The day I interviewed Emma Cooper and Chris Smith about their Netflix series, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, yet another story about Madeleine happened to be in the U.K. tabloids. “Madeleine McCann abductor walked right past Irish family carrying the missing girl minutes after snatching her,” read the headline in The Sun. The Mirror, the Daily Star, and the Daily Record all ran versions of the same story, taking a minor comment from an American criminal profiler on an Australian podcast about Madeleine’s disappearance and presenting it as news—the potential “key” to solving a crime that’s perplexed law enforcement and consumed the British media for almost 12 years.
It’s hard to explain to people who weren’t in Britain in 2007 what living through the Madeleine McCann news cycle was like. At the time, the 3-year-old’s face was everywhere a picture could ever be replicated—on T-shirts, on posters, on fliers adorning car windshields, on banners over soccer stadiums, on every front page of every paper every day, on a giant inflatable billboard the News of the World commissioned to publicize its £1.5 million reward for information leading to Madeleine’s return. One particular image, in which Madeleine stares at the camera curiously, all wispy blond bangs and baby teeth and guilelessness, felt more familiar to me that year than the faces of my own family. People I knew, strangers to the McCanns, cried when they talked about Madeleine. It felt like the biggest story U.K. newspapers had ever experienced. It never seemed to end. It never did; Madeleine remains missing, and the investigation into her disappearance continues to this day.