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The mediatisation of Madeleine McCann

EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

It is nearly seven years since a little blonde-haired British girl named Madeleine McCann disappeared from her bedroom in a holiday resort in Portugal. Madeleine, if she is alive, would be ten years old now, having spent the majority of her decade on earth separated from her family, parents Gerry and Kate McCann, and twin siblings Sean and Amelia.

What happened that night in the Algarve fishing village of Praia de Luz remains a mystery. Was Madeleine abducted while she slept, by a person or persons unknown, as her parents claim? Or, as the former head of the Portuguese investigating team alleges, did she die in apartment 5A of the Ocean Club complex, her body disposed of in an attempt to cover up negligence or worse?

Ongoing investigations by police teams in the United Kingdom and Portugal have failed to answer those questions, or to find evidence sufficiently compelling as to justify prosecutions in either country.

The case continues to be a focus of public, police and political attention as the seventh anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance approaches, and the trial of that same former investigator accused of libel by the McCanns comes to its conclusion in Lisbon on Tuesday. Ex-inspector Goncalo Amaral’s book, The Truth Of The Lie, based on police work before the case was ‘archived’ due to lack of evidence, advances the theory of Madeleine’s death – accidental or intentional - and hypothesises a staged abduction by the parents.

For this he is being sued for over one million euros in damages by the McCanns, who allege that his book derailed the search for their daughter when it was published in 2009. The closing statements and judge’s verdict on the case are due this week in Lisbon.

My interest in this sad story is both personal and professional. In the northern summer of 2005 I took my holidays at the Ocean Club, staying in the apartment directly above 5A where the McCanns resided in May 2007. A friend of my parents owned the apartment, and my extended family rented it and two other units in the complex for two weeks in July that year: my parents in one, my sister and her family in another, myself, my wife and my brother in the apartment above 5a.

The beach at Praia. Brian McNair

Two weeks is enough time to get to know the Ocean Club resort, and the surrounding village of Praia de Luz, quite well. I ate in the Tapas restaurant, drank in Kelly’s bar, went inside the beautiful church at the village centre; I walked on the beach, and the streets leading to it from the Ocean Club. So when the news of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance broke on May 4 2007 it resonated and captured my attention like no other crime story I can remember.

Millions of people all over the world were similarly captivated, but my sense of proximity to the events gave me a specially good reason to follow the case. The fact that Gerry McCann was Glaswegian like me was another point of connection.

From my professional perspective as a media sociologist, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann was an early example of the dramatic impact of the rise of the internet and 24-hour news channels on how human tragedies of this kind are reported and understood by the public.

The mediatisation of ‘Maddie’, as she became known to many, was unprecedented. It involved professional public relations practitioners, including former senior UK government specialists, in highly organized media management, or ‘crisis communication’, as one of the agencies involved characterised its services.

It engaged the British public in discussion like no previous case, not because the crime was unique (though it was rare – the most recent case of suspected abduction by a stranger of a British child while on holiday overseas had been that of Ben Needham in 1991), but because the emergence of social media – Twitter launched in 2007, Facebook in 2004 - provided a new and powerful platform for public sharing of information, opinion and argument about an ongoing criminal investigation.

From early in the investigation the McCanns proactively used the internet to issue appeals and information about Madeleine to a global online public, as did the police. Scotland yard’s Operation Grange, set up to investigate the crime in 2011, had its own hashtag and website.

The public used the internet to access, assess and discuss information about the case as it emerged, and to speculate on what had happened to the little girl. Their sources included a mass of official material produced by the police in both Portugal and the UK, digitized and made available online.

The church at Praia. Brian McNair

There were thousands of pages of transcripts of interviews and court testimony, detailed forensic reports, summaries of findings by investigating officers, court rulings such as that by the Portuguese Attorney General which formally ‘archived’ the Madeleine McCann investigation in 2009, all neatly categorized and searchable on sites such as

Never before in the history of the volatile relationship between crime, media and public had so many people had such easy access to so much primary official data relating to an unsolved, still active case.

By 2007 virtually all of the news media were online, operating around the clock with story updates, live feeds and real time coverage of events, commentary threads and links to research materials. The unfolding narrative of Madeleine McCann was covered as it was happening, which meant with glacial slowness, punctuated by bursts of police activity in the UK or Portugal. Seven years on, that remains the case.

There have been peaks and troughs in the level of media and public interest, corresponding to newsworthy developments such as the establishment of Operation Grange and the BBC Crimewatch ‘reconstruction’ of October 2013. The Lisbon libel trial of Goncalo Amaral has been such a catalyst, and its conclusion this week will drive the disappearance of Madeleine McCann back up the UK and Portuguese media and public agendas.

The tone and content of the coverage, and the public’s response to it on social media, will be determined in large part by the Portuguese judge’s verdict. If Amaral is found guilty, the McCanns account of what happened to their daughter will continue to set the news agenda. If it goes the other way, and Amaral is found not guilty of defaming the McCanns in his book, we can expect the world’s media to report his hypothesis and the supporting evidence more thoroughly than has been the case up until now.

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