Once word got around that the spokesman for the McCann family was in attendance, the great and the good of the PR industry were almost queuing up to talk to him, all eager to find out a little more about the mystery of Madeleine’s disappearance.
Mitchell is a seasoned hard news reporter, who worked for the BBC for nearly 20 years, and then for the Government’s Media Monitoring Unit (MMU) for two years, before being seconded out to handle the media in Portugal for the McCanns towards the end of May.
As a reporter, Mitchell says he was ‘always seen as a fireman’, and would be flown in ‘when there was trouble kicking off in Northern Ireland’, or in other dangerous locations such as Iran and Iraq. He also covered the death of Princess Diana, the murder of Milly Dowler and the Fred and Rosemary West mass-murders.
Like any reporter, Mitchell became used to being dispassionate. He describes one of his ‘lucky breaks’ as being on the motorway behind the Kegworth air crash on the M1 in 1989: ‘It sounds dreadful, but that’s journalism – you need to be in the right place at the right time.’
In his current role, of course, Mitchell is far from neutral – indeed, he is vehemently convinced of the McCanns’ innocence, a fact that has not been lost on the press covering the story. One national newspaper journalist describes Mitchell’s work with the McCanns as a ‘crusade to right what he perceives as a real injustice’.
Mitchell wears his commitment to the family almost literally on his sleeve, sporting a pair of bright yellow and green campaign wristbands. He also has a yellow and green ribbon pinned to his lapel, signifying the search for a missing person and strength.
Mitchell was first sent to meet Gerry McCann at East Midlands airport two weeks after Madeleine’s disappearance. The pair flew back together to Portugal. Mitchell then spent an intense month of 15-hour days with the family.
He had to return to his government role, and others handled the McCanns’ PR. But even then, he says, the family still called him for advice in his own time. ‘We had become friends,’ he says. ‘But I couldn’t help them beyond the odd phone call, because officially the Government couldn’t be seen to be involved.’ In September, he quit his government role in order to work for the family, at a time when much of the media seemed to be turning against the McCanns.
Mitchell is clear about the reasons for this change of feeling: ‘I have to be careful what I say, but somebody who has good connections with the police decided early on, it appears, that they were somehow involved, and decided to plant stories.’
The Portuguese press ran these stories – ‘they have a very lurid end to the tabloid market, just as we do,’ he says – and then the British press picked them up.
Mitchell is obviously angry with the press, many of whom he believes were simply ‘recycling rubbish’: ‘As a former journalist myself, some of the behaviour of the British press has been shameful.’
Mitchell played a great part in quashing the most negative of these stories. He explains that he had a very simple strategy: ‘When I came aboard Gerry and Kate were being accused left, right and centre. What people don’t always understand is that the papers aren’t running these stories necessarily because they believe them – they are good angles. They will also run an equally good angle from the other side.’
Mitchell also gets fired up at accusations from some sections of the press that the McCanns have been too concerned with PR. He says that the majority of the time he is turning down requests for interviews.
And at the beginning of the campaign, when then McCanns were raising awareness, the strategy was different. As someone with three young children, Mitchell says: ‘I would say that any family in this situation – myself included – would hit the phones and do what they could.’
Mitchell admits that he does get angry. But one journalist covering the case says that the fact that Mitchell ‘is not afraid to say what he thinks’ can only be a good thing for the McCanns.
When Mitchell left the BBC in 2005 it was because he had reached a plateau, having being passed over for the role of royal correspondent and realising he would never present the Ten O’Clock News.
He describes his post at the Government’s MMU as an ‘inward-facing, administration role’, adding: ‘Sometimes when there was a big story I’d be thinking, I know where I’d be today.’
Now, he’s back at the heart of the story. Indeed, Steve Anderson, the Mentorn Media creative director, who was the executive producer on this month’s Panorama Special: The Mystery of Madeleine McCann, goes as far as to stay that this was the job Mitchell was ‘meant to do’.
Mitchell seems completely driven by personal conviction and adrenaline, and it is understandably difficult for him to predict what he will be doing next. Officially, he says, he is now communications director for multi-millionaire Brian Kennedy – the McCanns’ main benefactor – so he will still be employed when the situation is resolved. After that he will look into opportunities, either with Kennedy or elsewhere.
At the end of the interview, Mitchell cannot help but bring the message home: ‘Don’t forget that in the middle of all this there is a little girl out there, alive, and she needs to be found and brought home.’
What was your biggest career break? There have been a few at different times. Getting into papers in the first place, after a couple of years in a boring job I didn’t like, in a bank. And being on a motorway when an aircrash happens in front of you, from a reporter’s point of view, is a big break. Having the Prime Minister as your local MP is a big break. I’ve been in the right place at the right time many times. And without the government role I would never have been in touch with Gerry and Kate, so you could say that was a break as well.
What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder? Know what you want to do, absolutely focus on it and keep ploughing away. Eventually people will start taking your seriously. That applies to journalism, to PR, to any walk of life.
Who was your most notable mentor? I haven’t had a mentor as such. I’m pretty much
self-driven, although there have been people I have respected. My very first newspaper editor, Dennis Signy, was very influential and I’m very grateful to him. A number of BBC editors have also been very kind. That said, you make your own luck.
What do you prize most in new recruits? Drive, a degree of ambition, but properly focused. Passion underscored with scepticism.
Spokesman, the McCann family
Director, Media Monitoring Unit
Correspondent for BBC News
Presenter, News 24
BBC TV news reporter
Reporter, BBC Radio Sheffield
Reporter, The Sunday Express
Reporter, Hendon and Finchley Times