The interaction between the media and the McCann’s in the tragic tale of Madeleine’s disappearance continues to trawl the depths of desperate reporting. As the stories stretch ever further from substantiated fact or corroborated evidence we are as far away from the truth as we were in those desperate days that followed her disappearance. Mediabeak uses the term ‘disappearance’ advisedly as we do not know if she was abducted, wandered off, died in a tragic accident, was sold or even murdered. All we do know is that she disappeared, seemingly without trace, leaving cuddle cat behind. The rest is speculation.
With so much coverage but so little to go on we have to ask who is behind all these stories and more importantly, why. Is it the Portuguese police who are still briefing ‘off record’ or is there, as some seem to suggest, more to the McCann’s campaign strategy than we or perhaps even they know? It certainly seems that the stream of smear and counter-smear seems to show little sign of drying up.
After being out of the frame for several months, initial suspect, Robert Murat came back into play via his girlfriend Michaela Walczuch. While friends say she was at a Jehova’s Witness prayer meeting on the night Madeleine disappeared, witnesses claim to have seen her with Madeleine on two separate occasions – one in Morocco. Her alibi has also been rubbished amid claims she was expelled from the church for allegedly ‘breaking the laws of the bible’ – see report from the Sun. While these claims are being rubbished by Walczuh and Murat, the McCann’s are getting hit with a fresh wave of speculation about DNA evidence locked in a lab in Birmingham – why is it there and what’s happening with it? We also saw front pages, proclaim that Kate McCann had ‘sold’ Madeleine see the Daily Star’s coverage. This turned out to be a grossly misleading headline that drew on an early line of investigation the police had looked into but dismissed. Meanwhile the Express continues with its McCann coverage crusade and is touting extracts from a new book (one of the many likely to be produced) - Madeleine: A Most Heartbreaking And Extraordinary Disappearance, by Robert Downing -under the headline ‘Maddy: what really happened’
The Mirror and Sun are offering a new twist to the tangled tale with a new line of investigation that suggests a paedophile may have suffocated Madeleine with a pillow to stifle her screams when she awoke to find them in her room. Meanwhile there is little love lost between the new police team heading – though recent reports suggest they may be winding down – the investigation and the Spanish firm of investigators, Metodo 3 who the McCann’s have hired to find Madeleine. A bullish Metodo 3 claim they are ‘very close’ to solving the case and in any event were confident they would have it wrapped up within six months, while the Portuguese police have dismissed them as ‘irrelevant’ and threatened that they could be arrested if they interfered with the investigation. If they do manage to solve the case would that be seen as ‘interfering’?
So back to assessing who’s briefing the media and why.
McCanns – want the focus to remain on finding Madeleine and keep the campaign in the public eye. They also want to deflect negative stories and criticism of their reactions and emotions. They also seem be keen to downplay inconsistencies in their recollection or version of events and their interaction with the ‘Tapas 9’.
The Tapas 9 – what could be the title to a Tarantino film does of course refer to the assembled friends who shared dinner at the tapas bar on the night of Madeleine’s disappearance. What do they know. Why are there seeming inconsistencies in versions of events attributed to them. Having remained largely silent, some of them have come forward and engaged with the media, notably Jane Tanner who gave an interview to the BBC amid press coverage of the e-fit of a man she says she saw carrying a little girl on the night Madeleine disappeared.
Mr Murat and friends – initially in the frame as the main ‘arguido’ what really is his story. We are told he was seen hanging around the apartment complex and know he was hanging around the press but beyond wanting to be Mr Helpful who is he, what is he about. His bizarre relationship with Walczuch – who still lives with her estranged, pool cleaning husband. His former wife and daughter in the UK. His contact with his IT consultant. His alleged trip to Exeter in the weeks prior to Madeleine’s disappearance. The complete lack of evidence police appear to have found at his mother’s home.
The PJ – the much maligned judicial police. They have received a battering from day one over their handling of the investigation (continued in today’s Express) – partly due to frustration at there being no results but largely due to the fact no one appreciated the restrictive machinations of the judicial secrecy laws that protect the investigation from being exposed to the outside world. The track record of some of the officers responsible for the initial investigation, especially in relation to a previous missing child case. For an organisation protected by secrecy laws they – or certain numbers among them and their colleagues seem to have done a very good job of making ‘leaks’ or ‘confirmation from official sources close to the investigation’ available – in other words, ‘we’re happy to brief our local press but the rest of you can get lost and stop smearing us and upsetting the status quo of what was a perfectly pleasant tourist spot until now’.
Metodo 3 – will they actually find Madeleine and/or solve the case? – certainly their web profile makes them seem more like fraud and financial crime investigators rather than the James Bond of the investigative world. They’ve staked their reputation on it so are either supremely confident or optimistic. They claim the net is closing in and believe that she may have been snatched to order by a paedophile ring and is being kept in Morocco. This follows claims another girl who had also disappeared had been successfully found there.
Many are asking on how long the McCann's can go on - a report on Sky News today suggests that the campaign money may run out before they tire out. Kate Miller, writing in today's Scotsman asks how much vilification the McCanns still have to suffer at the hands of these runaway headlines. Greenslade writing on his MediaGuardian blog writes that the "McCanns misery on amid newspaper coverage exhibiting a casual cruelty"
He concludes that the low levels the unattributed headlines are plunging to are "nothing more than sales gimmicks aimed at pandering to the basest of human characteristics, a gloating, ghoulish, gossiping vulgarity devoid of basic human pity". While the media are getting their money's worth out of the enduring headline bait offered by this tragic story that bait and the enduring public interest in the 'gossiping vulgarity' are being fed by those who for whatever reason have not yet finished telling their story or are satisfied that we've been told all we need to know or uncovered all there is - or actually reached the conclusion everyone has been hanging on for - that Madeleine will be found.