The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann Is an Emotional, Exhaustive Project

The new Netflix documentary series revisits one of the biggest missing-child cases in history.

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

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.

The eeriest thing about watching The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann now is how efficiently it replicates what it was like to experience the story of Madeleine in real time. There was the visceral shock of the news when it first came, the monstrousness of a child being snatched from her bed in a Portuguese resort town while her parents had dinner nearby. The ferocity and hunger with which the media clamped down on the story and did not let go. The first wave of suspects, implicated, named, and damned by the tabloids before they’d so much as set foot inside a police station. The way the story spawned its own particular vernacular, like “the Tapas 7” and arguido. The details and insinuations and defamations and theories, unspooling hourly for audiences who could not get enough of them.

For Smith, who directed the series, this mimicry was intentional. The goal, he told me, was “to take the viewer on the journey that the public went on.” Over eight episodes, available on Netflix on March 15, the series compiles a staggering amount of information, patching together archival news footage and hundreds of hours of new interviews with key figures in the case. It’s granular, but also gripping. In the show, as in real life, the answer to the question of what happened to Madeleine seems to be perpetually, tantalizingly just out of reach.

To be clear, though—and Smith and Cooper, the show’s executive producer, are emphatic on this point—The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann isn’t a true-crime series that has aspirations of “solving” anything, or turning up new evidence, or even reawakening public interest in the case. Rather, they saw it as an opportunity to consider Madeleine’s disappearance in a more holistic way. They felt, Cooper said, that “it was time to look at the case … closely and forensically, in a way that had never been laid out.” The resulting series, like so many works revisiting mass cultural phenomena from the past quarter century, raises as many questions as it answers. How did one missing child become the most enduring news story of the 21st century in Britain? What was it about Madeleine, exactly, that consumed everyone so?

It’s worth noting at this point that Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, declined any involvement with the series. On March 6, they posted a short statement on their website,, saying that they’d been asked to participate by the production company, but that they’d failed to see how the series might aid their ongoing efforts to find their daughter. “Particularly,” the couple wrote, “given there is an active police investigation, [the show] could potentially hinder it.”

Their statement, precise and unemotional, doesn’t reveal much, but it encapsulates a disconnect that’s come to define the story of Madeleine’s disappearance. What the McCanns want—the only thing they want—is to find their daughter. But when it comes to the motivations of everyone else involved (the press, multiple investigators, the public), things get murkier. What’s ironic is that The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann—a series that has its own distinct intentions—lays this all out in unambiguous, lucid detail.

The first episode starts, necessarily, with a recap. In May 2007, Kate and Gerry McCann were British doctors on vacation with their three children in the Portuguese coastal town of Praia da Luz. Over the course of their week-long trip, the group of friends the McCanns were with had established an evening routine. While their children slept in their rented apartments, the parents would have dinner at a tapas restaurant in the resort, 180 feet away. The adults took turns to check on the children every half hour or so. On the night of May 3, Kate McCann got up at about 10 p.m. and went into her children’s room. Madeleine’s blanket and her favorite stuffed animal, a fuzzy pink toy named Cuddle Cat, were sitting on top of her bed, but Madeleine was gone.

Within 24 hours, news of Madeleine’s disappearance had reached the British press. From the very beginning, there was tension between the media covering the case and the police conducting the official investigation. The McCanns sought initially to broadcast information about Madeleine as widely as possible, in the hope that doing so might facilitate her return. That instinct, the former Praia da Luz police chief Gonçalo Amaral says in the series, “puts pressure on the kidnapper, if there is one.” As journalists began arriving in Praia de Luz by the hundreds, the McCanns issued a photo of Madeleine’s face, drawing attention to a distinctive spot on her right iris that would be impossible to disguise or replicate. “As a colleague of ours said, it was a death mark,” Amaral tells the camera, grimly.

The conflict between the media and the police was discernible even then, but what the series illuminates now is just how quickly things came to a head. The British tabloids, jingoistic to a fault, soon began lampooning the Portuguese detectives as lazy and ineffectual, noting the long lunch breaks they took and mocking Amaral in particular for his mustache and his physique. The police, under pressure from the government to solve the case and minimize the impact on Portugal’s lucrative tourism industry, were intent on implicating suspects quickly, despite a dearth of any real evidence.

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann spends substantial time with the journalists and detectives whose work defined how the case was understood and interpreted by the public. Smith and Cooper also interview the initial suspects, Robert Murat and Sergey Malinka, whose names were released by the police and printed by the media with graceless haste, and whose reputations were instantly torched by the heat of the story. As news editors searched frantically for reasons, however tenuous, to put Madeleine on the front page, they cast suspicion on anyone who seemed even remotely indictable. What’s clear in retrospect isn’t just how badly this hurt the people accused—“Coming into this, I had no idea how many people’s lives were affected by this story,” Smith told me—but also how it derailed the efforts to actually find Madeleine.

In the very first episode, Ernie Allen, the former head of the U.S.’s National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, tries to shed some light on why this particular case captured the public interest to such a ferocious extent. It was the particular circumstances, he explains—the middle-class parents on holiday, the irrationally nightmarish scenario of a child being abducted from her bed right under their noses. Far from judging the McCanns for leaving their children unsupervised, many parents at the time empathized. And Kate and Gerry, one journalist explains, were “very attractive from a news editor’s point of view.” As doctors from working-class backgrounds, they were symbols of British aspiration—a story that readers loved to buy into.

But there was also Madeleine herself. She was white. She was blonde. She was impossibly adorable in the images that soon tattooed themselves on the public consciousness: grin-grimacing with toddler enthusiasm in a furry pink tiara, standing shyly in her Everton shirt. The reality of missing-white-woman syndrome is that the media have long been disproportionately fascinated by crime stories featuring white women, while neglecting stories about women of color. In Madeleine’s case, the phenomenon was only amplified by her childhood and her vulnerability. As the series explores in episode 3, the Portuguese media soon began to chafe at the focus on Madeleine over other missing children in the country at the time. The more the McCanns used the media to publicize Madeleine’s disappearance, the greater the resentment became.

None of this, the series makes clear, is to say that the resources invested in finding Madeleine shouldn’t have been spent. And while the show is investing yet more time and energy in exploring Madeleine’s story, Cooper said she hopes it can also draw attention to the children who disappear and aren’t looked for. In one of the later episodes, Cooper and Smith interview a Spanish private detective hired by a benefactor to investigate Madeleine’s disappearance, who mentions how unusual it would be for a middle-class child to be targeted by a kidnapper. “They usually go after lower-class kids, kids from third-world countries,” he says. If they took Madeleine, he says, it’s because her value would have been “really high.”

This statement is disturbing for multiple reasons. On the one hand, it spells out what most people would prefer never to think about—the fact that children are bought and sold every day. On the other, it gets at the fundamental dynamics of why Madeleine’s disappearance became such an all-encompassing story, compared with other missing children: the perceived value of different lives, and the empathy gap in individuals between people who look like them and people who don’t. The distance between children the readers of The Sun and the Mirror could easily liken to their own offspring, and children they couldn’t.

The detective’s remarks also highlight another reality about Madeleine’s case—the value she represented for people who soon saw how they could profit from her disappearance. Gonçalo Amaral, who was removed from her case in disgrace after criticizing the British police and the McCanns in an interview, apparently made £350,000 by publishing a book, The Truth of the Lie, in which in which he reportedly alleged that Madeleine died in the holiday apartment and that the McCanns covered up her death. One of the American private detectives hired to investigate Madeleine’s disappearance, the series details, turned out to be a con man.

But the institution that profited the most, and the one that’s never really been held to account for how wildly it behaved during that period, is the tabloid press. There were headlines insinuating that the McCanns killed Madeleine, that they burned her body, that they threw her into the sea. Smith and Cooper interview Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of The Sun, who blithely details the rules that tabloids live by. “In our world, if there’s a question … it becomes a fact,” he says. “The answer doesn’t matter, right?” National newspapers, in that moment, were all facing off against one another to sell copies to readers who wanted to know what happened to Madeleine, and the only thing that mattered to them was spinning the most enticing story.

“The McCann case,” Brian Cathcart argued in the New Statesman in 2008, “was the greatest scandal in [British] news media in at least a decade.” Even though Madeleine’s disappearance predated social media, it predicted some of the worst excesses that Twitter and Facebook would go on to enable: rampant misinformation, distortion of the facts, the virality of certain news stories. You can debate, as people certainly will, whether it’s appropriate to build a television series around a child who’s never been found, and whether the impulse to revisit the case is distinct from the feverish cultural fascination with Madeleine in 2007. To watch the series in its entirety, though, is to see in sharp, damning, and exhaustive detail all the ways in which a family’s nightmare was transformed and served up for consumption as a public spectacle.