Deborah Orr: A singular horror, a media frenzy and some disturbing facts about missing children
It is shocking that four babies have gone missing in Britain without us even being aware of their names
Published: 09 May 2007
Outpourings of empathy with Kate and Gerry McCann, whose three-year-old daughter, Madeleine, went missing from her bedroom at a resort in Portugal last Thursday, have appeared all over the press in the past few days. No doubt they are perfectly sincere. But they are also entirely unnecessary. They are what news organisations want when they have a big story on their hands that is not "moving".
These commentaries add nothing to anyone's understanding of what has happened, or to anyone's sense of what might happen differently in future, because they do not educate, inform or entertain - except, perhaps, the dissociated or the ghoulish among us. They exploit the interest of readers in a way that can only chime with their own worst fears and insecurities, and augment their own distress or panic. This can, and does, lead in the most extreme instances to red-top hysteria and vigilante action. Both of these hinder the debate about paedophilia and what to do about it, rather than help it.
Even without such unfortunate consequences, as is the case with most people simply touched by the suffering of other people, indulging in too many thoughts of "what if..." is a sort of perverse anti-luxury, because despite the almost inconceivable ill-fortune of the McCann family, and despite widespread declarations that one knows just how they are feeling, or more honestly, cannot begin to imagine it, there is next to no likelihood, statistically, of quite such a calamity ever befalling anybody else.
The McCanns will be dealing with the fallout of this singular horror that has been visited upon them for years to come. It may seem right to slide for hours or days into their tragedy, but it is a kind of self-indulgence.
It is usually female writers who are requested to write commentaries about "human interest stories", and it is already apparent, since I'm writing this now, that The Independent and its editors feel in no way divorced from this process. In Britain, certainly, the voracious need of the media for new information has been a huge factor in the manner in which the police "handle" such cases. During the Soham investigation, it was policy to offer some new piece of information to the mass of waiting reporters every day, in order somehow to take advantage of the huge coverage in investigating the possible whereabouts of the girls.
The Portuguese police have not been conducting their investigation into Madeleine McCann's disappearance in this way. During the Soham inquiry, the police maintained pretty much until Ian Huntley's arrest that they had every reason to believe that Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were still alive.
Chief inspector Oligeario Sousa, who is leading the Portuguese investigation, has no such strategy. Not only has he pointed out bluntly that he is not "a magician" and therefore cannot possibly know whether this child is alive or dead, he has also made no secret of the fact that when a small child has been missing for more than 48 hours it is time to fear the worst. He says Madeleine is likely to have been abducted for "sexual reasons", which is more candid than we are used to.
There is media disgruntlement at the paucity of information from the police, and their failure to issue a description of Madeleine's clothing or to reveal an artist's impression of a possible suspect. There is a lack of clarity about salient facts such as whether the apartment that Madeleine and her siblings were in was locked, or whether the windows were open. There was a failure to act quickly to set up checkpoints at the border with Spain, so that Madeleine could have been removed from the country with ease. British police sources even claim that the forensic integrity of the crime scene was compromised, making it impossible to get fingerprints.
The Portugese investigation certainly seems pretty shambolic, and it is only right that questions be asked. Kate and Gerry McCann, understandably, are reported to be very frustrated by the attitude of the Portuguese police. It was at their insistence that a televised appeal by them to the putative abductor was made, and one can understand why. Such appeals are a staple of UK investigations, even though their practical use is sometimes, very evidently, absolutely zero. Televised appeals are something we have come to expect distraught family members to do, and at times we have even been treated to the tears of actorly murderers. But we continueto believe they are A Good Thing nonetheless.
Most worryingly, the woman who runs Innocence In Danger, an organisation specialising in the protection of abducted and trafficked children first set up under the auspices of Unesco, says she was unable to set up a Portuguese office because "corruption and indifference hampers the country's investigation of paedophiles and child traffickers". Portugal would do well to look closely at such an allegation, because it would certainly not be the first nation to learn that it was being far too cavalier about this matter. In Britain today, some judges appear unable to grasp the profundity of the violation paedophilia entails.
Yet, in some respects, the Portuguese way of dealing with child disappearance does not seem so very different from our own. The Child Rescue Alert system was launched here nationally only last year, and is based on the Amber Alert system that runs in the US. Essentially, the system relies on the media being told at the earliest stage, to encourage the public to act as the "eyes and ears of the police". At a local level, at least, this appears to have been done in Portugal, as people were out searching for Madeleine very quickly. Then there are the statistics. The Council of Europe recommends that its members should run a national missing persons' bureau, and in Portugal, with a population of 10 million, the police list seven people who went missing as children, according to The Daily Telegraph, including one two-year-old who was abducted from home.
In Britain, in the past five years, 44 children have been listed as missing and unaccounted for, with 11 having disappeared when five or younger, and four under 12 months old. Our population is six times that of Portugal, and it is not possible to say whether the figures are collated in ways that make them compatible. But it is still shocking to know that four babies have gone missing in Britain in the past couple of years without us even being aware of their names.
One final word on the unfortunate consequences of media feeding frenzies, which is to call attention to some of the pitfalls of a lack of restraint in emoting and opining on personal loss. Jon Gaunt wrote in The Sun yesterday that the McCanns had brought their troubles on themselves. We should "include children in meals out," he says, "It's called family life." Suddenly all that feminine tit-beating seems very decent indeed.