Subscriber Only

Fake news trolls have persecuted innocent McCanns for 15 years

Wrong assumptions resulted in casual public destruction of grieving parents

New information about the case of Madeleine McCann, the child who went missing from a Portuguese hotel room in Praia da Luz 15 years ago while her parents – notoriously – were eating tapas about 50 metres away, brings fresh reminders of a certain kind of human malignance.

Actual evidence has been unearthed, apparently, linking the missing child to the camper van where the sole suspect and convicted rapist, Christian Brückner was living at the time. German prosecutors are "sure" he is the murderer and will soon decide whether he should stand trial for other child-related incidents in Portugal, 10 years apart.

The words "human malignance" go nowhere near describing Brückner's trail of grief and destruction. They describe instead the everyday conspiracy theorists, the ordinary ghouls, the bright-eyed "true crime" enthusiasts who for 15 years have hung Madeleine's disappearance squarely on the girl's grieving parents, Kate and Gerry McCann.

Fifteen years of a relentless search for a child by her parents, by three police forces and a slew of private investigators. Fifteen years of tabloid splashes, books, documentaries, podcasts, libel cases, vile slander and blame games.

Few issues flush out more self-righteous bile than other people’s parenting. From the early days, one element remained constant: the public vilification and online persecution of the missing child’s parents.

Parenting mistakes

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

Gerry McCann tried 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.

It made no difference.

Five years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the child’s disappearance, tweets with the hastag #McCann, eviscerating the couple as cold-hearted liars, 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,” said Dr John Synnott, a senior lecturer in investigative psychology who led the study at the University of Huddersfield.

The group, operating in what he called an “anti-social network”, had a strong female presence and for many, it had clearly become a badge of identity, their first thought of the day in a witch-hunt that took up vast proportions of their lives. Some are still out there. To what purpose ?

They like the self-image of righteous campaigners, seekers of justice, proprietors of morality. And the McCanns were easy meat.

Killed their daughter

The goal was not merely to punish them for child neglect but to “prove” they had actually killed their daughter and buried her body. Anyone who argued otherwise was a “shill”, ie in the paid employ of the McCanns and/or engaged in a criminal cover-up with a sinister media/ government/justice complex to protect paedophiles, or just too stupid to accept the social sleuths’ sophisticated grasp of the facts.

Their pin-up was Gonçalo Amaral, the Portuguese lead investigator who was swiftly removed from the case. His 2008 book, Maddie: The Truth about the Lie, which earned him about €400,000, drew a civil lawsuit for damages from the McCanns who were awarded £430,000 plus damages. This was overturned on appeal, and the Portuguese supreme court went on to uphold Amaral’s right to freedom of expression.

Media commentators – whose own papers were profiteering mightily on the back of unverified reports from dodgy Portuguese sources – dismissed that sort of thing as “a fight to control the narrative”.

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

But the word was out there. People chatting in Irish homes, shops, hairdressers and pubs tapped their noses, sage-like – “just read that paper, watch this doc, see for yourself” – and casually destroyed two grieving parents.

Right, so why would a stone-cold pair of killers raise and spend millions pursuing a noisy, relentless, multimillion-euro global campaign to keep the investigation alive for 15 years?

Wouldn’t you just slink off saying phew, we got away with it? It’s the money, stupid, chanted the anti-McCanns.

In many ways the anti-McCanns were a precursor of the circular reasoning that has become social media’s default. Ask for independent evidence to support a glib claim, distortion or smear – vaccines, Brexit, election steals, politicians – and the answer will come, “whatabout . . .”, “educate yourself” , “MSM shill”, “too busy doing a real job, bye”.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, uses a generic Twitter exchange to illustrate.

Me: Wow. Have you seen evidence for that?

Them: Yes, try looking.

Me: Can you point me to any ?

Them: I’m not your golden retriever.

Me: Agreed! Can you point me to any?

Them: Do your own research.

It can be dismissed as online trash of course, easily avoided, so just get off Twitter.

Except these are the certainties and the bad faith assumptions that are shaping whole nations and our world. In this case the kind that resulted in the casual public destruction of parents grieving the unimaginable loss of their child. And plenty of people you know took joy in it.