It’s not that the people of Praia da Luz are unsympathetic, far from it, they poured out their hearts and supported the search for this little girl, local residents, foreign and local and visitors. They left no stone unturned, but it just went on too long. 2 May, 2007 is etched on everyone’s hearts.
I was involved from the first day, as the UK media had heard of the story on GMTV. At first, around eight o’clock it was relatively quiet, just the police, search dogs, emergency services and local residents all helping with the search. It was believed by all that this was a ‘simple’ matter of the little girl having wandered away and got lost. This wasn’t to last. By the early afternoon camera crews and reporters arrived from all over Europe and a media frenzy broke out.
Bad news day
Why did this case hit the world’s media with such impact? Probably in the first place as it was what’s known as a ‘bad news day’. Sadly, children do get lost, kidnapped or murdered far too many times. In Europe in 2021 there were 7,582 cases of missing children. Sometimes it will hit the news, other times it’s overshadowed by more pressing news stories.
The other factor, I believe, is that it had all the elements of a good news story. Pretty child, on holiday abroad at a well know ‘safe’ village in the Algarve, attractive English parents, both doctors, and of course the clincher for a story like this, mystery. Words like abduction, murder, accidental death, unexplained factors, all contributed to make this headline news.
How the story developed
There is no doubt that in the initial phase the local police made some mistakes. Principally, the crime scene was not sealed off. The police readily admit this, but as they have subsequently said, the local officer who had been called to the scene, Polícia Judiciária (CID) inspector Gonçalo Amaral had no experience in this type of case.
Amaral has always blamed the parents. He once walked me around the area showing me what he believed had happened and the alleged route he claimed the body of Madeleine McCann had been carried from the apartment to the beach. In ‘A Verdade Da Mentira’, translated as The Truth of the Lie, Goncalo Amaral detailed his belief that Madeleine died in her family's holiday apartment in Praia da Luz. This book has been the subject of yet further court actions.
Initially there was little suspicion of a crime. Everything was focused on a child having wandered away and got lost. Kate and Gerry McCann insisted from the outset that their apartment had been broken into via a shuttered window. No evidence was found to support that theory. It wasn’t until day three that the focus of the investigation moved to a kidnap scenario.
Parents under suspicion
Quite suddenly the focus of the investigation moved to a much more serious level. Senior police officers had arrived from Lisbon and the media were all talking about a kidnap or murder. Suspicions were falling on the parents, though there was never any evidence to suggest that they were responsible. The problem with rumours is that they feed on dubious facts. Whenever the McCann case hits the news again, as it is now, there are people still claiming that the parents were responsible. There are no facts or evidence to back up these claims. The only undeniable fact is that they didn’t have a babysitter.
Police and media at loggerheads
One of the factors that fuelled speculation was the lack of information from the police. What the international media didn’t understand, (or didn’t want to), was that police in Portugal do not provide daily press conferences on the progress of any case. By law they are not permitted to do so and having seen how people in the UK can be named and subject to unfounded accusations when eventually found not to be guilty I can understand this. The police did try to give a press conference in the first days, but they were severely restricted in what they could say, and the international media were now hungry, if not ravenous, for news.
I was with one journalist from a major UK channel when a call was received from the news editor. We need something for the top of the hour news, make something up if there isn’t anything. This is what was happening, hour after hour, day after day. By now the whole world knew about this case and the demand for updates and anything new was huge. That’s what 24 hour news needs. The whole situation got completely out of hand. News channels from far and wide, even as far as Australia, were on site, cameras and microphones in hand, and desperate for something to tell their viewers.
Four UK newspapers were heavily fined for accusations they made against a local resident. He won substantial libel damages in 2008, said to total £600,000 and an apology over nearly 100 "seriously defamatory" news articles. Creative journalism cost some UK media a lot.
After 15 years, the story goes on
Despite Scotland Yard closing the case some months ago, the German police are investigating a prisoner Christian Brückner who was in the area at the time and has been subject to accusations of rape. The Public Ministry of Faro has made him an official suspect in the case. People close to the case have told me they don’t give great credibility to this mans guilt.
I suspect I speak on behalf of the area of Luz that enough is enough. This all started on a ‘bad news day’ and has snowballed year after year. A UK national newspaper reporter said to me some years ago, ‘we will still be here when Madeleine McCann would have celebrated her 21st birthday’. I suspect he was right.
Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy.