Madeleine McCann: a Story of Disappearance and Abuse of Journalism

In 2022, it will be 15 years since the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. She never managed to blow the candles on her birthday cake. She was last seen on May 3rd, and she was to turn four on the 12th…

Regrettably, certain media took advantage of McCann to fill their pages with blustering, lurid headlines. Investigators, too, decided they were entitled to gain fame and money at her expense after they retired.

Her disappearance, which was 99 per cent a kidnapping, is a glaring example of ratings overriding ethics. I believe we’ve all heard about Madeleine, and we’ve all been left with the sense that she was the victim of double abuse. On the one hand, she was certainly grabbed by a sexual predator that monstrously violated her; on the other hand, though, those called upon to defend truth by letting it speak and to reveal it by finding the facts, too, shamelessly and self-servingly dragged the little girl’s memory through the mud.

I admit that I’m a sensitive person, but I don’t think that even the most callous would be unmoved by a picture of Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry, taken just three days after her abduction. The two were still in the resort in Praia da Luz, in the Algarve Region of Portugal, where the mother, father, Madeleine and her twin baby brother and sister were spending a family holiday. Kate is hugging Maddy’s favourite toy. The paparazzi clicked their shutters when the two were leaving a church service at which locals and tourists joined in a prayer for the child’s safe deliverance.

I don’t know how Kate and Gerry McCann held out for as long as 15 years. Not just because of the loss of their loved one, but also because of the pressure under which they came. They were put on “trial by media” with insinuations that they had killed their child. They were branded without a shred of evidence. My admiration of Madeleine’s parents is one reason why I decided to dedicate the HOPE Project to her. When children are kidnapped, the media and the public commonly empathise with the next of kin and extend a helping hand, but not in this case – it was just the other way round. The sole objective was to destroy (at least mentally) the McCanns and the friends with whom they had shared the holiday.

Yes, Kate and Gerry are undoubtedly to blame because they left their sleeping kids unattended in an unlocked room and went to a nearby restaurant to have dinner. But, for God’s sake, all the rest of the company did that, too. Nobody can say how many more people in that same resort on that same evening did exactly the same thing. After all, it was 2007, before we came to be afraid of our own shadow. I don’t think they will ever forgive themselves even without that “you-did-wrong” nagging. And they did pay the price, not only in terms of media bullying and public derision, but above all through the unending pangs of conscience for failing to save their little daughter.

We tend to conveniently forget that, quite often, we make wrong decisions that could have a disastrous effect on us and our close ones. Such decisions can end up in tragedy, but in most cases we get away with it because we have been lucky to avoid bad luck then and there. Many parents left their children alone for a while on that May 3rd, they went out shopping, or to have a cup of coffee with a neighbour. Their kid, too, could have vanished, but they were not the marked ones. Fortunately. Unfortunately for the McCanns, their toddler was picked for paedophile’s prey.

Certainly, being responsible adults, we are bound to take measures to minimise the villain’s chances of success. To this end, we should safeguard the younger child but also warn the elder one of the dangers: especially in these times, that elder child is chatting away without being aware of who the other chatter is. No prizes for guessing the implications of a “casual” online acquaintance followed by a meeting in person.

As I already said, I was inspired by McCann’s parents! I just couldn’t help it! For as many as 15 years they never lost the hope of seeing their girl again, of embracing her, ruffling her hair, shoving in her hands the presents she didn’t get for her fourth and fifth and sixth and ninth and thirteenth and fifteenth and eighteenth birthday. I don’t know whether they have realised, unlike most other people, that her survival beyond 24 or 48 hours after her taking was immensely improbable. But if they did and, defying cold logic, they unleashed their feelings and set up a fund to raise money for one campaign after another to spread the news about Madeleine so that, if she were still alive, somebody could learn the truth and, if they spotted her, could contact law enforcement – they have my deepest respects! These persons are not only strong, but they love strongly! They love their children, and they also love each other! After all that pressure, after all that anguish, they did not divorce but stuck together in the hope of seeing her again.

Another reason why I opted to present Madeleine McCann is that, having studied journalism, I am ashamed of the stain that “colleagues” around the world left on the profession itself, overstepping the mark between reporting and sensationalising the McCann case.

In my opinion, journalism can clear this disgrace by admitting its mistake and, at the same time, by adopting Madeleine as an epitome of clean, person-centred journalism.

To my mind, the Hope Project has a two-pronged objective: on the one hand, it is focused on parents’ undying hope to be reunited with their lost child; on the other hand, it promotes my dream to see journalism by humans and for humans rather than by brutes for money, riding roughshod over long-suffering people.

Printing the photos of missing children on milk cartons emerged as a strategy in the United States of America in the 1980s. This is unnecessary at present, considering the influence commanded by Uncle Google: sharing anything you wish is just a couple of clicks away, but then let’s keep in mind that despite the advanced systems for reporting missing minors in the developed countries, there are still cases in which they cannot be located, which leaves many families devastated. This gives me a reason to believe that we should not be arrogant and assume that we have done everything possible against the paedophiles.

Let technology be our partner rather than lull our vigilance!

Indeed, Madeleine McCann’s photo has not appeared on a milk carton, but I decided to reinvent the “outdated method” for the HOPE Project.

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