Madeleine – are we really entitled to our opinions?

I wouldn’t normally read this sort of thing, never mind review it, but a friend lent me her copy after the subject cropped up in conversation, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

Like everyone else who hasn’t been living in an airtight, soundproof cave for the last four years, I was aware that Madeleine McCann had vanished virtually without a trace after being left in a holiday apartment in Portugal while her parents went out for dinner with some friends. I knew that the parents had come under a lot of fire in the media for their parenting and opinion was divided over whether they’d had something to do with their daughter’s disappearance.

When this book came out, and was serialised in The Sun, the McCanns faced further criticism as the headline “I couldn’t make love to Gerry” made it sound – well – tasteless to be frank, and somewhat inappropriate, given the subject matter. However, having read the book I have to say that the blame for vulgarity must lie with The Sun. At almost 400 pages long, the book mentions the intimate side of the McCanns’ marriage once. One paragraph that talks about guilt, pressure, and the sort of sustained terror that would take its toll on any marriage – and that is what The Sun chose to focus on. Personally, I think that says more about The Sun and its readers than it does about the McCanns. Perhaps my only surprise should be that they didn’t use the word ‘romp’.

Kate McCann has a lot to say about the media in this book and I can’t say I blame her. I was amazed to see where the headlines were left when it came to actual evidence:

“FSS Confirms Parents Sedated Their Children” (this was proven untrue – in fact, forensic tests showed that none of the McCanns had used sedatives – putting paid to the story that Kate was addicted to tranquilisers).

“Gerry Is Not Madeleine’s Biological Father” (No evidence for this one either – this was never even raised as an issue by the police).

 “British Police Say Madeleine Died In The Apartment” (The only evidence for this was the indications of ‘cadaver dogs’ who are supposed to smell death. Not only were these tests carried out three months after the abduction, after the integrity of the crime scene had been severely compromised, but the dog handler PC Grime even stated “no evidential or intelligence reliability can be made from these alerts unless it can be confirmed with corroborating evidence.” The FSS report concluded that the DNA evidence found in the apartment was too complex for meaningful interpretation, and could have belonged to any number of people).

“It Was Her Blood In Parents’ Hire Car” (No actual blood was found – sniffer dogs, sensitive to the handling, had indicated DNA traces in the car, which turned out not to be a complete match. This DNA could easily have belonged to another McCann who shared a quantity of Madeleine’s DNA).

On the issue of media lies, the facts should speak for themselves. When the McCanns finally moved to sue the newspapers, the Express Group were ordered to pay £550,000 in compensation – 100 stories were cited in the McCanns action. The Evening Standard were also forced to pay compensation, as well as issuing a front page apology. But do we remember the apology? Or do we only remember the slurs? How many people continue simply to dismiss the McCanns’ anguish by suggesting that there is no smoke without fire? And where is the sense of personal responsibility among members of the public who point the finger? The pain that each accusation causes, though it may be small in comparison to the other horrors the McCanns must suffer, is not negligible. We’re keen to apportion blame, but we’re less keen to accept it when it comes to our own hurtful words, it seems.

There’s a lot of discussion in the book about the media’s insatiable appetite for ‘human interest’ stories and I think there’s something quite horrifying about the exploitative nature of this sort of journalism. Kate recalls: “Some people have become pretty belligerent when they’ve felt we haven’t given them what they wanted from us. One guy even threw his mike on the floor in a fit of pique. It’s as if news, events and ‘human-interest stories’ exist solely to serve their programmes and publications rather than the other way around.” Shouldn’t we be ashamed of this? The journalists involved will shrug and claim they’re just doing their jobs but should they be allowed to? And shouldn’t we be looking at our own voyeuristic appetites?

Perhaps we don’t care because we arrogantly assume that we will never find ourselves in Kate McCann’s shoes. We wouldn’t leave our kids in bed while we went out to eat, would we? Well maybe we wouldn’t. I’m sure it’s not as popular a practice as it was before Madeleine went missing – but the McCanns weren’t the only ones who left their children in the apartment that night. The other couples they’d come on holiday with were doing the same thing – but they were spared the ultimate price.

Did the McCanns have a huge lapse of judgement that night? Undoubtedly. Was it bad parenting? Yes. Does that make them unfit parents? I don’t think so. The sense of righteous indignation that tabloid-reading fosters leaves no room for humility. It’s easy to forget that we all make mistakes. I shiver to think of foolish things I did as a teenager that could have turned out badly. I’d hate to think of the world turning on my own lovely parents if it had.

Actually, one of the things that surprised me most about this book was Kate’s humility when it came to those who’d wished her family ill. She says: “We realize that Madeleine’s abduction has been hard for every parent to bear. It has brought home to everyone how vulnerable our children are and how fragile our lives. I have come to understand that some of these critics have been acting out of self-preservation. Holding us culpable in some way makes them feel their own children are safer.” And I think she’s right. In the same way that people ask what a rape victim was wearing on the night of her attack, people always want to find evidence that they themselves are safe, that it won’t happen to them. But someone always pays a high price for this sort of delusion.

One of the things that struck me most about the McCann family when reading this book was how normal they seemed before their lives were turned upside down. Having only seen pictures of Kate looking pinch-faced at press conferences, it was weird to see family snaps of her holding Madeleine, smiling. She looks about 20 years younger. Much has been made of the McCanns’ demeanour in the aftermath of their daughter’s abduction. Kate claims she was warned by police that showing excessive emotion ‘might influence Madeleine’s abductor’ and struggled to keep herself in check on that count, but as she also asks: “Who were these people to dictate how the mother of a missing child should appear?” Well, quite. What is right and what is wrong in that situation? How can people possibly judge, having never been there? But they do. We do, I should say, since I can’t claim that I never lazily looked in the McCanns’ direction for blame when the story came to my attention in 2007.

Where is our empathy, when things like this happen? Why do we resort so quickly to blame? How awful it must be to have your child stolen, and for people to point the finger at you – not least because it stops people looking for her and the real perpetrator of her abduction.

I remember the Facebook group set up in 2010 in tribute for crazed gunman Raoul Moat that gained 12,000 members at one point. I remember the bewildered mother of one of his victims commenting in the papers about how hard it was to bear. Her son had been murdered and people were glorifying his killer – in their thousands, or so it seemed. Are the people who joined that group all sadists, revelling in brutality? I doubt it. The reality is far more banal. It’s easy to click ‘like’ on Facebook. It’s easy to post on an internet forum: ‘she’s a cold one, that Kate McCann’.

With the rise of the internet we all have a voice. As Charlie Brooker points out in his article on Raoul Moat: “One of the chief joys of the internet is the way it has liberated millions of anonymous hecklers, strikingly few of whom had hitherto risked sharing their coruscating views in public because people tended to yawn, or ask them to shut up, or physically attack them. Suddenly they had an outlet, and before long, a vastly inflated sense of self-worth. They could pop up, courageously tell a blogger that she was fat, and disappear into the night like Raffles the gentleman thief.”

Yep. This is an age where we all feel entitled to our opinions. But how often do we stop to think whether we’re airing them responsibly? As Kate McCann points out “Judging others and expressing those opinions is part of human nature, it seems, but it’s astounding how some individuals feel entitled to do so, and with such vitriol, from a position of total ignorance.”

That’s what is so shocking. Who in the public domain really knew the ins and outs of the case? Clearly no one, thanks to the Portuguese judicial secrecy laws. Who just took their evidence from the damning headlines? The staggering thing is that the speculation has never really stopped, despite the fact that no proper evidence has actually been brought against the McCanns, despite the fact that the papers were forced to admit that they told a pack of misleading lies. All the McCanns can do is hit the newspapers in the pocket – but is that good enough? Is that justice for the suffering they’ve caused? How must it feel to read the headline ‘She’s Dead’ and open the papers with terror only to find that it’s the same old rubbish being rehashed without any new evidence? Why have we stopped holding newspapers accountable for printing lies? Making them pay up afterwards is not enough – no doubt these payouts don’t eat into the profits they make from peddling the lies in the first place or it would be uneconomical and they would desist. When others are found not to be fit for their jobs they are sacked, but newspapers who insist on printing lies are allowed to continue, as long as they can afford to pay off those who sue them.

One bit in Madeleine which really struck a chord with me was when Kate said: “The last few years have been a crash course in the complete spectrum of human nature and one lesson I have learned from it is never, ever to judge. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ responses in any case. To judge in ignorance is conceited, inconsiderate at best.”

And she’s right. We all feel we deserve a voice these days – but are we entitled to judge the McCanns? To slander them? What the vast majority of us actually know about the case is patchy at best, what we know of the McCanns as people is based on our perceptions of their reaction to a situation we can barely comprehend. Since no one, to this day, admits to knowing what has become of Madeleine McCann, we have no right to speculate. Not on the internet, not amongst friends and certainly not in the media, where there should, in my opinion, be more consequences for printing fiction as though it were fact. Rather, we should all thank our lucky stars that we don’t have to walk a mile in Kate McCann’s shoes and reserve our judgement. We are all potentially one crappy decision away from living her nightmare.

Buy this book



Filed under non fiction

4 responses to “Madeleine – are we really entitled to our opinions?

  1. king penguin

    A harsh but in my opinion fair critique of the tabloid press and, more importantly, the dreaded general public (just look at their beady eyes). Sadly while people are happier gawking at nobodys in irrelevant and tedious TV programmes, buying any publication congratulating a celebrity one minute and castigating them the next, and getting a quick fix of their judgment drug on the internet, we will forever be caught in the catch 22 of tabloids feeding the public feeding the tabloids.

    Any lessons learned from this book will, as always, only be learned by those able to think for themselves. Which sadly doesn’t include readers of the sun/mirror/mail or viewers of the only way is essex/chelsea/jersey.

  2. What a fantastic review! It is sad how the tabloids focus on headlines that grab attention, rather than the truth. I heard Kate speak on radio 4 a few weeks ago and she comes across exactly as you say. I have a great deal of sympathy for her and I hope this book helps her to get her side of the story across without tabloid journalists twisting her words.

  3. Love the review, and it’s awful how the media have milked the situation. I don’t think any mother would recover from losing her child in such an awful abrupt manner, and then to point fingers at her and indirectly encourage people to judge her is quite sad. The quote, ” to judge in ignorance is conceited, inconsiderate at best” is so true…

    … the thing that confuses me a bit is (and this is a complete digression) that Maddy’s case got so much media attention and had almost everyone hoping for the safe return of the cute five year old. How many children go missing everyday? And, how little do we hear about the other cases? Never been able to figure out why that is…

    Sorry for the digression, but…

  4. Great review!

    Even though I enjoy reading about many different topics, I have never thought about reading such a book. And related to something you mentioned, it might be because I do not feel that I will ever find myself in the family’s shoes, or maybe I would just like to stay away from even thinking about it.

    There are so many things that the press will do to grab attention. .


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