Grâce à la liberté dans les communications, des groupes d’hommes de même nature pourront se réunir et fonder des communautés. Les nations seront dépassées.
Friedrich Nietzsche (Fragments posthumes XIII-883)

13 - OCT 11/13 - J. Jewell/M. Hume

Innuendo becomes currency of news in MMC case
11.10.2013  - John Jewell*

When Madeleine McCann tragically disappeared whilst on holiday in Portugal in May 2007, it became the news story of the year. The nature and scale of the reporting was unprecedented – as was the public interest in the story. Madeleine’s disappearance (and the speculation around the circumstances of it) meant the story occupied airtime and newsprint on a level not seen since the death of Princess Diana ten years before. The intensity and frequency of reporting and speculation was staggering.

Le fait-divers de l'année.

By my count, the Daily Express and Sunday Express combined had “Maddie” as lead front page story with picture 23 times in September 2007. And, in fact, there was no day throughout that month when the front pages did not contain some sort of reference to Madeleine or her parents, Kate and Gerry.

On sait maintenant pourquoi : les MC, ou plutôt Madeleine's Fund, autrement dit l'argent donné par le public, paya un demi-million de livres pour que l'affaire reste à la une pendant un an.

Since 2007 the investigations into the disappearance have continued, as has the speculative reporting and high-profile international PR campaign run by the McCann family to keep Madeleine’s disappearance in the public eye. Now, with the BBC due to broadcast a reconstruction of events surrounding Madeleine’s disappearance on Crimewatch and the British police announcing they are to analyse mobile phone data from thousands of people who were around the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz at the time of the vanishing, there is renewed interest in the case.

This week has seen the Sunday Mirror publish an “exclusive” which revealed that Madeleine had been seen alive on a Mediterranean beach just a few weeks ago. Then, on October 9, the Daily Star, the Express and the Mirror all devoted their front pages to Kate McCann’s wish to appear in court to “confront” former Portuguese police chief Goncalo Amaral.

He had written in his book that Madeleine had died in an ­accident which her parents covered up before hiding her body. Ahead of the Panorama programme, Sky News has reported a new picture of a possible suspect connected to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann which will be released by police.

What is troubling about these new reports – and this is true for the whole affair since 2007 – is that in the absence of fact, insinuation and innuendo becomes the currency of news. To this day, Madeleine’s disappearance is the only relevant fact of this terrible affair. What we have seen on television and in the press is a situation where innuendo and speculation are presented as fact on one day and as nonsense the next. The process is one of the peddling and recycling of the same stories. This week’s sighting of Madeleine is only the latest of countless since 2007, where she been reportedly recognised everywhere from Algeria to Arizona.

Ce que l'on voit depuis le premier jour, c'est une spéculation, l'enlèvement, évoquée comme un fait.

But why does the Madeleine McCann affair still command interest in a Britain where, according to recent research, a child goes missing every three minutes ?

The decision taken by the McCann family to keep their daughter in the public eye is clearly significant. They have used a highly sophisticated PR campaign to make sure that Madeleine is not forgotten. They believe, we are told, that the world will forget she is missing if the story falls off the news agenda. To that end “Team McCann” as the operation has been dubbed, has ensured a constant flow of information is available to the media.

Plutôt qu'un flux d'informations, un flux étourdissant de spéculations et de désinformations intarissables.

As soon as Madeleine disappeared, Gerry McCann started the website that has become Find Madeleine. Since then there has been the YouTube channel “Don’t you forget about me”. There have been books, television shows and documentaries, appearances at the Edinburgh television festival and the close relationship with PR man Clarence Mitchell, a former BBC journalist and director of Labour’s media monitoring unit.

We must also remember that people identify with this case because throughout history, missing children have represented the worst that can happen to adults. All parents can point to this case and shudder. It has become a sort of national collective worst experience scenario.

The press has encouraged, via comment threads, a form of participatory journalism where members of the public can respond to particular reports, often in severe ways. An article written by Roy Greenslade in October 2007 expressing pity for the McCann’s in the media “spider’s web” was greeted below the line with comments such as this:

Why should anyone “pity” the McCanns. They have brought all this down on their own heads.

We can ask ourselves whether our fascination with Madeleine is a product of celebrity culture, where we are routinely fixated with the fate of individuals we don’t know and never will. Is it a further example of the Diana syndrome where there is a mass transference of public empathy onto others, made all the more striking by our increasing alienation from each other in a physical sense?

Is our fascination an example of a kind of collective bias in favour of the middle classes? It is a fact that scores of children disappear every year yet not one has received a fraction of the attention given to Madeleine who comes from a family of wealthy, white, photogenic doctors.

The fact that the Madeleine mystery – and I use my words carefully – began abroad in less affluent, less prosperous Portugal may also be significant in why we’re so interested. This is because (in a sense) we as nation can absolve ourselves from responsibility. Despite evidence to the contrary in terms of crimes committed against children in Britain, we can tell ourselves that this is crime that happened because the family was abroad.

So in a sense we and the McCann family become one representing Britain against foreign incompetence and foreign dangers. There has been a none-too-subtle superiority complex in the way the British media has treated perceived Portuguese police inadequacies. Now that the British police are involved, we may feel, real progress is being made. On May 17, UK detectives reviewing the case said they had identified “a number of persons of interest”.

All of this in no way excuses or indeed explains why the McCanns have been treated so shabbily by sections of the press. In 2008 they received £550,000 libel damages and front-page apologies from Express Newspapers over allegations they were responsible for Madeleine’s death. The Leveson report stated that Express appetite for news of Madeleine was “insatiable” with the search for the truth “the first principle to be sacrificed”. Kate McCann told the enquiry that when the News of the World published her diaries without permission she felt “mentally raped” and “violated”.

It will be interesting to see if, in this post-Leveson world, the attitude and behaviour of the British press is any different. The publicity generated by next week’s Crimewatch will be a test of that, if nothing else.

 *Director of Undergraduate Studies, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff Universit.


Six years on, what’s driving the obsession with Madeleine McCann?
Mick Hume - Spiked - 15.10.2013

Here are the news headlines. Madeleine McCann is still missing. In a new Crimewatch special, the BBC has exclusively reported that Madeleine McCann has not been found, six-and-a-half years after the young British girl disappeared from her family’s holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal. Her parents remain heartbroken. In other developments, the team of Metropolitan Police detectives now running the high-profile re-investigation of the British three-year-old’s disappearance have announced that they still have no real information about what happened to her. The police have also released new e-fit pictures of a man – brown hair, average build, aged 20-40 – they say they ‘urgently’ want to question. These images were first created five years ago….

Where is the news? What practical difference can any of this make? It is not too difficult to feel somewhat cynical about the apparent British obsession with Madeleine. Her case has rarely been out of the headlines since she disappeared in May 2007, with every sighting of a blonde child anywhere in the world seemingly reported as a ‘new lead’ before quietly being dropped. Her parents have become prominent public figures, appearing everywhere from the Vatican to the Leveson Inquiry. This week, Madeleine is once more all over the media, after the BBC Crimewatch special on the Met investigation that was plugged as a ‘breaking news story’ for the past week.
Yet throughout all of this, there has been no discernible advance in the actual investigation, no hard new evidence at all to sustain or explain the neverending story. In Portugal, where the disappearance and suspected abduction occurred, media reports and vox pops show widespread bewilderment at the continued British focus on the events of one evening six-and-a-half years ago. The Portuguese police have long since concluded what many feel but are reluctant to say: that she is most probably dead, and died on the day she went missing. In Britain, too, some have now started to criticise what they see, with some justification, as the ongoing media ‘circus’ surrounding the case. But they have trouble answering the question: why Madeleine?

One shallow attempt at an explanation is to claim it is down to her middle-class professional parents and their media-savvy advisers – ‘Team McCann’ – who have spun the story so successfully. (If that were true, it would hardly be a scandal; if anybody has a reason to remain preoccupied with the case it is of course Kate and Gerry McCann.) Another cheap shot is, inevitably, to blame ‘tabloid sensationalism’ for keeping Madeleine in the headlines. That avoids the fact that the liberal ‘serious’ media has played a central part in promoting the circus from the start, as illustrated by the BBC clearing its schedules and news bulletins to re-promote the story this week. There’s far more going on here than Team McCann’s spinning skills or morbid tabloid sensationalism. That would hardly explain how so many, from Downing Street and Fleet Street to Scotland Yard and across social-media websites, have apparently remained in thrall to the drama all of this time. Madeleine has been turned into a symbol, a sort of metaphor, of several trends in our society and culture.

Almost from the first, it was clear to some of us that there were two girls involved here. There was the real Madeleine McCann, the subject of the fruitless police investigation in Portugal. And then there was ‘Our Maddie’, a media creation with a name dreamt up by headline-writers but not recognised by her family mum. Over time, the imaginary ‘Maddie’ has taken over the story. The latest high-profile Metropolitan Police probe, with its vague theories and probably useless e-fits, looks less like a practical criminal investigation to find out what physically happened to Madeleine than a public-relations exercise, promoted by the BBC, to demonstrate that the British authorities and the public still care about Our Maddie. This has become an ongoing focus for many in search of some sort of Shared Emotional Experience in the UK today. Ours is an increasingly atomised society, where old common traditions such as patriotism or religion have little hold and it has become rare to feel part of something larger than oneself. As a substitute, over the past two decades we have witnessed periodic national outbreaks of a sense of shared ersatz grief and loss around deaths and tragedies.

Most such outbreaks of ‘mourning sickness’ prove fairly short-lived; even the cult of Princess Diana appears to have lost its charm. But, perhaps because of her uncertain fate, ‘Maddie’ has become a peculiarly permanent excuse for indulging in a Shared Emotional Experience. After her disappearance, this led to many thousands of British households putting newspaper posters about the missing Madeleine in their windows, and football crowds and teams displaying her image, in a way that could have nothing to do with the real police investigation. Today it explains why the BBC Crimewatch special, scripted by the Met, was shown in primetime in the UK, not in Portugal. The police announced with delight that the response of the British public has been ‘overwhelming’. The response is likely to have a lot more to do with emotionalism than new evidence. Feeding into this is the way that ‘Maddie’ has been turned into the poster girl of the UK’s burgeoning child-protection industry. A society in which many feel vulnerable and victimised by uncontrollable forces has become obsessed with the dangers facing our children. As Frank Furedi recently analysed on Spiked, the defenceless child has become the all-purpose symbol of human frailty. And what more emotive symbol of vulnerability could there be than that of a three-year-old apparently taken from her bed while her parents dined nearby? Emphasising victimhood is the way that campaigners on all manner of issues claim moral authority today – which helps to explain why the McCanns have featured so prominently in the crusade to tame and sanitise the tabloid press.

All of these cultural trends around Maddie have been given shape and strength by the intervention of powerful institutions. The media, from the highbrow BBC to the redtop newspapers, have taken every opportunity to keep the circus on the road, in the hope of making an emotional connection with their audience. The Metropolitan Police, damaged of late by assorted scandals, have seized the chance to turn the Search for Madeleine into an image-polishing PR exercise, a rare opportunity to emphasise their sensitivity and professionalism in contrast to their Portuguese counterparts. The police have been more spinning than spun. Whether they can have any more hope than the Portuguese of solving the case seems almost beside the point. And never far away is the political class, which can see the emotional tragedy of Our Maddie as a chance to unite the nation – something they can no longer achieve with politics or even wars. Thus New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown gave the McCanns government backing from the first, embracing them and helping to set up their widely publicised meeting with Pope Benedict in 2007. And soon after he replaced Brown, Tory prime minister David Cameron effectively ordered the Met to devote their stretched resources to a full-scale re-investigation of the case in Portugal – the sort of political intervention in dictating police priorities that would normally cause a stir, but the Opposition did not want to be seen questioning Cameron here.

There can be few who still seriously expect the story of Madeleine to have a happy ending. In fact, with so little practical progress, and so much cultural baggage now attached to the tragedy, there seems little immediate prospect of it having an ending at all.