It is the fourth of May, 2007. I am coming home from work, tired and scrolling through images of Trapani, Sicily - our holiday destination in a few weeks. Nothing remarkable about the journey, until I read the story of a missing girl in Praia De Luz, Portugal. This was the first time I heard the name Madeleine McCann. The first time I saw her image, a beautiful young child with a distinctive dark strip on the iris of her eye. That image has always been with me since I first saw it on that train journey.
Like most of us, I have thought of Madeleine many times over the last 13 years. I find myself often looking at my own daughters and seeing Madeleine in them. At night when I’m tucking them in, her image comes into my mind. For there have been few cases over my lifetime that have captured our collective sense of shock, horror and disgust as the terrible abduction of young Madeleine.
In the immediate aftermath, as each terrible day moved into the next and then into weeks and months, our hopes for a happy outcome to every parent’s worst nightmare were slowly dashed. Talk of paedophile rings and odd neighbours moved to suspicion falling on both Gerry and Kate McCann.
They were doctors, which seemed important somehow. The story quickly gained momentum and became a global phenomenon. So popular, in fact, Netflix released a documentary recently on the entire abduction and subsequent accusations. The moment the Portuguese police named the McCanns as ‘arguidos’, ‘official suspects’, the media spiraled into a frenzy.
The tragic events became lost in tabloid gossip as the rabid dog of public discourse coarsened against Madeleine’s parents. Every time they made an appearance to request help in the search for their little girl they were scrutinised. People were quick, not only to judge them for what they saw as their ‘cold’ or ‘unfeeling’ performance on television but they labeled them as ‘murderers’ and ‘psychopaths’ on social media platforms. The McCann’s were forced to suffer a second egregious tragedy at the hands of public opinion.
I clearly remember on that holiday to Trapani stopping to read the headline ‘Could this be Maddie?’ above an image of a man holding a young girl. That awful image stayed with me, not because it might be Madeleine McCann but because the image had already been verified as false and the paper still ran with it to sell copies.
I couldn’t shake the thought of what her parents must be going through each and every second of the day, while the world morosely put them under a microscope. The McCanns had eaten dinner with friends the evening of Madeleine’s abduction, like they had done many evenings before, taking turns to check on the kids.
This became a huge source of public speculation and images on our screens of the Portuguese police swabbing the McCann’s car for DNA evidence added fuel to an already explosive public debate. The seven friends present at that dinner were dubbed the ‘tapas seven’ and it was alleged that they made a ‘pact of silence’ to keep the McCann's from prosecution. The tabloid press was buzzing with unsubstantiated rumours.
The McCanns, in the middle of the most desperate and vulnerable moment of their lives, as they searched for their daughter, became the prime suspects.
Now that new evidence has come shining a spotlight on a 43-year-old German national who was in the area at the time, and confessed to a friend ten years later, it leaves us all with so many questions once again.
The spotlight, however, should not only illuminate the guilt of this German national, but also the guilt of us all for subjecting innocent people to such terrible scrutiny. And yet once again the McCanns have had to suffer more unsubstantiated rumours about their little girl. It was recently written in the press that the McCann’s had received a letter from German police suggesting that Madeleine is dead.
The McCanns responded to this article saying that reports of the correspondence were false and had caused ‘unnecessary anxiety to friends and family and once again disrupted our lives’. We should all hang our heads in shame. We have put that family through inconceivable suffering because of our insatiable desire to gossip and judge.
The McCann’s should be left to pull the pieces of their life back together in private. They have endured the most heinous of crimes that can be perpetrated on any human being. Their remaining children deserve to be given space to find their way in the world free from the constant reminder that they lost a sister. It’s time to let them be. So, that they can rebuild their lives. It is the very least they deserve.