It has been almost 12 years since Madeleine McCann went missing from a holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, a Portuguese resort, on 3rd May 2007, while her parents were dining with friends at a tapas restaurant mere feet away. She was only a few days away from her fourth birthday when it happened. She has never been found; there is no one in prison; there’s not even a notable suspect or clear theory. And yet, over a decade later, her story rarely drops out of the news headlines. So why are we all so completely fascinated with this case?
It wouldn’t be going too far to call it an obsession: we are a nation obsessed with the disappearance of this one small child. Netflix’s documentary, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann shows exactly that: the platform didn’t wait for the actual anniversary of the disappearance or even Madeleine’s birthday to release it. Why bother? There was already an audience waiting for it. It doesn’t claim to offer new information or a possible answer, but it doesn’t need to. There are enough theories, rumours and opinions about this case that a documentary that promises to just offer a full account of the facts can be enough to get people’s attention.
The sheer amount of (often conflicting) information out there might be part of the reason why we’re all so quick to absorb any information about Madeleine McCann. First of all, there are no obvious answers to be found anywhere. Not even from Madeleine’s parents. They said they were checking on their children regularly, but did they go into the apartment or just look in through the window? Why didn’t they use the crèche that was available? What kind of parents leave their children alone in an unlocked apartment, anyway? Were the McCanns irresponsible, or were they responsible— for their daughter’s death?
The McCanns weren’t the first to leave their sleeping children in their holiday apartment while they went out to dinner (they were only one couple in a group that were all doing the same that very night). But the vitriol that this has sparked from the public has been pushed to the extreme, with the suggestion that they could have killed their daughter and covered it up—as the Portuguese detective first working the case, Goncalo Amaral, accused them of. And that’s just one idea.
There might not be one clear theory, but there are plenty of theories.
Kate McCann drugged her children to help them sleep and accidently gave Madeleine an overdose. The disappearance was a staged cover-up. It wasn’t the parents at all; one of the Tapas Seven, Jane Tanner, saw a man carrying a child in pyjamas around the time Madeleine went missing: what if it was her? Subsequent sightings of similar-looking children support that theory. Madeleine might be alive and well, being raised as the daughter of whoever took her. Have you heard about the paedophile sex ring that smuggles children out of the country for the multi-millionaires that purchase them?
And then there are the facts that just don’t add up. There was blood evidence found in the McCanns’ rental car—a car they hired after Madeleine’s disappearance. Cadaver dogs alerted twice in the holiday apartment: in her parents’ bedroom and near the back patio entrance. They alerted again on Kate McCann’s clothes and on one of Madeleine’s toys—a toy that Kate was carrying around after her daughter had already disappeared. Kate refused to answer 48 questions the police asked her. But the McCanns have been cleared, so it can’t be them, right? And if they were guilty, why would they fight as hard as they have done to keep their daughter’s name consistently in the press for the last 11 years?
It doesn’t help that the most crucial time in the investigation—the first hours after Madeleine went missing—were most likely mishandled by the Portuguese police. The apartment the McCann family were staying in (and the crime scene) was trampled through, evidence was lost, contaminated or simply not taken in the first place.
For amateur sleuths poring over the details, it’s a case that invites speculation, theories and debate. But it’s the lack of any clear answers—even the ability to rule out the child’s own parents, for some—that continues to fuel fascination. The case is open for onlookers to take a side. Who did it: discuss.
Away from the case itself, is the media’s continued coverage, which powers our interest. We can’t get away from it, because it’s always there. Why this case? Why is it that Madeleine McCann garners so much press when there are numerous missing children out there that go unnoticed? Part of that is down to Missing White Girl Syndrome: a bias that sees young white girls awarded more press coverage than their children of colour counterparts. Madeleine was always prime fodder: a pretty, photogenic child, whose face has launched a thousand front pages and continues to do so.
And then of course, there’s the fact that the McCanns are well-off and well-connected, which has given them advantages others haven’t. As Gerry McCann told Vanity Fair, they have marketed Madeleine to keep her name relevant in the hope that something will come of it.
Even if you don’t want to debate the finer details of the disappearance, the politics that surround it are equally open for discussion and as enduring.
So yes, we are a nation obsessed with the disappearance of a three-year-old girl who was on holiday with her family, taken while her two siblings slept nearby. For many people, this taps into their greatest fear: a child taken in the dead of night, snatched out of their bed and never found again and maybe that is yet another part of why the fascination continues. Will it ever garner more than speculation? Who knows. But the latest documentary certainly doesn’t do more than tread the same old ground, without giving any answers. There aren’t any.