Idols and demons

In the saga surrounding Madeleine McCann, the British media is trying to convince us that the nuclear family is the one remaining haven in a cold world and that the Portuguese police, not being British, must be somehow uniquely incompetent or corrupt. Eddie Ford comments

Who is not familiar with the McCanns and their daughter? After reporting her disappearance from their Algarve apartment in Praia da Luz on May 3, Kate and Gerry McCann - both of whom are doctors - instantly became self-promoting media personalities and objects of worldwide sympathy. According to their account, they had left four-year-old Made-leine and her two-year-old twin siblings asleep as they dined just yards away at a tapas bar. While they were slated by some as irresponsible parents, for the most part, however, the McCanns were feted.

They became the ideal bourgeois family unit. The besieged couple who would never give up. Their daughter was alive and with the help of us all they would find her. The kidnappers, the paedophiles, the perverts, the porn merchants, the foreigners would not win. Madeleine's image appeared everywhere. Naturally, the great and the good eagerly lined up to associate themselves with the tireless and blameless couple. There were memorable endorsements by Benedict XVI and David Beckham. The media created and promoted the McCanns and vied for interviews and photo-opportunities. And money poured in from around the world to help finance the desperate search for their little girl: £1 million in total.

Now, horror of horrors, the McCanns themselves have been named as arguido and arguida, formal suspects (the female form) in Maddy's case - though, of course, they continue to deny any involvement or criminal culpability and are planning independent forensic tests on their hire car. Nevertheless, the Algarve-based prosecutor has already passed the 1,000-page police dossier to a judge - who has a week or so to decide on how to proceed.

In his 'Notebook' column for The Daily Telegraph, Andrew Pierce - in a piece entitled 'We all so want to admire Kate McCann' - sums up the moral crisis that has resulted in respectable society. He mournfully writes: "So it has come to this: Kate McCann is a suspect in the disappearance of her daughter. How could it be true? She went to see the pope, for god's sake. As we try to come to terms with the incomprehensible, I ask you this: if, in the unlikely event that the police bring a case and Mrs McCann is charged and convicted, will we ever be able to trust human nature again?" (September 8).

Totally predictably, of course, wide sections of the British population want to avoid such a deeply pessimistic conclusion by convincing themselves that the nuclear family is their one remaining haven in a cold and threatening world and that the Portuguese police, not being British, must be somehow uniquely incompetent or corrupt. Or even worse, if some of the recent comments made in the 'letters page' of The Sun are anything to go by.

Thus we read that they are "prepared to use shallow evidence to hide their incompetence", and that "little Madeleine will make money for paedophile pornographers for years to come unless she is found". For one reader, "the Keystone Cops are alive and well and living in Portugal" - while another contributor is convinced that someone "within the system is framing [the McCanns] for Maddie's murder". Along with this conspiratorial theme, there is speculation that, in view of the fact that "tourism is important to Portugal" and "the truth might harm that trade", then "how nice for the Portuguese if the problem could be shown to be a purely British one".

Therefore, for one Sun reader, it was obvious what to do regarding the McCann family. The "only way to get the Portuguese government to act is to call for a complete boycott of all things Portuguese", in order to "get the point over that we, the British people, won't stand by while honest parents get 'fitted up' by an inadequate, shoddy, antiquated legal system". Yes, he continues, Portuguese "foods, wines and ceramics are big sellers" - so "stand up, be counted and show you care - do not buy Portuguese".

The fact that most murders are committed within the family and not by strangers is either ignored or swept under the carpet. Desperate people long for certainty, cling to what they know and fervently want to believe that the British police and legal system never screws up or presides over miscarriages of justice.

However, for the time being at least, the McCanns are back at their home in Rothley, Leicestershire. No conditions have been imposed on the couple except that they can be recalled to Portugal with five days' notice.

Being socially atomised and politically uneducated, most people have short memories. That way the bourgeoisie continues to rule. For you can fool most of the people most of the time. Hence it is only too easy to imagine popular opinion - led by The Sun, to name just one - doing a volte-face when it comes to the McCanns. If Kate McCann is arrested in the coming weeks, she could easily be transformed in the imagination from an angel of mercy to the face of evil, Myra Hindley-style.

From idolatry to demonisation?