jane will return to Portugal. “It is a beautiful country and with great climate. I definitely will visit again on holiday,” said Jane, adding that she “now understand better why so many British people come to live in here.”
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