‘Our Maddie’ makes a media comeback

The silly-season resurrection of the McCann tragedy shows that this was always a cynical, elite-scripted drama.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics UK

It seemed to have ebbed from public consciousness. The frontpage splashes had become less frequent; the shrill commentaries had died down; even the celebrity-endorsed campaigns had dwindled.

That people’s interest waned is hardly surprising. It is over 15 months since three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared from her parents’ rented apartment in the Portuguese holiday resort of Praia da Luz. In that time, we have come no nearer to knowing what happened on that fateful evening. Unsurprisingly, last month the Portuguese police decided to shelve the case due to lack of evidence.

Yet in the past few weeks, what looked to have run out of steam has been desperately cranked back to life. Once again, it seems, ‘Our Maddie’ is news. Once again, the front pages of the tabloids and in-depth features in the broadsheets ask what became of Maddie and whether her parents were treated fairly by the Portuguese police.

One partial explanation for this resurrection of interest is the release of the Portuguese police’s investigation files, some 20,000 pages of documentation. In the summer period when parliament is in recess and major news stories are traditionally in short supply – otherwise know as ‘the silly season’ – the police files are the gift that might keep on giving. So far, they have not disappointed.

According to an email only seen now, the Guardian reported, ‘intelligence suggests that a paedophile ring in Belgium made an order for a young girl three days before Madeleine McCann was taken’ (1). In a case in which fact and fiction have been playing fast and loose with one another, this ‘intelligence’, all too predictably, came from an unverifiable source.

Not that the absence of anything beyond hypothesis has inhibited the frontpage speculation. Indeed, the absence of hard evidence at the heart of the Maddie phenomenon has been its lifeblood. With nothing known beyond the barest of facts, anything, no matter how macabre, can be guessed at. And what better than a mail-order paedophile ring based, of course, in Belgium? In lieu of evidence, good old-fashioned prejudice will do. Indeed, over the past year, two pictures showing obviously Muslim women carrying or walking with a blonde-haired girl have been splashed under the headline: ‘IS THIS MADDIE?’ Well, Arab women with a European-looking child – it’s got to be dodgy.

Continuing with the current Belgium fixation, ‘Madeleine McCann “seen again” in Brussels’, announced the Daily Telegraph (2). The Sun went one further with its frontpage: ‘“I sold an ice cream to Maddie”.’ This literal scoop was provided by Belgian ice-cream man, Antonio Migliardi. It wasn’t any old ice-cream, he explained; it was chocolate ice-cream. The Sun knew it was on to something: ‘McCann family spokesman Clarence Mitchell confirmed that chocolate was Maddie’s favourite ice-cream flavour.’ (3)

The revamped press speculation hasn’t stopped at a Belgian paedophile ring. ‘“I saw Madeleine in Venezuela just weeks ago – and even spotted the tell-tale mark in her eye”, claims new witness.’ The Daily Mail’s witness, an English tourist, reckoned that he had spotted Madeleine with three Latino women. Clearly possessing the courage of his conviction he ‘decided to get a good look to make sure it was her so I could come back to England and report it’ (4).

It’s easy to sneer at the strange, depressing return of the Madeleine McCann story. Too easy, in fact. And that tells us something. While the resurrected coverage of Our Maddie still features the same unfounded speculation, the same snidey attitude towards the Portuguese police, and the same half-baked commentaries on the parenting skills of Gerry and Kate McCann, the simple truth is that it no longer really resonates with the public at large.

What once appeared as a spontaneous coming together, a socially galvanising moment around this one family’s tragic loss, has now, in the all-too-palpable gap between the public’s shrugging and the media’s shrilling, revealed itself for what it was all along: a top-down, stage-managed display of contrived emotionalism.

The sense that the disappearance of a three-year-old girl had united a nation in compassion and, later, in angsty interrogation of her parents, has now receded. As the press tries to revive the embers of public emotion, it testifies to the truth of the Maddie phenomenon. It was never a popular groundswell of compassion, but an elite-scripted event, soliciting the rites and rituals learnt AD (After Diana).

Little wonder journalists were so excited by it. At a debate earlier this year, Kelvin McKenzie, former editor and current columnist for the Sun called it ‘the greatest story of my life’; and David Mills, producer of a BBC Panorama programme on the McCanns, called it ‘one of the best [stories] I’ve ever encountered in my career… it has everything’. (5)

But it was not the public telling the story. It was always a moment of private grief exploited by an elite struggling to find a narrative in which society might meaningfully engage with itself. Now, with each ridiculous headline, the cynical core of the media and cultural elite’s manipulation of a private tragedy comes ever more to the surface.

And the saddest thing of all is that in turning a family tragedy into a volatile commodity, an object for public mourning and anger, the genuine loss of the McCanns has been trivialised. Like stories of pregnant transsexuals, or talking dogs, it’s just another tale in the morass of silly season distractions.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black argued that the ‘Maddie’ phenomenon was more than media madness. Mick Hume questioned whether the outpouring of public emotionalism after the three-year-old’s disappearance was a healthy response. He later examined the UK media coverage of ‘Maddie’, and he has argued that the experience of suffering is no basis for creating real social solidarity. Patrick West saw a Newsround programme which was an exception to the largely craven media coverage of Madeleine McCann. Or read more at: spiked issue Modern life.

(1) Madeleine McCann may have been kidnappe to order, Guardian, 7 August 2008

(2) Madeleine McCann ‘seen again’ in Brussels, Daily Telegraph, 12 August 2008

(3) I sold an ice cream to ‘Maddie’, Sun, 12 August 2008

(4) ‘I saw Madeleine in Venezuela just weeks ago – and even spotted the tell-tale mark in her eye,’ claims new witness, Daily Mail, 10 August 2008

(5) See This is more than a case of ‘media Maddieness’, by Tim Black, 31 January 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics UK


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