Missing ‘our Maddie’

The abduction of four-year old Madeleine McCann in Portugal has been turned into a public spectacle in Britain.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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What do you really feel about the disappearance of four-year old Madeleine McCann from an Algarve holiday apartment? Do you reckon it is a bad thing, a good thing, or are you a ‘don’t know’?

Of course, it is a crass and stupid question. Everybody is appalled by child abduction. So why then do so many people and organisations in Britain now seem to feel the need to protest that they are against the abduction of a small child from an upmarket holiday camp in Portugal?

The ongoing grim story of Madeleine’s disappearance will have touched the private feelings and fears of millions. But that does not explain why so many now make such a song and dance of demonstrating their feelings of sorrow for a family they have never met and of bitterness towards an invisible abductor. After all, we are not stupid enough to think that crime is like a reality TV show, where if we make enough noise we can just vote out the one we hate and make sure the best people win through.

In my part of London there are posters up in windows asking us all to ‘Help Find Madeleine’ and advertising the phone numbers to ring if we ‘have any information about Madeline’s whereabouts’. Apparently many thousands have been distributed by newspapers and other organisations and displayed across the UK. In the fortnight since Madeleine disappeared, we have seen football crowds waving banners for her and people all over the place wearing yellow ribbons around their wrists. Internet sites are clogged with messages from those keen to express sympathy and say how upset they are.

While British celebrities and footballers make appeals and offer rewards for Madeleine’s return, the message from most of the media was summed up by the front page of the Sun newspaper last Saturday – Madeleine’s fourth birthday – which told her tortured parents: ‘We share your pain.’ The television news has largely been given over to the story, with presenters sent to the Algarve to front broadcasts and ‘special correspondents’ reporting on the latest minute developments as if it were a military campaign. Even MPs and government ministers have now felt the need to get involved in the campaign for Madeleine’s safe return.

I feel for Madeleine’s family as anybody must. But at the risk of being accused of callousness, what is this public outpouring really about?

It has nothing to do with the progress of the case in Portugal. We know from the rare occasions when a child has been abducted in Britain that such high-profile outpourings of public emotionalism have little bearing on the actual investigation. But at least in those cases one might claim that appeals for information and publicity are relevant to the local police work. This time, however, the posters appealing for our help in finding her are a very long way from the crime scene in Portugal.

That gap helps to make clear that such displays are really about something over here rather than over there. The McCann case has been turned into the latest public focus through which people in a fragmented Britain feel able to come together in a collective display of emotion, to show that we share one another’s pain and are on the side of good.

Those pictures of the little girl are on show in windows where a church or community group poster might have been in the past – or more pertinently, perhaps, where an England football flag might be displayed these days. It is about a public display of belonging, of feeling part of an emotional collective at a time when there seems little in society or its values to hold people together. It was inevitable that lonely politicians would get involved in this media-shaped attempt to make a connection and bring people together.

To some extent this is not even about Madeleine McCann, the real missing little girl. It is more about the media creation, ‘our Maddie’ or ‘Maddy’ – a name not recognised by her family but invented by headline writers, just as they once turned the murdered two-year old James Bulger into ‘our Jamie’.

Some might suggest that this outpouring of common feeling shows ‘Britain at its best’. But as after similar tragedies over the past decade, it is worth asking what it says about our society that it should now take something as terrible as the disappearance of a little girl to bring people together. It is hardly a healthy sign of the public state of mind that many should want to turn a family’s private tragedy into a public spectacle (with audience participation), or even a sort of national emotional rally.

Many of the complaints about Portugal’s privacy laws, which prevent the police giving the UK media the full details of their investigation, seem motivated largely by this wish to turn the case into a full-blown media event as has been done with recent child tragedies and murders in Britain. As I noted earlier, one result is that there appear to have been two operations going on around the McCann abduction at the same time. There has been the secretive investigation by the Portuguese authorities. And there has been the noisy ‘who’s-to-blame?’ inquiry conducted by many others via the UK media.

It has seemed as if everybody wants a piece of the action in Portugal for their own purposes, with child protection experts and policemen and lawyers flying out from the UK to stake their claim. Many have sought to seize on the abduction inquiry – and prey upon wider fears about children – in order to promote their own agendas. This has prompted a lot of ugly point-scoring and finger-pointing.

So within hours of her disappearance, even though nobody knew for certain that Madeleine had been abducted or why, campaigners were out in force demanding a crackdown on a supposed army of British sex offenders holidaying abroad, or a new global offensive against an alleged international paedophile ring. While some sought to blame the ‘incompetent’ Portuguese, others pinned the blame on the ‘irresponsible’ parents for leaving their sleeping children locked up while they had dinner. The effect has been to spread more feelings of fear and guilt and bitterness.

Just below the surface of the universal sympathy, it has been striking how more than a few contributions to online discussions have turned against the McCanns. The assumption that everybody must want Madeleine returned to her family turns out to be not strictly true; some contributors to readers’ discussions have argued that, whether she is found safe or not, she and her siblings should be removed from her parents and placed in official care. It just shows how thin is the veneer of unity in reaction to a tragedy like this. When people’s public reactions are based on unthinking ersatz emotion, divorced from any real involvement with the family or the case, they can just as easily turn against the parents as in their favour – especially at a time when parent-bashing has become so much in vogue.

Much of the British media has effectively sought to take over the case and turn the tragedy of ‘our Maddie’ into a story of their own. It came as little surprise to hear that, once a British man had been identified by the authorities as a formal suspect, a tabloid journalist stepped forward to claim that she had fingered him. She said she had been disturbed by the fact that he refused to be interviewed by the media – a deeply suspicious attitude in our tell-all age.

Madeleine’s parents are reported to have said that the high-profile coverage and messages of support have given them strength to cope with their ordeal. Perhaps so; it remains to be seen what the longer term impact on them might be of having their trauma nationalised, of being turned into media beings who walk on the beach for the cameras, live from public vigil to press conference and are pictured on front pages clutching their daughter’s toy every day.

In any case, the rest of us should surely try to take a step back and see things differently than the devastated family. The compassion that we feel towards them is no excuse for indulging in self-serving morbid displays. Many of those writing messages about Madeleine on the internet concede that there is no way anybody can really feel what the McCanns are going through, and there are no words to describe their horror at what has happened. In which case, might it not be better for us to shut up about it, let the investigation run its course, and focus our energies on things that we can do something about?

Things like, for example, challenging those who would turn this unique and terrible case into a metaphor for the alleged vulnerability of all our children, and exploit it to intensify further the irrational mood of paedophile-phobia that grips our culture. It almost seems as if there is no family tragedy so terrible that its impact cannot be made worse by the intervention of the child protection zealots.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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