Dave, Maddie and the politics of grief
Brendan O’Neill - 17.05.2011
It’s hard to know who comes out worst in David Cameron’s great clumsy intervention into the Madeleine McCann affair, where he has instructed the Metropolitan Police to review the investigation into the British toddler’s disappearance. Is it the Cameron government itself, which has been positively Pavlovian in its kneejerk political opportunism, and which in the process has turned policing from a practical initiative into a highly ritualised performance of supposed political grit? Or is it his critics, who mock this Maddie thing as a Rupert Murdoch-inspired Tory stunt, yet who themselves have loudly championed the politicisation, even the weaponisation, of other instances of individual grief? On balance, it is probably Cameron’s critics, since their approach - critical of kowtowing to grief in this case, supportive of it in others - not only offers implicit backing to the broader problematic trend of empowering the bereaved. It also suggests that some people’s grief should be more valued than others’, that there should be a grief hierarchy, where politicians are encouraged to act on the demands of worthy grievers (Doreen Lawrence, antiwar military mums) but to brush aside the wishes of unworthy grievers (Kate McCann, Denise Fergus). This offers us the worst of both worlds: the undemocratic, emotionalist politics of grief, but indulged selectively, depending on whether the mum-in-mourning measures up to a liberal elite standard.
Cameron’s Maddie venture undoubtedly confirms how powerful is the PR impulse in his government. On the very day that Kate and Gerry McCann wrote an open letter to his government on the front page of the Sun (12 May), in which they implored him to devote more resources to finding out what happened to Madeleine in Portugal in 2007, Cameron got his home secretary, Theresa May, to write to Scotland Yard asking its officers to ‘do more’. It rather confirmed the sensitivity to media pressure of a government as flimsy as Cameron’s. Unanchored by political vision, detached from any meaningful constituency, this is a government easily swayed by the vagaries of PR and image promotion. Cameron seems to have instantly seen in the McCanns’ letter, not a moment of potential awkwardness that might require behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the family, but a shining opportunity to advertise his alleged skills of political leadership and commitment to British citizens. As in all cases of PR politics, where the imperative is to send a speedy message about oneself rather than enact a thought-through policy, no one in the Cameron camp seems to have given a second thought to the small matter of consequences, of blowback. If they had - if they had behaved like actual political rulers, who must maintain good relations with the police and also avoid being seen as flighty - they would surely have deduced that their actions would rattle numerous cages. Predictably, the Metropolitan Police are annoyed, issuing both public and underhand statements critical of Cameron. And equally predictably, the parents of other disappeared toddlers are also annoyed, with one, whose 21-month-old son went missing on the Greek island of Kos in 1991, saying: ‘I look forward to the government offering the same support to all families with loved ones missing abroad.’
It confirms the detachment of PR politics from the world of the real that no one in government saw fit to put a brake on the prime minister or the home secretary’s actions. And it speaks to the immaturity and inexperience of our current rulers, to their lack of historical nous, that they are willing to use the police for narrowly PR purposes. Once a jealously guarded ‘body of armed men’, the final guarantors of political stability, now the police appear as little more than a body of press men to a government desperate to indulge in some political posturing in lieu of having any political convictions. The government has effectively asked Scotland Yard, not to carry out real policing (after all, what more can be uncovered about the McCann case, and from here in Britain?), but rather to act for the sake of being seen to act, to shuffle papers, perhaps, and make statements, all as publicly as possible. This is policing as ritual, where the aim is not to find something out but to make a PR parade of political seriousness. (And for all the police’s complaints about this political pressure, their own recent forays into PR and even celebrity policing rather undermine their current rage at Cameron.) The mistake made by Cameron’s critics is to talk up the influence of external forces in this debacle. He has given in to the Murdoch media, we are told, or he has had his arm twisted by those alleged masters of political manipulation, the McCanns. A Guardian writer says Cameron has surrendered to ‘a newspaper belonging to News International, whose vast array of illegal hacking activities is already tying up some of our most diligent detectives’. (This is a bit rich, seeing as it is the Guardian‘s own new role as the supergrass of the modern media, constantly ratting on tabloid phone-hackers, which has led to all this time-consuming ‘diligent detective work’.) Yet the truth is that it is the weakness of the Cameron government, the political emptiness of it, which draws it to PR stunts such as this Maddie intervention. In flagging up the allegedly awesome power of Murdoch and/or the McCanns, the critics miss the extent to which politicians of all persuasion in our ideologically anaemic times cherish an opportunity to partake in speedy, short-termist moral crusades. The key factor in this debacle is the wide openness of the government to PR manipulation, rather than the strength of the manipulators.
Indeed, one important fact that is overlooked by the liberal-leaning journalists who have slated Cameron for his Maddie mission is that the politics of emotionalism, the intervention into and the exploitation of family grief, is indulged by politicians on all sides today - often with the backing of those currently attacking Cameron. It makes no sense to describe this as a Tory stunt when everyone from Tony Blair to Ken Livingstone to the Guardian itself has in recent years elevated the bereaved as paragons of wisdom who have the authority to inform and shape the political realm. It’s just that - rather shamelessly and more than a little bit stomach-turningly - these liberal promoters of the political power of grief believe that only some suffering people are worth heeding while the rest can be written off as nutjobs. So an editorial in the Observer says ‘Mr Cameron needs to be careful about presenting himself as some benevolent tsar, bestowing favours on petitioning subjects’. Others have counselled against further empowering the already media-savvy McCanns. Yet in recent years, a figure such as Doreen Lawrence, mother of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, has been empowered to an extraordinary degree by left-leaning politicians and commentators. By virtue of the fact that she suffered a terrible loss, she has been turned into a spokeswoman for everything from authoritarian clampdowns on the so-called knife culture to the supposed superiority of Ken Livingstone over Boris Johnson for London mayor. Indeed, Livingstone’s exhaustive exploitation of Mrs Lawrence for political gain makes Cameron’s Maddie moment seem almost civilised by comparison.
Likewise, some of the media currently attacking Cameron have been more than happy to weaponise grief. So during the Iraq War the Guardian described military mums who had turned antiwar after losing their sons as ‘the grieving parents who might yet bring Bush down’. ‘No one questions the wildness in the eyes of a mother or father who has just lost a son’, it said, explicitly revelling in the democracy-squishing, debate-neutering power of the politics of grief. In essence, it seems that some grief is good and thus worth exploiting, while other forms of grief are considered cheap and nasty. So where Denise Fergus, mother of murdered Liverpudlian toddler James Bulger, is referred to by respectable journalists as the embodiment of ‘hatred and vengeance’, with a grief that is ‘anachronistic, even threatening’, someone like Mrs Lawrence is treated as beyond reproach. Kate McCann was once seen as being of the Lawrence mould, but as a consequence of her outstaying her welcome in the media, and getting too cosy with the tabloids over the broadsheets, she is now seen as more like Fergus: another mad, moaning Scouse mum. This grotesque hierarchy of grief, this elitist handpicking between good mourners and bad mourners, sums up the entire problem with the modern politics of grief. What we have here, in every tragic case from Fergus to Lawrence to McCann, is political and media actors hiding behind mourning mums for the purpose of pushing narrow political agendas - whether it’s anti-crime initiatives, the dogma of multiculturalism or just PR self-promotion. What attracts the political elite to the publicly bereaved is that in the absence of any moral certainty or confidence of their own, they can push the implacable grief of an individual as a justification for their actions. It also has the effect of dampening down political criticism and agitation - in the words of the Guardian, ‘no one questions’ those chosen as reputable political mourners. In one fell (and foul) swoop, politicians can morally justify their agendas and simultaneously silence their opponents.
The end result is that the McCanns and others never achieve closure, while political discourse gets closed down.
Was Madeleine abducted ? À propos de "Madeleine" Enid O'Dowd - 06.2011
You're meeting seven neighbours, with eight children under four between you, in one of Ranelagh's many restaurants, only 120 metres or so from your homes which you can't see from the restaurant; what do you do about childcare?
That was the 'almost' equivalent dilemma faced by Kate and Gerry McCann and their friends on their holiday in Praia da Luz in May 2007 – except they were not on their home patch as you were in Ranelagh. The group, which became known as the Tapas nine and six of whom were doctors, decided to make 30 minute checks. This system, Kate claims, had worked on previous evenings but when she checked at 10 pm on Thursday May 3rd, Madeleine was not there and, despite an international search involving the Portuguese and UK police and private detectives, she has still not been found.
Last month Kate McCann published "Madeleine - our daughter's disappearance and the continuing search for her". In the foreword of the book she states that her "reason for writing the book is to give an account of the truth". Isn't that odd phraseology - surely there can only be one version of the truth? All kinds of tales have circulated about Madeleine's disappearance according to Kate, and indeed they have; the publication of this "truthful" book seems to have accelerated the internet debates on the discrepancies in the McCanns' story.
The book is actually the story of Kate's life to date. It covers her childhood, her education, her meeting and marriage to Gerry McCann and the births of their three children. The McCanns needed a series of IVF treatments to become parents which makes it all the more odd that they would leave three children under four in an unlocked apartment on the ground floor in a foreign country.
According to Kate, all three children were good sleepers. She did not want to use the evening crèche provided by the holiday company; understandable as her children had a routine and were in bed by the time the crèche opened at 7.30 pm.
She argues on p. 54 that it would have been unwise to leave the children with someone neither they nor themselves knew. Yet her children were happy in the day childcare facilities and had come to know the staff who were available, at extra cost, to babysit for clients in the evening.
She states "we felt so secure we simply didn't think it was necessary (to hire a babysitter) and our own apartment was only 30-45 seconds away".
An astonishing statement.
Kate does not mention a witness statement by Pamela Fenn who lived in the apartment above stating that she heard a child crying for 75 minutes on Tuesday May 1st calling for "daddy". This contradicts Kate's statement of 30 minute checks.
The book cover proclaims that all royalties are donated to the Madeleine Fund. A company called Madeleine Fund: Leaving No Stone Unturned Ltd was incorporated on 15 May 2007. According to Kate, over the weekend of 11th, 12th and 13th May she and Gerry had meetings in Praia da Luz with a paralegal from the International Family Law Group and a barrister. The barrister told them "our behaviour (in leaving the children unattended) could not be deemed negligent" and was "well within the bounds of reasonable parenting".
The legal pair suggested the McCanns use London solicitors Bates Wells and Braithwaite to set up a company to manage the funds that would be donated. On p.137 she records that this firm drew up articles of association for the fighting fund (limited com and talked to the Charity Commission who ruled that the proposed company did not meet the requirements for charity status as it focussed on one child and did not meet the public benefit test. Hence Kate says, the decision was that "it would be a 'not for profit' private limited company. It was set up with great care and due diligence by experts in the field".
From the dates Kate gives, it would appear that Bates Wells and Braithwaite could not have had instructions to act until Monday May 14th, yet they were able to incorporate the company the very next day.
A day is very little time for the solicitors to have drafted company documents for this proposed company which was not an ordinary trading company, to have agreed the documents with their clients the McCanns who were in Portugal and also to have obtained a ruling from the Charity Commission.
And what was the hurry given that Madeleine could have been found at this early stage of the investigation?
On p.138 Kate says "everyone agreed that despite the costs involved it (the company) must be run to the highest standards of transparency".
To date, three sets of accounts have been filed with the UK Company's office. In the first set going to March 2008 an analysis of expenditure is given though this is not a statutory requirement under UK law. However the accounts filed for the years to March 2009 and to March 2010 give no expenditure analysis. Now this is perfectly legal but not the "transparency" to which Kate referred. In 2009 for example the only expenditure information filed gives the merchandising and campaign costs as £974,786 and the administration expenses as £30,865. Not very informative!
When the McCanns were made arguidos (suspects) in September 2007 Kate refused on legal advice to answer the 48 questions put to her. This was her legal right but the refusal fuelled the doubts about her story. It is understandable why she might not want to answer questions in a foreign country with the possibility of mistranslations complicating her difficult situation but surely there is no reason now not to put the record straight by answering the questions in her book. She doesn't do so.
British sniffer dogs Eddie and Keela and their handler Martin Grime were used by the Portuguese authorities. These dogs had a 100% accuracy rate in 200 cases and found both blood and cadaver (dead body) traces in various places in the holiday apartment and in the boot of the car rented after the disappearance. Kate says that research Gerry conducted after the Portuguese police showed them the video of the dogs' search revealed that dog evidence is unreliable. She quotes Gerry as dismissing the sniffer dog video as "the most subjective piece of evidence gathering imaginable". She claims that the dogs had merely been trying to please their instructor.
If you read this book without having read the other material available which questions the abduction theory, you could not fail to have the greatest of sympathy for the McCanns. However, it is a statistical fact that in the majority of missing children cases, a family member, a neighbour or someone known to the child, is involved. The Portuguese police would have been negligent if they did not consider this possibility. They did not find any forensic evidence of an intruder in the apartment which had been to some extent contaminated by the Tapas group searching the apartment when Kate raised the alarm.
Since the book was published last month, Scotland Yard has agreed to conduct a review. A reconstruction of that evening which the Tapas nine initially agreed to do but which never happened would help. Hopefully the review will be independent with the co-operation of all and with no possibilities excluded.
McCanns 'not suspects in the UK'
What Clarence Mitchell actually said about the support of the UK police and CEOP
Nigel Moore - 11.07.2011
Following the LSE debate, it was widely reported by the media that the UK police had 'cleared' the McCanns and no longer considered them to be 'suspects' [at the time the McCanns were still 'arguidos' in the Portuguese led investigation]. This revelation was based solely on the following reported quote from Clarence Mitchell:
"I have also had briefings privately from the police and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) centre that also gave me complete reassurance that the authorities, in this country certainly, are treating this as a case of rare stranger abduction, as they call it."Aside from a few minimal variations in wording, all the reports published that day were identical, which clearly indicates a single source for the pieces; almost certainly The Press Association. The problem with such a system of news reporting is obvious. If the source material is incorrect or misleading, it will continue publication unabated and likely become accepted as 'the truth', based purely on the widespread level of reproduction - across broadsheets and tabloids.
Here are the actual words used by Clarence Mitchell :
'I've also had briefings privately from the police and CEOP, Child Exploitation Online Potection Centre, before I went out the first time, that also gave me complete reassurance that the authorities, in this country certainly, are treating this as a case of rare stranger abduction, as they call it.'
Whilst Clarence Mitchell may well have told the truth, concerning the actual timing of the 'briefings', he was being misleading when he claimed the police and CEOP 'are treating this as a case of rare stranger abduction' instead of 'were treating...'. It seems clear there were no further briefings with the police, or CEOP, after May 2007 - at least none in support of Mitchell's 'rare stranger abduction' assertion - otherwise they would surely have been emphasised in support of his statement. Instead, he relies on information which was, at that time, nearly a year old - a lifetime in a criminal investigation.
Whether the original journalist omitted the clarification through human error or sound business judgement remains unclear, although it is ironic that Clarence Mitchell should himself have complained at the debate about "the sloppiness and laziness of some of the journalists, and the lack of independence of thought and checking of facts". One thing we do know for sure is that by 7 July 2008, at the latest, the assistant chief constable of Leicestershire considered that: "While one or both of them [the McCanns] may be innocent, there is no clear evidence that eliminates them from involvement in Madeleine's disappearance."