Society » Family
Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey

Maddie, Information, Justice and the Media

One year ago, Madeleine McCann was with her parents on holiday in Praia da Luz, Algarve, Portugal, perhaps one of the calmest and safest places in Europe, if not the planet. Nothing would have led the three-year-old’s parents to believe that there was any danger at all of abduction...and so the mistake was made to have dinner with friends and leave three children in a bedroom.

The eldest of these three childen was three-year-old Madeleine McCann, whose disappearance was the spark which set off an entire year of media interest and public involvement in a tragedy which happens more frequently than many think. Millions of children around the world go missing every year.

Why the tremendous interest in Maddie? She is (and let us suppose she is still alive and will be found, until irrefutable evidence to the contrary) a pretty little girl, white and blonde, from an affluent family with good-looking parents who look good on TV. If she were the daughter of a Cape Verdian immigrant lady with an unknown father, nobody except the mother would probably care less.

It was precisely this interest in the case which brought the question of justice and the media into the fray, exacerbating the supposed culture shock between the Portuguese detective force (Polícia Judiciária) and the British media, from the erudite former broadsheets down to the “Ten-breasted alien”-story tabloids. The word “supposed” is justified because it is not universally true that the Portuguese detective service works behind a cloak of secrecy – the Casa Pia case (paedophilia involving public figures and pupils from the Casa Pia Institution) is now in its sixth year, famous personalities have had their reputations ruined, smeared in the public image amid rumours galore – and the case has not yet been judged.

The same happened in the Madeleine McCann case – questions by the Press, many based upon sheer supposition, and half-facts leaked out by the police giving rise to escalating importance being attributed to gossip, where “someone said they heard someone say” becoming “credible” sources.

The result was that different newspapers printed what they managed to find in their desperate quest for information and the result of this was not pretty – cloudy “facts” about blood samples in the boot of a car, hair samples, allegations of sedatives being administered to the children, none of which has been backed up with hard and clear evidence.

In the absence of this, and with a glut of gossip, the sympathy for the McCanns turned to suspicion and culminated in the Portuguese police insinuating to Kate McCann that she had killed her own daughter. Unless this insinuation was based upon firm evidence, in which case it would have been the basis for a trial, why was it made?

The accusation was enough to send a wave of “I knew all along they were guilty as hell” rippling through Portuguese society, based on “why are they hiring all those top lawyers?” “Why are they raking in millions in their Find Madeleine Fund?” and the fact that “That mother is very cold”.

Let one thing be crystal clear: in civilised societies, and under the rule of law, a person is innocent until proven guilty. The Find Madeleine Fund is being used to try to set up an early warning system in similar cases in future in the EU and possibly also in the USA. And as for Kate McCann’s reaction and expression, she probably cried all her tears out in private on the night of May 3rd and from then on, lived her desperation behind the best mask she could put on, finding in apparent calmness and stony-faced dignity the only protection she could hide behind in the glaring light of the public eye.

If Madeleine had been spirited away from Portugal in the first hour after her abduction, few if any leads would be available for the police to pick up. These would have done better by giving out no information at all than leaking half-facts at press conferences.

As for the media and everyone else involved in using this case to perform some grandstaging, and enhance their own image as a result, these vultures have now turned their backs and moved on. A few will be in Praia da Luz this weekend, looking for something for tomorrow’s front page.

The parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, will be reliving the nightmare of that decision to dine without their children – as it should be their right – on each and every terrible anniversary until they find their daughter. And this is where the story should begin and end – a private tragedy and not a public spectacle.

One hopes they do find Maddie, safe and well, since hope is the last thing to die. Until then, it is imperative that nobody stops looking for Maddie and for her abductor.

Timothy BANCROFT-HINCHEY

PRAVDA.Ru

The Portuguese version of PRAVDA.Ru ran two stories about this case, placed Madeleine’s photograph on our front page and left it there for two months after the disappearance, to help. We understood that the case should be a secret of justice while the police performed their task, away from rumours and gossip.

Other stories in PRAVDA.Ru about this case:

http://english.pravda.ru/society/stories/11-09-2007/96994-maddiemccann-0

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