Madeleine McCann saga reflects our society
I can’t stand it any more. I can’t stand the dizzying manipulation of my sympathies.
First I had a pretty clear idea of what had happened to poor little Maddie McCann.
Then all these horrible rumours started to emanate from the Portuguese police, and my emotions lurched off in the opposite direction; and then there would be a pretty compelling counter-rumour, and a learned essay from some expert in forensic science explaining that DNA tests were not all they were cracked up to be, until I have reached the position at 5.30 on Wednesday afternoon – the latest I dare to sit down to write this piece – when I frankly haven’t got a clue what to think.
I look in vain for guidance to the tabloid press, with its legions of reporters in Praia da Luz and long expertise in knowing which way to fan the hysteria of their readers. Which is it?
Are the McCann parents a brace of cold-hearted child killers who have managed to concoct a gigantic fraud involving the police forces of western Europe, the Papacy and hundreds of yellow ribbon-wearing British MPs?
Or are they loving and normal parents who have fallen victim to a terrible crime, and who now see their agony compounded by a half-baked stitch-up operation conducted by Portugal’s equivalent of Inspector Clouseau?
Either way, it is a sensational tabloid story; and yet the papers cannot go either way. The journalists are stuck in the middle, uncertain, cautious, hedging.
The heavy artillery of Fleet Street have their barrels loaded, ready to make either case. But they don’t dare to fire them. They don’t know. I don’t know. You don’t know. None of us knows.
We are all in principle on a huge knife-edge of doubt – and yet that is not, alas, how so many of us behave.
More and more of us now seem willing to blame the McCanns, and with every hour that passes we seem to forget that we have a presumption of innocence in this country.
With ever growing confidence we tap our noses and roll our eyes and aver that we always thought there was something rum about the whole business.
We pass on – with every sign of authority – some weird allegation we have picked up from the internet or the unpasteurised Portuguese press, and that bacillus mutates in the UK tabloids into something yet more frightful before being passed back to the Portuguese; and so the cycle continues.
In a creepy way, it is almost as if we desire to establish the guilt of the parents. I found myself reading acres of print, and looking at big diagrams of the Mark Warner holiday complex, and trying to work out if they could have done it, given what we know about the alleged timetable.
I was brooding on the mysterious chap who was allegedly seen carrying a child in a blanket, and wondering who this fellow could have been; and I was trying to see any possible significance in the discrepancy between the estimates of the number of wine bottles consumed – until I suddenly thought: why?
Why am I trying to construct these factoids – all of which might be irrelevant – around a supposition of guilt?
Why have 17,000 already signed an online petition requesting that the social services examine the welfare of the younger McCann children?
Why are we all now so apparently convinced we know what happened that radio phone-ins have to be halted with the weight of hostile calls?
I am interested in this hostility – this aggressive desire to ascribe guilt – and it seems to me to have several causes.
We want the story to end, of course. It has been the most wretched event of a wretched summer, and we want it to climax one way or another, even if the denouement exceeds even the ghastliest Channel Five real-life family murder drama.
Perhaps we are more inclined to blame the McCanns because our sympathy has curdled.
Everyone was so horrified at the idea of a child being snatched; everyone felt they could so easily have been in the same position as those poor parents – and of course people’s irritation may be all the greater to find that matters are not as they seemed.
And then there is the simple but awful fact of human nature – the emotional weakness that drives the sale of so many newspapers.
It is a frailty that is at the heart of politics, and our analysis of how to deal with that frailty determines such things as taxation, and public spending, and our whole concept of social justice and the redistribution of wealth.
It is an inescapable fact of human nature that we seem unable to judge ourselves, and to value ourselves, except by reference to other people.
If we see others doing much better than us, we often feel threatened and unhappy; and we too often feel reassured to see someone else fail, or get their comeuppance.
If there is an element of schadenfreude in the treatment of the McCanns, then that is unappealing; and it may even be completely misplaced.
I don’t know what happened, but I find it very hard to see how they could have concealed a body for nearly a month before putting it in the boot and then taking it off for burial in some roadworks, and then – if these leaks from the Portuguese police really represent the latest theory – exhuming the body and taking it somewhere else, while they have had camera lenses the size of howitzers trained on them the whole time.
Whatever happens, there will now be people dissatisfied with the outcome. If no charges are brought, or if the McCanns are eventually exculpated, there will always be people who will tap the side of their nose, just as there will always be people willing to defend the couple’s innocence to their last breath.
In considering the vehemence of people’s feelings, the vital thing to remember is that they are not just thinking about the events in question. People’s grief and anger is real. But to a large extent they will also be thinking about themselves.