Anne Enright captured a prevalent unease about the McCann story
The Booker prize winner was catapulted into controversy instantly on winning the award, because of a “Diary” piece she had written about the enthralling human-drama of Gerry and Kate McCann, parents of the disappeared child, Madeline. By Terry Prone
The “Diary” piece (for London Review of Books) is gossipy, unliterary and nakedly self-revealing, with Anne Enright saying, straight up, she disliked the McCanns. Its style and tone are very different from Anne Enright, the novelist. She wrote about the McCanns with impunity, an immunity instantly foregone with the Booker award.
She refused offers to reprint the article. The mistaken popular term for this is “damage limitation”. Except that damage limitation isn't possible when three keystrokes on a laptop will deliver the entirety of the piece to anyone's computer screen and when newspapers, baulked of printing the whole thing, go instead for quoting the most pejorative cheapshot bits of it.
Those selective quotations don't quite capture the most interesting factor about the feature. Anne Enright is the last person who might be expected to personify the prurient detailed obsession with the McCann saga which has taken hold since the summer. Yet her “Diary” honestly tells how she measures the distance, on a Google map, between their holiday apartment and where they dined, repeats gossip about wife-swapping passed on by her husband, confesses to joking with her GP about Kate McCann possibly “doing a Shipman” on her patients and discusses the pliable nature of a decomposing body. Enright peppers the feature with semi-apologies for the thought-processes and conversations revealed and softens the end of it by telling readers that after a night's sleep, she likes the McCanns all over again.
No wonder she didn't want it re-run, particularly in the aftermath of a stunning validation of her literary worth.
It is, however, a truthful representation of how one person experienced that media frenzy. A media frenzy which may be a global first, in its conflation of official and unofficial media.
Official media, newspapers, radio and TV created out of Madeleine McCann an international brand, identifiable at a glance: the missing child with the strange right eye.
They did it partly because her disappearance came in the middle of a long, not very hot summer. The story initially played to the terror and inchoate guilt of parents who may never have dined with friends away from the apartment housing their children, but who – like all parents – live with the predictive dread of doing something that seems harmless and normal at the time, but which leads to disaster.
Every parent pores over a story about a mother or father “beaten back by the flames” which consumed their child. Every parent expresses sympathy and fellow-feeling for the mother or father. Every parent secretly condemns them, believing they themselves would have fought the flames, skin liquefying in heat, in order to save their own child, yet knows, deep in the slimy selfishness of survival, that they might have let others restrain them, hold them back from the stinking scorching horror of the house fire.
While the Madeleine McCann story, at the beginning, riveted readers, it would inevitably have slid off the front pages were it not for the frenetic PR efforts of Kate and Gerry McCann. Lots of children – tragically – disappear. No missing child before Madeleine McCann appeared in massive backlit visuals at major sporting events, in posters and leaflets at airports, or had a website and a huge, well-funded organization devoted to its recovery.
That happened because her parents wanted it to happen, because they were in a resort media didn't mind spending time in (if they'd been staying in Kosovo, it's amazing how much smaller would have been the numbers of visiting media teams) and because mass media, driven by the needs of television, prefers the specific to the conceptual, the individual to the general, the child to the old person, the pretty picture of grieving parents walking hand-in-hand on a sunlit beach to the cold technicality of a map. Especially if that map were dotted with unfamiliar placenames, which immediately turn off viewers and readers. Tom Fenton, the American newsman, has pointed out that the minute a TV news report talks of Azerbaijan or Indonesia, “it's fighting against a ticking meter of declining viewers”. The Madeleine McCann story didn't provide geographic, tribal or ethnic complications for readers, viewers and listeners. It was human interest on steroids, with two attractive spokespeople constantly available for updates.
At the beginning, it worked for the couple, making unconscionable the articulation of the accusation that they bloody well shouldn't have left their children – unguarded – where they left them.
Within weeks, it stopped working for them, and they experienced the inevitable tragedy awaiting media novices who assume that, even when the honeymoon is over, even when the hushed reverence of media (“take your time, tell it in your own words, we know how upset you are”) eventually ends, it will be replaced by interested neutrality. Media cannot do interested neutrality any more. Competition is too great. If media falls out of love with you, it hates you. If one aspect of media loves you, other outlets have to hate you. If consumers of media get bored with the status quo, attacking you may be the only way to keep interest going.
The McCanns were tragically unaware of Leo Braudy's conclusion, in his study, The Frenzy of Renown, that fame always doubles back on its owners, so they become its creature.
“The very agency which first makes the celebrity,” Daniel Boorstin confirmed in The Image, “in the long run inevitably destroys him.”
The McCanns and media, for several weeks, danced to the same tune: all publicity about the missing child might lead to her recovery. Editions of the Daily Express, for example, printed in America for the expatriate Brit market, every single day for weeks on end carried the name “Madeleine” in red on the front cover with the day's update underneath. Because papers like the Express had worked out that this story was Little Red Riding Hood crossed with CSI. They had tapped into the websites which – again for the first time – showed uninvolved audience members participating to the extent of seeking to direct police activity – a little like the way theatergoers, centuries ago, had sat on the stage itself and told actors to cut to the chase if a monologue became too prosy.
In 1953, Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 had foreseen a time when “Life, with its built-in suspense and automatic plausibility, would become the very best show on television.” Sixty years later, the Mc Canns became that show.
Their campaign ignored what any experienced police officer would have told them: that turning their child into an instantly-recognisable icon, with all the emotionality implicit therein, would also make killing the child a virtual imperative for any putative abductor.
The slide from sympathy to suspicion was fuelled by the oddity of the McCann parents' behaviour from the outset. Going for a jog the day after your child disappears may be explicable, but was emotionally unintelligent. Constantly carrying the “Cuddle Cat” toy made for good tabloid photographs. The more snobbish middle class members of the audience, however, couldn't make the behaviour fit with Kate McCann's GP status. It seemed spuriously sentimental. Resolutely naff.
The mudslide of questions and negativity effectively began with the McCanns leaving the country where their child had last been seen in order to get the Pope to bless a photograph of the child. Impelling pictures. Ill-judged action.
Another major contributory factor was the scale of contribution to the Find Madeleine Fund, which was patently ineffective in its stated purpose. As H. L. Mencken said, “When people say it's not about the money – it's about the money”. Induced by celebrity endorsement, the money flowed into the fund, paralleled by the flow of mistrust.
And, all the time, there were the interviews with the parents, the photo-ops of the two of them, the blog written by Gerry McCann. Media found itself reporting not about what was happening (because very little seemed to be happening) but on what the McCanns were doing to keep media interested. Media always bites the hand that feeds it, especially if the feeding is so overt as it was in this case. Media protects its sense of collective integrity by accusing the feeder of manipulation – as began to happen to Kate and Gerry McCann.
It didn't help them that their television interviews were so out of kilter with how most viewers believed they would behave in the same situation. Their behaviour was controlled. He was in charge, she subservient. They were united in their rigid, unaffectionate separatness. No mutual blame was ever vented – although we know that in these situations, mutual blame almost always destroys the relationship between the bereaved couple – guilty or guiltless though each may be – as happened in the Lindy Chamberlain case.
The language was careful, conceptual and – for whatever reason – simply wrong. To deny responsibility “for the loss of our beautiful daughter” when accused by the Portuguese police force of having some involvement, was so detached, so unreal, so third party as to discomfit anyone who read it. The problem with Gerry McCann's peculiar use of language, in common with the other behaviours interpreted as deceptive on their part, is that, in the absence of a complete profile of how the two individuals behaved and spoke in normal or even stressful situations, not even the world's best experts in lie detection could establish whether the words and actions came from stress or from guilt.
Intuition has been described as “reason in a hurry”. Intuition led Anne Enright to dislike the couple responsible for the communication. But that is to miss the point of the jarring notes in the communication, which are caused either by involvement in the child's death or they're not. If Gerry and Kate McCann were involved, then dislike is a side-issue. If they weren't, (as Anne Enright's refusal to have her feature re-published suggests is her own view) it's a gratuitous added cruelty.
Protected by their anonymity, correspondents on the Web speedily indicted the couple, rushing to judgment with half-understood forensic data sourced mostly from the electronic grapevine, with a load of irrelevancies washed into the mix, those irrelevancies including the number of summer tops Kate McCann owns, her loss of weight and how many other children of less telegenic parents have gone missing without media hoopla during the same period.
The bottom line is that this saga documents the public destruction of a couple, not because of the disappearance of their child, but because they invited a cannibal called media into their lives and believed it would make an exception in their case. It didn't.