Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Circus Comes To Town

I rarely post about issues from outside of Spain, but my reasons for not having written anything so far about the McCann case go beyond that. I felt very uncomfortable from the beginning with their campaign to find their missing daughter Madeleine, run as it was by professional spin doctors who seem to regard the whole thing as a test of their promotional skills. I couldn't really fathom what would make a man looking for a daughter supposedly abducted in Southern Portugal go to New York on tour, and I couldn't see the usefulness of it. I also have to admit that I dislike the way in which cases like this can attract so much attention, while so many other cases of equal suffering go completely unnoticed. Anyway, I'm going to limit this post to the impact of the case here in Spain. I’m aware that this is potentially a very slippery slope; I started writing about the Madrid train bombings because of a piece of invented nonsense I saw about a washing machine timer, and ended up dedicating an entire blog to the issue. This time I will be more careful.

The other day, whilst reading a typically sensible post on the issue over at El Siglo de las Luces, I noticed a link in the comments to a blog called Escepticismo Criminologico which turns out to be entirely about the McCann case. The blog is written by someone called Elvira Saez de Alberola, who states that she is a professional with 15 years experience in the study of forensic science and criminology. I was almost immediately struck by the ambiguity of that description; it could mean she is a permanent student, an internationally respected expert on criminal behaviour, or just a chartered accountant with a passion for crime novels. Whatever, the way in which the blog is presented led me to expect a cool, serious, fact-based analysis of the McCann case; isn’t that what scepticism is about? Well unfortunately, that’s not what you get if you turn up at this page.

What you get instead is Elvira’s theory on the case, and it doesn’t take too long to work out that Elvira finds Gerry and Kate McCann guilty on all counts for the disappearance of their daughter. Fine, if you have facts and proof to back it up, but that is precisely what we are all lacking in this case which is still so much of a mystery for most of us. In this respect Elvira is no different from anyone else, despite whatever professional training she has, she still has to rely on the same scraps of often unreliable information emerging on the case that everyone else gets. Despite this apparent drawback she has no doubts, there are frequent assertions featuring our old friend “I knew there was something funny about this case from the very beginning”.

Now everyone is entitled to believe what they want about the case, but what I find striking in the case of Elvira’s page is the sheer determination shared by her and many of those who comment to hold the McCanns responsible. It also emerges from reading the blog that the reasons behind this are not, ahem, entirely professional. Elvira seems visibly upset by the image of devout Catholic parents that has been presented to us over the last few months. She strikes a blow at that one by pointing out that the McCanns have used in-vitro fertilisation and therefore can be struck off the list of “good” Catholics. If we throw out those who have used contraception too, at some point the churches might get dangerously empty. Who the hell still confuses being a good Catholic with being a good parent anyway? Perhaps the same people who confuse scepticism with speculation?

My reference earlier to the Madrid bombings was not entirely accidental; the reasoning process that Elvira uses in the presentation of her case against the McCanns is very similar to that used by the conspiracy theorists like Luis del Pino who have floated so much garbage about the train bombings. Not because she accuses the police, as Del Pino does, of having been involved in committing the crime. Far from it, Elvira currently admits no criticism at all of the police or judicial system, we’ll have to wait and see whether her stand survives a result that doesn’t suit her theory. No, the similarity comes from the methodology. You start with a hypothesis as any good scientist should, but instead of testing that hypothesis against the available evidence to see whether it holds water, you set about moulding the evidence so that it fits your hypothesis. Facts which do not support the theory are simply brushed aside as irrelevant. Any gaps in the narrative (and in this case there are many such gaps) are then filled with speculative opinion that fits perfectly into the false premises on which the hypothesis now rests. So we are treated to imaginary snippets of conversation on how the McCanns could have decided to use their medical training by administering medicine to their children to make them sleep. This may be a depressingly common approach; it is also unfortunately a bogus one.

I don't know if she has any connection in her professional life with the prosecution of alleged criminals, but with this methodology I sincerely hope not. The difference with the train bombings conspiracy theories is that there is at least the possibility that Elvira could end up being right about the case. That does not mean that the way she has arrived at her conclusions is also correct, all it will show is that her number came up when they span the wheel of probability. Any result that doesn't support her hypothesis is unlikely to lead to an admission of getting it wrong, it never does with this kind of reasoning. Indeed, with references to the lawyer the McCanns have contracted as a specialist in getting the guilty freed, perhaps she is already preparing the escape route. A curious judgement for a professional to make on a defence lawyer, there have also been many references to him having defended General Pinochet - now there was a good Catholic for you! One thing I have never bought is this kind of "I'm a professional so my speculation is better than yours" attitude. A theory without proof remains that even when it is proposed by a Nobel Prize winner.

Yesterday, our blogging professional approvingly posted an email she had received from a Portuguese policeman on how to tell whether someone is guilty or not. The policeman informs us that someone who is unjustly accused of a crime never cries. As a criteria for judging the guilt of someone it’s almost enough to bring tears to my eyes, it’s about one step above ducking suspected witches. Whatever happened to evidence? I wonder how many innocent people have been jailed because their reaction to an accusation is not what the policeman expects it to be. Some of the comments being left by readers on an increasingly surreal blog are simply astounding. Anyway, the British can rest assured that Napoleon was wrong when he called us a nation of shopkeepers, according to many of these comments we are instead a nation of cold, distant, calculating child killers. Presumably, the man who shot his 18 month old daughter in the head a few weeks ago near Madrid did so because he was a "hot blooded Latin". Isn't it amazing how easy life can become when you stop doing your own thinking? Many others of those who comment are full of these "who would react this way if their daughter had been kidnapped" judgements that very few of us are ever likely to be in a position to make. One beautiful comment today compared Elvira to Agatha Christie. Indeed, file under “F” for fiction.

Of course the behaviour of the British tabloid press has been equally pathetic, but what's new about that? The coverage in some other British papers such as the Guardian is actually considerably better than that of the Spanish press. In the age of Google Reader you quickly become aware of how much "news" you read that is a rewrite of the same story from another source. Especially if you link to feeds from different countries. I have no theory on the case myself, there are quite simply still too many things we don't know, and the information we receive is often appallingly unreliable. Whatever I might think about the way the campaign has been organised on their behalf, if the McCanns did no harm to their daughter then I wish them no harm. Unfortunately, the backlash the campaign has produced leads many people to be far less even handed in their judgements. Over at Elvira's the case is practically closed and the lynching posse is saddled up and ready to ride. I suppose that we can at least be grateful for the virtual nature of mob law on Internet. There is a kind of grisly fascination in the way in which this feeding frenzy grows, it is tempered by the realisation of just how hugely popular this kind of exploitative stuff is. I am also aware that just by writing this post I've become part of the circus.

It’s been a long post, perhaps too long but sometimes you can’t deal with an issue in 20 lines of text. My closing question is this. Just how much impact on global warming would it have if we were to make a bonfire out of all the speculative rubbish that has been written about this case?


Colin said...

Well said, Graeme. All very depressing, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I think Elvira has some interesting observations. If the case would be of Portuguese parents in England, would the opinion be the same? Probably not.

First observation. The way the parents behave and (not) show their emotions is not understood in Spain and Portugal.

Second observation. Brittish (newspapers) call the Portuguese police incompetent, etc. Time will tell whether this is true.

Third observation. The fact that parents leave their very young children alone to go out and drink huge amounts of wine is considered highly irresponsible.

Fourth observation. In latin countries people tend to concentrate more on non-verbal communication and less on hard evidence. They are usually also better in interpreting signals than Brittish are.

Maybe this will help understanding the critical notes of Elvira.

Graeme said...


"If the case would be of Portuguese parents in England, would the opinion be the same? Probably not."

Whose opinion? Mine? Yours? Elvira's?

"First observation. The way the parents behave and (not) show their emotions is not understood in Spain and Portugal."

If it's not understood then it's best not to draw too many conclusions about it.

"Second observation. Brittish (newspapers) call the Portuguese police incompetent, etc. Time will tell whether this is true."

Some British newspapers, the tabloids. The police are not helping themselves by leaking confusing "information" to the Portuguese press. Time will tell on many things connected with this case, it's not me that has rushed to make judgement.

"Third observation. The fact that parents leave their very young children alone to go out and drink huge amounts of wine is considered highly irresponsible."

You make it sound as if the parents were miles away - they were actually having dinner close by in a tourist complex. Which is not to excuse what they did, it's just a more accurate description. There was a recent case here in Spain where the parents "forgot" their child whilst they were out enjoying themselves. Don't see any blogs set up about that one.

"Fourth observation. In latin countries people tend to concentrate more on non-verbal communication and less on hard evidence. They are usually also better in interpreting signals than Brittish are."

Let's leave the easy national stereotypes to one side, I've lived in Spain long enough to find that point at least debatable. Although the lack of interest in hard evidence is certainly clear on Elvira's blog.

"Maybe this will help understanding the critical notes of Elvira. "

I'm afraid it doesn't - my objections to Elvira's blog are not based on whether people have doubts about the way the McCanns have behaved, as I make clear in my post I have doubts on that too. Since we are discussing the issue of responsibility let me ask you how responsible you think it is to set up a blog where you openly accuse 2 people of killing their child without providing evidence to justify the accusation? Or how responsible is it to preside serenely over this circus while those commenting happily debate whether the body was stuffed into a freezer, or buried under the local church? Responsibility works both ways.

Natalia said...

Graeme;I agree 100% with your post. Even being Spainish as I am I cannot believe that someone is being judged for his/her attitude like they are doing with the Mccann's (specialy here in the so-called "Latin" countries.
Only time and good police job could give us answers.
Meanwhile whe only could pray for the life of the poor Maddie or for the mercy of Good for her (good!! this sounds so Spanish!!)

Anonymous said...

I think what Elvira writes is interesting. People gets emotional about all this. I also agree with you: I need to see the evidence before anybody is accussed.

I hope this girl is alive and well and appears quickly

Another anonymous

Graeme said...

Natalia - thanks for the comment. I don't know whether we will ever get the answers to what has happened, but obviously those who have already made their minds up will not be interested in any outcome except the one they want.

Another anonymous: Sure it can be interesting to read (within limits), although to be honest I find it more interesting to explore why this case attracts so much attention and others don't. Many people in Spain have been asking with some justification why the case of Yeremi Vargas gets nowhere the same attention. That's without even mentioning many other cases of children who suffer abuse or worse.

I share the hope of both of you that Madeleine appears alive, but to be honest I'm not very optimistic about it - too much time is passing.

Anonymous said...

You´re right, there are terrible cases in Spain like the one you said abuot the parens who fogot their child, but this parents were drogadicts coming from very poor and marginal ambients, not two doctors with all the resources doing a big circus about their missing daughter with blogs, products to sell, and visit to the pope included. That´s what makes this case amazing. The nationality it´s not the most important. Of course it´s not.

Graeme said...

You're quite right - I'm not trying to suggest that the other case is exactly the same, there are obvious differences. I was just using it for purposes of comparison for those who try use the fact that the McCanns went for dinner without their children as somehow being proof of their guilt for the disappearance of Madeleine.

Natalia said...

About your last comment I think that this is because nobody in Spain could imagine this behavior (leave the kids alone)even if the parents are only 200 meters far. I'm sure you have seen many times just the oposite, coubles with very young childs out in the street or in a restaurant at 2 o 3 pm (also a terrible thing to do in my opinion)
If the ones who leave their kids alone are "marginal" people, OK, then its normal, if for this kind of things they are considerate "abnormal", but for a middle-class family? Is just unbleievable in our way of life and somehow made the Mccanns "bad parents"
About why this case has attracted so many attention I think is because the mccann's are the kind of family that is not supposed to have this kind of problems if you know what I mean, many people who fist of all was sad for them now want to "crucificate" them just for being good-looking, "rich" happly middle class family (greed is a terrible thing)

Excuse me for the disasters I'm sure I have made with your beautiful language

Graeme said...

Natalia, don't worry about your English, it's fine. After years in Spain I have to work on even a short blog comment that I make in Spanish, and if I make mistakes I don't care as long as the result is comprehensible.

I understand fully that people pick up on the McCanns leaving their kids alone, but many people have in England as well - it's not just a Spanish thing. The UK these days has a tremendous safety culture that didn't exist when I was a kid. It's good in some ways and needlessly restrictive in others.

On Spanish families being out with their kids late at night, it really struck me when I first came to Spain that kids were out playing at midnight while their parents were sitting nearby having a coffee or a beer. Without taking it to extremes I see it as better, parents need a life too and putting baby to bed at 8 pm just seems to mean they'll wake you up at 5 a.m.

Above all it's the desire to crucify the McCanns that I most disturbing about Elvira's blog. They might be guilty, they might not be - but those who are so certain about the case are motivated by much more than a cold evaluation of the facts, and it's not a healthy motivation.

One final point that I've been thinking about today. How much of this noise, both positive and negative, is just a result of the "success" (from the point of view of those who designed it) of the campaign supposed to help find Madeleine? Without that thoroughly organised, celebrity filled, campaign, would we be here discussing this issue here at all?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (1:34 PM). Greame, thanks for your comments on the post I have made.

You consider it wrong that others speculate, analyse and judge this case. And jump to conclusions that are not based on facts.

I think this happens all the time. Of course you are free to call this unacceptable and irresponsible. In this specific case, I simply don't agree with you.

Graeme said...

Yes, I do consider it wrong - and you haven't given a single example of me doing the same. I challenge the methodology used on Elvira's blog to reach increasingly wild conclusions that are not supported by any publicly available evidence. If you say I have done the same then you have to show me where.

Graeme said...

Re-reading your comment I realise I may have misinterpreted it to claim that I was doing the same as Elvira, if that's the case I apologise. On the rest, I stand by what I say - people may speculate amongst themselves about the case but they don't usually present such speculation on Internet as being an expert analysis of the issue. That to me is misrepresentation.

Evaristo said...

I also found that blog yesterday (through a link in Escolar.net) and I've been reading a bit. Well, although the author repeats several times that she doesn't want to speculate, the fact is that that's exactly what she is doing.

Nevertheless, it seems that the case is developing in such a way that we might say that the McCanns look now more guilty than in the beginning. Not because of their behavior or their being Catholics or "bad parents", but because the police treats them as suspects and a judge is considering whether they should be formally accused. The rest is just a TV show. And we love TV shows in Spain.

Graeme said...

Absolutely, the case has everything that telenovela fans need. It's quite clear that the McCanns are suspects - the difference at the Church of the Latter Day Conan Doyles is that they have already been found guilty and condemned.

"Good God Holmes, you mean to say they chopped her up before dinner?"

"It's really quite simple Watson, they had to do it then because the spaceship was due to land immediately after dessert"

"Ah yes, the spaceship. I always thought these people were cold fish Holmes"

"Indeed Watson, completely bloodless....and cunning too"

To be continued....and continued for the next few years.

Anonymous said...

Hi Graeme,
sorry, but if in general I agree with you I cannot pass on the comment that the children were not so far away of their parents. I find the description in the third observation from anonymous quite accurate.

I don´t know what happened that day, I don´t know if the McCanns are innocent or guilty... I only know that leaving three children under five alone in an apartment for more than five minutes is profoundly wrong (regards of your cultural or social status). First, because children of that age haven´t yet an established sleep pattern and are prone of waking up in the middle of the night (with the fright to be alone) and second, because three children alone are defenceless if tragedy strucks (a fire in the apartment building, the accidental chocking of one of them due to vomit...). The list can be overwhelming (believe me, I have two kids and I know ;))

And, let´s be serious, if the blogs are no talking about this couple that left their child alone ´cause they were total plastered, it´s because they lost the custody of the child (and a sibbling) that very same morning, something logical that the MsCanns have avoided so far.

Please, give to Caesar what is Caesar´s and to God what is God´s.

Graeme said...

Anonymous: I don't think you should allow your moral position, however justified it might be, to affect the way in which things are described. To say that the McCanns were having dinner close by to the apartment is not to justify their decision, it's just a simple statement based on what we know. There is no need to embellish the details.

The key problem is that too many people are using their opinion of that behaviour as a justification for this sensationalist mixture of fact and speculative fiction being used to conduct a parallel trial where the verdict has already been decided beforehand. Ironically, it reminds me more than anything else of the behavour of the British tabloid press.