Want to hear a joke about Madeleine McCann, the four-year-old British girl who vanished on holiday in Portugal?
Portuguese secrecy laws forbid police briefing the press. So instead of facts and official news we get speculation and watching the parents, Kate and Gerry McCann.
When the story first broke, we were invited to empathise. Their Madeleine became “our Maddie”. A family’s private grief was turned into public spectacle.
Star footballers were signed up, as were Hell’s Angels, MPs wearing yellow ribbons and ministers meeting deputations. It was as if the missing child were this year’s Make Poverty History campaign. And then the official Madeleine Wristband went on sale.
In the Houses of Parliament, MPs were revelling in mawkish sentimentality, wearing yellow ribbons with pride. They cared. And they wanted one and all to know it.
At the Vatican, we were the voyeurs at the biggest show in town. Pope meets McCanns. Or, to out it in order of newsworthiness, McCanns meet Pope.
This was emotional tyranny: We have to care. Wear the ribbon. Put the newspapers’ posters of Madeleine in your car and shop windows. A minute’s silence, if you please. We must all do our bit.
The Scarlet Claw The headline rumour was that a paedophile might have taken Madeleine, moreover an international ring of paedos. The message soon changed from “Where’s Madeleine?” to “It could be your child.”
The British press assured us that this was every parent’s worst nightmare. The Sun asked us to sign a petition to protect our children from “paedos”. A Swiss campaigner said Madeleine would not have been taken had the Portuguese authorities agreed to help set up her “Innocence in Danger” campaign. “The fact that the girl was kidnapped from her bed shows how bad things are,” said she.
Madeleine’s disappearance was, and continues to be, hijacked by campaigners.
Parents held their children’s hands tighter. Mothers created a “Parentally Aware Neighbourhood” in a town on England’s south coast. They began to patrol school routes and playgrounds on the look out for “potential offenders”. A local policeman was delighted and thanked the organiser: “Heidi and other parents decided to set up the group in light of what happened to Madeleine McCann in Portugal,” he told the press.
But what did happen to Madeleine McCann in Portugal? We still don’t know.
On the other hand, the media obsession with Madeleine McCann is scaring the parents, scaring the children. An appeal to find Madeleine has been screened before cinema showings of U-rated Shrek The Third, and a mum said it was “unfair” to show this to children. “It makes them fear that they too could be abducted.”
Tony Parsons, a journalist for the Daily Mirror, confronted parents who dared complain of the modern fairytale encroaching on their fun, concluding: “And they should be grateful that their own children will sleep in their own beds tonight.” Never mind Madeleine, there for the grace of God go ye. Parsons went on: “My wife and my daughter were in the school changing room packing up the tutu after ballet. I was waiting right outside, kicking around a ball with the kid brother of one of my daughter’s friends. Eventually my wife came out alone. ‘Where is she?’ my wife asked. ‘Isn’t she with you?’ I said. And that’s how it happens.”
And on the media frenzy went. “I was terrified,” said Beverly Fleetham of her ordeal at the thought that her child, Morgan, had gone missing. “I kept thinking of Madeleine McCann’s family and I remember saying, ‘Don’t let this happen to me.'” The Daily Express had more: “My partner Steven raced off in his car to look in all the places Morgan likes playing. It was the worst three hours of my life.” Beverly dialled the police. Friends and family searched the woods and gardens in Kelty, Scotland. Then Morgan, aged five, woke up. She had been asleep in the back of her mother’s car all along.
That’s how it happens too.
You would cry. Or laugh. But is it too early to make a joke? Back in 2001, after the attack on New York, the Economist magazine asked me for my thoughts on the tabloid take on the big story. I noted that after 13 days of terror and death the Sun’s topless Page 3 girls had returned. They are the light-hearted barometer of business as usual.
So can we relax now? Can we make a joke? We’ll try. But we would not be the first. At the Edinburgh Fringe young stand-up Nick Doody said that Madeleine McCann’s parents were right to visit the Pope “because if anyone can find a paedophile…”