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Madeleine Media Saga Makes Many Uneasy

Madeleine McCann has been missing for more than four months, but the British girl's presence is everywhere.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Madeleine McCann has been missing for more than four months, but the British girl's presence is everywhere.

Millions of words have been written and broadcast about the 3-year-old who disappeared during a family holiday in Portugal in May. In print, on television and online, millions of people follow the search for the wide-eyed blonde child whose face beams from posters and front pages worldwide. Reports speak of blood traces, DNA matches and "the scent of death" uncovered by sniffer dogs.

But as the weeks pass without a breakthrough, many are growing uneasy about the gap between the lurid round-the-clock coverage and the scarcity of hard facts.

"I want to stop reading, listening, watching, Googling, amateur sleuthing," wrote columnist India Knight in the Sunday Times. "I nauseate myself with my own prurience."

She's not alone. Some in the media have begun to question the way journalists have repeated unsourced allegations and tracked the family's every move, from their budget airline flight back to Britain on Sept. 9 to their 2-year-old twins' first day at nursery school. Viewers and readers have hungrily absorbed every detail.

War correspondent-turned-politician Martin Bell has called the coverage in the British press "mawkish and exploitative." Former newspaper editor Max Hastings wrote in The Guardian that the story provoked "the sort of guilt that our ancestors must have felt on finding themselves unable to avert their eyes from a public execution."

"It has turned into a huge, real-life soap opera, with many twists and turns," said Robin Soans, a writer who looks at real-life figures mangled by the media machine in the new play "Life After Scandal."

"And like a scriptwriter ... if the story is beginning to flag, you inject a new element into it," Soans said.

Madeleine disappeared from a Portuguese resort on May 3, shortly before her fourth birthday. Her parents said they had left the girl and her twin siblings asleep in their rented villa while they had dinner nearby. Despite an extensive search, no trace of Madeleine has been found.

Adrian Monck, head of the journalism department at London's City University, said several factors converged to make the story a sensation: an idyllic family vacation turned into every parent's worst nightmare. Society's primal fear of child abductors and pedophiles. Tension caused by differences between the British and Portuguese judicial systems. And a British press unrestrained by the reporting restrictions that apply in domestic criminal cases.

"Put all those ingredients into one single story and it's the perfect media storm," Monck said.

From the start, Madeleine's parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, used the media to keep the search in the public eye. The couple toured Europe with photos of Madeleine and the child's stuffed animals and clothing. They met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Celebrities, including "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling and soccer star David Beckham, made public appeals that helped raise money for a Find Madeleine fund.

When the McCanns were named as suspects by Portuguese police on Sept. 7, the story took a compelling new turn. Suddenly the grief-stricken parents were cast as potential killers.

Since then, Britain's hyper-competitive press has reported a welter of "evidence" against the couple _ most leaked to Portuguese newspapers by anonymous sources, then reprinted in Britain and elsewhere.

It's almost impossible to know what is true.

Was there blood in the car, or on the walls of the villa? Was Madeleine's hair found in the trunk of the McCanns' rental car? Did a sniffer dog detect the "scent of death" in the holiday home or car?

The Internet is even less restrained than the traditional media. On blogs, Web forums and Internet chat rooms, some people express support for the McCanns _ but many don't. Some question the couple's public demeanor, or criticize them for leaving their children alone while they had dinner with friends.

On newspaper and broadcasters' message boards, viewers dissect the case. Where is the spare tire located in a Renault Scenic, the make of the McCanns' rental minivan? What exactly was transported in the trunk? How many miles were on the odometer?

Monck said new media has contributed to "a viral effect that has come into play on this story and has helped to make it so big."

The story shows no signs of faltering, even though little is known for certain. Forensic tests have been done on some DNA evidence, and more are under way. For now, Portuguese authorities say they have no plans to question the McCanns again, although they remain formal suspects. Police say other lines of investigation are still open.

And whatever the outcome, the McCanns are trapped by the media that once helped them. No longer the typical middle-class family whom people around the world can identify with, they have become celebrities, pursued by paparazzi and treated like public property.