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Madeleine, her mom and the media

I’ve been following the Madeleine disappearance from the start, and have been deeply touched by the story of the little girl. The latest events haven’t made me feel much better.

Madeleine’s parents are now named as suspects in the case. Tony Lankaster has a good theory about this, but my concern is more with the media in this case.

At first, the media was supportive. Sky News, in particular, covered the story daily, and to this day there is a Madeleine navigation button on the Sky news website. This was surely welcomed by the parents of the missing girl, and kept the attention on the kidnapping.

But now the media have turned irresponsible. They have grasped the fact the parents have been named as suspects, and are now insinuating that the parents had something to do with the disappearance. But let’s look at the facts.

Presumably, the police have come across blood which has been DNA-linked to Madeleine. This blood was found in a car that was rented 25 days after Madeleine’s disappearance.

The police have obviously got to follow that up by questioning Madeleine’s parents. But, since they could potentially be questioning the girl’s murderers, the police must protect themselves fully, and insure that all evidence and testimony can be admitted in court. I am obviously no expert on Portuguese law, but it is my understanding that if you are going to be asking potentially incriminating questions based on incriminating evidence, you must allow the party being questioned to have legal representation. But the only way to allow them to have a lawyer present during questioning, is to label them as suspects.

The police have not made any indication that they are going to charge the parents with any crime. In fact, all evidence points to the contrary, since the McCanns were allowed to leave Portugal, and return to the United Kingdom.

Yes, the blood in the car is worrying, and it casts some doubt. But the logistics of an accidental or intentional murder of Madeleine by one of the parents, the hiding of her body for 25 days, and the successful disposal of the body 25 days later while under intense media scrutiny does not seem plausible.

The police have not indicated that they have a more plausible theory. They are simply following the chain of evidence. In the United States, 75% of child disappearances are linked to the parents, usually through accidental killing. This is a shocking and worrying statistic, and the police would be wrong to discount the parents as suspects in light of any evidence to the contrary. They are simply doing their job.

But the media is not. They are focusing strongly on the word suspect, and all the connotations that it carries in the English language. The media should rather be making very sure that the public understand that in this case the word suspect could just as easily be replaced with the phrase “under more scrutinising questioning, in light of new evidence“.

The Larry King segment on the story referred to Madeleine as dead. Not one expert or guest — save for family friends — even considered that she might still be alive.

This too is shocking, especially since one of the family friends was a father of a girl who had been presumed dead but was found alive, and that the show spent a considerable time earlier this year on a story about a boy who was found four years after disappearing.

Media organisations should be cognizant of the seeds they plant in viewers’ brains, and should show more distaste for sensationalism. As Tony points out in his blog, should Madeleine’s case never be solved, the parents will carry a black mark for their entire lives. They should rather be given full media and public support, and receive all the help available for finding their daughter.

Let’s hope that the public is smart enough to understand that a case is only as strong as the evidence — actual evidence, not suspected evidence.

And while each viewer or reader is entitled to his or her own opinion, the media do not have that luxury. We should be able to trust them to deliver well substantiated facts, unflavoured by speculation. And they should trust us to take those facts and make up our own, intelligent, minds. We do not need their help in prodding us in their intended direction.

All prayers with little Madeleine.


  • Eve Dmochowska spends her day playing on and with the Internet, and thinks it is a rather fun way to make money. She is the founder of Crowdfund, a crowd sourced fund to help local online startups get off the ground, and of the Geekspace, Joburgs first hot desking space for geeks. She is also the co-founder of The Broadband Bible which helps SAfricans find the perfect ADSL plan and the Airtime Bible, which compares the costs of cellphone contracts.

One Comment

  1. fattytrannyacid fattytrannyacid 15 September 2007

    I agree with you about the focus on the word suspect.

    It is tiresome to see the number of people that are also focusing on the words, innocent and guilty.

    But my feeling is that this focus is handy for those behind the McCanns, not least Gordon Brown, because while the bickering is focussed on that aspect, they are not asking questions about political connections and possible meddling in the investigation for narrow political reasons.

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