The Madeleine McCann Story – Confusing Reality for Reality TV
The McCanns: guilty or not guilty? If ever we needed proof that our culture has blurred the lines between reality and reality TV, this is it.
A little girl has been missing for 150 days, apparently snatched from her bed while she slept.
Meanwhile, some media pundits and members of an overtaxed police force feed off – or fend off -- each other, trying to protect their respective reputations.
We don't yet know what happened to little Madeleine on that summer's night in a quiet corner of Portugal. Indeed, we don't honestly know whether her parents are guilty of any crime or not.
But we do know that sections of the Portuguese police and the international media have added to the emotional turmoil of Madeleine’s parents, all for the sake of reputation.
The most unsettling aspect of this whole affair is that it involves, on the one hand, a police task force that is desperate to find a culprit. And on the other hand, it features a media pack that’s desperate to keep the story alive and interesting.
In it all, two normally trusted public institutions have often acted as if they are above account to anyone; both have succumbed to peddling assumptions as facts in order to achieve, in the short-term, selfish ends.
Normally, in any investigation which captures the public imagination, it is the police who will complain about improper use of the media. Family members sharing details of the case with the media can interfere with the course of their investigations and prejudice any judicial process that might arise.
The international media took an interest in this case from the very beginning. This is not surprising, for several reasons. First, the parents of this missing child are both middle-class professionals; not the kinds of people we normally associate, for some reason, with situations like this. There was novelty value in this.
Second, the parents -- and their friends -- looked good and carried themselves well on camera, despite the pressures they were under. So, there was never a shortage of friends or family members who could be interviewed for TV.
Third, the site of the alleged abduction was a family oriented holiday enclave in sunny Portugal; not a place we associate with major crime.
To some people, that is the most haunting aspect of the story -- that the crime took place in a seemingly safe place, suggesting that it could happen to anyone, which of course it can.
Now, there were obvious advantages for the family in the media's involvement, at least in the beginning. Through their dealings with the media the Kate and Gerry McCann were able, very skilfully, to enlist a huge international army of volunteers in the search for their child.
They were also able to make brief contact with the Pope, something which must have been very comforting for them as practising Catholics. They probably could not have hoped to see him had it not been for the international media interest.
But the media attention carried a sting in its tail -- as it always does.
After a while, it became clear that the local police were feeding the media with their own take on events, despite the fact that this was disallowed under Portugal's tight disclosure laws.
The international media pendulum swung away from empathy for the parents when police released reports that Madeleine’s DNA had been found in the rear of a hire car – a car the McCanns collected 25 days after she went missing. Headlines, especially in the tabloid press, screamed ‘Murder!’
The authorities apparently believed -- and still do -- that Kate McCann accidentally killed her child, perhaps with a sedative overdose -- this despite the fact that Kate is a practising physician. Madeleine’s body was, the story goes, hidden by her parents for several weeks until they had a chance to dispose of it.
We are supposed to believe that the McCanns -- who were totally unfamiliar with the region -- were able to secrete a body for 25 days or more, then remove it under the white hot glare of 24/7 news coverage.
Besides, forensic experts have repeatedly pointed out that a partial match with Madeleine’s DNA could have been provided by almost any member of the McCann family and DNA matching is still often an inexact science.
Meanwhile, the McCanns were forbidden from talking publicly about the police investigation, or their feelings on it.
The police were desperate, stretching credulity to breaking point, partly because the glare of international publicity had made them look incompetent, or worse, corrupt.
It has to be said that something would definitely be wrong in a case like this if, at some stage, the parents were not questioned about their movements. But it is simply unfair to use the media as some of the Portuguese police seem to have done in an apparent attempt to pressure -- or bully -- the parents into making a confession.
The story took another turn when the Portuguese prosecutor conceded that the police case was not strong enough to warrant further questioning of the McCanns. He added that it is very difficult to build a case for murder when nobody has been produced. That, surely, should have been immediately obvious to everybody concerned.
Now the pendulum of media opinion swung back toward the parents, who by this time must have been totally fed up. Not only were they in turmoil over their missing child; their reputations were being muddied across the world while they were unable, legally, to respond.
Once a story is picked up by the media, it must keep moving forward. Why? Because according to media pundits – and it may be true -- we, the public, demand that something is happening all the time to move the plot along.
There just can't be any lull in proceedings. We demand action; twists and turns in the story.
In real life there are lulls; some of them long, frustrating and uncomfortable. This is especially true of police investigations. But as I say our culture has blurred the line between reality TV and reality.
Sadly, I am reminded of the story of Lindy Chamberlain, the woman who spent several years in prison in the 70s for the alleged murder of her baby daughter, Azaria.
In the end, it was proven that a dingo, a wild dog, had stolen the child from its bed, just as the mother claimed.
The Australian media, aided and abetted by a corrupt Northern Territory police force, painted Mrs Chamberlain as a heartless killer. In the end, common sense went out the window as people up and down the country accepted the story they were fed by the police and the press.
Writing recently about the McCann case for a British newspaper, Mrs Chamberlain said: 'It is as if we have run over the power of allotted for the "show" and viewers are saying, "Where is the answer?"
‘We are looking at it as if it were reality TV. Yet these people have to live their lives moment by painful moment. When the public atmosphere is like this, questions of justice or truce start to take second place.’
‘The huge shame of what's happening now is that if the police blame the parents, the public will stop looking for [Madeleine].’
‘The emptiness [of losing a child] never diminishes. Azaria would be 27 now. I wonder … what woman she might have become. I pray that Kate and Gerry McCann might still be spared this sadness.’
So should we all.