Our enduring obsession with Madeleine McCann shows how class shapes public attention

I used to marvel at the scale of the case and wonder how it could be treated so differently to the thousands of incidents where children go missing.

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The Netflix Madeleine McCann documentary series aired last week to near-universal negative reviews. The consensus was that it reveals no new information, is nothing more than an exploitatively constructed, salacious re-telling, and is a typically bloated addition to the streaming service’s lucrative true crime collection.

Despite the documentary’s lack of new insights, the tabloids took its release as an opportunity to rehash old theories and hypotheses. The three year old child “could have been snatched by a sex beast wearing a medical mask” screamed one headline, accompanied by a picture of the event’s reconstruction taken from the Netflix documentary – a ludicrous, manipulative picture that made me relieved I had chosen not to watch the show.

Many newspapers will take almost any opportunity to rerun the old lists of facts and half-baked conspiracy theories that were published at the time, and most importantly, the pictures; that ubiquitous close-up photograph of Madeleine’s face with a distinctive defect in the iris of one eye. Since her disappearance in 2007 a certain kind of publication will publish that photograph as often as it can, knowing the image has retained its ability to move and worry readers.

Like the grainy CCTV picture of James Bulger being led away in Merseyside in 1993, Madeleine’s photograph became the talisman for a national obsession. The marked disproportion of media and public attention that the case received became self-perpetuating; the question became not only of a missing child, but of how a child could possibly remain missing after so many years, with the attention of half the world fixed upon her.

I used to marvel at the scale of the case and wonder how it could be treated so differently to the thousands of incidents each year in the UK where children go missing. That Madeleine was beautiful and white and blonde – a caricature of what society decides innocence looks like – was surely relevant.

Important, too, was the fact that her parents were sophisticated people with financial resources and the ability to raise press awareness. And, as time has passed, Madeleine’s case was distinguished from others in the worst way possible: unlike the overwhelming majority of children who go missing each year, she has never been found.

Though we may speculate on issues of race and photogenicity and media connections, it is genuinely rare for a small child to go missing, in these particularly panoptic circumstances, and never be seen again.

In cases of famous crimes committed against children, the social class of the parents shape how we absorb the event. It’s true that more than a hundred thousand children go missing each year, but it’s also true that many of them are in care, or come from troubled family backgrounds.

The simple and sad fact is that these children belong to a socioeconomic class we regard (according to how pronounced our prejudices are) as inherently disorderly, and perhaps even as inherently troublesome. It isn’t that the public wishes those children ill, but that their disappearances conform to how society thinks of disadvantaged families: as reckless and readily combustible.

The situation of the McCanns was, of course, very different. The scenario they described on the night of the disappearance had the sound of an enviable, idyllic lifestyle: two doctors and their similarly well-heeled friends on holiday, sharing tapas while their beautiful children slept.

The spectacular dissolution of that kind of lifestyle, compared to the kind that is more typical of a missing child, is disturbing. The idea of people like that losing it all in one wild, unpredictable moment of disaster is a better story. The moral chaos is what keeps it a reliable source of clicks and sales and public engagement.

But as questions of funding arise once again, the obviously inequitable manner in which such decisions are made should be addressed. Operation Grange has cost upwards of £11.5m already, and parents of less newsworthy missing children rightly point out the enormous gulf between the resources allocated to the McCanns and others.

We can’t control which stories will seize public attention and media interest, but it seems clearly wrong to be led by that metric when deciding how to allocate police resources. That familiar image of her face, one of pure, open potential, will likely continue compelling the nation until the knowledge of what became of her transpires.

Though we can puzzle over what makes Madeleine’s case so enduringly interesting, there is no good case to be made that her recovery is more valuable than that of another child.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.