“Did you hear about the English couple that left their children alone in an apartment in Praia da Luz, and now one of their daughters is missing?”
This was how I first heard about Madeleine Beth McCann.
Friday, May 4, 2007, in the morning, the old lady at the grocery shop around the corner greeted me with a hasty ‘hello’ and immediately introduced the talk of the day. Little did we know, at that time, that it would become the talk of the week, of the month, of the year. She also couldn’t imagine that with that question, she would launch me into a story that has taken up quite a lot of time and energy, not only from myself, but from many others all over the world, who refuse to lay down the subject of the ‘Maddie case’.
In Portugal, there was criticism of the McCanns’ behaviour from Day One. Initially, most people adopted a stance of ‘find the little girl first, deal with the parents later’. When it started to dawn on people that the little girl was most likely not to be found – not alive and/or in good health, anyway –, that initial tolerance waned and was replaced with sharp criticism of Madeleine’s parents.
Whether that is a fair sentiment or not, is not the point of this post.
The point of this post, is to testify to the fact that in early September 2007, when Kate McCann left the Polícia Judiciária, not as a witness anymore, but as an ‘arguida’ in the case of her daughter’s disappearance, the people that were waiting outside the police building expressed their negative feelings in an audible way.
Only someone who has not lived in Portugal throughout the summer and fall of 2007 could have avoided noticing that the vast majority of the Portuguese public did not only believe that Madeleine was dead, but also that her parents’ role in her disappearance was, to say the least, a badly told story – something that a journalist working for Diário de Notícias noticed as early as on the 5th of May 2007, two days after the child vanished.
I don’t think Gonçalo Amaral had even dreamt of writing a book yet, on that Sunday morning when the McCanns left Portugal as arguidos. But on that very day, watching the couple abandon our country through the VIP door at Faro airport, live on television, people in cafés all over the country defined their opinion about Kate and Gerry McCann.
It didn’t take one single book to achieve that effect.
And many months later, when the process was archived, very few Portuguese even bothered to comment on the decision; the outcome of the investigation had become too evident, after the removal of Gonçalo Amaral from the case, and the lack of diligences by the Polícia Judiciária afterwards.
“É o costume” – “it’s the usual way” – the Portuguese thought. ‘Big’ judicial cases never produce any results in this country, or at least that is how we perceive it. They are brushed under the carpet, a procedure that is known as ‘archiving’… and never heard of again.
That is why Mr Amaral’s book was such a surprise. It is highly unusual for a single Portuguese citizen to oppose the brushing-under-the-carpet move; it is even more unusual for the opposition to come from a former policeman who headed the case for some time. And ‘worst’ of all, for said opposition to become a best-selling book.
But if anything, ‘Maddie – The Truth of the Lie’ only came to confirm what so many of us already suspected or knew. A journalist friend of mine was highly disappointed when he read the book, for he couldn’t find a single new piece of information in it. So much for major revelations – and so much for a change of mind.
Gonçalo Amaral’s book probably didn’t change a single Portuguese citizen’s opinion about the Maddie case, because the Portuguese media had informed the country about the major points of the police investigation throughout the summer and fall of 2007. Whether or not this constituted a breach of the judicial secrecy, is a matter for the courts. But the unavoidable fact is that, except for half a dozen exceptions in 24Horas, all those ‘leaks’ in the Portuguese press were later revealed as correct, when the police files were made public.
So, at the date when Mr Amaral’s book was launched, the vast majority of the Portuguese public was well informed about the investigation, and had already formed an opinion about the destiny of Madeleine McCann.
The ‘problem’ is, the same cannot be said about the British public. Our insular friends may have an opinion concerning Maddie’s fate – but how well informed are they, about the facts of the investigation? And whom does that situation suit?
Why did the book, after 14 months of peaceful sales in Portugal, suddenly, but surely, attract the attention of the McCann couple's lawyers? Why did it take 14 months of sales to suddenly realise that the book damaged the ‘search’ for Madeleine – a 'search' that is not even being carried out by any legitimate police force in any country?
Does anyone really believe that by forbidding Mr Amaral’s book, the whole of Portugal will go out on the streets again, like it did in early May 2007, to look for a missing English girl, and forget the disdain, the insults and the humiliations that our country suffered at the hands of the British press?
This week, the court hearings in Lisbon prompted the café chatter to return to the Maddie case. The general comments about the McCann couple have become even more critical of them: that "all they want is money", that they only return to Portugal "to sue the policeman who tried to find their daughter", that their very presence in our country is "a provocation". To me, personally, while I have to understand where people’s feelings come from, it is painful to see that Madeleine is even more forgotten in the midst of the court news discussion.
Except, that is, for the old lady at the grocery around the corner. Two great-grandchildren were born into her family since Madeleine disappeared. On Friday morning, she greeted me with new photos of the babies. And while pride and joy filled her heart, a sadness suddenly covered her face, and she said: “Did you hear about little Madeleine, this week? The police say she is dead. I had hope until I heard it from the court.”