Sky Reporter Martin Brunt's Doorstep Of Brenda Leyland Fuels Heated Trolling Debate

The Sky News reporter who doorstepped a 63-year-old divorcee he believed to be trolling Kate and Gerry McCann is now himself subject to online abuse, after the woman killed herself following their encounter on national television.

Brenda Leyland was found dead in a hotel room on Saturday just days after Sky News exposed her as the woman behind @sweepyface, an anonymous Twitter account that claimed the McCanns were responsible for the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine.

Brenda Leyland being confronted by Martin Brunt

Mr Brunt and a camera crew approached Ms Leyland outside her home for a report last Wednesday about online abuse of the McCanns, in what was, by media standards, a relatively mild example of the "doorstepping", in which journalists confront subjects of stories.

Since Ms Leyland's death was revealed on Sunday, more than 1,800 people have liked a Facebook group calling for Mr Brunt to be sacked, while Twitter users have sent vicious messages to the veteran crime reporter.

A spokesman for Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, said it had received 103 complaints about the Sky News report and was considering whether to investigate.

Mr Brunt has not tweeted since Ms Leyland's death was announced and Sky News would not comment on whether he was on leave.

In a short statement, Sky said: "We were saddened to hear of the death of Brenda Leyland. It would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further at this time.”

But former and current journalists have been quick to defend Mr Brunt, with ex-News Of The World journalist Neville Thurlbeck claiming it was a "perfectly legitimate report with tragic though unforeseeable consequences".

Journalist Grace Dent said claims that Mr Brunt was responsible for Ms Leyland's death were "extreme".

"We’re in the wild west. While @sweepyface was desperate for exposure, Ms Leyland did not welcome it at all," she wrote in The Independent.

"While @sweepyface may have been in her element flinging around accusations, gossip and provoking ill-will, the real life Ms Leyland met Mr Brunt’s request for a comment with a firm No and an attempt to disappear into her car.

"Mr Brunt is now being accused by some sections of “hounding” Ms Leyland to her death. This seems extreme. Reporters have been doorstepping people and requesting answers on British television for the past 50 years.

"Are we now saying that in this new internet age, any person who draws attention to themselves vehemently but anonymously online is out of bounds for reporters?"

She continued: "Are we saying that we must accept that internet users working anonymously to spread misery are most probably mentally delicate and fuelled on their own shortcomings, so let’s leave be?"

Experts have told HuffPost UK that the definition of trolling is more complicated than simply being mean-spirited - and Ms Leyland's tweets, although extremely harsh, may not actually have met the definition.

Dr Claire Hardaker, an expert in online abuse, said: "She called the McCann's fools, she called someone that she didn't agree with a 'f**ktard,' but that's about as bad as it got.

"She had entirely bought into the conspiracy theory, and she was a campaigner. She was tweeting the Daily Mail, Sky News, the Met Police, everyone to try to get them to investigate.

"She might have been misguided, but her intentions were to act in the little girl's best interests, and she was obsessive."

Meanwhile, another tweeter called Martin Brunt has been forced to tweet that he is nothing to do with Sky News after he was confused with the reporter.