The increasingly strange case of Madeleine McCann

The global crusade around missing Maddie seems more and more detached from the local police investigation in Portugal.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Back at the start of June, a month after Madeleine McCann disappeared, I suggested that, rather than gawping at her parents meeting the Pope, we might be better off looking at ourselves and asking ‘what it says about our society that a family tragedy can be turned into a public spectacle, which, unless something dramatic happens, looks set to run for longer than Big Brother this summer’ (1).

A hundred days after her disappearance, as Madeleine returns to the headlines in the UK and the campaign around her spreads further afield, I am afraid that now looks like a severe underestimation; in terms of both scale and timescale, the public spectacle surrounding her has far outweighed the fading star of reality TV.

Almost from the moment Madeleine was reported missing, there has been a stark divide between two things. On one hand, there is the actual police search for a missing four-year-old in Portugal, shrouded in secrecy by that country’s laws. On the other, and having little or nothing to do with the case itself, there is the ‘Maddie’ phenomenon – a very public outpouring of mass emotionalism, led by the media but involving everybody from British prime minister Gordon Brown to thousands who have put posters in windows and posted messages on the internet. This has gone far beyond normal expressions of sympathy into the realm of emotional exhibitionism.

That divide appears starker than ever in the latest round of publicity. The investigation itself is now clearly focusing more than ever on events in the McCanns’ holiday apartment on the night that their daughter disappeared. Tiny blood specks reportedly found there in a recent search have been sent to the UK for analysis. But before the results are known, the Portuguese police have this week stated publicly for the first time what anybody familiar with similar cases has surely thought – that it is most likely Madeleine is dead, and that she died on the night she disappeared.

Yet at the same time as the investigation has become more clearly local and focused, the Maddie phenomenon has been spreading further and further. The McCanns have launched a new ‘channel’ on the YouTube website, called Don’t You Forget About Me. They say this is about reaching a younger generation with the Find Madeleine message and ‘crossing borders’, because ‘the internet reaches the whole world’. The attempt to globalise the campaign, and raise awareness about missing children, has even reached into the White House, winning a message of support from First Lady Laura Bush who asked us all to ‘Please tune into this new YouTube channel and join the…important effort to protect children in our global society.’

In practice, of course, there is nothing that ‘the whole world’ or ‘our global society’ can do to help find a four-year-old missing, now presumed dead, in a Portuguese resort. The only impact this PR campaign can have on the investigation is to prompt more false sightings and start more wild goose chases around the world – most recently in normally-sensible Belgium.

The Maddie phenomenon has become an emotional totem, a moral statement that ‘the whole world’ can sign up to in order to show that they are on the side of Good. The yellow wristbands are badges that show the world you care. It does not matter that the message on the wristband – ‘Look for Madeleine’ – is of no practical use. For many wearers, the real message is more like ‘Look at me’.

The McCanns have certainly encouraged the spread of the moral crusade around ‘our Maddie’, through their highly professional PR operation. But the striking thing is the willingness of much of the media – not normally noted for its sentimentality – to follow their lead and jump on the bandwagon. What is more, the latest wave of coverage shows it has gone way beyond the sort of tabloid human interest story that some love to sneer at, and been taken to the heart of the liberal media establishment.

Like anybody else with something to promote these days, the McCanns have been giving a series of cross-media interviews to showcase their new YouTube initiative. Among other things they have appeared on the BBC’s Heaven and Earth TV show, been interviewed by the magazine Woman’s Own, and done a long interview for the Guardian, bible of the British liberal intelligentsia, which clearly recognises the Leicestershire doctors as two of its own. Noting that the interview was to publicise Don’t You Forget About Me – set up ‘in partnership with Google, YouTube and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children’ – the paper declared that this website ‘could become the focus of hope for thousands of families’. Where Madeleine is concerned, it seems, hype is not confined to the popular press. Gerry McCann is also due to appear as a guest speaker at the Guardian-sponsored Edinburgh TV festival.

The media determination to claim a stake in the Maddie phenomenon even started an extraordinary top-level turf war this week, as the heads of news at BBC and ITN exchanged angry messages about each other’s coverage of the supposed Belgian ‘sighting’ of the missing girl, with each side vying to take the moral high ground over the Maddie affair.

Nor is it by any means just the media. All manner of public figures, from pop stars and footballers to Mrs Bush and even the Pope, have made a show of signing on to the Maddie crusade to demonstrate that they are on the side of the angels and to make an emotional connection with an audience. In the UK, Gordon Brown and his people were pushing it from the top of government even before he formally took over as prime minister. There have been reports letting it be known that Brown was in tears when he met the McCanns, and that he has frequently raised the issue with the Portuguese authorities. The Foreign Office has been helping to manage and promote the PR campaign. They arranged the McCanns’ high-profile trip to the Vatican, where one ‘family friend’ quoted as making emotional statements to the media was in fact an FO official.

As for the public response to the McCanns, the mixed attitudes now becoming evident confirm that their case has assumed symbolic importance removed from the actual facts of the investigation. There has been from the start an air of the untouchable surrounding Madeleine’s tragic parents, with much of the media apparently outraged by any questioning of them or suggestion that theirs was a lost cause. At the same time, however, the couple are being criticised increasingly openly, not only by the Portuguese media’s wild allegations that they were somehow involved in Madeleine’s disappearance, but more broadly for acting irresponsibly by leaving their children in bed while they went to dinner round the corner.

This schizophrenic attitude towards the McCanns reflects the dual symbolic status they have assumed in our media-shaped culture today.

First, they are seen as symbols of victimhood, and there is no higher source of moral authority nowadays than to have suffered pain and loss. This automatically places them on a pedestal of virtuousness – witness the slightly disturbing standing ovation they received from other holidaymakers outside a Portuguese church last weekend. Almost inevitably, like other high-profile victims before them, they are now being drawn into using their moral authority to front political campaigns. Thus they have used their new website to call for the introduction of more child protection laws based on the US ‘Amber Alert system’. As I have argued elsewhere this week, such a system would likely do more harm than good, intensifying the unhealthy public obsession with the spectre of child abduction (2). But the McCanns’ victim status means we are not supposed to question calls for some sort of ‘Maddie’s Law’.

At the same time, however, they are also seen by some as symbols of suspect parenthood – and few offences are deemed to be graver than that today. The pressure to conform to a tightly-policed version of ‘good parenting’ explains why the McCanns can now be criticised for making the perfectly reasonable assumption, shared by millions of other parents, that it was safe to leave their children asleep in a hotel room for a short while. The ease with which the spotlight of suspicion now falls on parents also explains why some are ready to give credence to stories of their involvement despite the lack of any evidence.

As we noted on spiked from the start of this sad case, outbursts of ersatz public emotionalism can be unstable and untrustworthy things. Because it is not rooted in any real relationship with the family, it can easily swing from pity to outrage and back. Those who are really making an emotional statement about themselves rather than the McCanns can do so just as easily through spitting bile as crying tears.

It is surely time that we all stopped trying to put ourselves in the McCanns’ shoes, and instead tried to put the Maddie phenomenon into some sort of perspective. It is perfectly understandable that her haunted parents should want to carry on with the campaign, that they should refuse to leave Portugal and go back home without their daughter, that they should say they want to do something ‘rather than sit back and not do anything’. The rest of us, however, should take a step back and finally try to separate the terrible case in Portugal from the moralistic global crusade being waged around it.

Gerry McCann says they wanted to set up the website ‘to channel all this good feeling into something that will benefit other people’. That is a noble sentiment. But some of us do not get such a ‘good feeling’ about a wider society where many seem to think simply being opposed to child abduction is a cause for public displays of self-congratulatory self-righteousness. Neither do we all accept that a global campaign to raise ‘awareness’ – ie, anxiety – about child abduction will benefit others, least of all put-upon parents. And nor do we think it is a crime to say that, more than three months after a four-year-old went missing, normal life must be allowed to go on.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume questioned whether the outpouring of public emotionalism after Madeleine McCann’s disappearance was a healthy response. He later examined the UK media coverage of ‘Maddie’, and he has argued that the experience of suffering is no basis for creating real social solidarity. Patrick West said that Newsround was en exception to the largely craven media coverage of Madeleine McCann. Josie Appleton commented on the ‘mourning sickness’ that followed the murders of two Soham schoolgirls. Rob Lyons observed the same phenomenon after the early demise of croc-doc Steve Irwin. Or read more at: spiked issue Modern life.

(1) Were you at the Vatican, too?, The Times, 1 June 2007

(2) Why the Amber Alert makes me see red, The Times, 14 August 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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