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A year none of us will ever forget

For a variety of reasons, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann seems to hold an enduring, not to say unhealthy, hold on the nation's imagination. The first and most obvious is that it exemplifies every parent's deepest fear. It's also a mystery, and it's only human to wonder at the unknowable truth. But there is more to it than that, something modern and distinctive. For it's also a media story, a testament to the power of the digital image.

There can be few people in this country who are unfamiliar with the photograph of Madeleine with her large, dark and seemingly imploring eyes. And many, if not most, will have seen the footage in which she looks up, full of a child's acceptance, at her father's camcorder. Then there are her parents, an attractive couple and, in the case of Kate McCann, strikingly photogenic. And finally the missing image, the one that in our surveillance culture we have come to expect to exist, that of a perpetrator carrying the child off into the night.

It's a story that has remained in the public eye because the truth is that, however macabre, it is attractive to the eye. I recall being in the Sky News studios when the McCanns flew back to England from Portugal. All other news that morning was dropped. Every item. Hours were spent on reporting the arrival of an aeroplane. Forget Chamberlain returning from Munich, the coverage could not have been any greater had Martians landed with a declaration of interplanetary war.

And yet nothing had happened. Nothing has happened of any consequence, in fact, for a whole year. Inevitably, then, at the end of a long two hours of Madeleine: One Year On the viewer knew precious little more than was known at the beginning. The bare facts were and remain that on 3 May 12 months ago Madeleine McCann went missing from her room in a Portuguese resort and has not been seen since. It is, as her father Gerry McCann said a number of times, the 'nightmare' from which there is no waking.

But is it a nightmare from which we can gain meaningful information? Or is it the type that offers some kind of dark, vicarious entertainment, the sort derived from the voyeuristic relief that we are not in the McCanns' dreadful position?

The programme-makers, who followed the couple for four months, seemed to have two aims. The first was to allow the McCanns to tell their version of events, and thereby counter some of the rumour and vicious innuendo that has flourished in the media frenzy. And the second was to show the McCanns trying to gather support for a Europe-wide 'amber alert' to deal with missing children.

In both cases, the film, despite its length, performed a frustratingly limited job. Though it revisited the scene of Madeleine's disappearance, and the McCanns went over what had happened, key details were left conspicuously untouched. For example, was the apartment locked or unlocked? Without definitive answers to this question and others there is still plenty of room for malicious speculation.

Which is what the McCanns file under 'Nasty' in the boxes of correspondence they receive. They also have a box marked 'Nutty' and - an interesting though needless distinction - 'Psychics'. We watched them reading letters from supporters, conspiracy theorists and hate-filled moralists, neither them nor us any the wiser to the details of the real-life event that prompted this epistolary outpouring.

In one vital respect, though, the film delivered. Shot in unflinching close-up, it was not quite a study of people under unbearable psychological pressure, but it was a kind of trial by reflex expression. It's impossible to imagine that anyone could withstand that degree of photographic scrutiny while harbouring a massive lie.

The McCanns came across as determined and disciplined people, particularly Gerry. 'It's absolutely essential that you survive,' he said, addressing the camera with something between stiff resolution and pride, 'and come out the other end.'

He refused to allow himself to look back because, he said, sensibly enough, it didn't help. In an earlier press conference, he said that 'words cannot describe the anguish and despair'. This must be true, but you can glimpse it in his wife's haunted gaze. Kate McCann broke down a number of times, and behind her own large dark eyes, so reminiscent of her daughter's, lay a world of unending pain. In a sense, the programme reconfirmed what has always been apparent: that the couple are entirely innocent of any crime.

But in the matter of leaving their children unattended, while they went to dine in a nearby restaurant, the McCanns remain in the dock of public opinion, charged with parental negligence. And here we come to the terrible irony of this case.

The McCanns left Madeleine and their twins alone because, as Kate put it, they did not have the 'slightest inkling' of any danger. After all, who expects a kidnapper to be lurking in a quiet holiday resort? The answer now is everyone. Thus a couple of parents who were almost alone in their obliviousness to the contemporary paranoia of child abduction have helped increase that very paranoia.

The McCanns now want to 'stop what happened to Madeleine happening to any other child'. To this end, they are lobbying for European legislation obliging law agencies to notify road and border patrols of a child's disappearance.

Again there was very little supporting detail to explain what this actually involves. Instead the misleading statistic was quoted that around '100,000' children go missing in Britain each year. Are the McCanns arguing for border alerts on all of these cases? We didn't find out. Nor were we told that nearly all of the missing children are found almost immediately and that the rest, with a handful of exceptions, are runaway teenagers.

As yet the massive focus on this tragedy, of which this film unavoidably forms a part, has not yielded a shred of productive evidence. But unquestionably it has helped to terrify a generation of already overprotective parents. It shouldn't be necessary to forget Madeleine to remember that what happened was exceptionally rare. Amid all the hype and hysteria, it just seems like that.

by Andrew Anthony
Source: Guardian



3 comments:

  1. Mr. Andrew Anthony states: "For example, was the apartment locked or unlocked?".
    Further down he says: "In a sense, the programme reconfirmed what has always been apparent: that the couple are entirely innocent of any crime."

    How does he know they are entirely innocent when the McCann's do not clarify whether the apartment was locked or unlocked?

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  2. The bloody cheek to say the McCanns could not have forseen an abductor so therefor thought it safe to leave three children with a combined age of only 7...Anything could have happened, there could have been an accident,Madeleine could have wandered and fallen in to the hotel pool...There does not have to be the risk of abductor to not leave your kids. Besides that to even have children distresed and alone is dispicable and selfish.
    AS for the pain in Kates eyes I only saw a woman trying to look troubled....she was perfectly happy in the weeks after the abduction. I have never seen a colder woman.

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  3. “The film was to allow the McCanns to show their version of events” Hasn’t the English media been doing just that for the past year? “Counter the rumour and vicious innuendo that has flourished in the media frenzy” Faced with contradictions, lies and evasive behaviour, we’re not allowed to doubt the veracity of their tale?

    “It was a kind of trial by reflex expression” I don’t believe I’m that great of an actor, but if I had the help of a production crew for 4 months whose objective was to make me look like a victim, I think I could shed a tear or two. With cellos playing how can you go wrong?

    Do these people actually believe what they’re writing or are they writing these types of stories because they feel it will prolong this charade resulting in more profits?

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