By Tony Bennett
Brenda Leyland remembered - two years after men from SKY News, owned by the world’s most powerful media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, hounded her to death
It was probably two years ago tonight (3 October) that Brenda Leyland sadly ended her life. Lest we forget, here are a few observations in respectful remembrance.
This was surely a case of a vulnerable woman, living alone, abused and overpowered by the all-conquering mainstream media. SKY News hounded her to her death, for had she not been mercilessly exposed in regular broadcasts by SKY, every 15 minutes, for most of the afternoon and evening of Wednesday, 1 October, of her being door-stepped, she would surely still be with us.
But who else was responsible for triggering her death? Quite a few people, as it turns out. There was someone – we don’t yet know who – who decided to collate a dossier of nasty anti-McCann tweeters. Then there were those who contributed to this dossier, presumably by copying-and-pasting Facebook messages and tweets and the like. Then someone else, again we don’t know who, was responsible for handing over that dossier to the Metropolitan Police. By the way Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metroplitan Police Commissioner, put it on a radio ’phone-in, it may have been handled to him personally.
And what happened after that? Did that dossier disclose any criminal offences? It appears that it did not. There were no threats of any kind. Later, the Met quietly conceded that none of the tweets - from anyone – amounted in law to a crime.
And so the next question we must ask is: How did SKY News get to hear about this dossier? How did they know that Scotland Yard were looking at it? Who told them?
On Tuesday 30 September, Martin Brunt door-stepped Brenda Leyland – took her completely by surprise.
Moreover, as we know from the video record, he said: “Are you aware that your tweets are contained in a dossier that has been passed to Scotland Yard?” The implication was very clear: You are being investigated, not just by the local police, but by Scotland Yard, on suspicion of committing a criminal offence. It would put real fear into anyone. And was probably calculated to do so.
Later that afternoon, he had a further chat with her. We don’t know what was said in that conversation. But we do have Martin Brunt’s admission that she had already (after her lunch date with a friend) been contemplating suicide.
One must assume that Brunt reported this to his producers and editor. What possessed them to go ahead? Well, it would be good telly for their viewers. It also may have been aired in the way it was because very important public figures, like Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and Gerry McCann, were demanding action. It does look like several powerful people collaborated behind the scenes to bring about this public humiliation of Brenda Leyland.
And indeed the very next day (2 October) Gerry McCann spoke to the media, and on 3 October – on the evening of which Brenda Leyland probably took her life – we read this in the mainstream press:
The father of Madeleine McCann has called for an example to be made of “vile” internet trolls who have been targeting the family.
Gerry McCann said he had grave concerns about letting his nine-year-old twins use the internet after receiving threats of violence and kidnapping.
The comments, in an interview with the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, came after it emerged that police were looking at a dossier of abuse posted on Twitter, Facebook and chat forums.
McCann, whose daughter Madeleine went missing in Praia da Luz in Portugal in 2007, said he and his wife Kate did not read such material because it was too upsetting.
He also blamed the press for inciting trolls, renewing his calls for the new industry-backed regulator IPSO to be scrapped and replaced by an official body established by royal charter.
And so it was that – as far as we have been told - Brenda Leyland bought some helium canisters, apparently off the internet – and gassed herself to death.
Some think she might have been killed by the state, I don’t personally think so. Surely no-one would be quite so wicked as to do that?
All the same, the inquest into her death was a very muted, short affair. A police officer said he’d been called to the Marriott Hotel – less than a mile from Leicestershire Police headquarters at Enderby – and found her dead, with helium canisters on the floor and her laptop showing that she’d consulted ‘suicide sites’.
One might think that the Coroner, under such circumstances, would have questioned the SKY News team intently and said something about that in her summing-up. But no, nothing at all. One of Europes’s most powerful media organisations had been allowed to (a) doorstep her – when she had not committed any crime, (b) show an interview of her repeatedly – may be up to over 30 times, and (c) proceed with doing so only after Brenda has said she was feeling suicidal.
That was cruelty. It was oppression. It was the exercise of naked power over a depressed, suicidal, single woman.
The media, who rarely criticise each other, barely reported her death or the inquest. OFCOM, the TV media watchdog, did nothing. No MP spoke up in the House of Commons about the conduct of SKY News.
This is how the Guardian – correctly – headlined their report on the inquest:
Woman killed herself after being doorstepped over McCann trolling
Sky News offers condolences to family of Brenda Leyland, who was found dead in a Leicester hotel two days after channel broadcast footage of her
Martin Brunt is important enough to have his own Wikipedia entry. It records this:
"In October 2014, Brunt was the journalist involved in revealing the identity of Brenda Leyland, who had posted comments concerning the McCann investigation on social media. Following the revelation and a report to Leicestershire Police, Brunt and a camera crew confronted Leyland at her home. Following the confrontation Leyland was later found dead in a hotel, leading to calls on social media for Brunt to be sacked".
We might note in passing that Brunt had two very strange conversations, recorded by the Portuguese Police, with Robert Murat. In one of them, he offered Murat legal help from SKY News's legal department .That was curious conduct to say the very least. Later, he said on SKY News that DNA samples of body fluids from the McCanns' holiday apartment in Praia da Luz were a '100% match' with Madeleine's DNA.
A couple of media journalists were brave enough at least to begin questioning what had taken place in the lead-up to Brenda's suicide.
An article by Claire Hardaker in the Guardian said this:
Was Brenda Leyland really a troll?
Accused of trolling the McCanns, Leyland didn’t conform to our stereotyped idea of a troll – but those stereotypes quickly fail.
[PIC[ ‘The McCanns have faced a barrage of online abuse, including threats of violence, murder and abduction of their other children.’ Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
One of those individuals was Brenda Leyland. A well-spoken, middle-class, 63-year-old mother of two, who lived in a picturesque village. Leyland regularly took to Twitter to draw attention to what she felt was an appalling miscarriage of justice. Last week, she found herself revealed to the nation by a television news team who exposed her as a “troll”. But was she really a troll?
The first problem is the use of the word. It has become a by-word for everything from minor disagreements through to annoying incivility through to criminal behaviour such as death threats. When we think of trolls, the stereotype is of angry, unemployed, disenfranchised young men who exist in a miserable, hermit-like darkness that is void of compassion or loving relationships – young men like John Nimmo, for instance, who was jailed for sending abusive messages to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.
We assume stupidity, alcohol abuse, and social issues. We like to think that they must be so obviously damaged that we would spot them in the street. However, when we look at cases that have resulted in convictions, the stereotype quickly fails: Peter Nunn was a 33-year-old father; Isabella Sorley was a 23-year-old university graduate; Frank Zimmerman was 60.
Even if we could create a troll stereotype from these cases, about the only common theme is that those who get caught are likely to be less than savvy about keeping themselves unfindable online.
Alternatively, they may be so impassioned about a “cause” that they cannot see how their behaviour has escalated out of control. Both convictions and the data show that stereotypes mislead us dangerously because they encourage us to focus only on those who fit the bill, when in reality, the genteel elderly man who moved to let you sit next to him on the train could be sending vile rape threats to his employer via his smartphone. Those who troll can be any age, any gender, anyone at all, and so it begins to look as though the label would fit Leyland too.
The second problem is that the word “troll” has become shorthand for describing any behaviour online that may cause offence. It conjures up strong feelings of repulsion and disgust, and doubtless some watching a bewildered Leyland trying to escape the TV news team last week will have felt a grim satisfaction, and thought to themselves: “She shouldn’t dish out what she can’t take.”
But what was she actually dishing out? Looking over the 5,000-plus tweets from her @ sweepyface account, there is clearly a fixation – even an unsettling obsession - with the McCanns. She describes them as neglectful parents, objects to their ongoing media appearances, and complains that they are profiting from their daughter’s disappearance. 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. Leyland’s account had a mere 182 followers by the time it suddenly vanished. The crucial question is: did she incite others to harm the McCanns? Or threaten to abduct the McCanns’ other children? Or pose any clear menace?
On Twitter at least it doesn’t seem so. She regularly tweeted the Metropolitan police and Crimewatch, demanding they do more. She would highlight what she felt were untruths in the stories of major press outlets such as the Daily Mail. She railed at media outlets such as LBC for not airing what she felt was the other side of the story. And at the same time, she ensconced herself within a small network of other Twitter users who supported her, agreed with her, and perhaps gave her a sense of identity and importance as a figurehead campaigning for what she believed was justice for Madeleine.
Ultimately, individuals who troll or become obsessed with conspiracy theories can be driven by many factors – boredom, loneliness, a need for validation – and we cannot discount the possibility of mental health problems. At times, their behaviour may border on loathsome, but a news team with a high-profile journalist at the helm is not the way to bring about justice.
I will finish with a reminder of an assortment of Brenda’s final tweets:
516694464455528448|Mon Sep 29 21:02:14 +0000 2014|#mccann Just noticed @ skymartinbrunt is following me, why Martin won't you investigate some of these facts and show neutrality?
516686111918530561|Mon Sep 29 20:29:03 +0000 2014|#mccann Block function is used against Shills, however this Tierney business has huge relevance to the investigation
516612962053013504|Mon Sep 29 15:38:23 +0000 2014|@ anotherviv @ xklamation #mccann I agree, all we are bound together in, is to find justice for Madeleine, not to mud sling
516663733024985088|Mon Sep 29 19:00:07 +0000 2014|#mccann "Men in suits want me to stop " but not until I have told every body about their presence
516510225466392576|Mon Sep 29 08:50:08 +0000 2014|#mccann I recall the glee with which they outed poor guy they thought was me, imagine how shocked he must have been
500166020162945024|Fri Aug 15 06:24:06 +0000 2014|#mccann We see Isabelle & Richard Hall, prepared to use real names, not once will any Shill dare to go public
516680065917403136|Mon Sep 29 20:05:01 +0000 2014|Amy Tierney 1) Has more of a relationship with #mccann s than witness should, appears 2 have been rewarded for testimony, tweets @ work
516355932910288897|Sun Sep 28 22:37:02 +0000 2014|@ veniviedivici @ BigPhiIIyStyle @ basilandmanuel #mccann No doubt about it in my mind Winters and Goose [Summers & Swan] are up to necks in this
516344768306368512|Sun Sep 28 21:52:40 +0000 2014|@PORTUGALONLINE #mccann Coincidence that a fat temp nannying suddenly lands a top job after dealings with Gerry ? NO NO NO.
516340933018013696|Sun Sep 28 21:37:26 +0000 2014|@ PORTUGALONLINE @ siamesey @ RothleyPillow #mccann So she goes from nobody nanny to Govt worker, so she has been hushed up, stinks
515948487226445824|Sat Sep 27 19:37:59 +0000 2014|@ Nigel_Farage @ MarkReckless Well done Mark, a brave move and the right one [joiing UKIP]. The existing 2 major parties are a spent force.
515400503640227841|Fri Sep 26 07:20:30 +0000 2014|@ TeddyShepherd @ ThomasBadenRies #mccann A clumsy attempt by them at a "sting operation" edited to show "haters" as Bigots and worse
What if it turns out that Brenda Leyland was right to question the McCanns?
Posted on the CMOMM forum: http://jillhavern.forumotion.net/t13178-brenda-leyland-remembered-two-years-after-men-from-sky-news-owned-by-the-worlds-most-powerful-media-mogul-rupert-murdoch-hounded-her-to-death#350498