When Madeleine McCann tragically disappeared whilst on holiday in Portugal in May 2007, it became the news story of the year. The nature and scale of the reporting was unprecedented – as was the public interest in the story. Madeleine’s disappearance (and the speculation around the circumstances of it) meant the story occupied airtime and newsprint on a level not seen since the death of Princess Diana ten years before. The intensity and frequency of reporting and speculation was staggering.
By my count, the Daily Express and Sunday Express combined had “Maddie” as lead front page story with picture 23 times in September 2007. And, in fact, there was no day throughout that month when the front pages did not contain some sort of reference to Madeleine or her parents, Kate and Gerry.
Since 2007 the investigations into the disappearance have continued, as has the speculative reporting and high-profile international PR campaign run by the McCann family to keep Madeleine’s disappearance in the public eye. Now, with the BBC due to broadcast a reconstruction of events surrounding Madeleine’s disappearance on Crimewatch and the British police announcing they are to analyse mobile phone data from thousands of people who were around the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz at the time of the vanishing, there is renewed interest in the case.
This week has seen the Sunday Mirror publish an “exclusive” which revealed that Madeleine had been seen alive on a Mediterranean beach just a few weeks ago. Then, on October 9, the Daily Star, the Express and the Mirror all devoted their front pages to Kate McCann’s wish to appear in court to “confront” former Portuguese police chief Goncalo Amaral.
He had written in his book that Madeleine had died in an accident which her parents covered up before hiding her body. Ahead of the Panorama programme, Sky News has reported a new picture of a possible suspect connected to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann which will be released by police.
What is troubling about these new reports – and this is true for the whole affair since 2007 – is that in the absence of fact, insinuation and innuendo becomes the currency of news. To this day, Madeleine’s disappearance is the only relevant fact of this terrible affair. What we have seen on television and in the press is a situation where innuendo and speculation are presented as fact on one day and as nonsense the next. The process is one of the peddling and recycling of the same stories. This week’s sighting of Madeleine is only the latest of countless since 2007, where she been reportedly recognised everywhere from Algeria to Arizona.
But why does the Madeleine McCann affair still command interest in a Britain where, according to recent research, a child goes missing every three minutes.
The decision taken by the McCann family to keep their daughter in the public eye is clearly significant. They have used a highly sophisticated PR campaign to make sure that Madeleine is not forgotten. They believe, we are told, that the world will forget she is missing if the story falls off the news agenda. To that end “Team McCann” as the operation has been dubbed, has ensured a constant flow of information is available to the media.
As soon as Madeleine disappeared, Gerry McCann started the website that has become Find Madeleine. Since then there has been the YouTube channel “Don’t you forget about me”. There have been books, television shows and documentaries, appearances at the Edinburgh television festival and the close relationship with PR man Clarence Mitchell, a former BBC journalist and director of Labour’s media monitoring unit.
We must also remember that people identify with this case because throughout history, missing children have represented the worst that can happen to adults. All parents can point to this case and shudder. It has become a sort of national collective worst experience scenario.
The press has encouraged, via comment threads, a form of participatory journalism where members of the public can respond to particular reports, often in severe ways. An article written by Roy Greenslade in October 2007 expressing pity for the McCann’s in the media “spider’s web” was greeted below the line with comments such as this:
Why should anyone “pity” the McCanns. They have brought all this down on their own heads
We can ask ourselves whether our fascination with Madeleine is a product of celebrity culture, where we are routinely fixated with the fate of individuals we don’t know and never will. Is it a further example of the Diana syndrome where there is a mass transference of public empathy onto others, made all the more striking by our increasing alienation from each other in a physical sense?
Is our fascination an example of a kind of collective bias in favour of the middle classes? It is a fact that scores of children disappear every year yet not one has received a fraction of the attention given to Madeleine who comes from a family of wealthy, white, photogenic doctors.
The fact that the Madeleine mystery – and I use my words carefully – began abroad in less affluent, less prosperous Portugal may also be significant in why we’re so interested. This is because (in a sense) we as nation can absolve ourselves from responsibility. Despite evidence to the contrary in terms of crimes committed against children in Britain, we can tell ourselves that this is crime that happened because the family was abroad.
So in a sense we and the McCann family become one representing Britain against foreign incompetence and foreign dangers. There has been a none-too-subtle superiority complex in the way the British media has treated perceived Portuguese police inadequacies. Now that the British police are involved, we may feel, real progress is being made. On May 17, UK detectives reviewing the case said they had identified “a number of persons of interest”.
All of this in no way excuses or indeed explains why the McCanns have been treated so shabbily by sections of the press. In 2008 they received £550,000 libel damages and front-page apologies from Express Newspapers over allegations they were responsible for Madeleine’s death. The Leveson report stated that Express appetite for news of Madeleine was “insatiable” with the search for the truth “the first principle to be sacrificed”. Kate McCann told the enquiry that when the News of the World published her diaries without permission she felt “mentally raped” and “violated”.
It will be interesting to see if, in this post-Leveson world, the attitude and behaviour of the British press is any different. The publicity generated by next week’s Crimewatch will be a test of that, if nothing else.