‘It’s likely to be painful’: Madeleine McCann’s 10th anniversary

A decade of reporting without ‘conscience’ has persecuted the missing child’s parents

Wednesday, May 3rd , marks 10 years since three-year-old Madeleine McCann vanished from a Portuguese holiday apartment while her parents dined with friends in a tapas bar about 50m away.

Ten years of a relentless search for a child by her parents, by three police forces, by a slew of private investigators. Ten years of tabloid splashes and libel suits, of suspects fingered, cleared or never traced; of books, documentaries and pet theories. Ten years of blame games.

Few issues flush out more self-righteous bile than other people's parenting. From the earliest days, one thing has remained constant: the public vilification and online persecution of the missing child's parents, Kate and Gerry McCann.

Ten years on, tweets critical of the couple continue to roll in at a furious rate. According to a recent pilot study of online trolling, tweets with the hashtag #McCann were averaging 100 an hour.


“It doesn’t ever stop. Somewhere in the world, someone is doing this. . .and you’re either with them or against them,” says Dr John Synnott, a Dubliner and senior lecturer in investigative psychology who led the study at the University of Huddersfield.

The anti-McCanns are bound by a common goal: to prove Kate and Gerry McCann guilty of their daughter's disappearance.

A distinguishing feature of the so-called anti-McCanns is their organisation and in-group bonding. Operating in what the academic calls an “anti-social network”, the group has a strong female presence and many have made this part of their identity, the first thing they do when they wake up and to which they devote inordinate time.

As such, they do not regard themselves as “trolls”, he says, rather “as campaigners, as seekers of justice, as proprietors of morality”.

The bigger picture of the study is that Twitter – unlike Facebook – facilitates anonymity. Posters can hide their true identities for the most part, and as such may engage with impunity in casual savagery of word and tone.

The anti-McCanns are bound by a common goal: to prove Kate and Gerry McCann guilty of their daughter’s disappearance. In this hostile online environment, anyone who argues otherwise is a “shill”, in the paid employ of the McCanns and/or is engaged in a criminal cover-up with a sinister media, government and justice complex to protect paedophiles.

The anti-McCanns' pin-up is Gonçalo Amaral, the 57-year-old Portuguese lead investigator who was taken off the case in 2007 after giving an interview criticising the British police. Amaral's 2008 book, which earned him £344,000 (€407,000) according to the British Sun, drew a civil lawsuit for damages from the McCanns who were awarded £430,000 plus interest in damages. This was overturned on appeal, and the Portuguese Supreme Court went on to uphold Amaral's right to freedom of expression.

Almost forgotten in this social-media free-for-all is the child who would turn 14 on Friday week, whose strikingly pretty, blonde and blue-eyed image is still given the splash treatment over and over to illustrate the latest crackpot theory .

Class conquers everything

Why, of all the missing person cases reported each year, Madeleine McCann’s exploded into the public consciousness and remained there, is no mystery.

Social class overarches everything, says Prof Roy Greenslade, of City University London, a Guardian media commentator and a former editor of the Daily Mirror.

“It played a part in two ways. Initially, the idea of a middle-class professional couple with a lost child probably got more publicity than a working-class child would have. But then it turned in a classist way – ‘okay, can we believe everything they say?’

“It became a contest, putting the couple almost on trial, asking various questions which would be legitimate for a policeman to ask in the privacy of an interview room, but tough to be asked continually, in public, with every bizarre theory explored.”

The suggestion that the McCanns were complicit in their daughter's disappearance was bounced around with impunity until the couple sued the Daily Express for libel and won £550,000 (plus £375, 000 for the so-called Tapas Seven, their holiday companions).

Greenslade believes they could have sued virtually all the tabloids. “It was no surprise to me that they were key witnesses in the Leveson [hacking] inquiry. They really had a point.”

The McCanns were not alone in getting damages from a story-hungry media. The first arguido or official suspect was a Portuguese property consultant called Robert Murat, whose home was searched 12 days after Madeleine's disappearance. After being formally cleared in 2008 , he won £600,000 in libel damages from 11 British papers.

Yet, editors "really never appreciated how badly they acted", says Greenslade. They had paid their fines, they argued, and everyone else was doing it. Peter Hill, the then Daily Express editor, told Greenslade after the libel case: "It was a huge story, and every adult in the country had an opinion on it. I admit it helped to sell the paper.

Vile theories

“There were many factors involved, such as the way Maddy’s parents sought publicity in an unprecedented way. All the way through, our principal focus was on ‘what’s happened to Maddy?’ The Portuguese police and British legal sources were leaking stories that implied the McCanns were guilty in some way. We were not to know that the Portuguese police were ineffectual.”

“It was disgraceful”, says Greenslade, “thinking they were engaged in legitimate journalism, when most of the stories emanated from dodgy Portuguese sources and were then repeated by papers that hadn’t checked them out.”

It was like being in front of a mob – and you realised there is no wisdom in the mob. Ever. And it's been terrible since.

It was this behaviour, Greenslade contends, that “supported the level of vilification that hit the McCanns from the public, that gave licence to people to air their vile theories”.

A few months after Madeleine’s disappearance and before social media had taken a foothold, Greenslade attended a seminar at the London School of Economics, chaired by the BBC’s Steve Hewlett. He was astonished at the “vile” nature of the questions and the way they were put by some audience members.

“It was as if human trolls had turned up, suggesting the parents were guilty either of murdering the child or of abandoning the child. It was like being in front of a mob – and you realised there is no wisdom in the mob. Ever. And it’s been terrible since.

“[Journalists’] job is to keep these things in the front of the public eye, absolutely. But it’s the way it’s done in this case that is beyond the pale”.

Since Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, there have been 8,685 reported sightings of her across 101 countries, including Belgium, New Zealand, Brazil, Bosnia, Sweden, Holland, India and Malta and many more.

Theories propounded by contributors to a documentary aired by Australia’s Channel 7 this week suggest that Madeleine was kidnapped by a human-trafficking gang “working to order”, that she was stolen by a paedophile gang and could still be alive, that she had been roaming around looking for her parents on the street and was run over by a drunk driver who hid her body in one of 600 wells.

Much of the programme reflects the theory-heavy nature of coverage of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance.

Prof Dave Barclay, a senior lecturer in forensic science at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, also appeared on the documentary. “I’m sure the reason this case has run as long as it has and still arouses fantastic interest even now is because every single one of the explanations, the possible explanations, is implausible, and yet we know one of them must be correct,” he said.

“It might be solved if Madeleine’s body is found and there is evidence either on the body or in the location where the body is found that would point to somebody but otherwise, I don’t think it will ever be solved.

“There is just no physical evidence whatsoever that we can use at this time, even to eliminate some of the theories.”

The early stages of the search for Madeleine McCann ensured there would be no physical evidence.

Early suspects

It took hours for border guards to be alerted and for roadblocks to be put in place, and several days for a global missing person alert to be issued by Interpol.

As well as that, vital evidence was probably destroyed that night by the failure to close off the crime scene, allowing some 20 people to roam through the rooms and the yard.

The police, accustomed to absolute secrecy, were outraged at the couple's use of the media to raise awareness.

Kate and Gerry McCann became early suspects. The police theory was that they accidentally killed Madeline sometime after the last independent sighting of her at 6pm, possibly by a sedative overdose. According to this theory, they concealed the body, faked the abduction and, nearly a month later, transported her body in a hire car to dispose of it.

This avenue of investigation had the effect of taking the heat off the police but also meant vital early evidence was ignored.

A hint of the prejudice and hypocrisy inflicted on Kate and Gerry McCann from both police and media is contained in the Daily Express editor's part-explanation of his actions, that "Maddy's parents sought publicity in an unprecedented way".

The police, accustomed to absolute secrecy, were outraged at the couple’s use of the media to raise awareness.

Kate McCann’s stoicism, her grimly maintained jogging routine, and refusal to claw the earth in remorse for her admitted parenting mistakes were deemed proof that she was not a natural mother.

‘Cold and manipulative’

Leaks from within the investigation claimed that her controlled public appearance, even her carefully applied make-up, indicated a “cold and manipulative” personality. Portuguese police suspected her from the very beginning because they could not believe parents would leave their children unattended.

Gerry McCann explained that he and his wife had been advised that self-control might have most impact on a putative kidnapper tuning into their many television appeals. She continued to give tearless, self-flagellating interviews, admitting their mistakes and revealing that their three, much-wanted babies were the result of IVF treatment.

In July, the pressure was piled on when two British sniffer dogs – Eddy and Keela – were brought in.

Their choice was stark: give up the search and with it the foul rumours, suspicion, malice and abuse; or continue to ride the media tiger in the hope it would flush out information about Madeleine.

In July, the pressure was piled on when two British sniffer dogs – Eddy and Keela – were brought in. One was trained to sniff out traces of human blood, the other to scent corpses. The dogs raised alerts in the McCanns’ apartment and their hire car.

Though Portuguese police told journalists the DNA tests were a "100 per cent match" for Madeleine, they were in fact, inconclusive. In September 2007, the McCanns were named arguidos. It was almost a year before they were declared no longer suspect by the Portuguese attorney general, and the investigation was archived due to a lack of evidence. It was reopened in 2013, led by a team of officers in Porto.

At that stage, any sensible pair of killers would have breathed a sigh of relief and let the story die. Instead the McCanns pursued a loud, relentless, multimillion-euro global campaign to keep the investigation alive. They set up the Leaving No Stone Unturned campaign, distinguished by its quasi-corporate professionalism, with media professionals, full-time private investigators, travel packs for people going on holidays, 24-hour multilingual call centre and ubiquitous posters.

Their efforts ensured that Madeleine’s case remained live to the point that in 2011, the then British home secretary, Theresa May, announced a review of the evidence by Scotland Yard. After revelations that possible key sightings and artists’ impressions of suspects had been kept from the public for years, that became a full, £10 million criminal inquiry in 2013, to concentrate, said the police pointedly, on a “criminal act by a stranger”.

Chief among those unpublicised sightings was one by an Irish couple, who saw a man 500 yards from the McCann apartment at about 10pm, awkwardly carrying a child matching Madeleine's description towards the beach. E-fits of him were released in 2013 to coincide with a BBC Crimewatch reconstruction, and he remains a suspect.

Just as usefully, police were able to eliminate a well-publicised prime suspect, a man seen by one of the “Tapas Seven” close to 10pm, carrying a small child in pink pyjamas. Only in 2013 was he revealed to be a British holidaymaker taking his daughter back from the Ocean Club’s evening creche.

Abduction or burglary

Among those being tracked by police at that stage were bogus charity collectors seen knocking on doors in the area and who may have been doing reconnaissance for either an abduction or a burglary, plus a number of fair-haired men, seen loitering suspiciously close to the McCann’s apartment all that day.

Separately, four suspects were questioned on suspicion of being part of a burglary gang that possibly panicked after accidentally killing Madeleine – a prime theory – but they were released.

Mobile phone tracking showed that Euclides Monteiro, a convicted burglar with a drug habit, who had been sacked from the Ocean Club the year before, was also in the area that night. Though he died in a tractor accident in 2009, Portuguese police reopened the investigation later when he was identified as a suspect.

Where we are today is with a much smaller team focused on a small number of remaining critical lines of inquiry that we think are significant."

And apparently, leads remain. London Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said this week that police had no definitive evidence as to whether Madeleine was alive or dead.

“Where we are today is with a much smaller team focused on a small number of remaining critical lines of inquiry that we think are significant. If we didn’t think they were significant, we wouldn’t be carrying on.”

Crime in the Algarve

One of the most startling aspects of the case is the crime context in the Algarve. Between 2004 and 2010, there had been 12 crimes where an intruder broke into the properties of UK families, within a 60km radius of the McCanns’ resort, including two in Praia da Luz itself.

In six of those, the intruder either got into bed with or sexually assaulted a young female child. At one point, British police were researching the backgrounds of 530 known sex offenders, including 59 regarded as high interest.

There had also been a fourfold increase in the number of robberies in the area. Only weeks before the McCanns’ arrival, there had been two unsolved burglaries in the Ocean Club holiday apartment block. A childminder at the creche has reportedly claimed that the resort was considered so unsafe that nannies were given rape alarms and told not to go outside alone.

the fact there were random paedophiles going around taking children out of holiday apartments would have probably been quite a disincentive to families turning up for their holidays.

Prof David Barclay did not mince his words about the absence of this important context from the reporting frenzy back in 2007: "The Portuguese police and the Portuguese tourist board would have been quite keen not to feature the number of burglaries that were going on in Praia da Luz and other towns on the Algarve.

“And the fact there were random paedophiles going around taking children out of holiday apartments would have probably been quite a disincentive to families turning up for their holidays. So they wouldn’t want to feature that.

“I think that’s possibly an explanation why the Met, recently, were able to find more examples of indecent assaults on children than we’d been told about previously.”

Meanwhile, the McCanns are bracing themselves for the anniversary on May 3rd. “It’s likely to be stressful and painful and more so, given the rehashing of old ‘stories’, misinformation, half-truths and downright lies which will be doing the rounds in the newspapers, social media and ‘special edition’ TV programmes,” said Kate McCann this week.

“I truly hope that those reporting on the ‘story’ over the next couple of weeks will have a conscience.”

They referred to the 10-year anniversary as “a horrible marker of time, stolen time”.