Madeleine McCann – Front page news once more.

Posted by Dr John Jewell

When 3 year old 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 public interest in events. Madeleine’s disappearance (and the speculation around the circumstances of it) meant that the story occupied airtime and newsprint on a level not seen since the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The intensity and frequency of reporting and speculation was staggering. In September 2007, the Daily Express and Sunday Express combined had ‘Maddie’ as lead front page story with picture 23 times. 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 carried on, 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 on 14 October and the British police announcing that  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 media interest in the case.

This week has seen the Daily Mirror run this story on its front page, ‘Maddy Cops: We’re ready to make arrests’. which is a follow up the Sunday Mirror exclusive which revealed that Madeleine had been seen ALIVE on a Mediterranean beach just a few weeks ago.  On the same day the Sunday Express reported new clues to the disappearance on its front page.  Now, on 9th October the Star, the Express and the Mirror, all devote their front pages to Kate McCann’s wish to appear in court to ‘confront’  former Portuguese police chief Goncalo Amaral who wrote in his book that Madeleine had died in an ­accident which her parents then covered up before hiding her body.Ahead of the Panorama programme, Sky News has reported that a new picture of a possible suspect connected to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann will released by police.

What is troubling about these new reports of various sightings of Madeleine – 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, the fact that Madeleine has disappeared 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 utilised a highly sophisticated PR campaign to make sure that Madeleine is not forgotten. They believe, we are told, that the world will forget that Madeleine is missing if the story falls off the news agenda. To that end ‘Team McCann’ as the operation has been referred to, has since 2007 ensured  a constant flow of information is available to the media.

As soon as Madeleine disappeared Gerry McCann started the website which has become Find Madeleine and there was 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 cultural histories missing children have represented that 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.

We can say too that these very real events have become a sort of virtual murder mystery. It can be argued that since Madeleine’s vanishing all the factors of a modern mystery are in place and being played out under the glare of the world’s media – the fact that we have no answers itself encourages speculation.

And in today’s cyber world we have another element at work. The internet has provided the space where people can debate the facets of the case and speculate on the speculation.

Moreover, 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 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 the 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 on to individuals we don’t know, 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.

Which of course leads us into the next point – that Madeleine is extremely photogenic. Her innocent beguiling blonde and bright eyed image suggests innocence. If and only I suggest if she had been less photogenic would her image have been so widely disseminated throughout the world?

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. And this highlighting of foreign incompetence has been a feature of the coverage. 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 17 May UK detectives reviewing the case of 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’  and Kate McCann told the enquiry  that when the News of the World published her diaries without permission she felt ‘mentally raped’ and ‘violated’.

Let us hope then, that in this post Leveson world, the publicity generated by next week’s Crimewatch will be both positive and constructive.