LIKE a cruel parody of traditional school photographs, the “age progression” pictures of Madeleine McCann line the shelves of our collective consciousness.
Poignant images of a ghost girl, they chart an imagined transition from infant to primary pupil. For Gerry and Kate, they must offer a vision of the middle-class normality that slipped through their fingers the night their daughter disappeared from their holiday apartment in Praia Da Luz. For the rest of us, they are eerie waymarkers on our own journeys, reminding us of the fleeting nature of childhood and how important it is to hold our sons and daughters close while we still can.
There isn’t a parent whose life was untouched by the drama which unfolded in Portugal five years ago this week; no matter where you lived or what you were doing, May 2007 was overshadowed by the rolling news coverage of the search for the missing three-year-old. Manchester United might have taken their ninth Premier League title, the SNP might have won a majority in the Scottish parliament, but it was Madeleine McCann who dominated dinner party conversations, Madeleine McCann who was selling newspapers.
The murder of the Soham girls Holly and Jessica had caused similar shockwaves, but rarely had a tragedy so divided public opinion. Long before the McCanns were named as arguidos, or suspects, by the Portuguese police, people were coming to blows over whether leaving children sleeping alone in an apartment was wilfully reckless or “what everyone does.” In the emotionally charged weeks that followed, even those who normally eschew gossip devoured every morsel of information. And everyone had an opinion on Gerry and Kate, their clothes, their body language and the way they seemed to court the media circus.
Given the twists and turns of the case, that was perhaps inevitable. What is more surprising is that half a decade later Madeleine’s disappearance retains its grip on the public imagination. Whether it’s the scaling down (or up) of the investigation, potential new leads or yet more controversy over allegations made by former Portuguese officers, the story still regularly makes the tabloids’ front pages. And every time it does, the comment boxes are full of the same, polarised responses: one half expressing their “pain” at the plight of the McCanns; the other half lambasting them for their ability to manipulate the news agenda.
Personally, I don’t object to the McCanns’ efforts to keep their daughter in the limelight. Although I think it must be tough for their twins Sean and Amelie to live in the shadow of an older, absent sister and understand why people get angry about the disproportionate amount of attention Madeleine’s disappearance has attracted, it doesn’t seem fair to blame Gerry and Kate for the prejudices of a society which considers middle-class white girls to be of greater worth than poor, black boys. And I know if it were one of my children, I would exploit every tool at my disposal – be it money, articulacy or contacts – to make sure the world kept looking.
No, it’s other people clinging on to the case I find offensive. I don’t mean that flicker of empathy we all feel when we look at a new photograph or the spark of hope that is ignited every time another “sighting” is reported. Those are natural human reactions. I am talking about the grief tourists who feed off the McCanns’ unhappiness and the conspiracy theorists who take an almost visceral pleasure in scrutinising their witness statements in an attempt to “prove” their guilt.
Just as bad is the willingness of public figures to make political capital out of the tragedy. David Cameron should never have yielded to pressure from News International to set up a review of all the information gathered about Madeleine’s disappearance. Perhaps the multi-million inquiry is a good idea, but it should have been launched on operational grounds, not as a PR stunt to bolster the Prime Minister’s image.
As for Operation Grange’s Det Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, why is he raising false hopes? Last week he told BBC1’s Panorama programme the review represented the best opportunity to solve the case, even though he knows the 195 new leads he says he’s found will have to be passed to the Portuguese police, who have little interest in pursuing them. To add that he “genuinely” believes Madeleine might still be alive is the height of irresponsibility, one because it is based on nothing other than a lack of evidence that she is dead, and two, because there is every chance it will prompt the rash of false sightings which so hampered the initial inquiry.
If there is one thing the police should have learned from the Portuguese experience is that there is as much to be lost as there is to be gained from conducting their investigation in the full media glare. So, much as I want Madeleine to be found, I don’t want to hear any more from them until there’s a development so solid it is likely to lead to arrests.
While such a development could come as a result of dogged police work, the recently resolved kidnap cases – Elizabeth Fritzl, Natascha Kampusch and Jaycee Duggard – have all ended as a result of a chance happening: an illness, an encounter or slip on the part of their abductor which allowed the victims to break free. Perhaps one day, Madeleine McCann too will suddenly reappear. Until then, let the poignant age progression photographs stand as the only regular public reminder of a life unlived and the way in which a parent’s hope can triumph over reason.