Update as of 4:00 p.m. EDT: Sky News could face a possible investigation by broadcast regulator Ofcom following the death of Brenda Leyland, three days after being confronted by a Sky News reporter about alleged abusive messages on social media about the parents of missing British girl Madeleine McCann, The Guardian reported Monday.
Brenda Leyland, of Leicestershire, England, who wrote what some described as abusive tweets to the parents of Madeleine McCann, was found dead Saturday in a Marriott hotel room in Leicestershire. Although there's speculation on social media that the 63-year-old committed suicide, no cause of death has been made public, and the Guardian reports her death is not being treated as suspicious. Still, Leyland died three days after being confronted outside her home by reporter Martin Brunt in a Sky News segment that aired Thursday -- and Brunt is feeling the heat for what may or may not be a coincidence.
A Change.org campaign linked to a Facebook page belonging to Leyland supporters requests a public inquiry into what they call “trial by television,” with many speculating Leyland is dead because Brunt zeroed in on her. Wrote one supporter: "Sky News singled out and pounced on this lady, exposing her to trial by media. Martin Brunt or Robert Murdoch need to be held accountable for this ladys death." Another supporter who signed the campaign wrote: "Brenda Leyland was harassed into apparent suicide. We live in a Democracy I thought? She expressed opinions, nothing more. Her death was apparently prompted by media and internet hounding. Its completely unacceptable. [sic]"
When Madeleine McCann, then 3, disappeared in May 2007 from her bed while on vacation with her parents in the Portugal resort Praia da Luz, a media frenzy ensued -- Clarence Mitchell of the Telegraph characterized the disappearance as “the most heavily reported missing-person case in modern history.” Madeleine has never been found, and her case is treated as an unsolved abduction. But shortly after the abduction, the Portuguese police initially misinterpreted British DNA analysis in a way that suggested Madeleine might have been harmed, or possibly killed, in the apartment where she was last seen. The erroneous analysis was leaked to the press, and tabloids began to insinuate that McCann's parents, Kate and Gerry, might have been involved, and the speculation spilled into social media. The McCanns recently received 55,000 pounds from the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times after they sued for libel, claiming the Times wrote they had obstructed the investigation into their daughter's death.
In the video that aired Thursday, Brunt can be seen confronting Leyland as she leaves her home. He first asks her why she was "attacking" the McCanns on Twitter, to which she replied, “I’m entitled to do that.” He then declares her case has been reported to the police. "They’re considering a whole file of Twitter accounts for what one supporter says is a campaign of abuse,” he says. “Fair enough,” she responds, and walks away to get into her car. It is reported she fled her neighborhood shortly thereafter, and her whereabouts were not known until she was found dead in a hotel room.
Leyland was part of what BuzzFeed called a “subculture” of people on Twitter who followed the McCann case, with some suspicious that the parents are involved in Madeleine’s disappearance. In her nearly 5,000 tweets since the case broke, she criticized the McCanns for trying to silence critics, often criticized the investigation, and declared that she wanted to “bang home the facts” and “make #mccann s live in shame for years” [sic].
Some sympathetic to Leyland took to the Facebook page called “Sack Martin Brunt” to make their opinions known. “I don’t approve of this lady tweeting all the time these nasty things,” wrote one person, “but…I really do not approve of her being ‘highlighted’ in this manner.” Another wrote, “The police should be turning their attention to Sky News. Harassment and threats are not ‘journalism…’ They scapegoated her, ruined her life, and barely acknowledge her death. Shameful!” But some were not so sympathetic: “All this troll had to do was nothing. She got herself involved and paid the price. The price by her own hand and not Martin Brunt’s hand.”
In a brief statement, Sky News said: “We were saddened to hear of the death of Brenda Leyland. It would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further at this time.”