Thursday 24 May 2007

I cried a river over you....

Millions and millions of words have been cast into the void on this subject already, so I'll try to keep this short:

When I went to the gym for a swim last night, there was a poster propped up on the main reception desk. The poster had a picture of a little girl and was an appeal for people to call Crimestoppers with any information that they might have on the disappearance of Madeleine McCann whilst on holiday with her family in Portugal.

I saw the same poster today in the gents toilet of a service station just outside Oxford. I keep stumbling across comments on various blogs imploring people to call Crimestoppers with any information they might have. Although I haven't yet received one (perhaps it's in my spam folder), I hear that millions of emails have been passed around asking the same thing. The McCann's website is up and running (85,000 support messages so far and £294, 758.65 in donations and counting). And you can upload your holiday snaps here just in case they provide any clues.


I feel for the McCann's, of course I do. I really hope that their little girl is found alive and well and is returned to her family as soon as possible.

Who doesn't?

I understand that all of this publicity probably increases the chances that a key piece of information will find its way to the police... but why Madeleine? Why this case? Why is all this attention and compassion being focused on this one missing person? Are there no other missing people in the world? Are there no other families out there equally devastated by a loss like this? If she isn't found and the posters start to come down, does she remain any less lost? Is it any less of a tragedy for her parents?

Also in the news today was a desperate appeal for funds from the Disasters Emergency Committee for the crisis hit Darfur region of the Sudan and surrounding areas.

The BBC have more details, but 200,000 people have died in Darfur since the rebellion in 2003. Pro-government militias have been accused of mass killings, rape and looting. Two-thirds of the population of Darfur are utterly dependent upon aid, and the rainy season is looming, threatening to bring further deaths through disease and malnutrition.

As the DEC say:

"More than 4.5 million people have been affected by conflict in the region and the looming rainy season has the potential to cause huge loss of life. With malnutrition levels already rising, we need to bolster life-saving food and medicine stocks before the downpours hit."

Comparisons are odious, but in this case I find them irresistible.

The reward for information leading to the return of Madeleine McCann to her family stands at something like £2.5m. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been donated by ordinary members of the public to her appeal.

That's a lot of money.

Meanwhile, in Darfur,

£25 could buy plastic sheeting to shelter an entire family.
£80 could feed five critically malnourished children for a month.
£200 could buy a tap stand to provide one and a half thousand people with water – every day.

How can we not have enough compassion to think about the thousands of people dying in Africa? Or Iraq? Or anywhere else in the world?

I'm not a parent, it's true. Perhaps if I had a child of my own I would see things more clearly. But then again, I'm not black either. Or African. A human life is still worth the same everywhere, right? Just how much is your compassion worth? A couple of quid for Maddie and a fiver for Darfur?

To donate to the Darfur and Chad Crisis Appeal call 0870 60 60 900 or visit

(Incidentally, the best thing I have read on the media reaction to this subject is here.)


  1. I feel heart sorry for the family, but I think the media's gone mad and there's a touch of the Princess Diana thing going on. Every single person in my workplace received an email with a PDF poster attached this week, asking us to display it. It struck me as very similar to a viral marketing campaign. This in an organisation where every single Word document is screened and files are often stopped at source.

    I think the fact that Maddie is incredibly cute, and the fact her parents are remarkably composed in the wake of their tragedy has made the nation take this case very much to heart. I read a letter in a magazine the other day which made me think. It referred to the fact that the parents had left their children alone while they went out to eat (yes, they were close by, yes, they were checking, but what if one of the kids had a bad dream in a strange bedroom in a strange country, never mind what actually happened) and suggested that the media's take on this might have been slightly different if it was a chain-smoking single mum who'd gone off and left her kids while she went out. Would it?

    Like you, I am not a parent, but that doesn't mean I don't feel terribly sorry for Madeleine and her family. I very much hope she's found safe and sound.

  2. It's quite brutally because a British child is involved. A little beautiful British girl who was horribly snatched from her bedroom by a vile foreigner. And quite probably added to it was the fact that the foreign police botched up the investigation.

    Here in Australia, the story is raising some media coverage but not much. Meanwhile, it's plastered on the front cover of the International Express every edition.

    I'm waiting for someone - anyone - to be caught and then burnt at the stake for it.

  3. First, I agree with you all that it is a horrible tragedy. There are no words for this little girl, her family, or for anyone else with missing loved ones.

    I picked up on the same thing cat did: who the hell leaves their small children alone in a strange hotel room? I'm not a parent, and I know better than that. I want to shake that couple, I really do.

    I found something interesting in what cat wrote: that the parental reserve increases sympathy for them. Here in the US, the opposite would be true. They would be viewed as cold, and suspect. Here, it is the parent who is visibly devastated who receives the most sympathy.

    Regarding Darfur, missing people, AIDS epidemics, natural disaster survivors, etc., I think it is easy to become completely overwhelmed with all the need out there. Once that happens, I think people tend to think "There's nothing I can do, so I won't do anything." Without being directly effected in some way, it feels easier to ignore a situation altogether. Which is wrong of course, but I think that's what you're talking about ST. It isn't right, but it does seem to be human nature. A single missing child, on the other hand, is much more manageable. Here is something that people feel they can help with. But when you talk about the masses of missing children, people back off again because it becomes too much.

    As I write this, it's making me think. If we know this about human nature, how can we use this knowledge to improve not only raising awareness for issues, but in teaching people that they really can help, and how they can do so? What changes could be made in these efforts which would make use of these psychological givens rather than simply fighting them?

    I have no answers, just questions...

  4. I've said this elsewhere, but I think we should not be so quick to judge the McCann's for leaving their kids whilst they had dinner. I'm sure if they had their time again, they would do things differently, but you surely don't think they haven't been telling themselves that every single minute of every day?

    Besides, you can't watch kids 24/7. Last year a child was found in an alleyway in the UK, she was naked and screaming. It turns out she had been taken from her bath when both of her parents had been in the house. A stranger had walked into the house of the street, up the stairs to the bathroom and taken her out. If you are in the kitchen and your child is in the living room, are they any safer?

    Don't be so quick to judge (although I have to agree with Cat that the British reaction to this might have been different if they weren't doctors and comfortably middle class and well-spoken)


  5. I don't think rationality comes into it, but then our emotional and even intellectual responses are a good deal less rational than we generally perceive them to be.

    I'm coming more and more around to the opinion that we tend to consume news media as a series of narratives. We pick out the narratives which appeal to us the most; we interpret complex and ambiguous situations by bending the facts into the narrative of our choice; and we deride those who adhere to the narratives which appeal to us the least.

    Cute Little Girl Goes Missing, Model Parents Distraught, Mystery Foreign Pervert To Blame, A Nation Unites In Sympathy, is a narrative which will appeal to a lot more people than Millions Still Starving, No Change There Then. Especially as eveyone is on tenterhooks, waiting for an outcome that could swing either way: Joyous Reconciliation or Heartbreaking Tragedy.

    The newspapers are simply acting as script editors, prolonging the story for maximum gain, just as the script editors on a TV soap would string out a major dramatic plotline.

  6. I agree with what you've written and am completely baffled for the same reasons - why this little girl? There must be thousands of others out there, why have we focused on this one? For some reason that I can't quite explain, it reminds me a bit of the whole JonBenet Ramsey thing in the US a few years back... we've got a cute, pretty and marketable little girl and very media-friendly parents... a package that sells. It's funny, I'm feeling very conflicted over this... the whole media circus surrounding the McCanns is making me quite ill, but you feel like it's quite impossible to say anything against it because everyone else is riding that bandwagon and will jump on you for being heartless and uncaring. The whole machine is basically guilting people into forwarding the emails, putting the signs up and donating money. The way it's been dealt with just seems a bit... wrong.