washingtonpost.com
The Campaign
Case of British 4-Year-Old Missing Since May Fuels a Maelstrom of Publicity

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 12, 2007

PARIS -- When little Madeleine McCann disappeared from her family's hotel room in Portugal on May 3, every parent's worst nightmare became Europe's summer-long saga.

Saturday marked 100 days that the blond-haired, blue-eyed British child has been missing -- and widely presumed kidnapped -- after being left unattended by her parents while they dined at a nearby restaurant. Today, following an unprecedented media frenzy, Maddy, as she is known, is the most recognizable 4-year-old in Europe.

Author J.K. Rowling reportedly pledged half of the $6 million reward money being offered for Madeleine's return and allowed posters of the child to be distributed around the world with the release of the latest Harry Potter book. Soccer star David Beckham filmed a video urging people to be on the lookout for her.

Rock performer Bryan Adams dedicated a concert in Malta to Madeleine and has allowed his hit "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" to be used on her Web site ( http://www.findmadeleine.com), which its operator says has recorded more than 1 billion hits from 80 million unique visitors since it was launched 12 weeks ago. The site has drawn $1.9 million in donations to support the search efforts of Madeleine's parents, Kate and Gerry McCann.

The global publicity campaign has sparked unconfirmed sightings of Madeleine as far away as Argentina and Guatemala. Publicity events have been held from California to Kabul. Tens of thousands of posters seeking her return have been distributed in 28 languages under the caption "Look into my eyes," lyrics from Adams's song that draw attention to a key identifying marker -- the pupil of Madeleine's right eye runs into her iris.

But all the attention has generated little evidence of what happened to Madeleine. The dearth of information has fueled charges that Portuguese police botched the investigation. It also has bred wild theories about the child's fate, cast an increasingly uncomfortable spotlight on her parents and underscored the grim reality that Madeleine McCann seems to have disappeared without a trace.

"A kidnapping case like this comes along every 15 or 20 years, and really, there's been nothing like this," said Paul Tuohy, chief executive of Britain's National Missing Persons Helpline.

"Abductions of this nature are very, very rare, with a family abroad on vacation, relaxed and feeling safe and chilling out," he said. "Combine the factor that she's from a well-educated, middle-class family that is unique in terms of what it was able to do, and you have a very, very small girl who's vulnerable, and the media latched on to it, and it snowballed from there."

The media lather has been compared to the frenzy surrounding the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

"There is a parallel with Diana -- editors know there is something readers do not want them to do, and that's to get too close to the McCanns in the critical sense, and to this day the public does not have much idea of what happened" the night Madeleine disappeared, said Brian Cathcart, a journalism professor at Kingston University in London. British newspapers are playing down Portuguese media reports of the parents' possible involvement, he said, because "there are things editors are driven by that are not very rational, but which is bigger than they are."

In a telephone interview, Madeleine's father said that he and his wife have "done everything in our power to cooperate completely with the Portuguese police," but that Portuguese newspapers quoting unnamed police who say "Maddy is dead, and we were involved, is incredibly difficult to deal with."

But he added, "We should be subjected to the same scrutiny as anyone else."

On May 3, nine days before Madeleine's fourth birthday, her parents put her and her 2-year-old twin siblings to bed in their ground-floor apartment at the Mark Warner Ocean Club, a seaside resort in Praia da Luz, about 120 miles south of Lisbon. The family was staying there while on a week's vacation from their home in the village of Rothley, about 110 miles northwest of London, where Gerry is a cardiologist and Kate is a general practitioner.

At 8:30 p.m., according to family accounts, the couple and a small group of friends went to a tapas restaurant about 100 yards from the apartment, leaving the children unattended but returning about every 30 minutes to check on them. When Kate McCann went to the apartment about 9:45 p.m., she discovered that Madeleine was missing. The twins were in the room and safe. Police later said nothing else of value was taken from the apartment. No ransom note was received.

Portuguese police have come under withering criticism in the British media, particularly for waiting 12 hours to advise border guards of the suspected abduction, leaving ample time for kidnappers to spirit Madeleine out of the country.

The parents have been sharply criticized for leaving their three children unattended in an unlocked apartment while going out to eat. Many have called it irresponsible and negligent. Others -- particularly back home in Britain -- have come to the couple's defense, saying the perpetrators of the crime should be blamed, not the parents. Social commentators have noted that, in general, children are not as welcome in restaurants in Britain as they are in other European countries, making it more acceptable among Britons to leave their children at home.

Gerry McCann said he wished he could "turn back the clock" but that "it's a terrible indictment" when a parent cannot leave a child without worrying he or she will be abducted.

"We don't feel we took risks with our children," Kate McCann said. "We felt incredibly safe and responsible."

At the same time, the McCanns have also said they are haunted by guilt.

"We're just so desperately sorry to Madeleine that we weren't there," Kate McCann told the Sunday Times last week. "Even now, every hour now, I still question myself: 'Why did I think she was safe?' "

In an interview Friday with The Washington Post, she said that there were downsides to so much publicity, including false leads and possibly revealing too much information to Madeleine's abductors, but that she knows many missing people have been found because of such attention.

Madeleine has supposedly been spotted wearing blue pajamas at a service station in Marrakech, Morocco, and boarding the yacht of a wealthy Arab family in Malta, where there reportedly have been more than two dozen sightings of her. A Dutch newspaper published an anonymous letter saying she had been killed and giving details about where she was buried, setting off a press stampede and freelance digging at a site about nine miles from her hotel.

Madeleine is well represented on the Web site Second Life and on YouTube, where there are about 230 video clips related to her. Her picture adorns luggage tags and taxi receipts.

After being inundated with yellow ribbons and stuffed animals, Madeleine's home town recently cleaned up its parks and declared a moratorium on "grief tourism."

Some of the latest twists in the case from the past week:

Portuguese and British police re-interviewed the only publicly identified suspect in the case -- Robert Murat, 33, a British real estate agent who lives in his mother's villa near the Ocean Club -- and again searched his house, garden and cars but reportedly came away empty-handed. Murat's relatives said he will soon be cleared of involvement.

During a new search of Madeleine's room, specially trained British sniffer dogs reportedly found tiny specks of blood, generating statements in the Portuguese media from unidentified police sources that the kidnapping case has become a murder investigation, with Madeleine's parents as suspects. Portuguese police officials have said on the record that the McCanns are not suspects, but they said for the first time Saturday in an interview with the BBC that they were investigating the possibility that Madeleine was dead.

British newspapers returned fire this week, saying that letting such key evidence go undetected for three months showed that Portuguese police were inept. The Independent devoted the first two pages of Thursday's edition to the family's defense under the banner: "Truth, Lies and the Smearing of the McCanns." The blood specks have been taken to Britain for analysis, with results expected in about a week.

Through it all, the McCanns have remained calm and focused, continuing a daily drumbeat of interviews, balloon releases and other events to boost their daughter's profile. Kate McCann has remained in Praia da Luz, vowing not to return home without her daughter. Gerry McCann recently flew to Washington and met with U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and first lady Laura Bush's staff to talk about combating child abduction. Madeleine's father also writes a blog on her Web site.

"People don't want to hear the word, but it's very 'slick,' there's no way around that, but with a distinct purpose, and this is what an intelligent person should do," journalism professor Cathcart said of the parents' efforts. "There's never been anything like this. There's never been a follow-up on a crime story on this scale in Europe, ever."

Researcher Corinne Gavard in Paris and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company