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I hang my head in shame at what my trade has made of the McCann story
Max Hastings - 10.09.2007 - The Guardian
Yesterday, just in case everybody else knew something that I did not, I rang an editor friend and asked for the word on the street about Madeleine McCann. He answered that no one has the slightest idea where the truth lies – despite the Portuguese police naming Kate and Gerry McCann as formal suspects in the investigation of her death. The case possesses everything headline writers could dream of: a pretty child victim; photogenic middle-class parents who are also doctors; apparently bungling foreigners. Amid a miasma of allegation and sensation, coverage is remorseless, speculation infinite. The story provokes in some of us the sort of guilt that our ancestors must have felt on finding themselves unable to avert their eyes from a public execution. We shudder at the circus, sure of its repugnance but uncertain whom to blame. Crime in which children are victims causes police, media and public alike to take leave of their senses. It has become the only truly heinous crime. Few people feel much hatred towards fraudsters, bank robbers, or even most killers. But no prisoner convicted of a crime against children is safe in jail. The trials of such people provoke gatherings of vengeful housewives who make the tricoteuses, the women who knitted beneath the guillotine, seem sisters of mercy. In the case of Madeleine McCann, the public would like the guilty party to turn out to be a Portuguese with a long history of offences against children, who could reasonably be branded as a sex fiend – like the Spanish waiter who in 1996 killed the British schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson in France. If instead the McCanns are charged and convicted, anger will be all the more bitter, because people will feel that for months they have been deluded into wasting sympathy on them.
These remarks may sound ugly, but so is what is happening in Portugal. The McCanns now live in the shadow of declared police suspicion. If they are innocent, this is appalling. If there is evidence against them, natural justice cries out for them to be charged rather than merely denounced. Child victims often induce police officers to act rashly, because they are under such pressure to produce a result. This is as true in Britain as it is in Portugal, as the officers probing the shooting of Rhys Jones might acknowledge – likewise those who investigated the 2002 Soham killings of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells. In the latter case, in a small East Anglian community, it was only days before Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr were arrested. In a city, identifying a killer is often much harder. Last year’s search in Ipswich for the killer of five women became protracted. A succession of suspects were questioned, with identities blazoned across the front pages. Even when a man was eventually charged, it is hard to imagine that the lives of the earlier detainees have been, or ever will be, quite the same. Nobody will easily forget that they were deemed capable of being multiple murderers.
Such people surely deserve stronger protection under the law, as do the McCanns and Robert Murat, the British man formally named as a suspect earlier in the Madeleine inquiry. In his case, relations at home found themselves being quizzed by reporters eager to discover whether he had any history of sex crimes. Most of those arrested during the Rhys Jones investigation – and subsequently released – have been spared publicity only because they are minors. It is widely suggested that the Portuguese police conducting the Madeleine inquiry have been incompetent. But British officers are just as capable of promoting false allegations when the heat is on them to make an arrest. During the search for Jill Dando’s killer, I remember having a private conversation with two senior policemen. They told me a pack of nonsense, which I am confident that they themselves believed. Both said that they thought it most likely that Dando’s assailant was somebody with whom she was already acquainted: “Her personal life was much more complicated than anybody realises, you know.” Their purpose, of course, was to convince the media that they were not sitting down on the job, that they were making progress towards an arrest. This is the usual motivation for police leaks, though cash handouts from reporters to junior officers also play a part. Either way, a duty of discretion is breached.
Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and such like got one big thing right in their fiction: detection as practised by professionals is often sadly inadequate. But in real life amateur sleuths can’t fill the breach, so if police can’t find murderers, nobody does. A high proportion of homicides are domestic crimes, in which the guilty party is obvious. If these cases are stripped out of statistics, a dismaying number of murderers escape justice. When an arrest can be achieved only through what Hercule Poirot would call the use of the little grey cells, outcomes are elusive. I once heard a criminal barrister – today a senior judge – mock police procedures: “Their idea of detection is to decide which of the local firms to fit up for a given job!” He was not being entirely facetious. The police, in their turn, have plenty to say about the cynicism of media and public. There is a readily recognised scale of popular sentiment about murder, at the bottom of which come gangland killings, especially black on black. If one drug dealer kills another, to most people it is a matter of indifference. Prostitutes receive only slightly more sympathy, because they are widely supposed to have brought their fates upon themselves. If enough of them die, however, as in Ipswich, serial murder generates a frisson of its own.
Popular sentiment focuses overwhelmingly upon the deaths of so-called innocent parties, above all children. Figures suggest that Britain, and indeed Portugal, are remarkably safe places for the young to grow up in. The chances of a child meeting a violent death are no greater than they were in the era of Victorian values. But in this, as in all matters relating to crime, perception is unrelated to reality. Media coverage gives credence to a belief that European society is plagued by monsters stalking the young. When a child dies, every police officer knows that his or her force’s reputation is at stake in identifying a plausible murderer. These crimes sell a great many papers, which neither Iraq nor Darfur will do. Some colleagues would accuse me of an absurd squeamishness, because I hang my head in shame at what our trade, as well as the Portuguese police, has made of the McCann story. They would say the world has been ever thus, since the days of Jack the Ripper. But it seems reasonable to recoil from the situation that now exists. Unless an outsider is caught and convicted of Madeleine’s death, the reputations of the McCann family are irreparably damaged. Before charges or any trial, an irremovable stain of suspicion has been cast by police, and broadcast by the media. Even if the McCanns are indicted tomorrow, the principles of natural justice have been flouted in the most shameful fashion.