Almost four months have
passed since I first began to investigate the harrowing
case of a beautiful little girl who appeared to have
vanished into thin air, shortly after being tucked up in
bed by her parents on holiday in Portugal.
Like a great many people in Britain, and millions more
around the world, I have since become fascinated, almost
to the point of obsession, with the Madeleine McCann
I have travelled repeatedly to the Algarve to interview
potential witnesses and suspects; retraced the
abductor's possible escape routes and explored all
manner of theories.
And I end most days by reading the strangely breezy and
matter-of-fact web-log kept by Madeleine's surgeon
My curiosity has been heightened at least partly because
those haunting last photographs of a beautiful, carefree
child playing in the sunshine resemble so many treasured
pictures in my own family album.
As a father of four, I can also identify with the
dilemma that apparently confronted Gerry and Kate McCann
on that fateful May evening in Praia da Luz. How do you
enjoy an evening out with friends on holiday, and keep
your toddler safe?
Yet something else has kept me utterly absorbed in
Madeleine's case, and it is certainly not the McCanns'
moth-to-a-flame courtship of the media (their latest
interview, with Paris Match, is due to be published
United front: Kate and Gerry McCann have never hesitated
to face the cameras together
Nor is it the initially well-meaning, but now
ill-advisedly slick publicity campaign being
masterminded by failed Liberal Democrat parliamentary
candidate and party activist Justine McGuinness - a
freelance PR who recently had to be dissuaded from
arranging a photocall for Kate McCann at a Portuguese
No, something far more disconcerting has kept me rapt
with the Madeleine story.
From the earliest days, a disturbing thought has nagged
away at the back of my mind. Suppose her parents were
Until yesterday, this was such a terrible notion as to
be almost unspeakable, even within the confines of my
own four walls, where my wife steadfastly refuses to
countenance the possibility the McCanns could be
anything other than the blameless, heartbroken parents
they present themselves to be.
Malicious gossips apart, everyone appears to agree with
my wife. Even to raise the possibility that there might
just be more to the McCanns is to risk being pilloried.
It places one in the camp of internet ghouls,
xenophobic, badly-informed Portuguese newspapers and
In the final analysis, of course, my sneaking fear that
they might be involved in her disappearance could turn
out to be completely unfounded. It might well be proved
that Madeleine was snatched from her bed - by some
despicable paedophile or a desperate childless couple -
as everyone surmised from the outset.
Alternatively, though even less likely, she might have
woken up alone and, bewildered that her parents weren't
there in the strange apartment, panicked and wandered
off to search for them.
Stretching one's imagination, she might conceivably have
fallen into the nearby roadwork trenches - filled a few
days later - or even wandered more than half a mile
through the darkness, into the sea.
However, yesterday's bombshell news that Kate McCann has
formally been made an "arguida" - a formal suspect -
means we can no longer take their innocence as an
absolute, cast-iron certainty, how ever unpalatable that
Last night, Gerry was still being questioned by the
Portuguese police, and might also be named as a suspect.
My own gnawing doubts about the conventional theories
began on my first visit to Portugal. I am a reporter,
not a detective, but some things just didn't seem right.
First, there was the resort itself. Expecting to find a
bustling town where it would be easy for a childsnatcher
to mingle with the crowd while watching his target, and
make off without arousing suspicion, I found instead an
almost deserted, out-of-season place. A risky setting
for a kidnap, however well-planned.
Then there was the McCanns' apartment. Although it stood
at least 75 yards from the tapas bar where the family's
party dined, and was completely obscured by a high wall
topped with bougainvillea, its location would have
presented considerable problems to a would-be abductor.
Family photo: The couple released a photo of Madeleine
snapped by the pool on the day she went missing
The sliding window at the rear faces an alley used as a
main thoroughfare for those staying in the apartment
blocks, while the front door and windows open on to a
frequently used car-park, beyond which runs a well-lit
How on Earth, I have often wondered, did someone walk
in, gather Madeleine up in his arms and make off with
her without being seen, or waking her twin brother and
sister sleeping either side of her? And surely the
little girl must have stirred. The neighbouring
apartments were occupied. Why was nothing heard or seen?
All this is a matter of speculation, of course, as are
the other anomalies too numerous to mention which make
me sceptical that this was the work of a predatory
paedophile - the most commonly-held theory.
However, in the early days of the investigation, I
interviewed Robert Murat, the 33-year-old
Portuguese-born Englishman who was, until yesterday, the
only suspect. I remain one of only a handful of
journalists to have spoken to him at length.
The police took an interest in Murat, you'll recall,
only after a reporter felt there was something
suspicious about him and told them of her concern.
Murat: Quickly offered help as an interpreter
With his glass eye, vaguely uneasy manner and
injudicious outbursts of self pity (he has compared his
own suffering to that of the McCanns) it is easy to see
why this self-employed "property developer" has been
The more so because his mother's house stands 75 yards
from the apartment, and, with echoes of Soham murderer
Ian Huntley, Murat was on the scene very quickly to
offer help as a police interpreter.
One cannot gauge a man's guilt or innocence during a
two-hour conversation, as I readily accept.
I believe it is sufficient to form an impression of his
character, however, and during my afternoon alone with
the chain-smoking Robert Murat, nothing led me to
believe that he might be capable of kidnapping a child.
On the contrary, I came away convinced that he will
eventually be proved a seriously-maligned scapegoat, as
he has always protested.
Whatever the eventual outcome, the Portuguese police
were foolhardy in the extreme to focus their attention
so narrowly on one man.
And, whether we like it or not, the possible involvement
of Kate and Gerry McCann should have been rigorously
investigated at the very beginning of the inquiry - as
it would have been in Britain, where routine procedure
dictates that those closest to the victim are
scrutinised and eliminated first.
Now, very belatedly, the spotlight has been turned on
If we believe sources quoted in the Portuguese press,
the reasons for this sudden change of tack - just as the
McCanns were preparing to return to Leicestershire - are
Apparently, detectives started to consider the
possibility that Madeleine might have been killed by her
parents - albeit inadvertently - after comparing the
case with that of a missing Portuguese eight-year-old
girl named Joana Cipriano, whose mother was convicted of
For the watching world, of course, the prospect that
there are similarities between the fate of Madeleine and
Joana will beggar belief.
Clutching Madeleine's beloved toy Cuddle Cat to her
bosom wherever she goes, and so visibly laden down by
grief that her fragile body seems ready to buckle under
the strain, Kate McCann has become a haunting symbol for
despairing mothers everywhere.
Her husband, by contrast, strides purposefully between
meetings with senior politicians and religious leaders.
Zealously banging the drum for missing children, his
pugilistic Glaswegian chin juts defiantly towards anyone
who dares to question him, or his motives.
And then there is the relentless publicity blitz.
Originally devised and orchestrated by relatives and
friends, with the simple aim of keeping Madeleine's
impossibly-cute face uppermost in people's thoughts, it
has - to the distaste of many - taken on a life of its
own, becoming the focus of an ill-defined global
Fronting the campaign: Kate McCann - and with her
husband Gerry (below) did all they could to keep
Madeleine's face in people's thoughts
At times, it seems that the goal of finding Madeleine
safe and well is being lost amid the PR hoopla.
But whatever we might think of the Find Madeleine
campaign, surely all this can't be a fake? Surely a
couple who have placed themselves under the microscope -
and in so doing turned their daughter's disappearance
into the most high-profile child abduction case in
history - won't emerge as callous frauds?
In the coming hours, after Gerry McCann has completed
the same, grim grilling to which Kate was earlier
subjected in the Portimao police station, we might be a
little nearer to knowing the answer.
For all my scepticism, I pray that the Portuguese police
are - once again - careering down the wrong track.
Because if, by some dark twist, it transpires that Kate
and Gerry McCann have really known all along what
happened to Madeleine - that they were responsible and
staged the most elaborate imaginable cover-up - the
consequences would be harmful almost beyond measure.
Such an incredible outcome would forever destroy the
inherent faith we place in outwardly decent, caring
parents such as the McCanns, and with it our very trust
in the goodness of human nature.
It would make cynics of us all - and that would be as
sad, in its way, as losing little Madeleine.