BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. I happened to be in London this week, where there seemed to be exactly one story. It's that of a missing four-year-old girl named Madeleine McCann. She disappeared from a rented vacation villa in Portugal, according to her parents, as they dined in a nearby restaurant. This was the ultimate little-blond-girl-goes-missing story, and the McCanns became overnight media stars - sympathetic and ubiquitous.
Then, in a terrible and terribly familiar twist, the parents became suspects. Kate and Gerry McCann, two photogenic young doctors, were suddenly under suspicion by Portuguese police, and the British media went into a feeding frenzy. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Police in Portugal investigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann say they expect to announce more developments in the next few days. MALE CORRESPONDENT: At first it was fellow holiday-makers, hotel staff and local police who led the desperate hunt for Madeleine. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: There are tiny traces of a little girl, but the DNA could provide a major breakthrough for Portuguese police. MALE CORRESPONDENT: With Gerry and Kate McCann both now formal suspects in the case, it's led to questions about whether the many- [OVERTALK] MALE CORRESPONDENT: Detectives are expected to call at the McCann's home today or later this week. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BOB GARFIELD: Matt Wells is the media editor at The Guardian, a newspaper in London. He says he has never seen anything like the coverage of Maddie McCann's disappearance. MATT WELLS: In every newspaper, it's on every news bulletin, it's on every rolling news network and it's on every Internet news site. It's the top story, it's the next story, it's the analysis, it's the comment. It's all pervasive. BOB GARFIELD: Well, I must say I've lived through Scott and Laci Peterson, I've lived through the Kennedy rape accusations, and, of course, I've lived through O.J., and I've never seen such full immersion, such wall-to-wall coverage. MATT WELLS: Listeners in the U.S. who are familiar with the coverage of those sorts of cases will have a sense, but only a sense, I guess, of what this is like. BOB GARFIELD: Well, it's certainly all Maddie all the time, including - and I can scarcely believe these words are tumbling through my lips - the BBC. MATT WELLS: The BBC is, like all the other broadcasters, going to town on this story. Anchors from their main news shows are in Portugal. They're also in the town in England, the village in England where the family is from. It leads the news bulletins. It's on the BBC's rolling news network all the time, although I have to say their coverage is not as intense as their main commercial rival Sky News, who, in most of the past few days, have talked of nothing else - and I mean nothing else. They're the Madeleine McCann channel. I've only ever seen that for national crisis, war, outbreaks of disease, that kind of thing. I've never seen it for a human interest story, and certainly a human interest story in which there are very few facts.
And I'm just [LAUGHS], you know, from a professional point of view, astonished at how both the BBC and Sky News and everybody is able to devote the level of coverage to a story about which they know so little. BOB GARFIELD: We're speaking on Wednesday. A couple of days ago, there was a BBC radio program in which the host actually polled listeners on what they thought about the case, as if they could possibly have [LAUGHS] any insight whatsoever. MATT WELLS: That was one very interesting development. One of their radio stations, which does a lot of phone-in stuff, asked listeners in their main morning phone-in show, do you support the McCanns or not? In my view, that's one step removed from saying, do you think they're guilty or not?
And if this was a criminal case in England, media organizations just wouldn't be allowed to ask that question because of the fairly restrictive contempt-of-court laws here. You're not allowed to speculate on someone's innocence or guilt when a case is active. That's unlike, of course, in America, when you can say [LAUGHS] whatever you like. That's one of the astonishing aspects of it, that it got to that stage where we were speculating on a license-fee funded, publicly funded radio network. BOB GARFIELD: How has your paper, The Guardian, behaved so far? Has it acquitted itself with dignity? MATT WELLS: We've not gone as mad on it as other papers have done, but we've been covering it every day, too. We have our reporters in Portugal and in Leicestershire as well, and there's no one who's not covering this. BOB GARFIELD: But you've stayed on the right side of lurid? MATT WELLS: Well, I think so. You know, I [LAUGHS] don't think any of The Guardian's coverage - and I think generally most of the quality papers, the coverage hasn't been as lurid as some of the other newspapers. The London Evening Standard, for example, the other day said that a mass of Maddie's hair had been found in the back of a hire car, where, in fact, a few hairs had been found.
We've tried not to exaggerate the level of the evidence. But, hey, no, we've been reporting it in depth, so I'm not claiming any kind of special status for The Guardian on this one, Bob. BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Now, significant or no, it's undeniably a compelling story. It's a compelling crime story. Even if the stakes are no larger than this particular family's drama, does that mean it should not get the coverage that people are thirsting for? MATT WELLS: I clearly think it should be covered, but I think we've had a lot of perspective. Listen, we have a new prime minister in this country who has significant and serious decisions to take over many things - for example, our role in Iraq. This week we've seen General Petraeus's report being relegated down the news bulletins. These things are much more important than this terrible case, tragic though it is.
And, you know, I find it very difficult to grasp why it is that the typically reserved and non-judgmental and unsensational British public seems to have collectively taken leave of its senses over this story. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Matt. Thank you so much for joining us. MATT WELLS: You're welcome, Bob. Pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Matt Wells is the media editor at The Guardian newspaper in London.