WHEN Clarence Mitchell was a BBC reporter, breaking news tended to follow him around, like the time he was driving along the M1 and the Kegworth air crash happened right in front of him.
After leaving TV to join the Government's Media Monitoring Unit in 2005, his first week saw the G8 in Gleneagles, London winning the 2012 Olympic bid, and the disastrous events of 7/7 in the capital.
During his decades in radio and television –which included early years at BBC local radio in Sheffield and Leeds before working on-screen at Look North – he'd covered long-running stories like those of Fred and Rose West, the murder of Jill Dando, and the disappearance and killing of schoolgirl Milly Dowler. He'd also been deputy to royal correspondent Jennie Bond, part of the team covering Princess Diana's death and funeral.
But there have been weeks in the last nine months when Mitchell's face has been seen on news bulletins even more than it was during his time in television.
He is spokesman for the McCann family, still searching for little Madeleine 391 days after her disappearance from their holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal, where she and her twin siblings were sleeping while their parents dined with friends 50 yards away at a tapas restaurant.
Mitchell, who has a wife and three young children of his own, was plunged back into the centre of a worldwide news story when he was sent out by the Government to Praia da Luz to give assistance in managing the media in late May, three weeks after the three-year-old went missing.
Arriving at the resort, he found at least 40 TV crews and about 300 newspaper reporters camped outside the McCanns' apartment. Interest in the story showed no signs of abating, local police
were giving nothing away, and rumour and speculation were running rampant.
Public donations were pouring in to the Madeleine McCann Fund. The Pope saw Gerry and Kate McCann's suffering on TV, and let it be known via Westminster Cathedral that he would see the two Roman Catholics if they requested an audience.
Clarence Mitchell set about making arrangements, calling in an offer of the use of a private jet made by retail tycoon Philip Green. The couple subsequently toured Europe, publicising their search, then immersed themselves in the effort of ensuring that Madeleine's image reached the furthest-flung corners of every continent. A mob followed wherever they went.
Many judgments have been made about the McCanns on the basis of their appearance and demeanour during the early days of the ongoing ordeal. Mitchell says they were advised by police and others to remain calm and impassive in front of cameras, as some abductors are known to get a thrill from the visible distress they cause to families.
Of course, all sorts of inferences were drawn as a result – Kate and Gerry were too controlled, Kate was perceived to be too "icy" by some. She was damned if she did twitch with emotion and damned if she didn't. When she did eventually break down during an interview on Spanish television, Mitchell says the carping voices condemned her "crocodile tears".
All the while, vile and false accusations of involvement in Madeleine's disappearance (and worse) were flying about, and continue to be aired on the internet, despite the salutary 555,000 damages paid to the Find Madeleine fund recently by Express Newspapers for publishing grossly defamatory comments about the couple.
The unprecedented international media interest in the Madeleine McCann story was a demanding beast that was not being fed by the regular press conferences that would be part of such a case in the UK.
"It was made out to be the biggest 'conspiracy' since the Diana 'conspiracy,'" says Mitchell. "Some of the group (of friends in the tapas restaurant) had their watches on that night, and others didn't... asking nine people to give exact explanations of what happened at what moment during the evening was never going to produce matching stories; what would have been more suspicious was nine exactly co-ordinated accounts."
Ex-pat Robert Murat, who lives close to the Ocean Club holiday complex was made an "arguido" or official suspect (and remains so); then in September last year both Kate and Gerry McCann were also made arguidos, and as such were sworn to silence about the investigation but allowed to return home to Rothley, Leicestershire on bail conditions.
Their arguido status has just been extended for a further three months, despite the fact that "not a shred of evidence" has been put forward against them, says Mitchell. Portuguese police have until November at the latest to lay charges or lift the arguido status and close the investigation as unresolved, he says.
Gerry McCann went back to work as a cardiologist at the beginning of November. Kate, formerly a part-time GP, looks after twins Sean and Amelie. With the help of friends and family, the couple run the Find Madeleine campaign, answering letters, emails and phone calls, devising strategy and posters, and occasionally giving interviews.
Clarence Mitchell, who was sent back to London after a month-long stint in Portugal during which he forged a solid friendship with the McCanns, was not taken on as their spokesman until September last year, and was frank that he could not do it unless his Government salary could be matched.
Cheshire-based double-glazing millionaire Brian Kennedy, who had already offered to pay the McCann family's legal costs, said he would match Mitchell's earnings package of nearly 75,000, so that it would not drain cash from the 1.2m in public money donated to find Madeleine.
Mitchell spends two or three days a week in Rothley (put up for free by a sympathetic local hotelier), a couple of days dealing with the media in London, and weekends at home with his family.
At the height of the earlier media furore and again more recently, around Madeleine's fifth birthday and the TV documentary about the McCanns and their search for their daughter, Mitchell's phone is constantly buzzing, with missed calls stacking up by the hundred. Each event has also caused a spike in "sightings" and possible leads from the public.
How do the couple cope with regular claims that a small blond girl like Madeleine has allegedly been seen on a plane, train or in the street somewhere from Brazil to Morocco? "They don't invest their emotions in these claims unless they hear something more substantial from our own investigations or from the police in the country in question.
"Normally, we get a tip-off and have ruled out the story before the press have even had wind of it. For each 'sighting' you've heard about, there are quite a few more that people never know about because they are knocked down so early on." The McCanns have had contact from about 3,000 mediums and psychics alone.
"Some of the claims include very specific information – flight numbers, car registrations, that sort of thing – and anything that is verifiable we do check out." Keeping Madeleine all over the papers all of the time is not necessarily helpful, says Mitchell.
"Sometimes we need things to be a bit quieter, and certainly if we had a strong lead, it would be mad to publicise it and let the abductor know that we're on the case."
The Madeleine McCann Fund pays 8,000 a month retainer to a Barcelona-based private detective agency with contacts all over the world, although the Fund allows for the agency to be paid up to 50,000 a month, should investigations require it.
The couple say they will leave no stone unturned, never give up until they find Madeleine.
"They are not stupid; they know she may be dead... But in the absence of any evidence that she is dead, they continue to believe she will be found alive. They will search to the end of their lives, if that's what it takes."
Gerry and Kate McCann have plainly stated their regrets and remorse, says Mitchell. "But I defy any parent to say they have never had their child go out of their sight briefly. They got it wrong, and they're not trying to justify what they did, other than saying they made a mistake."
Their faith gives them strength, as does a close family and public support ("So many people emailed after the documentary and apologised for getting the wrong idea about Gerry and Kate earlier on..."), says Mitchell.
Neither Gerry or Kate McCann is allowed to discuss ongoing investigations into what happened to Madeleine, or their opinion of how efficient Portuguese police have or have not been in searching for her.
But, within the confines of a system of judicial secrecy which outsiders find absolutely baffling, those close to Madeleine are having to operate their own search with virtually no inkling about whether they are duplicating work done by others, as no information has been shared.
The officer in charge of the Portuguese investigation was recently in Leicestershire to reinterview the "Tapas Seven", as the group who holidayed with the McCanns have been labelled. Kate and Gerry heard not a word, says Clarence Mitchell.
Following criticism in Portugal of the time spent on the case of one missing child, there are fears that perhaps little has been done lately to find Madeleine.
Mitchell can't comment. "All I can say is that there's a lot going on at our end that you don't know about, and Kate and Gerry are very focused. They are pushing hard for an 'amber alert' system to be introduced Europe-wide, which would kick in as soon as a child goes missing; we are following up any verifiable lead; we are pushing legally to get the arguido status lifted. And if the Portuguese police do close the file, we can apply to see the information."
In the meantime, friends and family pray, Sean and Amelie call Madeleine on their toy phones, and there's a skyscraper of fifth birthday presents awaiting her return.
Speaking about Madeleine
Clarence Mitchell will speak at a seminar during Leeds Business Week, being held at Leeds Town Hall at 10.30am on Monday, June 2. Admission free. The organisers will make a contribution to the Madeleine McCann Fund.
Find Madeleine investigation line 0845 838 4699; email:firstname.lastname@example.org; website www.findmadeleine.com