Madeleine McCann: the (almost) true story

By Lionel Shriver Last Updated: 2:17am BST 28/04/2008

Novelist Lionel Shriver strongly believes that the media has covered the Madeleine McCann case as if it were a work of fiction, distorting facts and demonising characters. And a year on, the family is paying the price.

Like any novelist, I’m a sucker for a good story. Yet fiction and non-fiction are shelved in separate sections of a bookshop for good reason. However imaginative its variations, fiction conforms to amazingly strict narrative criteria.

Novels begin with an instigating event, develop complications and plot tributaries, build to climax and proceed to a swift, satisfying resolution. Novels employ heroes and villains, red herrings and suspense. Even contemporary literary novels still need to make a point or teach a lesson. And all novels require an element of surprise.

Gerry and Kate McCann reading a statement in Praia da Luz on Saturday May 5, 2007. Madeleine went missing on the Thursday night

Gerry and Kate McCann reading a statement in Praia da Luz on Saturday May 5, 2007. Madeleine went missing on the Thursday night

Reality is not always so obliging. Sometimes the plot lacks an obvious bad guy or plausible hero. Faithful to the facts, non-fiction cannot always build to an exhilarating climax, much less provide a resolution that leaves a newspaper reader feeling replete. Real life is messy – often drawn-out, boring and inconclusive. Some mysteries outside the world of paperbacks are destined to remain unsolved.

Because fictional devices are so fiendishly effective – a well-constructed story induces a benign equivalent of drug addiction – journalists are understandably tempted to frame real events in fictional terms. But given that reality is obstreperous, getting news stories to tell like thrillers can lead to distortion and injustice.

In the case of Madeleine McCann, the British media has frequently elevated the requirements of fiction over the truth. As a consequence, a grieving couple’s loss of their daughter has been made even more agonising than it had to be. Indeed, this last year’s over-the-top Maddy-mongering has to go down as one of British journalism’s most shameful instances of cheap, cavalier opportunism – of its greater commitment to a “good story” over the accurate one.

Blonde-headed moppet disappears from rented apartment while the family is on holiday in Portugal. Great first chapter. Natural appeal to wide British audience, especially fellow parents: this could be you! Happily, pics of Madeleine are fetching; the little girl is a heartbreaker. Having no idea what kind of wild, unruly animal they were leashing to their cause, the parents capitalise on the fact that their daughter’s disappearance has captured their compatriots’ imagination. Enlisting the media, they turn the mystery into a “cause celeb”. They give interviews, make video appeals, raise £1 million. All in the interests of finding their daughter.

But not only is the media a wild animal; the story itself is a monster. It demands to be fed. A meaningless misfortune is unacceptable. We need a theme. We need a moral. So the press grows chiding. The parents were obviously negligent. They should never have left their children unsupervised while they wined and dined 50 metres away. It’s a pretty weak theme for a heavyweight story – we have trouble seeing losing a daughter as a fair punishment for merely marginal child-minding practices – but it will do for now.

Meanwhile, Maddy cannot remain a dreary missing persons case. The girl was clearly abducted, so we need a villain. The suspicion the press directed towards the incriminatingly helpful neighbour Robert Murat and then towards fellow diner Russell O’Brian served sequential narrative purposes. First, we’d have our man. Next, these disposable characters could be tidily converted to red herrings.

If I were writing this book, I couldn’t come up with a more sensational (if predictable) plot twist than to reveal: it was the parents all along! Suddenly we discover infinitesimal traces of “bodily fluids” in their rental car. But of course! Madeleine’s blood! Haven’t the parents been ostentatiously co?operative with the investigation as a cover for their own culpability? Didn’t Kate McCann come across as creepily stoic and composed? Why, she didn’t play her part right! She didn’t weep inconsolably on camera! That was the clue planted early in the story that she’s really a calculating murderess, her spotlight-hogging husband her accomplice. And by the by, what’s happened to all that (trustee-controlled) money raised to find the girl?

Big fizzle. The forensic evidence for the couple’s guilt turns out to be worthless. To this day, Madeleine has never turned up, not as a body, not as a sex slave in Morocco. Neither the scheming parents nor a tall dark stranger have been brought to book. Crap novel. No Richard and Judy for you.

Once more, reality fails to give good plot. But can you blame the media for trying to craft a bestselling thriller out of such promising material?

Yes, you can blame them. The McCanns aren’t characters. I subject my own characters to all manner of indignities, but I try to be decent to my friends. The British press failed to treat Kate and Gerry like real people. They were castigated, scrutinised, vilified, tried and de facto convicted for murder as if they were made-up characters in the kind of time-killer book that you leave behind on the seat when your plane lands.

In a speech for the Edinburgh TV festival last summer, just to be catchy, I coined the neologism “hyper-narrative” to describe the faddish, repetitive, and obsessive mining of single news stories for filler content to which the British media are prone. A hyper-narrative is not meant to be a synonym for “big story” – a large event of obvious significance that gets the attention it deserves, like the Asian tsunami or 7/7. Rather, a hyper-narrative is a good story that isn’t necessarily a big story. It’s a story of nominal social importance that is played up disproportionately in the media because it satisfies what are essentially fictional appetites. It either naturally conforms to, or can be forced to conform to, the structure of popular novels.

Mind, this dependence on mountains from molehills to feed the insatiable appetite for copy in papers and glossies is not a British invention. In its dependency on often salacious, prurient news stories that keep the public amused for months on end, the American media is even worse.

The following plots have the ring of popular fiction. A former black football star and film actor is accused of murdering his white wife and her friend. (Sounds like the blurb on a book jacket, doesn’t it?) A renowned pop music star is accused of preying sexually on little boys who come to stay at his charity ranch. (I immediately conjure a six- to seven-figure advance.)

So what’s wrong with using the news as entertainment? Isn’t it understandable that dishing out life in Dickensian instalments sells more papers?

When journalists are slaves to a “good story”, they are easily enticed into monkeying with the truth to get it to function like fiction. By far the most classic hyper-narrative in Britain is the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, which, if we eliminate the insinuation, exaggeration, sentimentality and paranoia, doesn’t really tell very well: “Popular princess dies in car accident. The end.”

In Waterstone’s, I wouldn’t pay 10p for that. Thus for years the media has played up every conspiracy theory going in their determination to insert a proper villain and give the story some heft. They have strained to draw thematic conclusions (about the paparazzi or the callous scheming of the Royal Family) from what is really a plain sad story that doesn’t, alas, mean very much or lend itself to “lessons” of any kind.

“Little girl disappears. The end” is also a sad story in real life. But as fiction, it’s rubbish. Thus when running large on such a current event, the temptation is to give outlandish theories credence, to subject walk-ons to cameo suspicion and eventually to demonise the very people who have paid most dearly for our mere diversion. (I personally do not buy that most journalists covering this story have been genuinely anguished.

Madeleine McCann has presented their employers with a commercial opportunity, reporters and commentators a crop of topics that has flowered for a full year. The harvesting of her disappearance for column inches constitutes my version of child abuse.)

You know how you’re on holiday and, against your better judgment, you buy something large and unwieldy as a souvenir, like a piñata in Mexico? You get it back to your hotel and, alas, your case is a hard-shell Samsonite. Try as you might, the souvenir doesn’t fit in the bag. Bits stick out; the zip jams; you cannot close the lid. The only way you’re getting that souvenir back is by crushing it or breaking off the pieces that stick out. You can get it in the bag all right, but it won’t be whole.

Fiction is a hard-shell Samsonite. Its parameters are rigid. Reality is more like that piñata – misshapen and asymmetric. Real people do not behave neatly like characters; if circumstances cast them in heroic roles, they may still have annoying habits that make them frustratingly “unattractive”. They may not co?operate with your hard-shell expectations that they burst into tears on cue. You cannot cram news stories into the strict form of fiction without smashing them, bending them or leaving behind the bits that don’t fit.

Journalists have to remain committed to keeping reality intact, even if the real story is flat. Because that is their job. My job is to make stuff up. My job is to concoct stories that work in their own narrative terms, and I try to craft proper page-turners. Like many literary novelists, I may blur the distinction between hero and villain, but I still furnish conflict, a climax and thematic resolution. So leave the novels to me. That’s what capitalism calls division of labour.

Meanwhile, though nothing will ever compensate for the loss of their daughter, for a whole year’s worth of gratuitous suffering, public humiliation, persecution, baseless accusations, and unwarranted intrusions into their private lives, the British media owe Kate and Gerry McCann a big fat apology – and a bouquet the size of Kew Gardens.

  • Lionel Shriver is the author of We Need To Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World, just out in paperback with HarperCollins (£7.99).

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