Missing in Time: Madeleine McCann and the Media

One of the “Missing Madeleine” Graphics

For the last six months there has been only one news story in the UK. On May 3rd 2007 at approximately 10pm, Madeleine McCann, a three-year old British girl, was found to be missing from her parents’ holiday apartment in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz. Most media summaries and reports of Madeleine’s disappearance agree that this is the only ‘fact’ to be known about the case. I too want to begin here, starting with the awkwardness of that phrase ‘was found to be missing’. Why not say, she ‘went missing?’ or, that (as I write) Madeleine is ‘still’ missing and is ‘missed’ (one tribute to Madeleine on YouTube suggests ungrammatically ‘She is missing by everyone’). The answer is, of course, that Madeleine was not there when her mother, Kate McCann went to check on her and her younger twin siblings. She had, apparently, been there thirty minutes before when a close friend of the family went to check the apartment. That pucker of time, the period in which she went missing or before ‘she was missed’ remains unknown. What is well known is that Madeleine’s absence has gone on to create a worm-hole of media speculation that has sucked a range of high profile figures (the Pope, J.K. Rowling, Richard Branson, Gordon Brown and David Beckham amongst many more) into a stream of frenzied speculation and emotive judgment that has gone on and on and on, on tabloid front pages, in broadsheet columns, sick jokes, blogs, in YouTube videos and on the official ‘find Madeleine’ website which offers a blog from Madeleine’s father Gerry, numbers of phone lines where sightings of Madeleine can be reported, a news archive and a link to ‘Madeleine’s fund: leaving no stone unturned’ to which you can contribute via PayPal.


Many of the stories surrounding Madeleine McCann are marked by a peculiar obsession with time and time keeping. As I write, the website informs me that Madeleine has been missing for 194 days. Last weekend it was the ‘landmark’ of six months since the day of her disappearance. In a recent Channel 4 documentary on the McCann case, shown in the Dispatches strand, the final frames of the film and voice-over present an eerie challenge, stating that, ‘It is now 168 days almost to the minute since Kate McCann reported that her daughter Madeleine was missing.’ Despite the fact that the documentary was not a live report, its scheduling, on Thursday 18th October at 9.00pm (and therefore concluding at approximately 10pm) allows the producer to assume a ‘live’ connection between ‘now’ and ‘then’, changing the nature of the story itself which was (a relatively cool and measured) speculation on ‘what might have happened’ so that it is no longer in the past tense but now in the present (‘almost to the minute’).

Press Conference

Equally, in news archives and in her Wikipedia entry we are offered the ‘timeline’ of the Madeleine story. Periodically, ‘new’ photographs are released of Madeleine; they are, of course, only old photographs. On Sunday 11th November, the British tabloid the Daily Star had a front-page splash, ‘Is this Maddie?’ with the additional heading that ‘Bosnia sighting gives new hope’ implying that the photograph which accompanied the headline was a new picture. In fact, it was a fairly crude photo-shop image (‘created by experts’) illustrating how the ‘missing four year old may now look’. Here, as elsewhere, a future is being forced, the story ‘must go on’ although there is no real authenticity about the picture, since it cannot be of Madeleine ‘now’, only of how she ‘might’ be. Equally, in describing the picture, the Star promulgates a common act of faith in terms of Madeleine’s story. Madeleine was three years old on May 3rd and her birthday is May 12th: thus, if Madeleine is still alive, she is now four, if not, she will always be three. Attributing the simple ‘fact’ of Madeleine’s age thus elicits a statement of belief on the part of the storyteller.Why this obsession with marking time, with keeping time and with time passing? There are two reasons (at least). Firstly, the parents have made it clear that they believe Madeleine may still be found, so they keep her presence ‘alive’, her story current (now and not ‘then’) and they continue to feed interest in and speculation regarding Madeleine through their attendance at religious services, interviews and on their website. Similarly, traditional news media (newspapers and television news) talk media (blogs, forums, radio discussions, magazine programmes) are now committed to, and increasingly determined by the need for the ‘now’ and the ‘and next’ of any story, participating in the snow-balling of information, where even looking back is always an excuse to look forward.


Secondly, the stories of Madeleine have carried on and on because they centre on a little girl, a child. Fascination with the story is not simply – as so many commentators have suggested – because she (and her mother) are blonde and photogenic, that the case is so extraordinary, or that it allows, as India Knight writing in The Times suggested (employing Philip Roth’s phrase regarding the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal) for an ‘ecstasy of sanctimony’ for both the press and the ‘public’. While this may be true, the fetishization of time in relation to Madeleine has to do with the way in which ‘childhood’ as a time, a place, a memory and as a fabricated ideal has been established as a myth that belongs, or should belong to ‘everyone’. Madeleine as a child, rather than as herself, an individual, acts as a timely representation, a figure, that can be passed through, a route to specific emotions (nostalgia, sentimentality, fear), judgment (about parenting, police procedures, how much doctors are paid) which we all feel free to comment on – not because we are experts in forensics, in law or child-care, but because we are parents, or at least, we were all children once. This claim may seem ridiculous, but in the most recent keynote speeches given by both leaders of the UK’s political parties – Labour and Conservative – there was an insistence on the uniqueness of childhood as a necessarily privileged time that was to be protected and supported, identifying it as an origin of all that might be good and bad in society.

Madeleine Graphic

Curiously, despite the fact that we have made childhood and children ‘other’ to the adult, it has become a territory that we can all lay claim to, and which has become the most ‘important’ period in our lives. Madeleine herself (that ‘Princess’, that ‘lovely little girl’) does not exist as a subject; her history is an incomplete, incoherent chronology of snapshots and clichés. When we look into the poster showing a close up of Madeleine’s eyes (the right eye famously marked by what appears to be a tear from her iris) we do as the poster asks (Look into my eyes!) but we no longer see her at all. Madeleine is missing.

Image Credits:

1. Missing Madeline graphic
2. Press Conference
3. Madeleine
4. Madeleine Graphic

Please feel free to comment.


  • I wonder how this story might relate to other public tragedies of disappearing and dead children. I’m thinking particularly in the U.S. context, which would include such individuals as Baby Jessica, JonBenet Ramsey, and Polly Klaas. I’m not sure to what extent time appears in these in the way it does in Madeline’s story, but time is always integral to crime drama recreations of these sorts of events.

  • I think you bring up a very interesting point concerning the depiction of children/childhood in contemporary media that pervades not only the news circuit, but film and television as well. Often it seems these representations lack much substance and opt instead for a glossy, idealized (or, on the flip side, demonized) image of the child. There seems to be a dearth of attentive examinations of what it means to be a child and how we can represent childhood in a much more nuanced way. I think people are beginning to direct this type of attention to adolescence; Todd Solondz, for instance.

  • Your piece immediately brought the recent *Gone Baby Gone* to mind, in which Morgan Freeman, playing a Boston missing-persons detective, declares the following:

    “If we don’t catch the abductor by day one, only about 10% are ever solved. This is day three.”

    He is speaking, of course, of a missing girl, approximately the same age as Madeline, who was also abducted during a “pucker of time” when the mother was absent. Time is of the essence. Each passing moment is an instance of the unimaginable — child abuse, torture, death.

    The mother of *Gone Baby Gone,* however, is a dope fiend — an issue that the film rather bravely confronts. The media pleading of the mother — even a haggard, broken-looking mother — heighten the frenzy, at times eliding the greater questions of parental responsibility. The media never turned on the mother in the Affleck film, but it most certainly has in the case of Madeline, indicting her parents (her mother, it seems, especially) for leaving her unsupervised. It seems that Madeline’s face, vacant eyes included, also speak to the some “missing” and “missed” societal value — or at least something we all like to think was once a societal value. Parental responsibility? Responsibility in general?

    A singular face seems to serve as a focal point for one’s greater anxieties, as so many iconic faces long have and long will.

  • Dear Annie, Kit and Carly, thanks for your comments. And certainly the parallels with other missing (blonde) little girls was never far from my mind although in some sense I was interested in thinking about how impossible it seems that Madeleine can be seen as ‘unique’, as a person rather than a conduit for other stories (a singular face that is no longer somehow her own).
    You might be interested to know that ‘Gone Baby Gone’ has not been released in the UK because of the ‘Maddy’ story. And yes, Kate McCann’s appearance – pretty, haggard, grieving, not grieving enough – has had an extraordinary amount of coverage. In the UK Maddy continues to dominate – a documentary just last week in the BBC’s Panorama strand, continuing headlines (from ‘She’s Dead’ last week to today’s ‘I saw Maddy Abducted by Violent Man’…) However, I’m cheered that you’ve all picked up on my central point that it is something essential, odd, ‘missing’ about the child that seemingly allows for all this endless time-prescribed obsession. And, in relation to your point about ‘day one’, Annie, the obsession here has been about the ‘golden hour’ – the period immediately after the child is missing in which 70% of children are normally found. There has been much xenophobic press about the fact that the Portuguese police did not act quickly or ‘properly’ enough here.
    it goes on and on and on

  • This is absolutly fascinating. I am writing an essay about the public interestand how it is served by the media and thought that the Madeline case would make an interesting case study. Does anyone have any thoughts?

  • Please contact me to discuss.

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