Ninth August, 2007. It’s a stiflingly hot day on the Algarve, and I’m sitting opposite Kate McCann, mother of the missing three-year old, Madeleine. Mrs McCann is clutching ‘Cuddle Cat’, Madeleine’s favourite toy, left behind when the little girl disappeared from their holiday apartment in May. The interview is to commemorate 100 days since Madeleine went missing from the Ocean Club in nearby Praia da Luz. The hope is that renewed publicity (though the story has never really gone away) will keep the image of Mrs McCann’s daughter in the eyes of the world.
It’s telling that our interview is taking place at the Portuguese Commission for the Protection of Children. The office feels like every identical white, sterile room in police stations all over southern Europe. Which is pretty apt, given this poor, desperate mother was demonised and criminalised just days after her daughter disappeared.
A mum with two children a similar age, this story chilled me to the bone. Firstly, because my brother and his family lived in Rothley, the Leicestershire suburb where the McCanns were from. My brother – also a consultant physician (though at a different Leicester hospital) played football with Gerry. But it was more than that. My husband and I had been on Mark Warner holidays, and other similar ‘family friendly’ package tours. We may even have left our children in their rooms - with a listening service - while we ate dinner nearby. It was something that was positively encouraged back then, even seen as a benefit offered to give you some free grown-up time.
While this kind of behaviour may have been an anathema to many Portuguese people who were used to blending generations for late evening meals, this was what many British middle-class families did. Friends pale-facedly admitted similar behaviour. “People will criticise us for leaving her,” Kate told me at the time. “But, to be honest, it wasn’t even an issue. We felt so safe at the resort. People told us they’ve been coming for 20 years and leaving their kids. Hundreds have written to say they do the same thing when they go on holiday. It could have happened to anyone.”
So the Club Med class (silently) thanked their lucky stars, and hugged their children tighter. I remember checking my son’s and my daughter’s room more often at night in the weeks following Madeleine’s disappearance, and I suspect I wasn’t alone.
But while some offered sympathy as Kate seemed to be living every mothers worst nightmare, many others turned their ire onto the McCanns and they singled out Mrs McCann in particular, for her apparent poise. A sinister consensus started to be formed that because she wasn’t weeping and breaking down, nor acting in a way they felt ‘befitting’, Mrs McCann must be hiding something. Mrs McCann was declared a “cold actress” by Goncalo Amaral, the Portuguese police chief who led the initial investigation. He resigned in 2008, and wrote a book on the case, which was later discredited, but it is still widely quoted among the Portuguese public. (This “not-destroyed-by-grief-so-must-be-lying” trope was also heaped upon Joanne Lees, the girlfriend of Peter Falconio, a backpacker who in 2001 disappeared and was presumed murdered. Though Falconio’s body has never been found, a career criminal called Bradley Murdoch was convicted of his murder in 2005.)
Picking up on the growing vitriol being directed at her, Kate replied: “Who can say what the mum of a missing child should look like?”
In hindsight, Mrs McCann and her husband showed admirable dignity in a situation barely imaginable to other young parents. Their Catholic faith may have sustained them through the living hell they were greeted with every day they opened their eyes. Last year, the McCann’s spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, gave an interview to the Telegraph. “One of the reasons the McCanns were so controlled is that they were told that often, in the case of paedophiliac kidnaps, the perpetrators watch media coverage and enjoy seeing the distress they have caused,” he said. “So the police told them not to cry. Not to show any over-emotion. Kate and Gerry, both logical doctors and were not going to let that bastard have any satisfaction and so were very rigid.”
For someone who didn’t have that information, said Mitchell, it might look suspicious. “It is almost like the public were expecting the parents to act in a certain way.”
But that wasn’t all. Over the years the case has descended into public sport. There was barely-concealed glee when the couple were, for ten months, declared arguidos– or persons of interest (this was revoked in May 2008.) And when, in April that year, traces of Madeleine’s DNA were found in the McCann’s car, and boot, people were almost hopping with joy. It was like some publicly played-out episode of Columbo. (The DNA evidence was later found to be inconclusive.)
Even back in the online infancy of 2007, casual onlookers found a way to stick the knife in. In July of that year, the McCann’s local paper – the Leicester Mercury – had to take down their support message board because of spiteful posters. Then they had to contend with social media. On the ten year anniversary of Madeleine’s disappearance, open season was declared on Twitter. Twisted keyboard warriors called the McCanns “vile”, “negligent” parents who “have only themselves to blame”. The couple faced implied threats such as “we need some numbers for assassins”, and: “this couple should burn in hell”.
On the back of an interview with Fiona Bruce in April 2017, the McCanns said they avoided social media. “It’s quite shocking... that aspect of human nature that I hadn’t really encountered before,” said Mrs McCann. “It’s so far from how you would behave, or how people you know would behave. Why would somebody write that? Why would somebody add to someone’s upset… and do something like that?”
Her view was unsurprising, given that three years earlier, someone named Brenda Leyland had written: “To Kate and Gerry, you will be hated by millions for the rest of your miserable, evil, conniving lives, have a nice day!” (Two weeks later, Ms Leyland – who apparently had a history of mental illness – took her own life.)
When I interviewed Kate McCann in 2007, she was clearly devastated. Very thin, she managed to hold back her tears during our conversation – only just. But she was poised and un-self-pitying. With heartbreaking understatement, she said: “People will always criticise. I just feel like the unluckiest person in the world. It’s not us who committed the crime.”
No. But it’s quite possible that police now know who did. The image of little Madeleine McCann frozen in time is back on our front pages. There has been a breakthrough in the case: a 43-year old German paedophile is now suspected of “involvement” in Madeleine’s disappearance. This convicted child sex-offender was in Praia da Luz on May 3, and had received a phone call in the area an hour before the little girl vanished.
Maybe there will be some resolution for Kate and Gerry, and their 15-year old twins, Sean and Amelie. "We will never give up hope of finding Madeleine alive,” the family said in a statement reacting to the latest developments this week. “But whatever the outcome may be, we need to know as we need to find peace.”
And finally, all those who have taken part in the blood-thirsty spectator sport in the gladiators’ arena can be told: you can go home now.