Madeleine McCann’s abduction and the resulting investigation may not be familiar to you, but her face probably is. The media frenzy was most intense in the UK and Europe but spilled over into the US a decade ago. Madeleine was the British equivalent of JonBenet Ramsey, a cherubic face and blonde hair lodged in our minds as another unanswered question. Netflix’s The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann does not answer that question. Rather, it poses more questions about investigative processes and media ethics.
True crime is a potent vehicle for media indictments. Madeleine is particularly tragic because we know so little, and therefore pure speculation has circulated cruelly. This eight-part documentary series, which is directed by Chris Smith (Fyre, American Movie) allows many theories and sympathies to wash over viewers but then flicks them away like exercises in gullibility. Each episode does double duty, providing chronological information about the case while also critically examining its media coverage. Investigators and journalists alike were quite flawed and misleading, creating depressing chances of ever recovering the three-year-old girl.
The night of May 3, 2007, Madeleine was taken from a ground-floor tourist apartment within a Portuguese seaside resort. Her parents, Kate and Gerry, were with other members of their vacationing party right across a swimming pool at a restaurant. Periodically, one of the adults would go and check on the kids. Kate discovered Madeleine was gone around 10 pm. She walked into the room to find it empty with the window open. Portuguese local police (GNR) and major crimes (PJ) got involved and started investigating. But there really wasn’t much to go on. The case has baffled Portuguese, British, and American private investigators since. What do you do when there aren’t clues or obvious suspects to build upon?
At first, Kate and Gerry were on a pedestal. They were “aspirational Brits,” both from working-class Catholic backgrounds, medical doctors, attractive and unpretentious. They were thoughtful and intense about the abduction, always trying to find the next level of examination or appeal. They used the pack of journalists around them to strategize reaching Madeleine or her abductor, frequently addressing the press with pleas to return the child.
But investigation stalled. The crime scene produced no clues, in part because it hadn’t been preserved well by the parents or police. No blood or fingerprints were evident. There were some sightings of suspicious folks around the resort to look into, but that was like chasing shadows. Numerous Portuguese and British journalists converged on the town of Praia da Luz, and they wanted stories. Political pressure mounted since nobody wanted to vacation in a place where a potential predator lurked. Leaks from the police to journalists created an illusion of progress, though nothing was proven and nobody was charged. When all else failed, the investigation turned toward Kate and Gerry.
This is as far as my memory goes from observing the case in real time 10 years ago. I heard that the parents were implicated, shook my head, and never heard anything else. The series does an excellent job of building that myth and then dismantling it because it’s the primary red herring. However, the case is packed with herrings and other fauna. A British K9 expert arrived in Portugal about 90 days into the disappearance with two dogs trained to sense blood and cadavers. The dogs went through the McCann apartment and both alerted in specific areas. This inspired a theory of accidental death and disposal of Madeleine by her family. The press frenzy cannot be overstated, they felt betrayed by those they had elevated. Social media played a role here, too, recirculating tabloid theories to paranoid and vitriolic weirdos across the globe.
The myth monopolized investigators and press for a very long time, even after DNA tests done at the apartment and in the McCann’s rental car returned nothing. Even after the PJ investigator in charge was inauspiciously fired. Those sweet little pooches had it wrong, but the damage was done. One of the more profound points the doc makes is that crime coverage favors emotion over intellect. Tabloids prey upon readers with sensational headlines that feel good enough to believe. People wanted to believe the dogs, and that took on a life of its own. The series delves into how Kate and Gerry (and other temporary suspects) sued British tabloids for libel and won. Madeleine McCann altered the standards for journalism in Britain.
The McCanns attracted a Scottish multimillionaire benefactor to help them fund private investigators, which went spectacularly awry. Multiple firms have taken the case only to perform illegal or fraudulent acts. The doc presents a staggering timeline which shows how many investigative bodies have tried. In 2011, a public appeal endorsed by Prime Minister David Cameron prompted Scotland Yard to take over. Here we are, eight years later, still unsure if it was a lone wolf abductor or a network involved in sex trafficking. But certainly the latter are more visible in Europe because of the search.
The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann is a wake-up call for police, activists, and media practitioners. Gathering and relaying information has to be careful and conscious of exploitation. Cases like this are why communication studies departments exist. Creating and interpreting messages in our bonkers media landscape is tough. Even though I found the series to be important in its media discourse, I found it a bit inflated. You’ll notice how footage and commentary are recycled to fill time over the eight episodes. Five or six episodes could have accomplished the tasks at hand. However, I think these series are more often about lingering with investigations and letting the evidence swirl around until you create your own theory. You become the investigator and you need that time. But with this case, that’s a daunting and doomed role.