Dominic Lawson: This tidal wave of emotional tyranny

Kate McCann, through dignity and self-preserving detachment, has denied the mob its vicarious pleasure
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The Independent Online

Everyone has a view on the disappearance of Madeleine McCann – but only the media have the power to inflict on us a tsunami of prejudice masquerading as detection. Thus it was that listeners to the hitherto dependable BBC programme Broadcasting House were involuntarily made aware that the one-time TV darts commentator Mr Sid Waddell thinks there's something really rather fishy about Madeleine's parents, Kate and Gerry McCann.

I don't know why a man whose only previous claim to public attention was his ability to scream "One hundred and eighty!" for the benefit of blind darts fans should have been thought a suitable newspaper reviewer for Radio 4's main Sunday morning news programme. Nevertheless, he was; and it was in this role that Waddell announced that he believed "there is something odd about the energy of the McCanns. I would be confounded with grief."

In his own clumsy way, Mr Waddell had encapsulated just what it is that so many people in this country seem to hold against the McCanns – and especially Mrs McCann. Ever since her daughter's disappearance, Kate McCann has resolutely refused to break down in public, maintaining her steely composure under circumstances which would reduce most mothers to wailing incoherence. Now that she has been questioned under caution by the investigators of the Portuguese police, what once seemed extraordinary self-control is now deemed to be incriminating.

Kate McCann, in fact, has become a victim twice over – first, as the mother of a snatched and possibly murdered child, and now as a target for a peculiar form of emotional tyranny which demands that the sufferer must share her terrible grief with us in the most intimate manner. Her fellow Liverpudlian, the mother of the murdered 11- year-old, Rhys Jones, unwittingly fed this media-led monster with the requisite heart-rending sobs at a series of press-conferences. Yet Mrs McCann, through a mixture of natural dignity and a self-preserving detachment which she might also have learned as a GP, has denied the mob its vicarious pleasure.

Even the Help Find Madeleine McCann website is now full of disgusting insinuations: "I never believed in your pain", "You have shown nothing but cold emotion ever since 3rd May" , " Kate McCann is either a cold, emotionless woman or there is more going on than meets the eye" and so, appallingly, on. A similar website organised by the McCanns' local newspaper has had to be shut down, after the editors found themselves unable to stem the tide of vicious comments in what was designed to be a sea of comfort.

This was entirely predictable, even before the Portuguese police leaked the fact that it was in possession of some degraded DNA from Madeleine in the family's hire car which allegedly linked the assault on her to the parents. Kate McCann is following the via dolorosa previously trod by Joanne Lees and Lindy Chamberlain. Both these women refused to give the public and the press the tears that were demanded of them – Ms Lees after her boyfriend was murdered in the Australian outback and Ms Chamberlain after her baby daughter was snatched in the same bleak part of the world.

Joanne Lees's coldness to the press and her refusal to play the role of defenceless victim led to the most vile accusations that she was responsible for the murder of her boyfriend, Peter Falconio. Even the conviction of a drug-crazed gun-mad drifter, Bradley Murdoch – based on genuinely compelling DNA evidence as well as Ms Lees' s own identification – has not stopped the publication of entire books which continue to blacken her name.

The Lindy Chamberlain case is especially relevant to Kate McCann's predicament. In 1980 Lindy and Michael Chamberlain reported that their nine-week old baby, Azaria, had disappeared from their camp on a sight-seeing trip in the Northern Territory, near Ayers Rock. Ms Chamberlain told police that a dingo had just beforehand been seen leaving the family's tent. The police found her calmness – which never wavered – most suspicious. They brought a prosecution for murder, backed up by a forensic report claiming to have found elements of the baby's haemoglobin in stains discovered on a seat in the family's hatchback. On this basis, Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour.

There the case rested until a few years later, when police were searching for the body of a missing British tourist, David Brett, in exactly the same area, covered with dingo lairs, where Azaria Chamberlain disappeared. They found the remains of Mr Brett; they also found something else in one of the lairs – Azaria Chamberlain's matinee jacket. This crucial piece of evidence, together with fresh doubts about the reliability of the forensics on the Chamberlains' car, led to a unanimous overturning of the original verdict – and very substantial damages being paid to the Chamberlains.

Naturally Lindy Chamberlain, like Joanne Lees, has still not been forgiven by elements in the press for her refusal to wail in public over her bereavement. For example, last October the Daily Mail's Amanda Platell wrote of Ms Lees: "I haven't seen such creepy control in a woman since Lindy Chamberlain cried 'My God, the dingo's got my baby'." Similar sneers are now being cast in the direction of Kate McCann for her cry on discovering that Madeleine was missing from her bedroom: "They've taken her!" This, apparently, is highly suspicious.

Those writers who want to persuade their most sceptical readers that Kate McCann is not the witch of their imaginations have made valiant attempts to make her cry in public – even by imagining it. Thus the Times' report of the McCanns' return to the UK described how "Mrs McCann was said by fellow passengers to have wept on the flight back." The Daily Mirror reported on its front page: "Yesterday Kate McCann sobbed as she sat alone in daughter Madeleine's pink-painted bedroom after returning to England." She obviously wasn't alone, as there seems to have been a Daily Mirror reporter in the room with her; or there wasn't, in which case the paper cannot know what Mrs McCann was doing in her daughter's "pink-painted bedroom".

As a matter of fact, I suspect the Mirror's guess was entirely accurate. How could Mrs McCann not have been convulsed with grief when she saw her daughter's bedroom again, with everything exactly the same – except for the whole point of it? Yet by trying to be sympathetic, to make Kate McCann into the woman it thinks its readers want her to be, the Daily Mirror stripped her of the very last vestige of her dignity – the right to grieve privately and in her own way. Even in this most intimate moment, the poor woman cannot escape the monstrous tyranny of synchronised sentimentality – show us yer care, Kate! – which once exalted her, and now condemns her.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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