Why Sky's Martin Brunt was right to investigate the story of McCann Twitter 'troll' Brenda Leyland
When Martin Brunt, the Sky crime correspondent, interviewed Brenda Leyland about her nearly 5,000 tweets which formed part of a vitriolic campaign against the parents of missing toddler Madeleine McCann, she declared that she was doing nothing illegal.
After her death we may never know, but what we are sure of is the police had identified Leyland as being part of an online trolling campaign against Kate and Gerry McCann and were investigating.
Sky's Martin Brunt confronting Brenda Leyland
Brunt, the foremost crime correspondent in broadcasting with an enviable contacts book, discovered that Leyland was behind the anti-McCann Twitter account @sweepyface and confronted her on camera and later interviewed her in her own home.
In his report, Brunt did not identify Leyland, nor give out her address, which was uncomfortably close to the McCanns; he pixillated out her car registration number and put her Twitter campaign in context by saying it was by no means the worst.
When he spoke to her off camera he and Leyland had a straightforward interview where she told him she had questions for the McCanns about their behaviour and believed the British press was failing in its job. She hoped that she had not broken the law.
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Up until Leyland was found dead in a hotel in Leicester on Saturday, Sky and Brunt had received few complaints about the story, except a small number from the anti-McCann faction. Brunt had legitimately followed the path of the story, the catalyst being a BBC interview with Gerry McCann in which he said online trolls should be investigated and charged by police. Brunt discovered the extent of police inquiries and the identity of @sweepyface and acted appropriately after following guidelines laid down by Sky’s lawyers.
Now, of course, Brunt is the centre of the story. He is getting the abuse, complaints have been made to Ofcom and there is a Facebook campaign to get him sacked. Sky is saying very little and Brunt has been told to keep quiet and keep his head down.
Also saying nothing is Gerry McCann, who had a lot to say about responsible journalism and online abuse campaigns after he won a £55,000 libel victory against The Sunday Times.
There is no doubt that the McCanns have been repeated victims of poor and shoddy journalism following the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine in Portugal, but in his interview Mr McCann appeared to suggest that the media had no right to even question him or his wife about the night their little girl went missing.
He is wrong. The media is given information; reporters are tasked with finding out if that information is right or wrong. If the story does not stand up it should be binned, not written as rumour, or something that has appeared online but slapped on the untrue spike. But it should be investigated.
So where does Gerry McCann stand on the Sky/Brunt report? The story was true, it was legitimate and proportional but tragically a woman, who sent almost 5,000 tweets in a year about the McCanns, is now dead. Does he believe that the media had no right to discover who were the online abusers potentially breaking the law by harassing his family?
McCann has a legitimate view in calling for the full implementation of media regulation as suggested by Lord Leveson and there are many people in and out of the media industry who believe that Ipso, the industry’s complaints board, is the Press Complaints Commission in another guise. But we cannot have a media that does not investigate and hold to account. That would be the death of a free press.
Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government