Trials by Media: The Case of Madeleine McCann

Picture of By Ada Varriale

By Ada Varriale

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”48″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]O[/mks_dropcap]n the evening of 3 May 2007, Madeleine Beth McCann disappeared from her bed in a holiday resort in Praia da luz, Portugal. The blonde-haired little girl was then on holiday from the United Kingdom with her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, her twin siblings and some family friends. It has now been almost twelve years since she has been missing and Netflix just came out with the the umpteenth documentary on the girl. Hundreds of thousands of children go missing each year and yet, Madeleine’s case, while being anything but unique, has been said to be one of the most heavily reported missing-persons case in modern history.

The Case

The circumstances of Madeleine’s disappearance are a mystery to this day and for the curious, there are heaps of theories to be found online; some less realistic than others. What is known so far about that fateful night is that Madeleine and her siblings were asleep in their bedroom, while her parents and their friends dined near-by.  When Kate McCann went to check on her children, she found Madeleine’s bed empty and the girl nowhere to be found. This sparked a lengthy and expensive international case, spanning across police teams in both Portugal and the UK; totalling 11 million pounds so far. What is maybe even more significant than this fact is the amount of press reaction the has case received.

The Press

Years after the case, the turmoil caused by Madeleine’s disappearance in the media and general public was remarkable. The traditional corporate media reporting that usually characterised similar happenings, was unsettled by the introduction of user generated media to the news cycle. The mediation of narrative regarding this case, took over the newly, mainstream social media, as news forums and independent sources were alike in their attention to this little British girl. Thousands and thousands of videos were uploaded to YouTube. Films and documentaries were made, books were  and still are being published up to this day. Even the very image of Madeleine McCann had been dissected online in every possible way. In a way, the public autopsy of Madeleine is what truly established her as a part of the social imaginary.

Among the almost endless stream of content, two major discourses were established: one hypothesising about her alleged kidnapping and the identity of said predator and the other, focusing on the parents’ involvement in the crime itself (Framing the news). The latter was part of the public’s imagination due to the relentless pursuit of Kate and Gerry McCann by the Portuguese police. Their investigation gave them ‘arguido’ or suspect status very briefly after the disappearance.

What happened afterwards is what makes this case one of the few “Trials by Media”, alongside cases such as Monica Lewinsky and Amanda Knox. The McCanns found themselves at the centre of an unappeasable search for conviction, with petitions being raised for social workers to remove the McCanns’ twins from their care. Along with cases, on the other side of things, such as the Daily express editor being accused of using “journalistic licence” to make inferences on their presumed culpability.  The pervasiveness of the McCanns’ media presence was shown by their testimony before the Leveson Inquiry, which looked into British press misconduct and called for tighter press regulation.

Notes on Morality

If at this point you are wondering if the McCanns actually did have anything to do with Madeleine’s disappearance, you haven’t been paying attention. The unhealthy media fascination with the couple could yes, have something to do with their being photogenic, white and middle-class doctors, but to limit is as such is to be careless. Factors such as the rise of 24-hour news channels and the internet itself make this case one of the most prominent examples of situations in which the public and the media proclaimed themselves as judge and jury. Additionally, the fact that the crime was being investigated under different criminal justice systems made for more creative inferences to be made on what happened to Madeleine. The idea of brilliant, cold psychopaths committing such an intimate and abhorrent deed, being so public and yet escaping justice has dominated the public’s mind for a decade, regardless of the fact that nobody was found guilty. Except maybe, for the media and the public themselves.


Cover: Unsplash: Caleb Woods  / Final Editor: Erica Boyce

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