Sky News may face Ofcom inquiry after complaints over death of McCann ‘troll’

Brenda Leyland found dead after reporter confronts her over online criticism of parents of missing girl Madeleine McCann

The broadcaster Sky is facing a possible Ofcom investigation after a woman was found dead in a hotel just days after a news team confronted her on camera over suspected online attacks on Kate and Gerry McCann. Sky said it was “saddened” by her death.

The TV regulator said it was assessing 60 complaints about Sky News’s doorstepping of Brenda Leyland, mostly made after news of her death broke on Sunday.

Leicestershire police on Monday confirmed that the death of the 63-year-old mother in a Marriott hotel was not being treated as suspicious and announced that “officers acting on behalf of the coroner will look into the circumstances surrounding and prior to her unexpected death”.

According to a record of her now-deleted Twitter account, which appears to be genuine, Leyland, from the Leicestershire village of Burton Overy, had stated that she “hated” the McCanns, whose three-year-old daughter Madeleine went missing in Portugal in 2007.

She also said she believed Kate McCann “lies compulsively, every detail, every emotion is a lie”.

She posted using the pseudonym Sweepyface, and last November tweeted the BBC programme Crimewatch: “I think you and the Met know as millions of us do that the McCanns may be complicit in Madeleines fate, don’t let us down !!”

In the same month she tweeted: “Q ‘how long must the McCanns suffer’ answer ‘for the rest of their miserable lives’.”

A Sky News reporter, Martin Brunt, confronted Leyland about her attacks after a dossier on the internet activity of an anti-McCann group, including Leyland, was passed to the Metropolitan police. She told Brunt she was “entitled” to attack them and said she was not worried about her case being examined by prosecutors. Brunt, who is understood to be upset at the news, has not commented since, but denied any form of harassment last week. He said in an online question-and-answer session: “Show me where I stalked, chased. There was none of that.”

Scotland Yard said on Monday that detectives leading Operation Grange, an investigation into Madeleine’s disappearance, were assessing the evidence in the dossier about the anti-McCann web users and they were “consulting with the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] and the McCann family”. Neither Leyland, nor any other individual named in the dossier, has been interviewed.

A spokesman for the CPS said: “Police have alerted us to this information and an early discussion has taken place.” The Guardian understands the story was looked at by Sky’s lawyers before it was broadcast and Sky is confident proper procedures had been followed.

A Sky spokesperson said: “We were saddened to hear of the death of Brenda Leyland. It would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further at this time.”

Sky News’ guidelines state: “Any grounds for an investigation that involves significant intrusion into any individual’s privacy must be very strong. Before we start out we must be certain that any such intrusion is outweighed by the seriousness of the story and the amount of public good that will be delivered by its publication and/or broadcast.”

Ofcom said it would study the footage of the broadcasts before deciding whether to launch a formal investigation. Relevant sections of the broadcasting code are thought to include whether Sky has caused harm and offence, or breached standards of fairness and privacy.

Gerry McCann told the BBC’s Today programme last week that he wanted to see more people charged over internet abuse, but said he had not read Leyland’s tweets. That has raised questions about whether she should be considered a “troll”. The McCanns have declined to comment on Leyland’s death.

The case has exposed a bitter online war between supporters of the McCann family and others who use social media to claim there has been a cover-up over the disappearance of Madeleine.

Supporters of Leyland, with whom she exchanged hundreds of tweets about the McCann case in the weeks before she was confronted, claimed on Monday that she was the victim of a “snitch dossier” compiled by supporters of the McCann family. They even listed more than two dozen Twitter users who they described as “known trolls who support Kate and Gerry McCann”.

A Facebook group has been set up demanding the sacking of Martin Brunt and Leyland’s supporters deny that she is a troll. Most of the tweets in her now-deleted account appear to be about the behaviour of other Twitter users who support the McCanns rather than the McCanns themselves. But most are tagged #mccann, which means that anyone searching under that term would see them, and several amounted to direct attacks. One questioned why Kate McCann didn’t look “haunted, grief stricken” days after her daughter went missing. Another said: “I ‘hate’ cruelty, liars, those who profit from an others tragedy, ergo my ‘hate for Kate and Gerry’ is justified.

Claire Hardaker, a researcher in flaming, trolling, cyberbullying, and online grooming at Lancaster University, questioned whether Leyland should be considered a troll at all. “She describes [the McCanns] as neglectful parents, objects to their ongoing media appearances, and complains that they are profiting from their daughter’s disappearance,” she said. “And when people challenge her, she calls them unpleasant names, disputes their evidence, and blocks them.

“In short, her conduct would aggravate some, and deeply offend others, but much the same could be said of select comedians, journalists and celebrities, who can reach millions. Brenda Leyland’s account had a mere 182 followers by the time it suddenly vanished. The crucial question, however, is: did she incite others to harm the McCanns? Or threaten to abduct the McCanns’ other children? Or pose any kind of clear menace? On Twitter at least it doesn’t seem so.”


Robert Booth and Tara Conlan

The GuardianTramp

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