Emma Cowing: Madeleine’s parents not to blame

Madeleine's parents Gerry and Kate McCann appeal for information on her whereabouts. Picture: PA
Madeleine's parents Gerry and Kate McCann appeal for information on her whereabouts. Picture: PA
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Kate McCann looks exhausted. Speaking to BBC’s Crimewatch on Monday night about the day her daughter Madeleine went missing in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz, she appeared completely and utterly shattered.

I’m not surprised. I doubt she’s had a full night’s sleep in the six and a half years (is it really that long?) since her world changed irrevocably.

But there was something else about McCann’s demeanour too, beyond the sadness, beyond the loss. She looked haunted. Once again, I can’t say I’m surprised. She and her husband Gerry have never been allowed to forget the decision they made that night – to leave Madeleine and her twin siblings Sean and Amelie alone in the apartment the family were staying in while they dined with their friends at a tapas bar 50 metres away, a decision that led to tragedy when McCann went to check on the children at 10pm and discovered that Madeleine was missing.

Speaking about it on Monday night, McCann said it had taken her years to forgive herself. I suspect, given her demeanour, that she probably still hasn’t. Her husband said he’d got past it by looking forwards, rather than back, hoping that the momentum of the investigation – which has been given a shot in the arm by new e-fits and information pertaining to a possible abductor that was released during the Crimewatch programme – would carry him and his broken family forward.

But if the McCanns are trying forgive themselves, there are appear to be plenty critics out there who refuse to let them. Like many on Monday night, I watched the Crimewatch programme with my Twitter feed open, following the comments by others on the show as it unfolded. I was shocked by many of the tweets, as viewers all over the country weighed in to accuse the McCanns of neglect, and question – even now – whether they were telling the truth about what happened that night.

There were pictures, one suggesting that the new e-fit of the suspected abductor resembled Gerry McCann, another which had mocked the couple up to look Moors murderers Brady and Hindley.

There were repeated demands that the couple be prosecuted for neglect, as well as dark murmurings about cadaver dogs and unanswered questions. Many tweeters simply said that they could not feel any sympathy for the McCanns as they had brought it all on themselves. Put simply, six and a half years on, many people seem to feel that the McCanns deserved to have their child kidnapped.

What the McCanns did was wrong. Should they have left the three children unattended for so long in a foreign country? Of course not. But they were also far from alone. The other three couples on holiday with them did exactly the same thing – leaving their children asleep in their rooms while going to the restaurant – all part of the same apartment complex – five nights in a row. If they are the only British families who have ever done such a thing then please, pass me a hat, so I can eat it.

I wonder if some of those who persecute the McCanns have, perhaps, done something similar in the past, and are now racked with a certain sense of guilt themselves. Or if those who state confidently that they would never do such a thing only think that way because they know what happened to the McCanns in the first place.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but also a dangerous one. The McCanns did what they did, and they paid a terrible and horrific price for it, something that will haunt them every day for the rest of their lives.

Do they really need an army of armchair judges raining down opprobrium? Is there any way that they will say things to the McCanns that the McCanns have not already said to themselves? No. Of course not.

The McCanns have become unlikely hate figures in Britain, targets of criminal theorists, angry parent groups and anyone with a Twitter account and a working knowledge of PhotoShop. But surely it’s time to stop twisting the knife – an act as cruel as it is useless.

Indeed, perhaps we should bear in mind the point made by Kate McCann herself, on talking about how she had attempted to move on from the guilt over Madeleine’s disappearance. “Ultimately it’s not us that’s committed this crime,” she told Kirsty Young. “It’s the person who’s gone into that apartment and taken a little girl away from her family.”

Now that is someone who does deserve to be hated.