This week is the 5 year anniversary of the disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann in Portugal, an event which the BBC is climbing onto with a Panorama program dedicated to the subject. Today the Metropolitan Police displayed a computer-generated image of what Madeleine McCann would look like aged 9 after disappearing on holiday in Portugal in 2007. But why does this little girl, sad as here continuing disappearance is, keep appearing in the news so many years after she was last seen? Does this ongoing story demonstrate certain things about the way our media system works?
Firstly, I think there is a certain image factor that must be considered. Disappearing children is hardly international news worthy (though maybe it should be). The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre show that in '2009/10 there were an estimated 360,000 missing persons incidents, of which approximately 230,000 (64%) related to a child under 18,' and that is just in the UK alone. While many of these children are found and returned home safely, that leaves many thousands of cases unresolved. However, to gain interest and traction on an otherwise routine story news companies require the right image to sell it. The pictures of a very cute little girl with blond hair and a cheeky smile was perfect to tug on the heartstrings of people all round the world and boost their ratings to boot. Another example of this image creation would be Phoenix the calf who, having been part of a herd culled to prevent the spread of Foot and Mouth disease was picked up as a news symbol and became the image of a national campaign.
Secondly there was the location of the disappearance. It is probably true that hundreds of children go missing in the urban jungles of London, Manchester, Glasgow or any other major city with few people noticing or caring overly much about them. The fact that Madeleine disappeared from a holiday apartment in sunny Portugal, a popular holiday destination for many families, combining glorious weather with low cost and short-haul flights. It added a sense of drama and spine-tingling horror to the story with news outlets glorifying in the fact that so many British tourists go to the same area.
A third cause for the longevity of this story and it's Lazarus-like ability to keep returning to the news of the day is the McCann family itself. Placing their considerable input behind the case they refused to accept any loss of importance or impetus. While I'm sure that any loving family would put as much time and money into finding a missing child, it may be that the McCann family had advantages in both. The parents especially Madeleine's mother, managed to keep their faces on the TV and their calls for information in the headlines a long time after most news would have died away. Created a slick media and policy outfit they achieved continuous stories which have popped up in the five years since that sad day. When the police, both in the UK and Portugal seemed to be failing, the McCann family hired private investigators to take up the slack and producing another slue of media stories.
While the story is incredibly sad and all attempts should be made to find out what happened to Madeleine McCann it is also a highly interesting media story that has outlasted almost any other. This is not just down to the location of the disappearance or the amount of money and time the McCann family could put behind the case, it is also down to the images which, used by the media to gain interest, allowed a unremarkable story to stick in the nations consciousness and elicit the continuing interest.