It wasn't so long ago that a Panorama documentary on Madeleine's
disappearance would have brought the anti-McCann lobby out in force.
Instead the Kate and Gerry-baiters were relatively quiet all week,
having perhaps found another grieving family to torment in the meantime,
or another conspiracy theory with which to fill their time.
Or it could simply be that they're flummoxed by the latest developments
in the case. As Panorama reported last week in the run-up to the fifth
anniversary of the little girl's disappearance from a holiday complex in
Praia da Luz, not only has a year-long Metropolitan Police investigation
come down firmly on the theory that Madeleine was abducted by a
stranger, it also claims to have good reason to believe she is still
alive, even releasing an artist's digital impression of how she might
look today, as she approaches her ninth birthday.
This wasn't the narrative which those convinced that the McCanns had
something to do with their daughter's disappearance -- the ones who
still post videos on YouTube full of cod psychological analyses of the
couple's body language to a sinister musical accompaniment, or who leave
messages on Twitter peppered with vile, unsubstantiated allegations --
had geared themselves up to expect. For now, no doubt, they remain
bunkered in, regrouping, planning the next attack.
It shouldn't take them long. Portuguese police have already refused to
reopen the case, dismissing as "mere speculation" claims from Detective
Chief Inspector Andy Redwood, who headed up the team of 28 detectives
and seven civilian support staff, that their review of 40,000 pieces of
evidence had turned up nearly 200 previously unexplored lines of
inquiry, meaning that, in all likelihood, the case will remain in
suspended animation, files gathering dust, Madeleine forgotten.
That's the atmosphere in which rumours flourish. Already there are
mutterings about the stg£2m cost of the review of evidence, and
insinuations of political interference, not least allegations that UK
Prime Minister David Cameron was only pressurised into authorising a new
inquiry by News International, thereby neatly segueing into another of
the chattering classes' latest obsessions, that of the Leveson Inquiry.
Panorama trawled through that cesspit, too. It shouldn't be too hard for
the conspiracy theorists to use it all to come up with a new excuse to
reignite the anti-McCann fuse.
Which is incredible, when you think about it. Five years on and the most
thorough investigation of the evidence -- involving, in Det Chief
Inspector Redwood's words, "turning every single piece of paper over and
interpreting and analysing what is contained within them" -- has
concluded that all those pulp fiction scenarios involving an unstable
mother killing her own child and a controlling father disposing of the
body, with both then colluding in an incredibly effective manipulation
of an entire police force and the world media, were nothing but the
poisonous fantasies which Madeleine's parents always said they were.
Yet the reaction has been so muted that it feels as if this is just
another day at the office for the obsessives. Having invested so much
time and emotional energy into demonising the McCanns, it's as if
they're still reluctant to give up, much less apologise for the hurt
that they caused to a family at its most vulnerable.
In a way, that's not so surprising. The campaign to indict the McCanns
for the death of their own daughter was fought largely over the
internet, where normal decencies rarely apply. Indeed, the plight of the
McCanns could almost stand as a metaphor for the rise of social media as
the predominant mode of public discourse.
There's a familiarity, even an intimacy, to online conversation which
encourages strangers to feel that they have an investment in stories
which actually belong to other people. Kate and Gerry were not only the
ultimate victims of cyber bullying, but one of its original casualties
too, tried and found guilty in the International Court of Twitter,
itself only one year old and in its technological infancy when Madeleine
went missing. Every gesture, every word, was magnified with an almost
Truman Show-style intensity.
In truth, it seems highly unlikely that Madeleine will ever be found
alive, regardless of last week's optimistic headlines. Most children
abducted by strangers are killed within hours of being taken. There's
also the fact that sniffer dogs detected the scent of death in the
McCanns' holiday apartment, strongly suggesting that Madeleine may have
died that very first night. Sniffer dogs are not 100 per cent reliable;
the evidence of their noses only an indicator which needs to be
confirmed by other means. But the bathetic title of last week's Panorama
-- Madeleine: The Last Hope? -- said it all.
Until that question mark is removed from the story, there will always be
room for the malicious to mislead casual observers into continuing to
cast suspicion on the McCanns.
The only consolation for Madeleine's parents is that the growth of the
internet has been so swift during the lifetime of their ordeal that the
cyber bullies now have so many other victims to pick on that they must
necessarily have less energy left over to hammer Kate and Gerry.
For those intent on attacking the media, though, there may be other
lessons to learn. The then chief constable of Leicestershire Police,
Matt Baggott, has already told the Leveson Inquiry into press standards
in the UK that he knew at the time when Portuguese police officers were
briefing against Kate and Gerry McCann that they were doing so on the
basis of a misinterpretation of the DNA evidence, but decided that it
was wiser not to put reporters right, even privately.
Baggott acted entirely as the high-minded media monks, shuddering with
distaste at any whisper of secret contact between the ladies and
gentlemen of the press and the appointed agents of the state, would wish
him to act. But the result was that a family was put through hell
unnecessarily. It can only be hoped that Leveson does not throw the baby
out with the bathwater and end up making it harder than ever for
journalists to do their job, just so that an artificial aura of purity
can be maintained.