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Hunting in the Algarve: the Madeleine disappearing act

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 17 September 2007

What were those parents doing in the Algarve in May instead of looking after a child whose abduction (if we assume that) has driven the media to a state more frenetic than an OJ Simpson feeding frenzy? Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News runs regular updates and interviews, and they are far from the only ones.

Had the disappearance not happened, it would have had to have been invented. Fine for a young couple to feast and drink in Praia Da Luz while their offspring sleeps. A tragic situation, but while they play, the offspring vanishes. Questions are asked, but they are not hammered home, and the parents are not given the dusting they perhaps ought to be. Indeed, there is a recent suggestion by the Portuguese police that the parents, Gerry and Kate, may be suspects but the search continues. We are reminded by a cruel Antipodean precedent: the Azaria Chamberlain case which was eventually planted on a dingo. Sadly, the only person not to join in the fun in this case is Madeleine herself, who remains as spectral as an al-Qaida cell.

For months now, both parents have resembled martyrs before television. Coalition war casualties are of less interest than airtime slots on the search for Madeleine. Not even bin Laden can get his videos in ahead of airtime.


We are constantly reminded of one purported fact: These are “good” people. Dad (Gerry) is a heart specialist. With mother, Kate, almost as equally photogenic as her daughter, there is no reason to doubt the script. They are an ideal British family touring a country in a manner reminiscent of American tourists in pre-Castro Havana. Then the icing on the cake: they are regular churchgoers, and the media crowd the pews with them. Even Sir Richard Branson has agreed to fund the McCanns in the hope they get a “fair” legal hearing.

The Portuguese police, in contrast, have been represented as having the acumen of Inspector Clouseau. They chase leads with little enthusiasm and much incompetence. Papers such as the Telegraph have grumbled about the presence of “southern Mediterranean machismo” in the investigations. Given the fact that British journalists are notoriously inept at picking up other languages, problems of interpretation have been acute. It is not merely the McCanns v the police, but the Brits against the Portuguese.

Had this sweet, wide-eyed child lacked the angelic disposition and the sugary gaze, would she have been such a fine advert for the missing? Probably not. Hundreds of similar “disappearance” cases (pity those less photogenic and media savvy) are further driven into obscurity, but they lack media purchase.

When confronted with the endless photos on display from US public transport to the more slick European advertisements, the vanished subject is a mere face, a tragic footnote. The emotional register reads with a dull thud. Awful, but who cares? Disappearance, whether it may be an accident of human import or natural design, is not a phenomenon that imprints. We have far better things to do.

That is, till Madeleine. “Download the Appeal poster” on the Sky News site , and Madeleine is given prominent treatment. We can read a timeline of her abduction. There is even an “interactive path to suspect’s villa”.

No one wants to spoil a good show, at least one that enables the goons in Fleet Street to have their feed. A morality tale is the easiest thing to spin when the young and rich are confronted with tragedy. The McCanns may have intended it as an innocent enough exercise initially: use the press to get us to the source of the crime. But such shows, like Saturn, tend to consume their children. Even better: he who sups with the devil should use a long spoon. That the stars of the show should turn out as suspects is not as perverse as it sounds. The traces of blood and hair in a car used by Kate McCann point a crude finger in the direction of the parents though we are none the wiser.


Having been the stars of a show that would have made Andy Warhol salivate, the McCanns are now the players of a grim tale that can only end in tears. As Minette Marin, a contributor to the London Times suggests, somewhat condescendingly, we “need great stories, and have done so out of mind, to enable us to understand the world and our places in it”. The child may have ended up in a network of lucrative abduction-chains that stretch across Europe. A network has been detected in Bulgaria. That’s if she is lucky. The other chance is more realistic: a grisly fate that has become unmentionable. But no one wants to think that: the tale can’t end like that. Surely not.

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A version of this was first published in Bits of News.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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