The Year in Review: British life

A cruel saga, fuelled by slur and suspicion
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The Independent Online

Since 3 May, when Madeleine McCann disappeared from her bedroom in the Portuguese holiday village of Praia da Luz, there has been no news of her. None at all. This abject fact, however, has not been allowed to get in the way of a good story. In the absence of narrative, speculation about this profoundly unlucky child has made headlines every single day, and attracted avid, interactive readers around the world. Except that this has never been a good story. There has been no aspect of it at all that has been anything other than dismal.

A number of aspects of this bad story jostle to be the most distasteful and distressing, and they are mostly intertwined. First and foremost among them, in practical terms, is the conduct of the Policia Judiciaria. Because of Portugal's much-flouted ban on the reporting of the facts in a police inquiry, no one knows to this day whether there were signs of a forced entry into the villa from which Madeleine vanished. If there was no such evidence reports conflict the police could be excused for their seeming belief, in the crucial early hours, that Madeleine had simply wandered off.

Yet even if one accepts that there may have been no initial grounds for suspecting an abduction or a murder, a Dispatches investigation confirmed that the search for Madeleine that night was chaotic, piecemeal and largely amateurish. As it became apparent that the disappearance was likely to be far more sinister, these procedural lapses became far more significant.

The scene of the crime was not secured. Huge storm drains, as inviting to children as Aladdin's cave, were not explored. Bins were carted off to landfills, which in turn were never investigated. Roads were not blocked, borders were not secured, the deep wells in the surrounding countryside were not checked.

Crucially, also, there was an official reluctance to alert the media, which prompted Madeleine's parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, along with their friends, to take that aspect of the matter into their own hands. In common with every other part of this case, hindsight does not tell us whether the course of the narrative might have been different had those initial approaches to the British media not prompted quite such a frenzy of largely uncontrolled coverage.

No one knows whether the sad iconisation of the lost child prompted an abductor to kill her. No one knows whether, had Madeleine not become so sought-after and so recognisable, some person might have been a little more careless about being seen out with her, thus alerting less specific suspicions about a child who had popped up from nowhere. Instead, the opposite has happened, and it appears that every family in Europe with an improbably tow-headed daughter has attracted suspicious inquiry.

No one knows, either, whether the Portuguese authorities, faced with a barrage of criticism from the British media, went on the defensive, and for this reason backed its woeful team for far too long before eventually dismissing it. Even so, it took evidence that members of the investigative team were under investigation themselves, amid accusations that they had beaten a false confession of murder from a Portuguese mother whose child had died, before this happened.

It had long been clear anyway that the officers had been briefing the Portuguese media against the McCanns, of whose own guilt they seemed, at times, to be entirely convinced. Many of these slurs, all of which have turned out to be inaccurate, were gleefully reproduced in the British press, however absurd, sensational or cruel they were. One thing is certainly known about this case; that the behaviour of the media, from its initial flurry of useless sentiment and empty self-righteousness, to its eventual vortex of cruelty, unrestrained gossip-peddling and indiscriminate supposition, has shown itself to be a frightening and pitiless mill. The course of this tale, as told in the press, has been godless in the sense of its having no morality. Little or no care for what it is grinding, or who, or how, has been on display.

Similarly sobering has been the spectacle whereby the tenor of Britain's "water-cooler conversation" has been revealed. The desire to have new grist to chuck into that godless mill has sold the papers that have stuck with the story. Placing Madeleine's name or face on a front page has, since May, been a guarantee of sales. Yet, while the intense interest in the case has been explained away as concerned or benign, the natural consequence of a dark tale that chimes with our deepest fears and insecurities, the reality is that much of the chatter around the McCanns has been blithe, judgmental and dissociated from any of the sympathetic impulses that are cited as being the driving force behind the public interest.

From the beginning, it was considered bold to suggest that the McCanns were culpable in the loss of their daughter, because they had left her alone with her brothers. Even sympathetic commentators, eager to explain to us all what it might be like to suffer the unexplained loss of a child (in case this was a feat of imagination beyond us), often felt it necessary to declare that they would not take such a risk with their own families. Fear of a paedophile abduction was not necessarily the problem, but just fear of their precious bundle waking up and feeling disorientated.

The harsh truth in this judgment, in the face of events, is self-evident, so it should not need to be said, even once, let alone again and again and again. It is difficult to believe that Madeleine's lot was not somehow dictated by someone's observation of the holiday habits of the group of friends known as the Tapas Nine. But you'd have to believe in a vengeful universe indeed to conclude that those with inadequate babysitting arrangements should not complain on the statistically immeasurable occasions when those habits attract criminal cruelty that resides on the outer edges of human psychopathology.

Yet those early, ill-judged statements of what can best and most comfortably be explained as self-protective and residual resistance to the manipulative power of the tragedy were only the beginning, the first tentative ripples in an unstoppable tide of distasteful fishwifery. Perhaps those early comments primed people, despite the professions of empathy, to subtly distance themselves from the sorts of people to whom this might occur.

Whatever happened, something allowed a huge swath of otherwise decent people to believe that it was OK to gawk at the McCanns and treat them in the way those other publicity-seeking hyper-humans, celebrities, are treated. I have even noticed the McCanns being described as "celebrities", which is notably obnoxious. The temptation to analyse and theorise about every little detail in this case has been given into without question. Scurrilous gossip and intemperate blogging has turned up wild assertions and pitiless criticisms that the mainstream media dared only to hint at. The ability of humans to take cheap psychological mini-breaks in other people's misery has been illustrated most shockingly in the course of this actless, but action-packed drama.

For Gerry and Kate McCann, and their twins whose privacy has been invaded without a second thought, even though they are two years old it is hard to say what additional damage the sometimes deeply hostile coverage has wreaked. However great the extra strain, one tends to presume that the lessons they have learnt about presuming the media to be friendly register in an altogether less insistent tone than the primary and primal tragedy of a daughter who has gone, no one knows where.

For Robert Murat, the only official suspect apart from the McCanns, the same cannot be said. His arguido status lasts for eight months, before an application to renew it has to be made. But so much about Murat is now in the public domain that it seems unlikely that his life will ever be free of the stain of association in this tortuous mystery. Apart from the McCanns themselves, he ought to be the person who hopes most fervently that the mystery of Madeleine's fate and whereabouts is sooner rather than later solved.