Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Gail Walker: we must put focus back on Madeleine

Gail Walker, Belfast Telegraph

How are Gerry and Kate McCann, British parents of missing Madeleine, Portuguese suspects in her disappearance, to navigate the rest of their lives and the search for their daughter?

Certainly, given the latest glut of stories in the Press, as the first year anniversary this weekend of their daughter's vanishing approaches, it can not — ought not — to go on like this.

After a quiet few months, they're back, like the new run of a top soap that ended its last series on a cliff-hanger.

And we — armchair detectives and good hearts, and often both — can't wait to tune in to see if we can finally find out what happened to Madeleine McCann, the four-year-old, who has apparently disappeared without trace.

You think that's going too far? Witness the piece written by Justine McGuinness, the McCann's former press adviser, in one Sunday newspaper.

Though broadly sympathetic, even she couldn't get to the end without feeling the need to make the hammer-blow confession that 'I never understood why they did not take the children with them for supper at the tapas bar on the evening Madeleine disappeared'. Plus, there's all her gossipy titbits about the McCanns, unintentionally but inevitably feeding the idea of them as some weird kind of celebrity couple. Kate is 'sharp, witty, self-deprecating and shy'. Gerry is 'an alpha male to his fingerstips'. Whatever that means. The problem for the McCanns is that it's all back in the mix. How could they leave their kids alone in an unlocked apartment? Have they shown enough emotion?

Since they left their kids, don't they think it grates to see them spearheading initiatives about safeguarding other people's children? What do we make of the Portuguese cops? Why were the McCanns made arguidos anyway? Have we been kinder to them because they're middle class doctors — or did we expect better of them?

Everyone has an opinion on the case and, it follows, the McCanns. And few have any qualms about making it known, running through a long list of alleged contradictions and conundrums in the case.

Like the 'jemmied shutters'. Press reports initially claimed Gerry said they'd been 'jemmied' open by an intruder. The police said there was no evidence of that. What's it to be? Or, Cuddle Cat. The McCanns reportedly told papers that when they discovered Madeleine missing, Cuddle Cat was on a high shelf, so must have been placed there by an adult intruder.

Leaked transcripts of their interviews with police revealed they'd told detectives the toy was still in the child's bed. But how did the tragedy of one little girl became such public property?

At the heart of the McCanns' 'image problem' lies the perception they are trying to 'manage' press coverage, via their press officer Clarence Mitchell.

On the one hand, who could blame them for maximising PR if it helps in the search?

Yet, on the other, they've cherrypicked who they've given interviews to, and the so-called Tapas Seven — the friends they were dining with that fateful night — are accused of a 'siege mentality'.

With the exception of a few words from Jane Tanner and one of the others, they've shunned publicity. And all of it feeds the conspiracy theorists and internet Quincys. Except — and this is the crunch — it's not just wingnuts who hold strong views on the case.

Many ordinary, decent people, care desperately about it — because at the heart of it is a still missing child. They were begged to care, and they cannot forget her.

Which is good. Because, as the McCanns' PR battle continues to wage, unfortunately, for the Press, Madeleine sometimes seem incidental to a story that appears to be more about Gerry and Kate McCann.

A year one, it's time for them to meet their critics head-on. Give an interview, where they face every question down, even if they think some are from crackpots. No matter if they feel its demeaning, they should close down the debate about 'jemmied shutters' and Cuddle Cat, and all the other ceaseless speculation.

They have nothing to fear and everything to gain.

Besides, they've confronted the worst thing that could happen to them.

And then we can all put the focus back where it should be — on looking for the little blonde girl with the distinctive eye.

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