Why Madeleine McCann was never just another 'lost child' story | GilesTremlett

A new suspect has reignited interest in her case, but the British media was hooked from the day she went missing

It is the story that never goes away. And why should it? The three-year-old girl with the smudge in her right eye would now be a British teenager, looking forward to another family holiday on a Mediterranean or Atlantic beach. Next year she would go to university, perhaps following her high-achieving parents to medical school. Instead, Madeleine McCann is frozen in time – the little girl who disappeared from the family’s Portuguese holiday apartment on 3 May 2007.

Madeleine’s disappearance is an almost unbearable tragedy. Those of us who watched Kate and Gerry McCann step out each morning from their Praia da Luz apartment to drop off the younger twins – Sean and Amelie – so they could continue the campaign to find their daughter, always saw that. Never in British journalism, indeed, have so many hardened hacks so desperately hoped to stumble upon a little girl – perhaps just dropped off alive by her kidnapper on a cobbled Portuguese pavement.

Otherwise, this is a tale uniquely shaped by British media culture. It is so British that the Portuguese media at first paid scant attention to the newest suspect, revealed this week. Motive, means and behaviour all meet in convicted German paedophile Christian Brückner – who, nevertheless, remains innocent until proven guilty. We know opportunity was also present.

When the Brückner news broke, the Portuguese press did not immediately show huge interest. On Thursday Público newspaper spoke of “the latest suspect” (from an already exhaustingly long list). On Friday it reported on how Praia da Luz just “wants the case to close”. People were obviously tired of an old story that still haunts the tourist resort, but which is continually given fresh life by British tabloids that jump on any new clue.

The Portuguese media are not callous. But they had moved on, partly in response to the heavy-footed British press and its mostly condescending attitude to the Portuguese people and police.

The McCann story, indeed, is also a snapshot of Britain and its poisonous media culture. By May 2007, at least 10 million Britons spent their summer holidays in Spain and Portugal. Almost 1 million lived there. Many showed little or no interest in their host countries. They brought, too, a degree of chaos. British tourists kept local police and emergency services busy by needing rescue from drunken late-night swims, overdosing, choking on their own vomit, fighting outside clubs, and jumping, falling or being pushed off balconies. Occasionally they stabbed or shot one another. In the worst tragedies, toddlers drowned in villa swimming pools.

A few years before Madeleine disappeared, a three-month-old British boy was found in a pushchair on a pavement in the Algarve’s main city of Faro. He had been dumped there just before his parents flew home to Gatwick. The Portuguese were shocked. British tourists were good for the economy; but they also did the strangest, most inhuman things.

UK tabloids lapped up these stories. Part of their readership was sitting on the beach, reading summer editions printed on Spanish presses. 

The McCanns were not that kind of tourist. Kate and Gerry were both doctors. In fact they were the perfect victims: the blonde white girl with the professional parents. These, after all, were the people the media thought they were speaking to – white, middle-class families. But British children go missing more frequently than we would like. They rarely, if ever, get this much attention.

It is always, too, somehow more fascinating if the disappearance happens abroad. That taps into a very British fear of the foreign – and enables us to blame another culture. This was only too visible in the warfare waged between the British media and their Portuguese counterparts, and by sections of the police in both countries. Within days, Kate and Gerry had built a tight relationship with Sky News – Rupert Murdoch’s 24-hour service.  

Sky catapulted the McCanns to the top of every news list. Teams of reporters appeared from the Daily Mail and elsewhere, as broadsheets played catch-up. I missed the first days, having written this off as yet another “child lost on beach” story, but eventually spent more than a month in Praia da Luz. That period ended when Gerry McCann drove his family to the airport early one morning, while half a dozen cars swarmed around him, bristling with camera lenses.

In between, as real stories ran dry, tabloid culture took over. A Daily Express reporter wearily explained to me that his editor expected a front page splash every two days. Negative stories grew, targeting the McCanns and the Portuguese police. The following year Express newspapers paid £550,000 in damages to the family. “The general theme of the articles was to suggest that Mr and Mrs McCann were responsible for the death of Madeleine … and that they had then disposed of her body,” the couple’s lawyers stated. The McCanns later became key witnesses to the Leveson inquiry on press misconduct.

The thuggery of mid-2000s tabloids has since emigrated (without journalists) to Facebook and social media. Conspiracy theories abound, fuelled by poisonous commentary and mad theories about “white slavery”.

Yet the tone was set long ago. It turned the Portuguese against this story, and exhausted the patience of people in Praia da Luz. When I called several of them on Thursday evening, they spoke of a tragic moment from a different era – and this new appeal relies on people recalling events, places, vehicles and phone numbers from 2007. So despite this being such a high-profile British story, it will probably be the Portuguese who, eventually, solve the crime.

• Giles Tremlett is a correspondent based in Spain. He is the author of Ghosts of Spain, and biographies of Catherine of Aragon and Isabella of Castile


Giles Tremlett

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