Madeleine McCann and her parents have once again been the focus of media attention as stories of new ‘leads’ emerge, and Scotland Yard’s intention to excavate three sites in Portugal has been granted by the Portuguese police.

It has been seven years since a then three-year-old Madeleine disappeared from a holiday apartment in the Praia De Luz area of Portugal, while her parents and their friends dined out in a nearby restaurant yards away. We watched as the search in Portugal unfolded, as the agonised parents begged for help through press conferences while her mother Kate faded into a shadow of her previous self beneath the glare of the British media, and as the tortured parents were given arguidos (formal suspects) status by Portuguese authorities.

This case has compelled the population and has become more high profile than any other of its time. Both the media and the British public have followed the story religiously and voiced their own opinions as to what happened, almost to the point of obsession. And now, seven years on, Scotland Yard has arrived in Portugal to reopen an investigation around the holiday resort using ground-penetrating radar.

From the onset, Portuguese police have been criticised for their handling of the case, their lack of theories as to what happened, their lack of results, and for the slow response to the abduction. They were criticised for not having the expertise to deal with an operation of this scale. Is this why Britain is gripped by the story of Madeleine McCann? Is this why her parents have become so recognisable to almost everyone in the country – because they were wronged by the Portuguese police system? In the United Kingdom, a child is declared missing every three minutes and in a world where hundreds of thousands of young people are missing, why are we so emotionally involved with the story of one girl? I doubt it is a result of the mishandling by the Portuguese police and I further doubt it is fuelled by spurious accusations that the McCann’s were actually involved.

The reason for our society’s fascination with the curious case of Madeleine McCann, when so many other cases go untouched by the media, and when so many other devastating things happen to children all around the world, is because the family are so typical. The McCann’s are normal people, and people around Britain could easily see Madeleine in a young child they know. People want to read about it and newspapers want to write about it, again and again. It is a story that sells. The McCann’s are a middle class, white family. Gerry and Kate are both professionals who are clearly intelligent and very well educated. The McCann’s are articulate, both written and orally, meaning they have the ability to communicate well, and not only that, they also have the best lawyers money can buy as a result of constant fundraising. Had the McCann’s been a working class, less educated family then I fear the exposure of the case would have been far less in the media. Who would have spoke for them? Would the case be reopened seven years on? I doubt it. Why is the McCann’s influence so strong?

The McCann family have from an early stage been extremely proactive in keeping the case high profile and raising awareness. Within a few weeks of the disappearance, an online blog had been set up by her father Gerry, several emotional interviews had been given and their family back in Britain had been well-organised to continually raise awareness and funding to help aid the case. The constant exposure continued – Kate wrote a book, the family launched a libel case of £1 million against former Portuguese police chief who accused Kate of being involved in her daughter’s disappearance and the McCann’s fronted a campaign against News Of The World phone hacking scandal.

The McCann’s also appointed Clarence Mitchell – former BBC reporter and Head of Media Monitoring Unit in the Cabinet Office – as their official spokesman with him stating, ‘I have [resigned] because I feel so strongly that they are innocent victims of a heinous crime that I am prepared to forego my career in government service to assist them.’ The family have continued to keep Britain involved in the story, to keep the media interested and reporting on their daughter. It raises the question that if every child who went missing had the same media coverage as Madeleine then would we be made aware of many more cases of missing children and therefore, as a result, would many more be found?

The McCann’s social standing has allowed them to spread their appeal far wider than others in their position could. Their determination and constant battle to keep the story in the media has allowed them to keep the search for their daughter as focused and constant as ever. What the McCann’s have managed to do is admirable – they have faced up to the slander and injustice, and fought everyday, using their wits to help aid their campaign. They even help other families who do not share in the same resources. And now seven years on, Scotland Yard have arrived in Portugal as intent as ever. However, our society’s fixation with just one child is wrong and we must remember Madeleine’s story is not an isolated case; hundreds of thousands of children go missing everywhere in the world and even more face hardship in their lives on a daily basis. Not everyone has the ability to use the media to their advantage as the McCann’s have done over the last seven years and many stories go unheard of, untouched by the media because people do not feel as involved with them.

The power of exposure is clear in this case but we must be constantly reminded of the powerless and the voiceless who need our help equally.



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