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Our demeaning obsession with Madeleine McCann We've stripped her story of empathy, turning it into a cautionary fairy tale

A Madeleine McCann shrine in Praia da Luz, Lagos. Credit AFP / Getty

A Madeleine McCann shrine in Praia da Luz, Lagos. Credit AFP / Getty


June 5, 2020   4 mins

Madeleine McCann is likely dead, say German prosecutors. They think she was killed by a man now in prison for rape, who was living in the Algarve when he took her. His name is Christian Brueckner and his face is as empty as you can imagine.

This may be, at last, an ending — or at least a beginning of an ending — to one of the saddest crimes in recent history. It is sad not just because a child is missing — a missing child is always a tragedy — but because, in its scope and its hysteria, the story of the loss of Madeleine McCann changed from a crime into a fairy tale: a cautionary story to be passed down the ages. It is a warning to unwary parents, stripped of empathy, because archetypes have no humanity. We do not think they need it. It became something for strangers to obsess on, analyse and, eventually, possess. This is not sympathy at all, but theft, and there is something ugly in it.

But, predictably, it rolled out. Yesterday, over 13 years after she was reported missing, her face was back on the front page of seven British national newspapers, pushing pandemic — and faceless tragedies — away. The photographs allow us to imagine an intimacy with Madeleine McCann. There are computer-generated photographs of her at every age, created to assist in her recovery: an eerie physical embodiment of the hope that she is alive. So, there were pictures and timelines and recaps and analyses; photographs of the apartment, the unlucky parents and the alleged abductor’s van.

I know too much about this crime. I know more than I want to. “The latest on Madeleine McCann,” says an email in my inbox, with appalling urgency. I don’t need the final part of this story. I do not feel, after everything that has happened, entitled to it. The only people who deserve an ending are her family. This story is not, I feel compelled to remind you, fictional. It has just been treated that way.

Gerry and Kate McCann paid private investigators to solve the crime after the Portuguese police botched it and gave up on it. (There was something to learn from this story, but it was prosaic, and for the Portuguese police to learn). Then they begged the Home Secretaries Alan Johnson and Theresa May to instruct the British police to solve it. Politicians have acknowledged, with resources, the importance of the story to national life. So have newspaper executives, who supported the involvement of the British police, presumably so they could write about it. Sentimentality and self-interest, here, are twins. Now this, £12 million later, is the result: a prime suspect in custody, who boasted of the crime to a friend. I don’t begrudge the McCanns this investigation. I would have done the same.

But there is something gruesome about the public response to this case; about the media coverage, which segued from hysterical to indecent to insane. Eleven years after the abduction, more than 100 tweets an hour were still attached to the hashtag #McCann. It’s for the parents, some say, even as they were considered suspects due to the incompetence of the Portuguese police, and successfully sued newspapers for naming them responsible for her death. I wonder if infamy was a price they were willing to pay to find their daughter, and if that compounds their tragedy.

The media obsession wasn’t to console the McCanns, who were, for a mistake – leaving Madeleine and her siblings alone in an unlocked apartment – condemned to private and public hell. I think it was to damn them, and soothe the rest, because our children have not been stolen. We imagine we would not be so stupid, or so careless.

How many idle and malicious words have been written on Kate McCann’s mistakes, morals and manners? Of her coldness and her beauty, which render her an unfriendly cliché? The father was considered “too corporate” – I think people wanted grief, they wanted “closure”– but the woman always gets it worse. There are no good mothers of lost children. She was damned for hiring PR consultants; for not crying on camera, on the advice of professionals, who thought an abductor might feast on her pain; for, in the end, I suspect, surviving. She was not the victim we sought; she was not pliant, or vulnerable, or broken enough.

And so, she was punished. Seventeen thousand people signed a petition requesting that Leicester Social Services investigate why the children were left alone; did they want her to lose her remaining children? Did they, in the thrill of mystery, forget that someone else — and not she — had taken the child? No, it was never condolence. It was a public expiation of shared fears, and a judgement of the parents. People read about Madeleine McCann for a jolt of terror, and to feel comforted. Because the children we love are here, and she is not. Our children are not safer because we judge Kate and Gerry McCann. It just feels that way.

There is an entire crime fiction genre dedicated to tales of missing children. I understand why people read them: not being the parent of a missing child will give you a happy day. People are entitled to read fiction, and to process their fears, but I cannot read them. I do not need them because I can imagine them. But they are not entitled to steal real children into fairy tales and parlour games and puzzles. This one — What happened to Madeleine McCann? — should not be played. But it will be when the next tragedy rolls along. Our fears for our children, and our capacity to judge those that expose them, are infinite.

If the suffering of little children interests people, I wish they would also read child poverty statistics. I wish that they would campaign, too, to reverse them, and pray for the return of all lost children. But that is too much to hope for. Reading about Madeleine McCann is easy; caring about children you have not been forced into imagined intimacy with by media cynicism and parental despair is something harder.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

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jamiemakos
jamiemakos
4 years ago

Many of you are blaming the parents, which in most cases I would too, but the real criminal here is the “justice” system. That “man” had a history of raping women and children, some with video evidence and he was somehow not in jail rotting in a cell for the rest of his life. Because he wasn’t in jail he was able to commit many more rapes. He is only in jail for SEVEN YEARS. ONLY SEVEN. For torturing and raping a 73 year old woman! The justice system is a bloody JOKE. They clearly don’t care about the people if they’re willing to let that creature walk free after 7 years. He’ll never stop, rapists never do. They always let rapists walk free. Yet a black man who committed a robbery worth less than 50$ Has been in jail for 39 years. Make it make sense. The world needs to do a much better job at caring.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
4 years ago

I’m trying hard not to wish that those accusing the parents of culpability, for whatever reason, come to experience some tragedy of their own for a wrong choice, a lapse of discernment, the wrong piece of advice taken, the false feeling of safety. I have to be a better person and I hope they will also start some reflection, stop this appalling behaviour and also start becoming better people. Even people on this thread continue with the cruel judgement of people that they do not know.

Wulvis Perveravsson
Wulvis Perveravsson
4 years ago

We can sympathise and empathise with them over their horrendous loss, whilst being astounded and horrified at how they could ever comprehend leaving their children unattended in a room while they went for dinner. Had her parents been of lesser social and professional standing, the public outrage would’ve been even more palpable.

tinariley22
tinariley22
4 years ago

Leaving such young children alone is not a ‘mistake’ but a choice. It wasn’t a momentary lapse of concentration or parents waking to find a child gone. The McCanns must surely carry the consequential guilt of their decision until the day they die. Any negative public perception can be nothing compared to that.

deborahnorman1
deborahnorman1
4 years ago
Reply to  tinariley22

They could have stayed in a villa and sat outside on a terrace while a criminal stole their child from a bedroom. I guess that would have still been their fault!

tinariley22
tinariley22
4 years ago
Reply to  deborahnorman1

If a parent sits outside but is where the children sleep any crying is more likely to be heard or an upset child can find their parent. Yes, there’s a chance of an intruder but what chance does the child have if their parent isn’t near at the time?

Paul Pelosi
Paul Pelosi
4 years ago
Reply to  tinariley22

I don’t think the MCanns would have left their children alone in what we might call ordinary circumstances. But in Praia da Luz they were lulled into a sense of security they felt granted them leave to distance themselves somewhat from their children, believing that their frequent checks would be enough. It was of course a false sense of security.

Without doubt the McCanns own 13-year obsession with finding their daughter has been and remains a journey of redemption. I don’t think any outsider can beat them up any more thoroughly than they have beaten up themselves.

tmglobalrecruitment
tmglobalrecruitment
4 years ago

The writer complains about the writing on the McCann’s, only to contribute more to that narrative. She sets herself high up on the moral high ground to pontificate to others, in a comtemptuous manner.

Her encyclopedic knowledge of this case would suggest she lapped up every article going in every paper, and then writes in sneering comtempt for others who did the same.

All very odd.

As a point of fact the “suspect” has not been charged, is in jail for another crime, and there appears to be no evidence to charge him, apart from a statement from another creep, who has disappeared.

Su Mac
Su Mac
4 years ago

What is worse…to make such a bad choice in a past era with only primitive publicity to try to help undo it and suffer the condenmnation of just your village…or to make the error in modern times and face millions of haters and ghouls who can promote your need for assistance to unheard of proportions. A truly awful dilemma..

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

Speak for yourself. Beyond an obvious sympathy for the McCanns in the immediate aftermath of their child’s abduction I have no interest in them whatsoever and I would never click on a story about them. I have made an exception here, but only to make my point.

deborah.denison
deborah.denison
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The same with me..
The parents got away with murder

deborahnorman1
deborahnorman1
4 years ago

No they didn’t.

tmglobalrecruitment
tmglobalrecruitment
4 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

indeed – she seems obsessed by them, all very strange.

joshaw1950
joshaw1950
4 years ago

“Now this, £12 million later.”

Would it be considered permissible to attach a figure to the Stephen Lawrence investigation and trials? I suspect not.

deborahnorman1
deborahnorman1
4 years ago
Reply to  joshaw1950

Both worth every penny.

Janet Inglis
Janet Inglis
4 years ago

It’s incomprehensible that a mother in these circumstances would be treated this way. But she is not alone. We had Lindy Chamberlain in Australia.

Matthew Steeples
Matthew Steeples
4 years ago

If you had met Madeleine McCann’s parents, you might feel differently. I found them very strange and I have met other parents and relatives of missing children who have not had the resources that this couple received. I am sceptical about the latest “lead” as it is hardly a “new” one.

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
4 years ago

Ive noted that if one takes issue with the authors at this site, one’s post never receives approval. Let’s see if this even makes the grade.

deb cram
deb cram
4 years ago

The other thing that bothers me in this whole saga: how strange and convenient that it was the McCanns themselves who found their daughter! They were supposedly taking it in turns to check on all the children…

deb cram
deb cram
4 years ago

This has gone on way too long, simply because they are both middle-class and good looking. Although they are both also cold and calculating… They even look guilty to me. They are both doctors. Even if it was an accident (a spanking, a tantrum) gone wrong, they would be able to deal with and hide it. There is absolutely NO proof of anything yet. All the coverage demeans not only Madeleine, her parents, etc. Blaming the Portuguese police is too easy, they’re “incompetent foreigers” after all… And what about all the other 1000s of other children who go missing everywhere every year? All this money spent on 1 child!?

acudmore63
acudmore63
4 years ago
Reply to  deb cram

“There is absolutely NO proof of yet.”

Including your claims. They look guilty? Good grief.

deb cram
deb cram
3 years ago
Reply to  acudmore63

And you have seen proof, really!? The search for the truth is still on-going, isn’t it? This German, who has other similar convictions, does not make him guilty, yet. Happening to be in the area on those dates is no proof of anything…