Missing Madeleine: One year on

A LITTLE girl is snatched from her bed and doesn't return. That's the Madeleine McCann story.

It's the beginning of the story, and the middle of it, and sadly, it may turn out to be the end of it. I can add detail, layer upon layer of detail, that will elicit more of an emotional response. I can tell you that Madeleine was blond-haired and beautiful and about to turn four, and that when she was taken from her holiday apartment in Praia da Luz in Portugal on May 3, 2007, she was wearing a pink pyjama top with a picture of Eeyore, and white bottoms with flowers. I can tell you about her distinctive right eye, where her dark pupil bleeds into the blue iris. Or about her mother Kate and her father Gerry and the harrowing year they have had, about her twin siblings Sean and Amelie. But I can't tell you where she is, or who took her, or what has happened to her since.

But perhaps that's been part of the problem with the Madeleine McCann story, the way our emotional responses have been manipulated. In fact, the kernel of truth in the case is remarkably small, rattling and echoing around in a great empty shell of rumour and speculation and downright lies. The resulting din has been deafening over the past 12 months, the press coverage of the case stuffed full of 'reports' that came to nothing. 'Sightings' in Morocco. 'Sightings' in Montpellier, France. Rumours about Madeleine's body being found. Rumours about supposed prosecutions of the McCanns for neglect. Stories about suspect forensics, about private investigators with questionable methods. There was such a gargantuan appetite to satisfy – was it the public's appetite or the press's? – that the stories became like fast food: churned out quickly and of questionable quality. Last month, Express Newspapers paid out 550,000 compensation to the Find Madeleine charity. But why did this little girl capture the world's imagination in the first place?

That is a different question from the cynical version, the one in which people asked why so much time was being spent on one white, middle-class child when so much else was happening in the world. Madeleine McCann was part of that world; she had her place in it and a right to our protection. A society that doesn't protect those too vulnerable to protect themselves is not much of a society. Madeleine's story tapped into every parent's most primitive fear about the threat to their children in the modern world. But was it justified? The British crime survey actually shows violent crime is down 41% since 1995. That includes the relatively rare 'stranger' violent crime. When it comes specifically to sexual offences against children, Home Office statistics suggest 80% are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.

Of course, internet paedophilia is a serious, increasing and worrying crime and one that has exacerbated a sense of increasing danger. But if our fears about direct attacks on our children are not borne out by the statistics, we need to question what this story was really about. What drove it, and why? It was a personal tragedy for one family, but it became so much more, a story that developed wider social significance. Certain events become snapshots of our times. The death of Princess Diana was one. Madeleine McCann is another.

The case tells us about current attitudes to child protection and paedophilia, about our attitudes to race and class. It also tells us about the changing nature of world communications and the developing interplay between the press and the public. There was so much reaction, so much judgment, so much hostility to Kate and Gerry McCann, that examining Madeleine's story and the way it was handled is like holding a mirror up to our society. We may not like what we see.

Praia da Luz is a mishmash of old and new Portugal, stuffed with bright, traditional fishermen's cottages and new villas, and tiny cobbled streets that meander through the heart of the village and down to the sea. Light, ochre cliffs rise above buttermilk-coloured sands and the bright sails of windsurfing boards dot the sea. It's a quiet, family holiday destination. The beach backs on to the Mark Warner holiday village where the McCanns were staying. The Warner village curls around Praia da Luz itself but is also self-contained, with its own supermarket and post office, pubs and restaurants. It is spread out enough for shuttle buses to operate within different parts of the complex.

The McCanns were holidaying with a group of friends that included eight children, the oldest of whom was Madeleine, and all of the group were assigned to Block 5 of the Ocean Club. There were six doctors in the group. Most Warner resorts have a baby-listening facility but the Ocean Club did not, so the group asked for apartments close together. The McCanns were on the corner of the ground floor. Above them were David and Fiona Payne, the only couple with a functioning baby monitor, and Fiona's mother, Diane. The third couple of the group were Russell O'Brien and Jane Tanner. They had brought their own monitor but it wasn't getting much signal from the tapas bar where the friends met to eat each night. The final couple were Matt and Rachel Oldfield.

The night Madeleine disappeared, Kate and Gerry McCann had a glass of wine together in their apartment after putting Madeleine and the twins to bed. Then they left the apartment and made the short 50-yard walk to the tapas restaurant that overlooked the swimming pool in their section of the complex. They were the first to arrive at their table that night, at around 8.35pm, and they spoke to another couple while they waited for their friends to arrive. Gerry McCann made his first check at 9pm. He noticed the door to the children's bedroom was further ajar than he'd left it and wondered if Madeleine had climbed out of bed and into her parents' bed. Back home in Rothley, Leicestershire, she had a star chart for nights she stayed in her own bed. But no, there she was sleeping. He said later it was one of those moments when he looked at his daughter and thought how beautiful she was, how lucky he was to have her.

As Gerry McCann returned to the restaurant, he stopped to talk to someone. Meanwhile, another of the group, Jane Tanner, was walking up the hill to make her own check and saw a man carrying a little girl. She thought little of it at the time, but this is the man who later featured in an artist's impression, and we were told that the McCanns believe this might well have been the moment Madeleine was taken. At 9.30pm, Matt Oldfield went to check on his daughter and offered to do Kate McCann's check for her. She accepted. Oldfield looked in the room and saw the sleeping twins but, because of the angle of Madeleine's bed, he didn't actually see her. Quite naturally, he simply assumed she was there. At 10pm, Kate McCann found Madeleine had gone.

The fact that the McCanns left their children alone is a vital part of the story that has shaped public attitudes to them. "We know there has been criticism but at the time we felt our actions were responsible," said Gerry McCann. "What Kate and I did was at worst nave, and no one should forget that the real criminal is the predator who has taken a completely innocent child in premeditated fashion."

In fact, the criticism of the McCanns was, on the whole, delayed, though there were one or two voices in the press asking early questions about whether it was justifiable to leave children under five alone in an apartment, even if the parents were checking on them every half hour, as the McCanns were. This was not even because of the danger of the children being abducted. For most parents, it was much more basic than that. What if the children woke up crying and upset? Half an hour is an eternity to a howling toddler. Or what if the child was ill? (As, in fact, one of the other couples' children was that night. Jane Tanner returned to look after her daughter when her partner's later check revealed their little girl had been sick.)

But at the start of the story, most people were reluctant to criticise. Even those who disapproved of what the McCanns had done on the whole recognised two basic truths. The first was that most parents make mistakes, some of them potentially just as serious as the McCanns', and they get away with them. (If the McCanns were negligent, they were also extremely unlucky. They were, after all, not the only family round that table who had left their children alone.) The second, and perhaps more important, acknowledgement was that criticism was both cruel and unnecessary because the McCanns had paid a devastating price. This was a couple who had wanted children enough to undergo IVF. Now they had lost Madeleine.

It is important, though, to look also at the initial reaction of the press because, in some ways, this was to shape everything that was to come. Perhaps the first uncomfortable lesson to learn about the press from the Madeleine McCann story is its tendency to present stories in a series of stereotypical models. The first wave of publicity, therefore, was the story of shock and tragedy, the middle-class family abroad whose lives were devastated by a cruel and unknown predator. At the centre was cute, photogenic Madeleine, the little angel who quickly became 'Maddie', as if she were the child next door, familiar to all of us. Denise Fergus, mother of toddler James Bulger, who was murdered by two ten-year-olds in another shocking and socially significant case back in 1993, remembers that syndrome well. "It was hurtful when the papers called him Jamie," she says of her son. "That was never his name. It was like a strange label they invented to sum him up in one word. It's the same now with Madeleine McCann."

Had Madeleine been found quickly, we might even have stayed in that phase of empathy and over-familiarity and simply rounded it off with a happy-ever-after ending. But she wasn't found. And the problem for the media was that they had bought into this story on an unprecedented scale. An endless number of news trucks trundled into Praia da Luz. The story had captured the imagination in a way that the similar disappearance of Ben Needham from the Greek island of Kos, 16 years previously, had not. The speed and scale of world communications had changed in those years. Madeleine's picture went round the world instantly on the internet. "I am certain that the coverage would not have been nearly so great if this had happened ten years ago," said Gerry McCann.

Because the essential facts changed so little, the story had nowhere to go – particularly because the Portuguese laws governing investigations differed from British laws and there could be no public statements about new developments. That frustrated the British press who were used to a more open flow of information. The frustration of a story without resolution led to the media beast spitting out the gristle of the first phase of fast food and moving on to look for fresher, more substantial fodder. Johnny Foreigner was next on their plate. The PJ, Portugal's Polcia Judiciria, was criticised for its 'incompetent' investigation, then the PJ criticised the McCanns in a series of leaks (perhaps those two events were not unconnected), and eventually the McCanns themselves became that new, fresh fodder.

Charlie Beckett, director of the media think-tank Polis, believes the press coverage became a kind of madness. The fact that Express Newspapers has had to pay the Find Madeleine Fund 550,000 has, he says, "woken us up" from that madness. "To show such a disregard, a contempt, for the normal range of journalistic principles… was this a weird exception? Or symbolic of the way journalism is going? I think it was a bit of both."

There were, continues Beckett, so many tactical and strategic errors made by the press. "It wasn't just the Express, with its lazy, crappy, circulation-driven coverage. There was the BBC, which I admire very much, hiring a helicopter to follow the McCanns home from the airport." Beckett understands the commercial decision taken in the light of such massive public interest. "But it didn't have a single factual element. It contributed to a dynamic that wasn't there, the idea of a chase. It was bizarre mismanagement."

In a way, Beckett argues, part of the problem was that the media didn't keep its critical faculties, in a measured way, in the early stages of this story. Journalists are aware that the majority of children who are harmed know their attackers. "In every newsroom I've worked in," says Beckett, "when a child goes missing, everyone says, 'Where were the parents?' The first instinct as journalists should not be, 'Oh, poor parents, everything they say must be true.' There should have been more caution."

If there had been, perhaps the McCanns would have been more fairly scrutinised and their innocence established earlier. But the story moved relentlessly into a new phase. There was a familiar rhythm to the way it lurched from one stereotype, of the broken-hearted parents, to another – the cold-hearted villains who supposedly murdered their child and hid her body.

Last year, I interviewed Kerry Grist, the mother of Ben Needham, at a time when the stories about the McCanns were still generally supportive. Grist was sympathetic to Madeleine's parents but understandably frustrated that her family had not received the same level of interest in their ongoing search for Ben. But she had experienced what would happen next. The press would turn against the McCanns, she predicted.

The publicity for Ben, though nowhere near the scale of that for Madeleine, had followed a similar pattern. Shock-horror. Sympathy. Then criticism. Grist and her family were working-class. Her father was a builder. Was the Madeleine publicity generated, people asked, partly because the McCanns were middle-class doctors – Gerry a heart specialist, Kate a GP? There was an irony about that. Both came from working-class backgrounds. Gerry was the youngest of his Irish mother's five children. His father was a joiner and the family lived in a tenement in Dumbarton. Kate was brought up in Liverpool, the only child of a joiner father and civil servant mother.

But if the McCanns' recently acquired middle-class status seemed to give them a certain power and influence, at least in the beginning, it would later be the stick with which to beat them. There was a resentment about these middle-class doctors, the kind of people who told others what to do, who reported abuse to social services when they came upon it. See – they were no better than anybody else. And that was the other snapshot of British society this story gave us: the supposedly new order of classless Britain, where merit was all and class was irrelevant, was a figment of our politically correct imaginations. We still carried plenty of baggage about class – Louis Vuitton battling it out with Primark vinyl on life's carousel.

Despite everything the McCanns had been through, there was an apparent appetite for taking them down a peg or two. But there was something else that meant the normal journalistic restraints were knocked out of place. This story took place abroad. "The British media and the Portuguese media were feeding off one another and I can't think of another example where that has happened," says Beckett. "I think there was a mirror effect. Because these people were British, any normal circumspection was suspended in the Portuguese press, in the same way the British press felt they could report anything because it happened in Portugal."

Paulo Reis is a Portuguese journalist who is outspoken in his condemnation of the way the British press behaved to his colleagues. "I believe the investigation by the Portuguese police was competent, highly professional and resisted many attempts to pervert the course of justice, coming from several areas," he told me. "I never saw in all of my life – and I'm 50 years old – so violent a campaign against a police force like the one that the British media launched against the Portuguese police and the Portuguese people. Xenophobia and racism were the main points of the campaign. 'Sardine-munching' – remember?" he said, referring to a comment from Mirror columnist Tony Parsons, who wrote that Portugal's ambassador to Britain should keep his "stupid, sardine-munching mouth shut".

It would be hard not to conclude that Reis is right about elements of xenophobia in the British coverage, but it is also true that there were clear signs of a flawed investigation. There is some dispute over how long it took the police to arrive at the scene and they failed to seal off the apartment or carry out the usual, immediate forensic tests. The later interpretation of forensic evidence, supposedly showing DNA linked to Madeleine in the boot of the car the McCanns had hired weeks after she went missing, was controversial to say the least. Some experts argued there were quite legitimate reasons why traces of Madeleine's DNA would be there and claimed it proved nothing. Certainly, no charges have ever been brought, which tells its own story.

We have, in the past, often been told that the European press was far less rabid than the British press. "Well, that wasn't true, was it?" says Charlie Beckett. It may be true that the British tabloids are, in general, more aggressive than their European counterparts, but the Portuguese press published accusations about the McCanns that were unprecedented here. And then the British press repeated them. "Everything that has been published by the Portuguese newspapers was reproduced by the British tabloids," says Reis, "without mentioning that the source was the Portuguese press, but pretending that they had sources in the PJ, or just using the expression 'it emerged yesterday'."

It is no secret that newspaper sales are declining and budgets are stretched. That creates its own imperative. Editors knew that the photogenic Madeleine had some of the economic impact on front pages that Diana had – and continues to have after her death. The London Evening Standard printed stories about the McCanns on 12 days in a 24-day period. Those cover stories increased sales by 130,000 extra copies. The day the McCanns were made arguidos, or official suspects, by Portuguese police, the Standard sold an extra 33,000 copies.

Journalism is a hugely competitive business and that, says Beckett, is only going to get worse in the current financial climate. But if elements of racism and economic desperation fuelled press coverage of Madeleine's story, what fuelled public attitudes? Certainly the press influenced them – though, says Beckett, the public are now more sophisticated and more sceptical about the media. "If they are reading something about the McCanns, they are putting it together with genuine cynicism and saying, 'Well, the press are bastards, so if they are saying that…'"

But what of the future? Will things change as a result of the McCann story, and if so, how? "The McCanns are symbolic," says Beckett. "It will be very difficult to put that genie back in the bottle."

AN EMPTY BED. A discarded shoe. A favourite toy, or a well-thumbed book. The enormity of a child going missing is perhaps most poignantly captured in the casually discarded detritus of the life they left behind. Those reminders are everywhere for parents. This story may have social significance but it is also the very personal story of a traumatised family in a unique situation. Traumatised not only by events, but by public reaction to those events. What will the psychological impact be for the McCann family?

Alan Pike is a trauma care consultant from the Centre for Crisis Psychology in Skipton who has counselled people involved in traumatic events such as coach crashes, shootings, hurricanes and the Sharm El Sheikh terrorist bombing. He was hired by the Mark Warner company to counsel the McCanns and saw them every day in the first week and then every fortnight until their return to the UK. "The difficulty for anyone who has experienced kidnap or abduction is the not knowing," he explains, "because it affects the ability to grieve." When you don't know if a person is dead or alive, you have the separation without the finality of saying goodbye. "There's no funeral, no memorial service…"

While initially uncertainty may allow you hope, when there's no resolution, hope can simply make your life stagnate while you wait in vain for it to be fulfilled. But while even a tiny glimmer remains, most parents psychologically refuse to let go. The McCanns have consistently said they believe Madeleine is alive. "I don't think hope ever goes because of that bond we all have with our children," says Pike. "Even if they are missing or lost and that bond is damaged, it never gets broken. I don't think that hope ever goes until there's irrefutable proof."

But, he points out, the circumstances of every kidnap are different. "It won't necessarily be the same for one family as another. It depends on the type of personality you have and how you deal in general with the things life throws at you. But there are few things as awful as being separated from a child. If you are separated from your son or daughter, every day you wake up it's the first thing you think about."

So what is the first advice Pike offered the McCanns? Where do you begin? "It's really about preparing people for their own reaction," he explains. "They have not experienced these traumatic events before and lack of familiarity is possibly the worst thing. So you need to give information about likely physical and psychological reactions and explain what's happening inside, because people tend to think they are ill or sick. They need reassurance that their reactions are as normal as anyone else's in those unique circumstances."

The problem for the McCanns was that their emotional responses were being continually scrutinised by a public who had never experienced what they were trying to judge. That Gerry McCann – wasn't he a bit too efficient, too campaigning? And Kate – she didn't cry much, did she? "I think people have an idea of what they think a normal reaction would be," says Dr Claire Fyvie, director of the Edinburgh Traumatic Stress Centre, "but I don't think there is a normal reaction to this kind of event. The range is so diverse that it's inappropriate to make judgments."

Pike agrees. "We all have a script in our head of how we think we'd behave. The reality is, that script goes out the window and what you do is very instinctive."

In order to deal psychologically with the traumatic emotions, we sometimes handle them in stages, much as we do with bereavement. In the beginning Kate McCann was never seen without Madeleine's favourite cuddle cat toy, a tangible emotional link to her missing daughter. Her daughter's comforter became her comforter. And while initially the McCanns claimed they would never leave Portugal without Madeleine, they naturally had to move away from that position once they were psychologically able to deal with the alternative. Going home was accepting Madeleine might not be found. "We always hoped that we would never have to return without Madeleine and could never have imagined that we would do so as suspects in our own daughter's disappearance," said Gerry McCann. "The pain and turmoil we have experienced is totally beyond description."

In fact, among the earliest advice that Pike gave the McCanns was to move as quickly as possible back to the normality of home in Leicestershire. "Returning to routines, returning to the UK, was important. You need to get back to a network of unconditional support."

Many people are held together in times of trauma by activity or campaigns. It's a kind of displacement activity, allowing them to shelve their emotions until they are ready to deal with them. Yet the public are often not very sympathetic, interpreting campaigning as cold-hearted. People wanted to see Kate and Gerry McCann's pain before they would believe it. That wasn't the McCanns' way. But in private, they were in desperate need of solace. "People said, 'You'll get her back,'" said Gerry. "It's what we needed to hear because we just had the blackest, darkest thoughts in the first 24, 36 hours, as if Madeleine had died. It was almost uncontrollable grief."

Along with their grief, they were ordinary people exposed to huge media interest. "It can be a double-edged sword," says Fyvie. "It's good the media take an interest and publish certain aspects, and it can be reasonably therapeutic for a person to tell their story, even over and over again, but the flip side is that it can become intrusive and manipulative."

It is no secret, says Pike, that the McCanns have taken a step back from interviews because they have sometimes felt let down. But their year since Madeleine disappeared has had its share of campaigning: visits to America to visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and to the European parliament to argue for a Europe-wide alert system for missing children similar to the 'amber alert' used in America. It's a way of being positive but, explains Alan Pike, it would not, psychologically, be a good idea to encourage people to be positive simply for the sake of it. "We have to be realistic. One of the difficulties with people is being honest and frank, especially when they are intelligent people like the McCanns. They are clever, university-educated people and they like to know what's going on. They don't like to be patronised."

One year on, 'returning to normal' is not a phrase Pike would use for the couple. "The best phrase is 'adjustment'. The trick with grief is to become familiar with the feelings, and the rest of your life is adjustment to that." But what of the probable psychological impact on Madeleine's siblings? They are, says Pike, unlikely to suffer trauma because they are so young. "It depends how the event is portrayed and talked about. How well they cope will depend on how well they are supported as the years go by."

In Kerry Grist's period of adjustment she used to hallucinate so strongly that Ben was with her that she would take her non-existent child by the hand and pour him milk then tuck him up in bed. James Bulger's mother, Denise, still wears the deodorant that prompted James to say, "You smell nice, Mummy," before he died. In her loft is an old fireplace that James accidentally marked with a handprint as a toddler. These mothers are in an exclusive group no one wants to join of parents who have lost or been separated from their child in tragic and traumatic circumstances.

And now the McCanns are members of that dreaded group. Most of us who read the headlines about Madeleine last May tried to imagine how we'd feel. But we haven't had to do anything other than imagine it. The McCanns have had to live it. It's one year on, an unthinkable amount of time for most of us to contemplate being separated from our child, and yet the couple may still only be in the early period of their adjustment.

"It is the most painful and agonising experience you could imagine," said Kate McCann. "My thoughts of the fear, confusion and loss of love and security that my precious daughter has had to endure are unbearable – crippling. And yet I am not the victim. Madeleine is."

Reaching out

THE search for Madeleine attracted support from public figures ranging from the Pope, who blessed a photo of her in Rome, to Gordon Brown, who personally intervened to offer "any help" he could. Donations to the appeal fund poured in from the likes of J K Rowling, Sir Philip Green, Ann Summers' founder Jacqueline Gold, Simon Cowell, Wayne Rooney, Sir Tom Hunter and Sir Stelio Haji-Ioannou after Sir Richard Branson kickstarted the fund with 100,000.

Double-glazing magnate Brian Kennedy is said to be footing the bill for press spokesman Clarence Mitchell.

Robbie Williams wore a Maddie T-shirt at Ricky Hatton's world title bout in Las Vegas last summer, while football's big names lined up behind David Beckham and Man Utd and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo to appeal for her return. Phil Neville, meanwhile, led the Everton players in an appeal for the little Toffees fan, who was pictured in her team top.