The Madeleine McCann industry: How a three-year-old’s disappearance became a troubling national obsession

Adam Lusher
Madeleine McCann was three years old when she went missing from her family's holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal: Family handout/PA Wire

You can read it on the official Find Madeleine website: the statement of Kate and Gerry McCann.

Madeleine, our Madeleine,” write the parents of the missing girl. “Ten years … a horrible marker of time, stolen time.”

You can watch their “heartbreaking ” interview with the BBC’s Fiona Bruce, marking the tenth anniversary of three-year-old Madeleine’s disappearance from a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal, on 3 May 2007.

Or you can consider the words of Kate and Gerry’s web statement: “We are bracing ourselves for … the rehashing of old 'stories', misinformation, half-truths and downright lies which will be doing the rounds in the newspapers, social media and 'special edition' TV programmes.

“[We] truly hope that those reporting on the 'story' over the next couple of weeks will have a conscience.”

Then you can read the newspapers: “Maddie ‘cremated’ – heartbreaking new slur by Portugese ex-cop”; “Maddie body hidden in coffin” [the same ex-cop, who is involved in a long-running legal battle with the McCanns]; and “World exclusive: prime suspect is a woman” (as followed by this website and many, many others.)

Then, if you want, you can read the online discussion forums, still going strong after all these years, where every story is dissected, and where some feel able to assert, with the unshakeable confidence of those convinced they know the truth - (though they might not know, or have met, the McCanns) – that “revolting” exploitation and deceit are involved.

And if you fear you might have missed something, your friendly newsagent may still be able to supply you with one of the pull-out supplements that some newspapers have produced for the tenth anniversary of little Maddie’s disappearance.

How you view it all probably depends on your hunch – (and who doesn’t have one?) - about what happened to Madeleine.

Some will praise fearless public interest investigation, possibly emphasising that most of it has been done by those outside the mainstream media (MSM).

Others will suggest the story has only been kept alive by slick PR beyond the resources of less savvy, less middle class parents with less photogenic children. Sometimes this is swiftly followed by the accusation that the parents, both of them highly intelligent doctors, have “something to hide”.

Still others will despair that Madeleine McCann has become an industry, making money for journalists, commentators and lawyers – while doing precious little for the missing girl herself.

Those seeing it as an industry may – fairly or unfairly - seek to examine one of those “special edition documentaries” broadcast last month by Australia’s Sunday Night programme.

First there was the headline-generating build-up: a cinematic trailer promising major new developments and a “groundbreaking TV event”.

Then came the show itself, mentioning theories that Madeleine had been killed by a drunk driver, or snatched by human traffickers, and saying that detectives wanted to talk to a Praia da Luz resort worker who may know more than they have so far divulged.

The show also discussed a claim that MI5 might have helped hide Madeleine – it came from Goncalo Amaral, the talkative Portugese ex-cop behind the ‘Maddie cremated’ line, who was sacked as lead investigator in the case in October 2007 after accusing British detectives of only chasing leads the McCanns wanted following.

Then came the programme’s aftermath: no arrests, so far, but a statement from the lawyer of one of the experts featured in the show.

US-based criminal profiler Pat Brown has said she was misrepresented, and has, according to her attorney, identified “multiple claims” against the programme makers – who may well be instructing their own lawyers to challenge the allegations.

This comes six years after other lawyers got involved over Ms Brown’s self-published book casting doubt on the McCanns’ account of how their daughter disappeared. After Amazon heard from libel law firm Carter-Ruck, acting for the McCanns, the book was withdrawn from the online bookseller.

In a lengthy blog post, Ms Brown has now explained how she became a television commentator and why she participated in the Australian documentary.

“I never expected to be on television,” she wrote. “But, after I started working in criminal profiling, I got a call from one of the big cable networks. They were in a panic because the guest they had invited couldn't make it at the last moment.

“I did the interview. I started getting calls for more interviews.”

Fifteen years later, she said, she has made more than 3,000 media appearances – far from all of them about Madeleine McCann. As well as current investigations, she has been a “valued expert” in the documentaries The Unsolved Death of Cleopatra and Mystery Files: Jack the Ripper.

“What I wanted to do,” she explained, “Was change methods of crime analysis so we would not have so many cold cases languishing in every state in the country.”

Her participation in the Australian show, she stressed, was not about the money.

“I doubt any participants were paid,” she said, “And, if they were, believe me, these kind of shows are cheap”.

She acknowledged there would be two schools of thought: “Pat Brown is not a real profiler. She is a McCann hater and published her book because she wants to make money off the pain of the parents and an innocent missing child.”

And among her supporters: “Pat Brown is the one professional outside of Goncalo Amaral who has not backed down from speaking the truth.”

“I did the show,” she said, “Because I wanted the truth out there in the MSM. It was an opportunity to speak out on the Madeleine McCann case, something that had been off limits for over seven years in the MSM.”

The idea that the case is off limits to the mainstream media might amaze some, including the McCanns.

In November 2011 they told the Leveson Inquiry that British newspapers had declared “open season” on them.

At least in the early days, some reports seemed to do little more than repeat speculation in the Portuguese and Spanish press, with the addition of quotation marks and words like “allegedly” to give a little bit of legal distance from the initial allegation.

Some editors, it seemed, had noticed how a McCann splash could generate the kind of interest hitherto reserved for the latest "sensational twist" in the Diana, Princess of Wales story.

“We had anecdotal evidence from the British journalists in Praia da Luz that the story of Madeleine's disappearance had caught the imagination of the British public and was driving sales in the UK,” Gerry McCann told the Leveson Inquiry. “As a result those journalists were under intense pressure from their newsdesks to file more copy."

It is possible, however, that the involvement of the lawyers has taken at least some of the edge off the media frenzy.

In March 2008 the Daily Express and the Daily Star had to make front page apologies after the McCanns started libel proceedings in relation to more than 100 articles published by the two daily newspapers and their Sunday sister editions. The High Court heard the false claims included allegations that the McCanns killed their daughter, sold her to pay off debts, or were involved in “wife-swapping”.

Then in July 2008 the McCanns started proceedings against Mr Amaral after he published his book The Truth of the Lie, in which he claimed the McCanns faked the abduction of their daughter after she died because of an accident in the family’s holiday apartment.

The McCanns won an initial libel case against Mr Amaral in 2015, but this was overturned on appeal and in a judgement in Portugal’s Supreme Court. The McCanns told Fiona Bruce they will now be appealing to the European courts because the rulings against them were “terrible”.

The ongoing legal disputes, then, may have persuaded journalists to tread carefully – but it seems there is no shortage of material allowing them to plod on.

The known, indisputable facts may be few: Madeleine was reported missing at 10.14pm on the evening of 3 May 2007; her parents said they had left her sleeping in the apartment and gone to dinner with friends at a tapas bar 50 yards away, with one of the group checking on the toddler every half hour.

But out of that has grown a near infinity of leads or blind alleys – as well as incessant questioning from critics armed with hindsight and demanding to know why the McCanns didn’t play safe and get a baby sitter (especially after it emerged there had been burglaries in a resort described in the first, sympathetic reports as a secure middle-class haven).

On 25 April, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, the man in charge of Operation Grange, Scotland Yard’s six-year, £11m review of the case, wrote of his team having examined over 40,000 documents, out of which thousands of enquiries were generated.

“We continue to receive information on a daily basis,” he said. “The team has looked at in excess of 600 individuals who were identified as being potentially significant to the disappearance.”

There was, he added, to a television interviewer, “a significant line of inquiry which is worth pursuing.”

"Ourselves and the Portuguese are doing a critical piece of work and we don't want to spoil it by putting titbits of information out publicly."

Of course, such a tantalising hint became a headline.

Look hard enough, and you will find stories about how lessons have not been learnt about the failure to find Madeleine, and about how all the speculation has drowned out debate about how to respond to a similar child disappearance in the future.

But such stories seem to gain far less traction than the latest “hugely significant new clue” or "sensational new development” or even – “What was Madeleine’s cuddle cat and how important was it to the police investigation”?

And Madeleine is still missing.

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