The Madeleine McCann documentary is all anyone can talk about at the moment, after the full 8-part series dropped on Netflix last week. And honestly, this isn’t surprising: Generation Z has grown up on the sensationalisation of what is a heartbreaking story, and it’s served to encourage the popularity of conspiracy theories — conspiracy theories about literally everything, let’s be real. The McCann case has been reported on, fictionalised, made into a book, the works, and it’s no wonder that people — especially young people — have become detached from the story. It no longer seems like real life, and how can it when it was reported on and treated as if it was a case from a movie. The McCanns became tragically famous overnight when in reality everyone should have been focused on finding the missing girl — not making the lives of her parents absolutely unbearable.
I’m not about to sit here and defend the McCanns, or call them guilty, or say that everything in the documentary is fully accurate. Indeed, all the documentary really does is document (funnily enough) everything that happened from the minute Madeleine was found missing, until present day. It doesn’t offer any new information, or evidence, or any proof that the McCanns did or did not do play a part in the disappearance and likely murder of their three-year-old child. Whatever happens, we can all agree that their negligence played a part — but that’s just about all we can agree on, it seems.
First things first: the facts. We know that Maddy disappeared from the McCanns apartment in Praia da Luz in Portugal on 3 May 2007. We know that there was the option to use a night creche, but the McCanns opted to leave their children unaccompanied in the apartment room instead. We know that Gerry heard a noise and saw unusual light coming from the children’s bedroom when he went to check on them, but didn’t bother to investigate and open the door to actually physically check that they were all okay. Kate was immediately insistent that Maddy had been taken, rather than just that she was missing. They both lied about the line of sight from where they were sat in the restaurant — it was physically impossible to see the apartment from where they were eating dinner.
The back door was left unlocked the entire time they were out, which they knew as Gerry admitted to going in and out using that door because it was less effort than having to unlock the front door. The timings for going to check on the children were adjusted multiple times, and don’t match the staff’s scheduling. Plus, the cherry on top of the cake: they were explicitly told not to release the picture that showed Maddy’s birthmark in her eye because, as the Portuguese police officer in charge of the investigation put it, this was a “death mark”. It was an obvious mark that made Maddy easily detectable, and it was likely to cause whoever had taken her to try and get rid of her, and quickly. The McCanns knew this, and ignored all the advice and released the image anyway.
All of this is known as fact. It’s not disputed, these are not myths, they’re facts, and this actually happened. Which doesn’t add up to a very pretty picture for the McCanns. What then doesn’t help their case is everything else that happened after this, like the specially trained cadaver dogs detecting the scent of blood and a dead body in their apartment, and their rental car. Or the fact that the McCanns have used the fund set up to help find Madeleine for things other than the search, or how they said they would take a polygraph test to prove their innocence but never actually did that, or how Kate was asked 49 questions about the case and refused to answer all but one of them. Yes, the expert dog handler involved, Martin Grime, said that the alert was not enough on its own — and he’s right, it’s not. And yes, Kate was trying to “prove a point” by remaining silent to protest how they should be focused on finding her daughter rather than attacking her as a suspect. And yes, the DNA found in the rental car was never matched with Maddy’s DNA. But this only came out after the event: at the time, all of the evidence pointed towards the McCanns being, in some way, culpable in the disappearance of their daughter. And this was never bought to trial.
According to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, the majority of cases regarding abducted or missing children are in some ways linked to family. In fact, NISMART-2 found that 203,900 kids abducted in 1999 were taken by family members or parents. Given this overwhelming evidence, it’s not surprising that the McCanns would have been initially suspected. What was surprising was the sheer amount of evidence that mounted up against them.
Plus, let’s not forget the fact that, according to British law, children under the age of four cannot be expected to exercise care for themselves as though they were adults — this responsibility falls on the parents or guardians. For negligence to have occurred, the responsible persons involved had to have acted in a way that fell below the typical standard of care, which is defined as the measures that a responsible, reasonable person should take to reduce the risk of harm to a minor. As in, locking all the doors and windows when leaving a three-year-old alone with a pair of two-year-olds. Or, you know, not leaving them alone at all in the first place. In a UK court of law, it’s very likely that the McCanns would have been found guilty of neglect for this fact alone, regardless of any other evidence — but we’ll never know that, because they never went to trial. And why is that? Because they’re white, rich, and have connections — which gives them power. They got the media on their side enough that even when all of this came out to the public, it still wasn’t enough to cause many people to turn against them. If they were a BAME family, you can guarantee this case would have turned out differently.
The UK judicial system is racist and classist, and there’s no denying that. Consider the fact that for every 100 white men convicted of public order offences, there were 494 BAME convictions. Or the fact that black people make up 12% of the prison population in England and Wales, even though they make up just 3% of the overall population. Only 5% of judges in the UK are non-white, and it’s overwhelmingly obvious that if you’re BAME, then you’ll be treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white — even Theresa May said as much.
In the eyes of the law, the McCanns aren’t guilty — and they shouldn’t be treated as such until they have been found guilty in a court of law. But they don’t have to worry about it ever actually making it that far, because they’re white and rich, which gives them a safety net not afforded to many in our society.