Wednesday 24 April 2019

Maddy: two years of heartbreak -- and prayers

Battling on: Madeleine McCann's parents Gerry and Kate continue to press for publicity in the hope of finding their daughter
Battling on: Madeleine McCann's parents Gerry and Kate continue to press for publicity in the hope of finding their daughter

A small banner has appeared on the homepage of the official Madeleine McCann website. It reads: Coming soon, new 'Never Give Up' t-shirts. Two years on from the disappearance of the three-year-old girl from her family's holiday apartment in Portugal, it has become her parents' mantra.

The news cameras have moved on and the police investigation has closed down. Madeleine's family appears to operate under some semblance of normality. Gerry McCann has returned to his work as a consultant cardiologist and he and Kate recently celebrated the fourth birthday of twins Sean and Amelie. Kate McCann never returned to her position as a GP, a decision probably informed by a number of factors, not least a desire to be at home with her two remaining children.

Yet as the two-year anniversary of the disappearance on May 3, 2007, draws close, it is clear that the Madeleine campaign simmers on and is continuing to provoke a strong reaction. The McCanns are booked for The Oprah Winfrey Show show on May 9, three days before what should be Madeleine's sixth birthday. This appearance on the world's most consistently popular chat show will bring the spotlight on the McCanns back into sharp focus.

The gentle probing of Oprah Winfrey is bound to be favourable to the McCanns' campaign. Gerry McCann found a less hospitable reception when he returned with a camera crew to the scene of his daughter's appearance on April 4 to film a reconstruction of the disappearance for a new Channel 4 documentary.

Locals in the town of Praia da Luz reportedly booed him on his visit -- the Maddy effect is being partly blamed for a downturn in tourist trade in the area. Indeed, 21 employees of the Ocean Club holiday village from which she disappeared are being laid off, with the redundancy letters making prominent reference to the negative publicity from the McCann case. A billboard appealing for help in finding Madeleine was defaced with paint just one day after it was erected this month.

A former police chief who was in charge of the Madeleine case for the Portuguese Policial Judiciara (PJ) has also been stoking the fire. Goncalo Amaral was removed from the investigation in October 2007 after claiming that the British police were doing whatever the McCanns wanted. He went into retirement and wrote a book about the case, Maddie: The Truth of The Lie, which claimed that Madeleine died in the family's holiday apartment. The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies when it was published in Portugal last July, but has yet to be published in Britain under threat of legal action by the McCanns. A documentary based on Amaral's book, repeating his attack on the McCanns, was broadcast on Portuguese television this week.

While all of these incidents serve to mark the two-year milestone of Madeleine's disappearance, none of them shed any further light on what happened to the little girl that night. There is a remarkable disproportion of publicity and theories to actual cold, hard facts.

So what do we really know about May 3, 2007? Aside from the several thousand supposed sightings of Madeleine everywhere from northern Europe to Africa in the months following her disappearance, the actual last confirmed sighting of the little girl was in the late afternoon of May 3, when the manager of a beachside restaurant saw Gerry McCann dance with his daughter as the family ate a meal together on the sun terrace.

At 6pm, Kate and Gerry brought the twins and Madeleine back to the family's holiday apartment at Ocean Club, to get them ready for bed. At half past eight, Kate and Gerry went for dinner with seven friends at a tapas bar about 120 metres away, leaving the children unsupervised with the door to the apartment unlocked. The McCanns and their friends said they took turns in checking on the children every 20 minutes to half-hour. When Kate McCann took her turn at 10pm, Madeleine had vanished and the bedroom window was wide open. She raised the alarm, crying "They've taken her! They've taken her!" and the police were on the scene within 10 minutes. The nightmare had begun.

Pretty much every development in the Madeleine case from that point on has been subject to speculation and conjecture. The only solid lead appears to have come from Jane Tanner, one of the friends the McCanns had been dining with that night, who remembered seeing a man carrying a child on the road near the McCanns' apartment at 9.20pm on the night she disappeared. Spots of dried blood found in the apartment long after the initial investigation have been used to add credence to the theory that Madeleine died in apartment 5A before her body was removed.

The PJ has spoken of credible leads from as far away as Argentina, but even Portugal's prosecution service has admitted that without the little girl's body, everything is extremely complicated. Heavy criticism of the Portuguese police division's work at the scene and the subsequent probe was such that the PJ's National Director Alipio Ribeiro resigned on May 7 last year, shortly after the first anniversary of Madeleine's disappearance, citing media pressure.

Certainly the close media scrutiny of the case became inextricably bound up with its progress. The suggestion that British-Portuguese national Robert Murat be questioned came to police from a Sunday newspaper journalist. He, the McCanns and the so-called Tapas Seven, with whom Kate and Gerry dined that fateful night, have all secured libel payouts from a number of newspapers. There were many -- allegedly deliberate -- leaks of supposedly confidential police reports and police interviews with the McCanns.

Then there was the confusion caused by the Portuguese criminal and judicial system, which works somewhat differently from ours. It allowed Kate and Gerry McCann to be officially given the status of arguidos or suspects in early September 2007, a label that was only lifted the following July, along with the arguido status of Robert Murat. Earlier than that, counsel for the McCanns had asked that they be given assistant status to the investigation, rather than witness, so that they would have more access to information about how the case was progressing.

There was also as much commentary about the McCanns themselves, as there was about the fate of their missing daughter. Some rounded on them for neglecting their children by leaving them alone in the apartment, while others argued a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God defence. They were lambasted for going jogging in the days following Madeleine's disappearance, for holding hands on their way to church vigils, for looking too composed, groomed, serene -- petty accusations that soon fed into more sinister allegations.

Even Irish Booker Prize winner Anne Enright was drawn into the fray after she wrote an essay for the London Review of Books, which seemed to attack the McCanns for not being likeable enough. In fact, she was highlighting how obsessing about the McCanns had become a national past-time; "Disliking the McCanns is an international sport," she wrote.

The anger Gerry McCann inspired by returning to Praia da Luz indicates that Madeleine's disappearance is still clouded by emotional responses. At least five private investigations, the official probes by British and Portuguese police, and a campaign funded by the public and rich donors like Richard Branson have yet to turn up vital new information.

On the other hand, the very purpose of the McCanns' continuing campaign is to keep their daughter's name and picture in the news by any means possible. Last month, Madeleine McCann was still in the top five most searched names in UK internet search engines. For the right or wrong reasons, the story of a little girl who vanished into thin air on a holiday continues to be a source of fascination. The likelihood, though, that this obsession can be converted into hard leads about her whereabouts is increasingly slim.

But for Kate McCann, the logic is simple: publicity helps keep awareness alive. And if one person spots a little girl with a teardrop-shaped defect in the pupil of her right eye, and thinks of Madeleine, then she might be one of the lucky few missing children who gets to come home.

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