Media: Tabloids Cash In on Missing Maddie McCann

She's so famous that she only needs one name: MaddieWhen Kids Go Missing. Her image—those trusting eyes, that innocent grin, the shiny blond hair—haunts Britons, who may think that by now, they've heard everything about Madeleine McCann, the young British girl who vanished from a holiday resort in Portugal's Algarve one year ago Saturday. Her disappearance is probably the most intensely followed mystery in modern British history. Tabloid sales skyrocket with coverage of even the most minor details, which could be why Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of The Sun, has called it "the most significant story of my lifetime."

And yet, so much about the case is still misunderstood, starting with her name. In fact, no one in her family ever called her Maddie; the nickname was bestowed by space-conscious headline writers and, as a result, adopted by the public at large. Her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, are not suspects, despite feverish tabloid speculation last fall when the Portuguese police labeled them "arguidos." The legal term was widely mistranslated: it means that the McCanns were "persons of interest" in a police investigation, not necessarily under suspicion for killing their daughter. (In February, the police belatedly conceded that they have no evidence against the McCanns.) It's not even clear that Madeleine—just shy of her 4th birthday when she disappeared—has been murdered because there's no publicly available proof that she's dead. Her father said last week that he still believes she is alive—somewhere.

What has made this story such a sensation? Partly, the McCanns themselves—with the best of motives. Hoping that intense publicity would help locate their daughter, the couple almost immediately made televised pleas for Madeleine's return. They were young, good-looking and in the midst of every parent's nightmare. That transformed their very real personal tragedy into a compelling narrative played out like an old-fashioned serial on the front pages of the tabloids. Hundreds of cameras recorded each gripping chapter: the tearful audience with the pope; heartfelt appeals from celebrities like David Beckham; the creation of a campaign fund with a sophisticated Web site that reportedly poured more than a million pounds into T shirts, posters and the payroll of a Spanish detective firm. Later, when the case took on darker overtones, the public was fascinated by the possibility of intra-familial crime.

Initially no one doubted their story, although there was criticism of the McCanns in the Portuguese press for having left their daughter alone while they dined with friends at a tapas restaurant less than 60 yards away from their room. The McCanns explained that they or their friends checked on her and her younger brother and sister every half hour between 9 p.m., when they went out, and 11 p.m., when Kate discovered her missing. "It was so close," Gerry McCann said in an interview last week on Britain's ITV. "You could actually see the apartment and it didn't feel that different to dining out [in] the back garden … it was the furthest thing from my mind that something like that [would] happen." The British press was more protective, instead attacking the Portuguese police for not closing borders and launching a search more quickly.

The tone of the coverage changed dramatically after Portuguese papers began publishing leaks from the investigation in August and September, culminating with the shocking announcement that the McCanns were officially being treated as arguidos. Under Portuguese law, no one can be charged until they've been given a series of Miranda-like rights as persons of interest, but those same rights would be given to witnesses, as well. The leaks detailed the purported discovery of microscopic blood samples in the apartment and, later, of DNA in the trunk of the McCann's rental car that allegedly was linked to Madeleine. There were also suggestions that sniffer dogs had found evidence of a corpse (although exactly how dogs could give such definitive evidence has never been explained). Never mind that the car was rented many days after Madeleine's disappearance; the preposterous theory advanced was that the McCanns, both medical doctors, had accidentally killed their daughter, possibly by oversedating her while they went out, then hid her body in the holiday apartment for three weeks, and then spirited it away in the rental car, all while the focus of worldwide media attention. Far more plausible is the possibility that the girl's DNA—if it was hers, and even that isn't clear--was transferred by possessions such as a doll.

Worried about the possibility that an arrest would separate them from their toddler twins, Sean and Amelie, the McCanns returned to the U.K. "The speculation takes you to the worst places," Gerry McCann said in the ITV documentary. "And at that point you know the worst place would have been being charged, potentially being put in jail, certainly being detained to face charges that could have taken I-don't-know years to materialize, being separated from Sean and Amelie."

British papers also picked up the leaks from the secret investigation, repeating many of the charges and elaborating on them with little or no evidence. One headline that dominated the front page of the Daily Express read MCCANNS OR A FRIEND MUST BE TO BLAME. The source: a waiter who served the couple at the tapas restaurant that night. The Express daily and Sunday papers alone published close to 100 front-page stories on the McCann case, in increasingly critical tones. In April, when the McCanns went to Brussels to campaign for a European version of the American Amber Alert system, Portuguese papers published leaks from their interrogation in which Kate said that the night before the disappearance, Madeleine had asked why she didn't respond to her crying. Those accounts were picked up in the British media.

For the tabloids, suffering from steadily declining circulation, the story was the perfect lure for its largely working-class, elderly readership. Maddie stories routinely increased sales by 2 or 3 percent. The McCanns sued for libel and in March settled out of court with the Express group of two Sunday and two daily papers for 550,000 pounds—$1.1 million dollars—paid into the Find Madeleine Fund, and front-page apologies from all four papers. Ironically, even the apologies bumped up circulation by an estimated 4 percent.

Still, the truth of the case remained obscure. The McCanns were legally bound not to discuss what had transpired when they were interviewed by the Portuguese Judicial Police. But in the ITV interview, they implicitly acknowledged accounts that the police tried to get them to admit that their daughter had been accidentally killed. "As soon as I realized the story or theory or whatever you want to call it, was that Madeleine was dead and that we'd been involved somehow, it just hit home," Kate said. "They haven't been looking for Madeleine. And it was just, I mean, just, I just felt yet again my daughter's had such disservice and I just, I mean I was obviously upset by that, very upset and I was angry you know. And I just thought she deserves so much better than that, and I thought I'm not going to sit here and allow, allow this."

In Portugal, the wheels of justice clumped along. Key officials involved in the early decisions to make the parents arguidos were dismissed, and police publicly admitted that the DNA samples were inconclusive. In early February, an official admitted that it had been a mistake to name the McCanns arguidos.

None of that stopped the British tabloids from continuing to publish speculation—making the McCanns convenient public targets. In February, a 9-year-old girl from Yorkshire named Shannon Matthews went missing on her way home from school. Shannon's family, living on welfare, complained that they weren't getting the sort of coverage and public support for their daughter that the more affluent McCanns had received. A few weeks later, Shannon was found hidden in her uncle's house and members of her family, including her mother, were eventually charged for offenses relating to her disappearance. (It emerged also that her stepfather had applied to the Find Madeline fund for financial aid; he was later charged for possession of child pornography in an unrelated case.)

Lost in all this has been any real focus on finding Madeleine. The only solid lead that anyone has come up with has been an account by one of the McCanns' friends that she saw a youngish man with a child in his arms that evening near the resort. The FBI has produced an artist's rendering of the person. "The McCann case reminds me of a full mailbox stuffed with junk mail and no information," says Candido de Agra, head of the University of Porto school of criminology. "And what is the junk mail? Games of prediction, media terror and those who talk endlessly about the subject. A collective nonsense nourished by the media and by the ignorance they support, as well as by morbid thirst for prolonged narratives."

That thirst is nothing new, of course. In the 19th century, Britons were transfixed by the case of Constance Kent, who was accused of slitting the throat of her 3-year-old half brother. She was just 16 at the time of the crime and was initially acquitted after a botched police investigation. She later confessed, although it seems likely that she was not the real killer and may have been shielding a family member. After she was released from prison in 1885 at the age of 41, she emigrated to Australia, where she became a nurse. She died at age 100--a world away but never forgotten. The case has inspired a score of writers, starting with Charles Dickens ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood."). The latest is Kate Summerscale's "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher," which is selling briskly in U.K. bookstores this week. A good story never grows old.