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    The Madeline McCann Syndrome

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    Sykes

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    The Madeline McCann Syndrome

    Post  Sykes on Sun Apr 30, 2017 7:40 am

    FEW can have missed the fact that this week marks the tenth anniversary of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Even before today’s official BBC interview with the McCann’s, the coverage, over the week has been building, like a familiar wave coming back into shore, here to remind us, as if we could ever forget, about the girl who went missing from an apartment bedroom in Praia de Luz and has never been seen again — at least, not outside the recurring images of her that teem across our media.

    Last week, brought those familiar photographs of “Maddie”, her face frozen at three years old, back into the news again, along with a spew of articles on the case, most of them saying very little of substance, many of them just reviewing what we already know, or don't know. There were reports that investigators still have a "critical line of inquiry" to explore, a forensic expert who said Facebook facial recognition software could help solve the crime, but mostly this last week’s 'Maddie coverage' has been about marking time. She’s been gone for ten years, we are reminded. A decade on, and the obsession with this one missing girl still has us in its hold. Hope still lingers. We see her everywhere. She haunts our fiction and television — shows like the abduction drama, The Missing – yet we never see the real, live her.

    It’s natural to remember such an anniversary, particularly when, as for the McCanns themselves, it is a marker of personal loss and time passed. The official website of the Find Madeleine campaign, carries a message from Kate and Gerry that says: “Ten years - there's no easy way to say it, describe it, accept it. I remember when Madeleine first disappeared I couldn’t even begin to consider anything in terms of years. Shawn Hornbeck abducted and kept hidden for over four years, Natascha Kampusch for over eight years. I couldn't go there. And now here we are...Madeleine, our Madeleine - ten years.”

    But for us, the public, and the media, the anniversary marks ten years of an obsession with a still unsolved crime. Throughout all this time it has felt as if Madeleine has never been out of the papers for very long. Partly, of course, that was because her parents doggedly and eloquently kept her there. Partly it was because the media saw that Maddie sold papers and brought in television viewers. Partly it was because people became fascinated with what was one of the first big reality whodunnits of the online age. They became hugely invested in their own opinions on how the investigation was being conducted, what the McCanns were like as parents.

    When the story first broke, it triggered a nationwide surge of sympathy, and panic, touching on that fear that lurks in the soul of all parents – for what mother or father hasn’t felt that lurch of panic after losing site of their child for a few minutes in a supermarket or the park. Stories of missing or lost children have long tugged at our hearts, populated our fairy tales. No doubt we are hardwired to respond to them.

    What was it about the Madeleine case that turned it into such a global preoccupation? “It’s hard to imagine any one story,” said PR consultant Michael Cole, in the documentary, Madeleine McCann A Global Obsession, “that could have ticked more boxes, rung more bells in the human psyche than this one. It’s every parent’s nightmare.” But it was more than that. It was every parent's nightmare wrapped up in the right demographic packaging. It brought together a kind of perfect storm of factors, starting with a pretty, very young, blonde white female victim - the so-called Blonde Angel Syndrome, which sees the press fixate on a young blonde white female more than any other type of victim. Couple that with good-looking, middle-class parents, one a cardiac surgeon, the other a GP; a holiday crime location, outside the UK, in Portugal, and hence a fear and suspicion of the foreign - and you have a crime almost designed to captivate the public.

    Where it happened was of significance, and revealed a whole layer of prejudice. “The fact that the Madeleine mystery – and I use my words carefully – began abroad,” wrote Dr John Jewell, of the School of Journalism, Cardiff University, “ in less affluent, less prosperous Portugal may also be significant in why we’re so interested. This is because (in a sense) we as nation can absolve ourselves from responsibility. Despite evidence to the contrary in terms of crimes committed against children in Britain, we can tell ourselves that this is a crime that happened because the family was abroad.”

    What we observed with Madeleine McCann was a kind of moral panic. Initially it tapped into the intense cultural fear, around paedophiles, the fairytale fear that some “other” was lurking out there, ready to steal our children, particularly those that are cute and blonde and very young.

    Actually Madeleine was just one of many British children who go missing in a year. In the UK around 50 children are abducted by strangers annually, but we hear very little of most of them. Not every missing child becomes a Madeleine McCann. This is partly because not every missing child is white, blonde, female, and the daughter of middle-class parents.

    As feminist writer, Joy Goh-Mah has said: “In the UK, if asked about cases of missing children, most will be aware only of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, despite a child being reported missing every 3 minutes. While her disappearance is no doubt a huge tragedy, we have to wonder why it is Madeleine McCann, a pretty white girl, who has captured the sympathy of the public, and not girls with names like Aamina Khan, Elizabeth Ogungbayibi, or Folawiyo Oladejo, all of whom are listed on Missing Kids UK.”

    American comedian Jon Stewart once pointed out wryly that the following equation might give an indication of how much airtime child abductions get on TV: “y (minutes of media coverage) = Family Income x (Abductee Cuteness ÷ Skin Color) + Length of Abduction x Media Savvy of Grieving Parents”. Madeleine MCann had all those factors in spades.

    The 'Blonde Angel Sydrome' was also termed “Missing White Girl Syndrome” by the journalism academic Sarah Stillman. “International headlines,” she wrote, “deliver the lurid details of British three-year-old Madeleine McCann’s disappearance while on holiday with her family in Portugal, but offer few clues about the fate of Esmeralda Alarcon, one of more than 400 young women to go missing in the border [town of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico].”

    When we look at the other tales of missing, abducted or murdered children and young women, that have dominated international headlines in recent years, it’s clear that the obsession with Madeleine is part of a pattern. Even if one looks at the media just in the last week, it's possible to see that same story being told again and again, our ongoing obsession with this particular type of victim. Last Tuesday, for example, the British tabloids threw up in quick succession the following stories involving white, middle-class, mostly blonde, girls: Natasha Kampusch talking on Good Morning about her eight years of hell, kept as a slave in a cellar in suburban house near Vienna, Austria, and sending out a message of hope to the McCanns; a report on a new Netflix film which asks if the six-year-old American beauty queen JonBenet Ramsay was killed by members of a Colorado child porn ring; a story on how the daughter of Soham murderer Ian Huntley has said she'll never call the notorious killer her 'dad', with, yet again, that poignant photograph of Holly and Jessica in their football tops.

    The constant reiteration of the story of the stolen white girl has to correspond to some kind of myth that is being sustained. Washington Post writer, Eugene Robinson, described it as the “damsel in distress” saga. Writing on the way the disappearance of 18-year-old Natalee Haywood, a blonde, white American on holiday on the Caribbean island of Aruba, had caused a similar international media frenzy, he criticised what he saw as a “meta-narrative of something seen as precious and delicate being snatched away, defiled, destroyed by evil forces that lurk in the shadows just outside the bedroom window. It's whiteness under siege. It's innocence and optimism crushed by cruel reality. It's a flower smashed by a rock.”

    But, for all the McCann's middle-class identity helped secure the story a profile, it also helped created a backlash. The fact that the McCann case was getting the kind of attention that other disappearances, of working-class, black or boy children, might have not done, seemed to fuel some of the criticism. Right-wing columnist Amanda Platell has observed: “Her disappearance divided the nation on class lines, because I lost count of the number of people who wrote to me and said, if she had been the daughter of a couple of unemployed people living in Liverpool, she would have been off the front pages in a matter of days.”

    Would a working-class story have generated such coverage? In some ways we found out – since the following year the story broke about the disappearance of Shannon Matthews, daughter of Karen Matthews, a mum living on benefits in Dewsbury, Yorkshire. As writer Cole Moreton observed when he reported on the story, both the reward money raised and the media presence there in Dewsbury, were far smaller than had been drawn to Praia da Luz the previous year. Of course, it would soon be discovered that the whole thing had been a scam and Karen Matthews was dubbed “Britain’s Worst Mother”. But was that lack of coverage, till then, because the child and parent involved were working class, and not as obviously photogenic as the McCanns?

    Both Karen Matthews and Kate McCann have been criticised, and for different reasons. Matthews because she lied and put her child at risk, Kate McCann because she was considered, by some, guilty of a kind of middle-class neglect when she went out and ate at tapas on the night of Madeleine’s disappearance, leaving her daughter alone.

    Indeed one of the things that has marked out the Madeleine McCann story, is not just the intensity of feeling around her disappearance, but also the ferocity of the backlash against her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, who some saw as publicity-hungry and attention-seeking, and others considered to have been let-off-the-hook because of their class and connections.

    One study by a team at the University of Huddersfield revealed that around 150 abusive tweets are directed at the McCanns every day. Inevitably, with the McCanns back in the media spotlight again, there has been a fresh surge of such abuse. A search of “McCann” on Twitter last week revealed comments such as: “Why are they still looking for Madeline McCann when thousands of kids with regular backgrounds have gone missing & we never hear about them?” Another questions: “What normal parents leave 3 young children on their own, whilst on holiday in a foreign country.”

    This is typical of the relatively low levels of empathy often exhibited for the parents of children who have been mysteriously abducted or murdered. Suspicion, of course, is natural. We know that most child murders are committed by family members. But there is something more going on here. Clarence Mitchell, who has represented the McCanns for 10 years, spoke on Australian television last week and described how he thought that for many members of the public "the situation just didn't fit the stereotypical ideal that many people have, wrongly, that something like this can't happen to a family like them…Once it was reported that the family weren't with the children when Madeleine went missing, then the judgment squad kicked in and they were 'guilty of neglect' at the very least.”

    That this happens isn’t surprising. We are hard on each other as parents, suspicious, and keen to accuse other parents of neglect, or worse. Part of this, maybe, is a way of comforting ourselves. If we can find fault, that allows us to tell ourselves that if we do things right, we can protect our children. We can, even in this age of moral panic over paedophilia, keep them out of harm's way.

    Ten years on and we can see the way our society has been marked by the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. We can also see the way in which, our response to the tragedy says so much about who we are, and who we value. The McCann story is also now an integral part of our narrative of modern childhood and parenting, a kind of fairy tale warning that works its way into the arguments that exist over stranger danger, hyper-protectiveness, and what a good parent and, in particular, a “good mother” is. What parent now, after all, could possibly leave a young child alone in a hotel, apartment, or any other room, and not think for a moment of missing Maddie?

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15255912.The_Madeline_McCann_Syndrome/


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