3 Dec 2011
Sunday January 17 2010
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, as Kate and Gerry McCann have discovered to their cost.
It only takes five minutes on the internet to uncover a web of rumour, half truth and innuendo which would convince even the couple's most fervent supporters that they are hiding something about the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine in Portugal in May 2007, or, worse, that they actually killed her, either by accident or design, and then concocted the story of her abduction from a holiday complex in the Algarve to cover their tracks.
Which version one chooses to believe is a matter of personal taste. When it comes to outlandish conspiracy theories, there really is one for everyone in the internet's global audience of nutters, giving ever greater credence to the old line about a lie getting round the world before the truth gets out of bed. But if you're on the receiving end of it, like the McCanns and their friends, you certainly don't expect the police to add fuel to the fire.
Say what you like about the gardai, but it's impossible to imagine a senior Irish police officer behaving like Goncalo Amaral, the former investigating officer in Portimao, who was so stung by criticism he received for his handling of this case that he marked his own dismissal from the investigation by writing a book alleging that Madeleine died
accidentally in the family apartment on the night of May 3, 2007; that Gerry then disposed of his daughter's body on the beach; and that the holiday party all colluded in a cover-up to prevent possible charges being laid against them for child neglect.
The controversy surrounding Amaral's book, Maddie: The Truth of the Lie, finally reached the courts last week, as the author sought to overturn a ban on its publication, previously won by the McCanns. This could well be the closest the McCanns' Portuguese tormentors ever get to their wish of putting the couple on trial.
"They are trying to judge in a civil court what they could not judge in a criminal court," the couple's lawyer points out.
The case has now been adjourned until next month, when two more witnesses, currently unavailable, will give evidence; but even if the former police officer loses this one, it won't stop there. He insists this is about the right of free speech under the Portuguese constitution, and has pledged to go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights to defend his freedom to publish his allegations.
And here's hoping he ultimately wins. Goncalo Amaral might be a disgrace to the name of detective, whose book, far from being the fearless expose which it boastfully purports to be, is a shoddy cut and paste job that is shamelessly selective in its use of evidence, cynically exaggerates the significance of DNA traces found in the McCanns' apartment and hire car, makes leaps of logic which would embarrass Inspector Clouseau, never mind a supposedly senior policeman, pads out its thesis with silly cod-historical digressions on the "turbulent" ancient history between England and the Algarve, and the proud noble independent spirit of the Portuguese people; and which ultimately resorts to ludicrously overblown paranoia about political interference in the case (though naturally Amaral struggles to explain why so many powerful people, up to and including the British prime minister, would go to such extraordinary lengths to protect a bunch of obscure doctors on holiday from being held to account for neglecting their children).
But even bad detectives and worse true crime writers should be free to speak about their experiences and conclusions in a case whose ongoing lack of resolution is clearly not in the public interest. Not least when all the material contained in The Truth of the Lie comes from the official police files, which, since the investigation was archived, have largely been in the public domain anyway. What contrary right are the McCanns asserting here, after all? The book has already sold 200,000 copies in Portugal, been translated into six other languages including Spanish, Italian, Swedish and German, and is freely available in English versions over the internet. Ten seconds on Google and it's yours to read, whatever the courts decide.
The documentary which Amaral helped make for Portuguese TV can also be seen, subtitled, on YouTube, while numerous websites continue to rake over the same small disputed scraps of evidence which he uses in his book to crudely smear the McCanns. Indeed, he will soon be visiting Britain to give a talk at the invitation of a virulently anti-Kate and Gerry group known as the Madeleine Foundation. All of which sounds like healthy free speech to me. The McCanns' pain shouldn't give them carte blanche to silence those who say things they don't want to hear.
Unfortunately, this is what they have done from the start. These are people who issue solicitors' letters the way other couples send out wedding invitations. There's even a website now devoted to people who claim to have been "Gagged By (The) McCanns", with the tagline: "Has Team McCann tried to silence you?" Free speech isn't so free when you're working on a shoestring and your opponents have multi-million pound funds at their disposal.
The McCanns insist they act this way only because they don't want a sense of defeatism about Madeleine's fate to dilute the continuing effort to find their daughter. That's understandable, though Kate McCann's claim last week that the proceedings have "shown again there is no evidence that Madeleine came to any harm" are bewildering, to say the least. Sniffer dogs who had been trained to detect the presence of cadavers and blood both reacted strongly in the couple's holiday apartment. Something bad happened there, even if there is not a scrap of credible physical evidence that it had anything to do with them. It seems like another example of a couple who have never exactly come across as warm or likeable in the public imagination doing themselves no favours, especially when so many questions remain to be answered about that awful night and the following weeks.
They can't have it both ways, demanding that interest in the disappearance of Madeleine remains high while also continually asserting their right to control the tenor and nature of that interest.
Goncalo Amaral's claims need to be rebutted, not censored. That's the real tragedy. It's coming up to the third anniversary of this little girl's disappearance, and the effort to find out what happened to her has become swamped in an unseemly battle among people desperate to protect their own reputations. It could drag on for years.
The McCanns will soon be back in court seeking €1m in libel damages against Amaral. By the time all this is concluded, Madeleine McCann might as well be known as, "Madeleine Who?" for all the progress which will have been made to bring closure to the saga.
Originally published in