Madeleine McCann: You are all guilty
India Knight - 16.09.2007 - Sunday Times
Do you find yourself strangely drawn to articles about the McCanns? I do. It’s not edifying: most of us are uncomfortably aware that the slender line where personal tragedy becomes popular entertainment was crossed some time ago. But, like every other person in the country, the story is permanently at the back of my mind.
I want to stop reading, listening, watching, Googling, amateur sleuthing; I nauseate myself with my own prurience. My appetite for commentary – which is all that’s left, in the absence of hard facts – has been sated many times over. But I can’t stop.
Did they do it? They couldn’t have. And yet . . . And if they did do it, do they have superhuman powers, such as invisibility and Oscar-worthy acting skills? And if they didn’t, and are innocent and probably bereaved, what in God’s name have we done to them?
By that “we”, I don’t for once mean the (British) press, which seems to me, despite its inevitable mawkish descents into sentimentality, to have acted pretty responsibly. The press has urged caution, expressed compassion and been reluctant to judge the McCanns, if not the apparently sham-bolic Portuguese police.
No, by “we”, I mean the public. Forget that old chestnut “I blame the media”: now that everyone has an opinion and an embarrassment of outlets in which to express it, “I blame the public” is going to become the refrain of the coming decades. There is no shortage of online places where people may freely and anonymously air their opinions, even if their opinions are vile or demented or both; and there are millions of these newly voluble people. They have made it all right to say unspeakable things, to air the most shameful thoughts, always to think the worst, and never to give anyone a chance.
With the McCann story, this has, for the first time, resulted in a complete blurring of the boundaries between news and gossip. Sky News lists Madeleine McCann as a “category” on its interactive content screen: news, business, sport, Madeleine.
We have been here before with appalling crimes that grip the nation – we may have discussed, say, the James Bulger case among ourselves, watched the news and read the headlines, but then the news was on twice a day, the headlines came only in the morning, and the internet barely existed.
Now we have streaming information, an unstoppable torrent of truth, fiction, theory and gossip that is accessible 24 hours a day. The result is that, incredible as it may sound, there is, online (and the real world is catching up quickly), little difference in the tone of the remarks about Britney Spears’s failed comeback, and the comments made about Kate McCann, despite the fact that one is a pop star and the other the mother of a missing girl who may be dead. But there is no thought for Kate McCann’s suffering in the deluge of abuse heaped upon her; the McCanns’ local newspaper’s support website in Leicester-shire had to be closed.
We seem to have lost track of why Kate McCann’s picture-editor-pleasing face – blonde, thin, wounded, Diana-like – is in the papers in the first place. By orchestrating the kind of media campaign more usually associated with a multi-million-pound film or music launch, the McCanns have catapulted themselves into the gossip fodder league. That means suffocating 24/7 media interest; it means your choice of earrings is going to be scrutinised and discussed by millions of strangers – it means you have declared open season on yourself when it comes to public consumption.
But the public doesn’t just consume: it devours. And once you’ve invited it in, it doesn’t sit down politely and make small talk: it makes itself at home and rifles through your underwear drawer. You can’t ask it to leave, to “respect your privacy”. It’s there for the duration. If the McCanns are innocent, and even if they aren’t, it may well cause them to lose their sanity.
Despite popular thinking about journalists “making things up”, the traditional media are regulated. Things have to stand up from every angle. Facts matter. We have lawyers; we try not to libel or slander; to keep objective. The public, through the internet, can – and does – say anything, no matter how degrading or toxic, and keeps on saying it until, by a sort of insane osmosis, it stops being an outright lie and becomes a half-truth.
The theory that Kate McCann, a doctor, accidentally oversedated her daughter, causing death, has existed on the internet for months. People write about it LIKE THIS, in indignant capitals, as if it were so obvious as to be a given, and as though they were explaining something simple and obvious to somebody mulishly stupid who refused to see the truth staring them in the face. Behind the capitals, you can almost feel their quickening breath and their peculiar excitement as they comprehensively trash the reputation of a grieving woman who is a stranger to them. Power to the people!
Things are ugly out there – there aren’t many things uglier than gossip about infanticide, which is what this story has become, and why it feels so extraordinary. But they have been ugly from the start.
The news of Madeleine’s disappearance broke on a Friday evening. I wrote about it the following morning, assuming – naively, in retrospect – that people’s default mode would be compassion or pity. By Sunday evening my e-mail inbox was full. A handful of the e-mails agonised on the McCanns’ behalf. The greater part more or less said, “If you leave small children alone to go and eat tapas, you deserve everything that’s coming to you.”
I know from colleagues on other newspapers that they had the same angry reaction, which they also found themselves disconcerted by.
I’ll get back to the tapas point, because it’s central to the whole thing, with opinion dividing into people who see leaving a child as stupid, but not the world’s greatest crime – such people are broadly sympathetic to the McCanns – and people who find it inexcusable, criminal and indicative of all sorts of dark possibilities. This latter group is among the 17,000 who signed an online petition recommending that Leices-tershire social services take into care the McCanns’ remaining two children, Sean and Amelie.
The petition was not set up in the past week or so when things became murkier and question marks started mushrooming, but in May, when all we knew of Kate and Gerry McCann was that they seemed hollow-eyed with grief. The McCann story may end up being about the death of empathy.
So here we are, obsessed, in the throes of one of those weird national seizures; sitting in judgment, wallowing in what the novelist Philip Roth (apropos Bill Clinton’s infidelity) memorably called “the ecstasy of sanctimony”. The woman at the checkout at Tesco has a view, as does the dinner party guest. The hitherto unsayable – “Do you think they killed their own child?” – has become commonplace. You hear it everywhere. We’re gossiping about a four-year-old child who may be dead, or abducted and raped, or both, and there are no holds barred any more. What brutal thing does this say about us?
It’s always risky attempting to analyse the nation’s psyche based on one apparently seismic event: often, when everything settles down, you realise that underneath all the emoting, there wasn’t anything terribly unexpected happening. One thinks of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: all that was going on was that everyone felt sad and shocked, and then got over it.
But the national fixation with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, and the incendiary emotions it has provoked, is another thing altogether. It isn’t to do with empathy, because it seems to be thin on the ground. Prurience, yes; ghoulish curiosity, certainly – but there are, alas, dozens of hideous crime stories to pick from: why focus so obsessively on this one? Sentimentality, because of the involvement of a small, photogenic child? Perhaps at first – though much of the public commentary on this story is so condemnatory that sentiment doesn’t seem to come into it.
That says something peculiar about our monstrous appetite for this tragedy – because, no matter what happened or who did what, a much-loved child has vanished.
Much of our fixation has to do with fear, and with the public’s desire to “own” a story. Within 24 hours of her disappearance, Madeleine McCann had become “Maddie”, as though we all knew her. Aside from what she looked like, we knew nothing about her whatsoever – not what toys she liked, “Cuddle Cat” aside, or what her favourite book was, or what she liked eating, or wearing (I am sorry to use the past tense, and mean nothing by it; the present tense looks even odder).
But in those early days of the investigation, she became a version of all of our children, a blank to superimpose our own child’s face onto as we peered into the abyss. This was, of course, terrifying: the idea that an ordinary-seeming family could go on holiday and have a child vanish into thin air was more than most of us could cope with.
The natural human instinct, when faced with a terrible fear, is to list the things that make us different from the victims of the frightening situation, and in this particular case there were few. Much was made at the time of the McCanns’ social class (working class gone middle), and of the fact that if a single mother from a housing estate had gone out on the razz and left her child alone, sympathy would be in short supply. This is another way of saying that if a person is recognisably different from us, the bad thing that happened to them couldn’t possibly happen to us. The problem with the McCanns is that they were so terrifyingly normal-seeming, so middle-classly resonant, with their neat Boden-esque clothes and their responsible jobs and their three little children.
How to differentiate ourselves from them, and thereby reassure ourselves that their misfortune would never be ours? By focusing obsessively on the one questionable thing they did: leaving their children alone in a strange place. Phew – instant relief. “I’d never do that,” the thought process went. “I’m safe. My children will never be harmed.”
This is clutching at straws, frankly – as everyone surely knows by now, children who come to harm usually come to harm from a person known to them, more often than not in their own home. But we chose to clutch at this one particular straw, hence, I think, the disproportionate outpouring of vitriol against Kate McCann, who, regardless of her guilt or innocence, was, is and will continue to be punished because she had the temerity to seem so much like us.
She has also (more straws) been accused of seeming “unfeeling”, of looking “too groomed” (“I’d look a mess, therefore we’re not the same, therefore it could never happen to me”), of seeming strangely “calm” (or tranquillised, surely?), of, basi-cally, not falling to her knees screaming like an animal in pain – it’s “Show us you care, Ma’am” all over again.
In some internet chatrooms and message boards, women bitch about Kate McCann for not reacting exactly like them – not that they’d know how they’d react in her situation, since they have never been in it. No matter: weird, isn’t it, how she seems so composed – and let’s not call it composure, let’s call it “arrogance” (this from the country that invented the stiff upper lip). Must make her a child killer, and not have anything to do with being told that visible distress might give pleasure to a hypothetical abductor.
And why are her clothes nice? Who thinks about clothes at a time like this? Why does she wash her hair? Couldn’t she wear rags, or sackcloth and ashes? Or – any day now – tar and feathers? And what was that nonsense with the Pope? (Who’d have thought the devout Catholic/Pope combination would be so perplexing and aggravating to so many people?)
Our fascination also exists because this story is centrally concerned with what many people perceive as a failure of parenting, a topic we are obsessed by as a nation. We are, collectively, eaten up with anxiety about raising our children. It’s a relatively new thing – people just used to have children and get on with it – and is reflected by the deluge of television programmes, books and publications devoted to how to be a parent.
Women, especially, have become almost pathologically insecure on the subject: am I a bad person if I bottle-feed; have I failed if I have a caesarean; do I harm my children by going out to work; have they got enough friends; do they sleep too much or too little; do they eat enough super-foods and fish oils; do they need to learn Mandarin; do they play outside enough; and so on and on.
With that insecurity comes the strongest desire to judge, as a means of self-reassurance: you see it every day in the ongoing working mothers versus stay-at-home ones debate. “Well, she barely sees her children because she’s in the office all day, so I’m better than her and my children will be happier” versus “She’s going out of her mind with boredom because she’s stopped working, so I’m better than her” – nobody can win, and the crazy thing is that nobody needs to: it’s hardly a competition.
Into this comes Kate McCann, who admits to a failure of parenting, to doing a stupid thing, and we fall on her like a pack of hyenas, weirdly pleased to leave behind our own failings and insecurities for a minute and concentrate on hers.
The fact is that while I would never leave small children alone, I know dozens of people who routinely do, and I do not find them irresponsible, just tired.
There are so many of them that a whole service industry has built up around them: “family” hotels with a baby-listening service where someone cocks an ear at the bedroom door every now and then while harassed parents try to grab the semblance of a date together in the dining room; holidays, like the McCanns’, with kids’ clubs attached, where children are parked with what amounts to a stranger while parents try to sunbathe in peace for a couple of hours; skiing trips where the chalet comes complete with a random nanny; gyms with crèches; restaurants with some weird bloke in a clown suit “entertaining” the children in another room; and so on.
A certain section of society routinely leaves their children in the care of somebody else whom they don’t know terribly well, no matter what the nanny agency has murmured soothingly about police checks. You can think what you like about this, but it is a fact of middle-class life, trying to reconcile loving your children with still having a life of your own, and an omnipresent source of anxiety for many people – if it weren’t, you couldn’t buy teddies with cameras hidden in them to check up on your child carer, and many women wouldn’t have the unpleasant niggling feeling that they don’t entirely trust their nanny to bring up their child.
The McCanns were foolish and wrong to leave three small children – babies, really – alone in a strange apartment. But doesn’t the subsequent calamity override the initial human error? Apparently not: only a fifth of Britons think they are completely innocent, according to a poll for this paper today. And 76% think they were wrong to leave them alone. And yet we all take risks: you take a risk every time you let a child out of your sight, every time they board a bus or a train, every time they’re a bit evasive about their whereabouts. If your house is burgled and you stupidly didn’t switch on the burglar alarm, does that mean you deserved it? Does it make your distress, your sense of violation and the loss of your goods any less significant?
Meanwhile, with hideous inevitability, the focus has shifted to Kate McCann’s being “volatile”. She “visi-bly lost control” while being questioned for 11 hours, we are told. It’s such a depressingly familiar scenario: a woman in an untenable situation is pushed to breaking point, and then when she does lose it – as lose it she will, because she’s not a robot or a monster – her sane response to an insane, unbearable set of circumstances becomes evidence with which to condemn her.
Impound her diary, call in all lap-tops: she must have done it if she shows any feelings. And she must have done it if she doesn’t. QED: she’s had it either way.
We are now told, by Portuguese newspapers who claim to have published extracts, that her diary, which the police want to see, shows she “struggled to control Madeleine”, that her children were “hyperac-tive”, and that looking after them exhausted her.
She also allegedly wrote that her husband left her to look after them too much on her own. Show me a woman with three children under four who doesn’t express the same frustrations, and I’ll show you an improbability. But even this utterly normal maternal response to child-care – it’s knackering, I wish he’d help out more – is being used as an indication of Mrs McCann’s “instability”.
And the people who’ve been there and ought to be able to sympa-thise – other women – are the ones sharpening their knives. As Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, once said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” If that is so, hell must have got pretty crowded over the past four months.
The McCanns did themselves no favours when they embarked, deliberately, on a gigantic, modern publicity campaign. And that has contributed in no small part to making this case seem so compelling now. It is hard to criticise their original motive for hyping up the publicity, but in the process the McCanns unwittingly turned themselves into a soap opera: available to view on a screen near you 24 hours a day.
As I write, there are reports that they’re looking for a new, bigger “campaign manager” to try to stem the tide of negative comment. (In what world did Gerry McCann think it was a good idea to put in an “appearance” at the Edinburgh television festival?) But it’s too late. The tide won’t be stemmed and the appointment of a Max Clifford figure will make things worse, not better. Every soap needs a baddie and since we seem to have forgotten that we’re not, in fact, watching a brilliantly scripted and plotted episode of Portuguese Holiday, it was only a matter of time before the goodie turned bad.
What a twist! How compelling! More, more. Give me the inside story. One of these mornings, we’re going to wake up and see just how ghastly a part our own voyeurism has played in all of this. At least, I hope we are.
Vitriolic rants of the online rabble
IF you haven’t read what is on the internet about the McCanns you wouldn’t believe it. Here are a few examples of the kind of vitriol out there. Trawling through the sites to find these quotes is like a trip through the darkest recesses of people’s most ungenerous minds.
- ‘I never believed in your pain – the Find Madeleine McCann website
- Kate McCann is an ineffectual, weak and total washout of a mother and probably mentally unbalanced. Pathetic woman should never have had kids if she couldn’t cope – Mulderx, Mirror forum
- Gerry McCann does come across as a thug to me. I have no idea if wifey is involved but either way she is still as guilty as sin for leaving her children alone – Halibutswift, Mirror forum
- The McGrubs are terrible examples of parenting and should be prosecuted. At the very least, they should have to attend parenting classes. The day you put tapas and alcohol before the health and wellbeing of your offspring is a very bad day!!!! – Dr Kildare, HaloScan
- The people who must shoulder the burden of responsibility for the Maddie disappearance are Gerry and Kate McCann. If they did it, they are sick and evil and deserve to rot for ever. If they didn’t, they let her down by being selfish and indulging in their own pleasures leaving her alone and vulnerable – Val, Skynews
- The parents are a disgrace. They were on the razz every night after leaving their children in the crèche all day every day. Much wanted children? More like little fashion statements that they couldn’t be bothered to look after properly. The children unfortunately got in the way of their “me time” – Proud Parent UK, Alpha Mummy
- These people are doctors and in their professional lives would not hesitate to point the “abuse” finger at any other parent who left their children alone like they did. They should hang by their own noose – Arthur, Alpha Mummy
- I do think the McCanns have acted somewhat oddly throughout this investigation – particularly the mother. I can’t quite see it as natural for a mother in her position to make one of her immediate priorities in the days immediately following the disappearance of her daughter a visit to the Pope – without her remaining children – Krazykoolkazza, Mumsnet
- Even female doctors are subject to domestic abuse whether it be mental, physical or psychological bullying. Kate looks to me to be very submissive to Gerry. Her eyes dart towards him when the couple are questioned by the media. It’s as though she can’t speak up for herself. The running is another strange one. I’m a keep fit nut but the last thing on my mind would be to run if one of my kids were abducted. I would be spewing venom and ranting. – Ragna, Mirror forum’