Madeleine McCann’s decade: From wristband slogans to fake news

Kate and Gerry McCann during an interview at Prestwold Hall in Loughborough on Friday. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
Kate and Gerry McCann during an interview at Prestwold Hall in Loughborough on Friday. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
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May, 2007. A Communion party in a suntrap of a back garden in the south side of Glasgow, and only one topic of conversation: the recent disappearance of Madeleine McCann. A bunch of adults drinking – much as the McCanns and their friends sat drinking in the tapas bar at Praia da Luz in the Algarve in Portugal – but with their children on a tighter leash now, in response to a disaster that they feel could have befallen any one of them.

In this particular garden, with its deck chairs and cherry blossom, there is nothing but sympathy for the McCanns. The south side – especially the Catholic south side – is a close-knit, deep-rooted community largely comprised of professionals who have stayed close to their original homes. Many of the people at the party are former pupils of Holyrood Secondary, just like Madeleine’s father Gerry; if they didn’t know him personally, they knew of him, or his siblings. They speak highly of this gregarious man and empathise with his family’s plight. “There but for the grace of God,” they say.

Madeleine McCann at Praia Da Luz, Algarve

Madeleine McCann at Praia Da Luz, Algarve

In other gardens, in other parts of the country, the chat is less benign. “How could this privileged couple – who conceived Maddie through IVF – have left her and her two-year-old twin brother and sister alone in an apartment 50 metres from where they were dining?” the more judgmental ask. “And why aren’t they being prosecuted for neglect, like they would if they were schemies?”

Whatever the position taken on this blazing afternoon in May, there are few gardens in the UK where this case is not being talked about. A mass hysteria – similar to that caused by the death of Princess Diana a decade earlier – has taken hold, and every wall, lamppost and car window is covered in Look for Maddie posters. By the time this hysteria eases, millions of pounds will have been spent, reputations will have been trashed, tabloid newspapers will have been consumed by their own excesses, and the world will have changed beyond recognition. But Madeleine McCann will still be missing.

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the disappearance of the three-year-old from Flat 5a in Block 5 of the Ocean Club Resort during a family holiday with Mark Warner, a company that specialises in upmarket family holidays.

Already, there has been a flurry of Madeleine-related headlines, some of them lurid: “Investigators pursuing significant lead”; “Former nanny speaks out”; “Madeleine McCann may be found by Facebook”. Though the time when reports of a breakthrough were greeted with anything other than disbelief has long since passed, the interviews with police officers and with Kate and Gerry, who live in Leicestershire, suggest that, despite the passage of time and the all-consuming coverage, there is still a market for Maddie.

So how can we explain this enduring compulsion to know more when there are so few hard facts to mine? Why, after so many other tragedies have faded from sight, does a photograph of a little blonde girl in a floppy pink hat clutching a trio of tennis balls continue to evoke such sympathy and such resentment?

In part, our obsession must lie in the universal fear of losing a child. What parent hasn’t experienced the panic that comes with realising a toddler has slipped out of sight in a moment of distraction (only to spot them close by seconds later)? Grainy images of long-gone children – James Bulger, Ben Needham, Sandy Davidson and Maddie – stalk the darkest corners of our psyche.

In part, too, it is linked to the human need for resolution. As Roger Graef, producer of Channel 4’s Dispatches on the case, said of the insatiable hunger for new angles: “The fact that so many now inhabit imaginary worlds of conspiracy is because we cannot bear a narrative that has no end.”

But the significance of the Madeleine McCann mystery also lies in the way it ushered in a period of profound social upheaval. Some of the cultural identifiers of the post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-Truth landscape can be traced back to her disappearance and the public response to it . It was, for example, the moment people started to talk about “virtue signalling” (even if it had not yet been given that name). Some queried the point of putting up missing posters in far flung parts of Scotland. Or of wearing supportive wristbands. Were such empty gestures a sincere expression of empathy or a cynical attempt to gain reflected kudos from a worthy cause? “It does not matter that the message – ‘Look for Madeleine’ – is of no practical use,” wrote Mick Hume in Spiked. “For many wearers, the real message is more like ‘Look at me’.” A few years later, these people would have been using a #jesuisMaddie hashtag; and being met with the same sneering response.

Other aspects of the case – such as the online trolling and the polarisation of public opinion – also foreshadowed (and drove) cultural change, so that the case is now a prism through which those shifts can be viewed.

In May 2007, the UK was on the cusp – of a recession, certainly, but also of a social media revolution. The first seeds of distrust in the mainstream media had already been sown. Tabloid excesses continued unabated. But in January of that year, News of the World reporters Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire became the first journalists to be jailed for phone hacking – presaging the Leveson inquiry, in which the McCanns would play a central role.

At the same time, people were spending hours online. Facebook was beginning to take off and the shift from passive news consumption to interactive engagement with the news agenda was already under way. When it came to Maddie, it was no longer enough to read other people’s stories. You had to sift through the clues and come up with your own scenarios.

As the ante was upped, the mainstream media began feeding off social media (and vice versa) so that, after the Portuguese police claimed sniffer dogs had scented death inside the apartment, delusional theories implicating Gerry and Kate (and the so-called Tapas Seven) gained currency and began finding their way into the pages of the Express and the Daily Star, resulting in six-figure damages awards.

By the time of the Leveson inquiry, much more information about abusive journalistic practices had emerged: the hacking of murdered teenager Millie Dowler’s voicemails, for example, and the hounding of Chris Jeffries (the retired school teacher inadvertently caught up in the Joanna Yates murder case). But the way the press behaved towards the McCanns – either feting them as heroes or trashing them as feckless (not to mention the trial by media of one-time arguido, or suspect, Robert Murat) was particularly emblematic of its corrosive power.

The media’s love/hate attitude to the McCanns (absorbed and perpetuated by the general public) was linked to that other great British fixation: class. Was there ever a couple who so fitted the template of the white, Boden-clad, Prosecco-swilling middle classes as Kate and Gerry? Was there ever a child victim so tailored to the prejudices of newspaper editors as Maddie?

The McCanns had influence. They were intelligent, relatable, articulate – the perfect tabloid fodder, and they had lost their daughter – so, for a while, they had journalists and celebrities at their beck and call.

But the qualities which made Gerry and Kate so attractive to some, provoked irritation in others. For every person that saw them as hard-working professionals enjoying a well-earned break, there was another dismissing them as self-indulgent and uncaring.

Kate, in particular, attracted ill-feeling by committing the same peculiarly female offence as Lindy Chamberlain, Joanne Lees and Amanda Knox: refusing to behave the way society dictates a grieving woman should. Though she always looked gaunt and drawn, she didn’t collapse. She continued to wear nice clothes, put on make-up, go for runs. The couple’s decision to employ prominent PR guru Clarence Mitchell was also held against them.

There was some validity in the double standards argument: a less affluent couple who had left their children sleeping in a Hoseasons caravan to go drinking in an on-site pub would have attracted more condemnation than they did. But instead of merely pointing out this injustice, some critics embarked on a hate campaign, hounding Gerry and Kate for mistakes they knew they had made and for which they had already paid the highest price.

Some took to “trolling” the couple online; this year, psychologist Dr John Synott conducted a study into the phenomenon and found up to 150 tweets about the couple are posted every day. “This has gone on for ten years, and you cannot see it ever ending. That is the legacy of the McCann case,” Synott said.

Others took on the role of amateur sleuths. Whole websites and forums were dedicated to examining angles the police might have missed. Using jargon picked up on TV crime series, these bedsit detectives pored over timelines, windows of opportunity, alleged discrepancies in witness statements and key forensic evidence. A few invited online visitors to vote on their favourite theory. Was Maddie: a) abducted by a trafficker; b) abducted by a paedophile or c) the victim of a botched burglary. Is she: a) dead or b) alive? A child’s life reduced to an internet poll.

Though some people were obsessed, there were others for whom a cynicism towards Gerry and Kate was a means of signalling something other than virtue: a studied world-weariness, or an acuity of vision that allowed them to see beyond the facade. In an increasingly binary world, you either defended the McCanns to the hilt, or you saw them as the epitome of middle-class complacency, and the stand you took defined you.

So where are we now, in 2017? Well, the tabloids are still capable of excess. The seeds of mistrust in the MSM have grown up like leylandii obscuring both the good and the bad, and providing cover for other even less scrupulous forms of “journalism”. Every tragedy now spawns a dozen conspiracy theories and it is increasingly difficult to work out what’s real and what isn’t. On Facebook and Twitter, nuance has been sacrificed to our apparent need to live in a world of extremes and perpetual outrage: loving or hating, supporting or trashing, a big thumbs up or a big thumbs down.

As for the McCanns, their world has both moved on and stood still. They have fought several libel actions, most notably against Portuguese detective Goncalo Amaral who claimed they were involved in Maddie’s disappearance. Initially, ordered to pay €500,000 in damages, he won his appeal and continues to make unsubstantiated claims about them.

After the Portuguese inquiry was closed in 2008, private investigators and Leicestershire police carried on with the search, until Theresa May announced Scotland Yard would review the evidence. Many times it has seemed as if funding for the Metropolitan police inquiry – launched in 2013 – will run out, but it keeps being extended for one last push. With £11.1 million already spent and Operation Grange due to close, the Home Office was recently given an extra £85,000 to pursue a mystery suspect.

Newspapers continue to peddle wild theories and to pose QTWTAINs (questions to which the answer is no). Was Maddie kidnapped by gangs from Mauritania, smuggled to Africa by ferry and sold to a Middle Eastern family? Did she wander out of the apartment to look for her parents only to be snatched and sold to Romani travellers? Every now and then a new witness emerges to tell of some strange encounter with a Madeleine lookalike on a ferry/near a hotel/in a petrol station, only for the story to peter out.

Over the past ten years, the police have examined 400,000 documents and looked at 600 people. Madeleine’s image has graced thousands of front pages, and her story has produced hundreds of thousands of inches of copy. But still the only thing we know for certain is that at some point on the night of 3 May, 2007, she vanished.

Sean and Amelie are 12 now. One day their sister will be found, or she won’t. In the meantime Gerry and Kate have asked those covering the anniversary to exercise a degree of restraint. After ten years of almost ceaseless speculation, they are surely owed that.