Madeleine: missing an opportunity
April 27, 2012
Five years ago a young British girl disappeared, leaving her family distraught. She hasn't been seen since.
You wouldn't recognise her name or her face because she wasn't a pretty white child with middle-class professional parents. The world's press didn't descend on the place she was last seen, there were no reconstructions, and innocent bystanders didn't have their lives turned over in a fever of innuendo and accusation. There are no websites today dedicated to finding her.
To be honest, I don't know who she is either. But I know she exists. Every year the police receive 360,000 reports of people who have gone missing in the UK - in case you didn't manage your primary school arithmetic, that's about a thousand every day.
Two thirds of them are under 18, overwhelmingly teenagers, and many are in care.Thankfully, the vast majority are swiftly found safe and well. At any one time, though, about 2,000 people have been missing for more than a year.
In 2007, the year Madeleine McCann vanished, nearly 600 children were abducted from Britain and removed from the country. Some were taken in so-called 'tug of love' cases, some were victims of forced marriage or honour killings, some were trafficked or groomed for the sex trade. What we can surmise from a respected review three years earlier is that some 60 of these children were spirited away by strangers - "every parent's nightmare" as the cliche writers would have it.
And so, on the basis that this works out at an average of five a month, I am making the extravagant assumption that at some time in May 2007, someone abducted a girl who wasn't Madeleine McCann.
With the fifth anniversary of Madeleine's disappearance coming up on Thursday the mawk machine has been cranked up to full output. The Express has featured the girl in various guises on its front pages six times in the past fortnight, including the preposterous She is Alive heading above. How can they possibly write that without so much as a quote mark? The story certainly doesn't justify it, even if the quotes were there.
Last week the paper - which seems to regard Madeleine as a cipher to be alternated with Kate Middleton to shift copies on the news stands - splashed on a 'spotted in Spain' story that was so tenuous as to fall apart at first reading. It really is time for a moratorium on such nonsense until the child is found.
And the hard news to back this flurry of activity? Well, there isn't any. What happened was that Panorama decided to make an anniversary documentary. In the course of filming, a detective was interviewed and expressed the opinion that there was no reason to assume that Madeleine was dead. He also thought it would be good if the Portuguese police were to reopen the case.
Every newspaper - even The Times, which has been largely a Madeleine-free zone under James Harding - reported this, some more breathlessly than others.
So great excitement in Britain. Or at least great excitement in the British Press. And then yesterday those horrid foreign coppers had to go and put a damper on it, saying they wouldn't reopen the case unless they had some credible new evidence to go on, rather than speculation and sentimentality. Boo! Hiss!
Most papers reported that, too, today. The Telegraph, Times and Independent all made it a top brief; it was (surprisingly) a page lead in the Guardian and a front page puff and inside page lead in the Express, Sun and Mirror.
Ah no, I've got that wrong. There was one paper that didn't report the Portuguese rebuff: the Mail. But then, it had a full page of Jan Moir under the heading
Miracles do happen - why not for Maddie? in which she says:
"Let's hope the Portuguese authorities do the decent thing and follow up every single lead that Scotland Yard now unearth. The world would expect the British police to do the same if a Portuguese child went missing here - and you can bet your beat-pounding boots that our cops absolutely would."
Never miss an opportunity for unfounded xenophobia.
But look at the Express today, with its puff Madeleine: Parents 'hugely encouraged' by new police hunt. The basis for that line is the spokesman's breakfast TV quote yesterday in response to the policeman's comments to Panorama - a little behind the curve. But the story does at least have the good grace to acknowledge that the Portuguese have said no dice.
Of course what we all wish is that Madeleine was taken by a woman desperate for a child and then cosseted by a warm and devoted family. But we know that is unlikely to be the case. Would such a loving woman simultaneously be so hard-hearted as to torture another family?
So then we get the Natasha Kampusch / Jaycee Lee Dugard camp. She could be alive and have been kept prisoner as some kind of toy or slave. That is the scenario Jan Moir sees as a potential miracle. Jesus!
We have an obsession with anniversaries. Last year we had a letter from the McCanns urging David Cameron to gee up the police; a letter delivered not by the Royal Mail but by the Sun's front page.
The Prime Minister dutifully responded with a 'Dear Kate and Gerry' letter (that also quickly found its way into print), promising to ask the Home Secretary to ask the Met to do something.
How must all those other families with missing relatives feel?
And now the Telegraph is pouncing on the triple joy of the Murdochs at Leveson, the general Cameron discomfort and the Madeleine anniversary to accuse News International of pressuring the Prime Minister into action.
All this is so much fish and chip paper, but the tragedy is that something worthwhile could have been crafted from this fascination with one blonde blue-eyed girl.
In 1986 the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh disappeared as she went to keep an appointment with a client noted in her diary as Mr Kipper. She was never found and was declared dead in 1994. Even so, the hunt goes on for her remains and her killer - with two or three convicted murderers seen as suspects.
As you can see, Miss Lamplugh was an attractive woman, so there was plenty of coverage of her disappearance with all the usual appeals from her parents, Diana and Paul, reconstructions of her last movements etc etc.
But the Lamplughs were pretty extraordinary people. They didn't just weep and wail; they quickly set up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust with the aim of highlighting the risks of single life and offering advice so that people could avoid or reduce danger. A practical example of "We don't want others to suffer as we have".
In the same year Mary Asprey and Janet Newman were inspired by the Lamplugh case to found an organisation to help and support families of missing people. They started in a bedroom and eventually remortgaged their homes to register Missing People as a charity. They are still involved today and also run a sister charity the Missing Foundation.
Last week they hosted their annual conference, attended by 250 delegates who discussed practical measures to try to trace missing people and help their families.
Total number of national press column inches devoted to coverage of this event: 0.
I am not joining the chorus of damnation surrounding the McCanns.
I don't think they are evil cold fish; I don't think they killed their daughter.
I do think they were irresponsible parents to leave the children alone in the flat, but that's a personal view, and by God they've paid the price.
Nor am I condemning the tunnel vision approach of the Find Madeleine campaign and websites. They simply echo those of Ben Needham, the toddler snatched in Kos 21 years ago (we can expect further anniversary fever about him in July).
You cannot require every grieving family to be as selfless as the Lamplughs.
But the Press doesn't have to follow the one-child agenda.
Wouldn't it be so much better if our newspapers used this anniversary to shine a light on the whole issue of missing people, to look at the continued abductions, grooming and forced repatriations? Just one little fact box with a few statistics would be a start.
Madeleine McCann is a phenomenon. If you google her name you get 65,500 results in 0.14 seconds. Wouldn't it be wonderful if just one paper could harvest a pebble of wisdom from the sea of sentimentality we can expect next Thursday.
The many faces
Assorted artists' impressions and Photoshop images have been produced to try to show what Madeleine might look like today. Here is a selection
Help for people who are missing and who are looking for someone. Galleries of pictures, research and statistics, and downloadable guidance. Is running "forget-me-not" campaign for May and is key player in introduction of Child Rescue Alert programme
Guidance on how to avoid or deal with situations involving aggression or violence. Runs national stalking helpline, offers personal safety training, sells range of personal alarms, security equipment, books
Run by Mary Asprey and Janet Newman, offers advice to families of missing people who want a friendly ear. Will offer guidance on which organisations to approach for help
aims to help children under 16 who are at risk because they have run away. Runs a 24-hour helpline, offers a counselling service for children who have returned home after running away, and maintains a refuge for young people in danger
Report somebody missing, use search facility to look through cases for a missing person. Archive of press releases, statistics and contact details for the media. Site is run by the National Crime Agency
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