Portugal: let’s all make it worse

Hume, Mick

From: Notebook - Times Online - date unknown

When did child abduction become a spectator sport? Who benefits from seeing daily pictures of Madeleine McCann’s distraught mother clutching her missing child’s toy? And why are many experts and authorities preying on our fears to promote their own agenda?

We have witnessed two different operations around the abduction of the three-year-old girl from an Algarve holiday apartment. There has been the secretive Portuguese investigation, apparently marred by infighting between police organisations. And then there has been the public “who’s to blame?” inquiry, where campaigners and pundits vie to use the case as a vehicle for point-scoring and finger-pointing.

Some crusaders blame the Portuguese for not sharing Britain’s heightened state of paedophile-phobia. Others question why the British parents dared to leave their children asleep in a locked apartment while having dinner. There are demands for a crackdown on British sex offenders travelling abroad, and global action against international paedophile rings.

It seems as if everybody wants a piece of the action in Portugal. The UK government-backed Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre packed a psychologist and a behavioural analyst off to the Algarve.

The Sun newspaper asks us all to “sign our petition to protect UK’s kids from paedos”, which turns out to be a call for more funding for the flying abuse experts of the CEOP. Meanwhile, a Swiss campaigner suggests that this would not have happened if the Portuguese authorities had only agreed to help to set up her “Innocence in Danger” campaign in Lisbon: “The fact that the girl was kidnapped from her bed shows how bad things are.”

The message from all sides is that this unique crime somehow shows innocence is in danger everywhere, and only the army of child protection experts can save it. The effect is to spread anxiety in a way that seems detached from the actual case.

What difference, for example, could a British-style sex offenders register make to the unprecedented abduction of a child from a Portuguese holiday camp? Some of those criticising Portugual’s laws, which preclude giving the UK media details of the investigation, seem more concerned to turn the McCann family’s tragedy into a British public spectacle, an emotional national experience. Everybody from Premiership footballers to a Downing Street spokesman has got involved this week. Such displays might make some feel better over here, but can make little difference to the case over there.

The self-promoting child protection industry’s eagerness to seize upon the McCann abduction can only reinforce fears that our children are not safe anywhere from the internet to the Algarve. We are told that this is “every parent’s nightmare”. But who is helping to give parents those nightmares, warning us “it could be you”? All agree that nothing is more terrible than child abduction. So why make its impact even worse?