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Azaria again

By Helen Dale - posted Friday, 4 January 2008

“In Australia, a lone woman
is being crucified by the Press
at any given moment.
With no unedited right
of reply, she is cast out
into Aboriginal space.”

It is with a feeling of mounting dread that I watch the media deracination of Kate McCann.

The British press - so anxious to cast the woman as a martyr to motherhood a mere four months ago - are turning on her in a manner sickeningly familiar to any Australian who remembers the anguished case of Lindy Chamberlain. Like Lindy, Kate McCann is characterised by her strong religious faith and her determination to find her missing child (the Chamberlains were Seventh Day Adventists). Like Lindy, Kate has not behaved in the manner expected of a grieving mother. Although - to use poet Les Murray’s phrase - her fault is not “a defect in weeping”; rather, it is apparently unseemly to use the media to publicise Madeleine’s disappearance.


“It’s always for a defect in weeping:
she hasn’t wept on cue
or she won’t weep correctly.
There’s a moment when the sharks are
still butting her, testing her protection,
when the Labor Party, or influence,
can still save her”.

In the view of the media, that is. Here is Andrew Pierce in the Telegraph:

Yet, have you never felt a sense of unease at their omnipresence in the papers and on television? No aspect of their grief seemed out of bounds. We have seen them deep in prayer in church. There was the photograph of them walking arm-in-arm on a deserted beach, reminiscent of Diana photographed alone at a conveniently empty Taj Mahal.

And then there is the almost pitiful sight of Mrs McCann clutching Madeleine’s favourite cuddly toy. Was I alone in wondering whether that was for comfort or because it was what the PR advisers suggested?

I am not singling out Mr Pierce’s copy in spite; he is representative of the slow burn of a story that - from the moment the McCanns adopted to stay in the media glare - I knew could well become Britain’s Azaria Chamberlain case. This time the foreign other is a Portuguese resort popular with middle-class English tourists, rather than outback Australia and its attendant population of peculiar flora and fauna. The press have feasted on the Portuguese legal system, treating its inquisitorial method as somehow probative of something more than an ongoing police investigation.

“Then she goes down, overwhelmed
in the feasting grins of pressmen,
and Press women who’ve moved
from being owned by men
to being owned by fashion,
these are more deeply merciless”.

For those not in the know, Kate McCann is mother of disappeared toddler Madeleine McCann, and wife of Gerry McCann. Both are doctors; she a GP, he a cardiologist. Both are sincere Catholics, a religion still the subject of some suspicion in a Britain that remembers the Troubles. Kate McCann even sought (and obtained) a papal blessing for her missing daughter. Both have had their medical titles stripped away in press reports. From the beginning, the “bad mother” trope that afflicted Lindy Chamberlain has been levelled at Kate McCann: she and Gerry went to dinner, leaving their daughter unsupervised. Even the famously objective BBC had this to say:


As the couple’s search for their daughter continued, through numerous press interviews, church visits, and flying trips around Europe, she has constantly carried around a small pink toy called Cuddle Cat, a favourite of Madeleine’s.

Mrs McCann has expressed her regret at leaving her children alone in their holiday apartment while she and her husband Gerry had dinner within the Ocean Club complex on the night Madeleine disappeared.

“We are just so desperately sorry. Every hour now, I still question, ‘Why did I think that was safe?’,” she said.

But although appearing distressed and distraught, the McCanns have still managed to face a constant barrage of demands from media from across the world, in their attempts to keep their missing daughter in the minds of the public.

In doing so, and as time has gone on, Mrs McCann has grown easier with the press and has given an increasing amount of interviews, some by herself.

Here is The Independent, perhaps a little less harshly:

By Madeleine’s fourth birthday on 12 May, the McCanns’ international campaign to keep the search alive had taken off, with the footballers Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham making appeals for information, while Sir Richard Branson and J K Rowling contributed to rewards now totalling £2.5m. Mr and Mrs McCann launched a website,, which would get more than 170 million hits.

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First published in Catallaxy on September 9, 2007.

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About the Author

Helen Dale completed the BCL at Brasenose College, Oxford last year and is now reading for her MPhil in law at the same college. In days gone by she was a writer and hack, but lawyering now takes up most of her time. She blogs at Skepticlawyer.

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