Five and a half years ago I think I almost certainly would have thought Kate and Gerry McCann complicit in the disappearance (and probably the death) of their daughter Madeleine.
Now I fell almost certain they weren’t involved. The deciding factor for me? Nothing more scientific than parenthood.
Recently I spoke to Peter Laing, News Editor of Scotland on Sunday, he conducted a straw poll of current and former crime reporters – among them himself, me, Nick Gates (now editor of the Daily Star Scotland) and Jane Hamilton (now of the Scottish Sun), who’d all at one time or another been Crime Reporter for the Edinburgh Evening News.
He also canvassed opinion from former Daily Record crime man Richard Elias and former Scotsman crime reporter Stephen Rafferty.
The result was split 50-50. Of course, there’s nothing new in this debate. It’s been dividing the country for months. What was new last night was the gripping Panorama presented by Richard Bilton. For my money, it highlighted the biggest problem facing the McCann’s: that they come over as so … difficult to like.
In the UK it is broadly the situation that GPs and heart surgeons are considered virtual saints who command automatic and near unswerving respect from the public at large. Meanwhile Kate and Gerry are youngish, easy on the eye and have strong regional accents. All the kind of credentials which should win them an army of backers. Indeed, it was those very qualities that so elevated the Maddie story in the early days. The fact was, this wasn’t happening to some ASBO-carrying, shell-suited Brits abroad whom it would have been easy to instantly pigeon hole as a neglect case waiting to happen.
Sadly though, in front of their cameras the McCanns don’t come over at all well. Their body language is bad and much has been made of their emotion-free appearances. Gerry has an unfortunate set to his lips – entirely natural and unalterable – which looks sneering. And the reolute set to Kate’s features could just as easily be put down to being hard faced and cold as it could to inner strength and religious faith.
Fairness says they shouldn’t be judged on their personal demeanour, nor even on the dreadful lapse of judgement which saw them leave their kids unattended. But worryingly, for them, in the crucible of public opinion (and in any media feeding frenzy) fairness doesn’t really come into it.
If the McCann’s hoped Panorama would come out fighting their corner, they’ll be disappointed today. The message was clear and almost certianly one the McCanns would have been gutted to hear in such stark terms – until there is a breakthrough in the hunt for Maddie they will be forever blighted by the insidious stain of public suspicion.
If they are, as I suspect, innocent, that is a crushing weight to bear on top of the loss of their daughter. Yet another reason to hope the riddle of Maddie’s disappearance is solved very soon.