People of interest

It’s one piece of Portuguese law that, thanks to the publicity around a horrific private tragedy, is curiously well-known to followers of British news: “arguido” means “person of interest”. We know this because of the McCanns, who were declared arguido is relation to the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine. To be an arguido implies that one is suspected of involvement in a crime, but it’s some way short of being arrested or charged – and because it confers additional rights and protections on a person involved in an investigation, some individuals will apply to become arguido of their own volition.

In September 2007, though, almost no one in the UK knew what arguido meant. And rather than explaining the Portuguese legal system to its readers, the British tabloid press – freed from the contempt laws that would have restrained them in a domestic case – confected stories about the McCanns being responsible for their daughter’s disappearance. Kate McCann told the Leveson enquiry today: “Headlines [that claimed the McCanns had killed their daughter] became very prominent once we were declared arguido.” But by then, the British tabloids had decided for themselves that the McCanns were people of interest – not by any formal process, but according to the strange and hideous norms by which some parts of the press operate.

As the range of witnesses to the Leveson enquiry has shown, you can become a tabloid arguido in any number of ways. You could be famous for acting, like Steve Coogan or Hugh Grant. You could be carrying the child of a person famous for acting – like the mother of Hugh Grant’s child, who has been besieged by paparazzi and harassed by journalists according to the actor’s testimony. You could be the victim of an appalling crime, like murdered schoolgirl Diane Watson, who was made the subject of numerous inaccurate and unpleasant reports, causing terrible distress to her family. Or you could be questioned about a crime you had no involvement with, as Christopher Jeffries was.

And being arguido to the tabloids doesn’t give you any protections at all: instead, it puts you in a category where any civilised standards of tact and truthfulness about you can be set on fire in pursuit of a story.Your home will be surrounded by photographers, your acquaintances and colleagues will be pestered for potentially incriminating snips of information, your voicemail will be hacked, the private diaries of your most intense grief will be published.

If you really want to cement your arguido status, you can criticise the press itself, as Hugh Grant did. It was astonishing to hear former News Of The World features editor Jules Stenson on Radio Four’s The Media Show today who, when challenged over the vituperative coverage given to Grant in the last few months, didn’t even attempt to deny that the actor had been singled out for attack. Instead, he presented the assault on his character as justifiable self-defence: “Hugh Grant was trying to put [the Mail On Sunday] out of business… They were angry and they’re passionate about their journalism.”

In Stenson’s tabloidese, being “passionate” about journalism doesn’t mean meticulously checking your sources and tracking your story: it means using any smear or intrusion available to take out an individual perceived as a threat. When popular journalism is barely more than a printed record of harassment, who – besides the guilty newspapers themselves – is going to defend the press’ freedom to be vile?

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011