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Understanding the controversy behind Netflix’s Madeleine McCann documentary

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Kayleigh Dray
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Netflix’s Madeleine McCann documentary

The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann focuses on their daughter’s disappearance, but Kate and Gerry McCann have condemned the series.

Netflix’s newest true crime documentary, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, became available to watch on the streaming network last week, without much fanfare. Unlike Netflix’s other documentary efforts, there was little to no promotion: indeed, the series only got a trailer and a release date on Thursday 14 March – just one day before all eight episodes dropped.

As was always bound to happen with such a high-profile case, the documentary aired to mixed reviews. Some described it as “bloated and manipulative”. Others damned it as a “moral failure”, insisting the eight-part series had set out to rehash old events and news reports with no real purpose other than to capitalise on them. 

On the flipside, though, there were those who praised the documentary for this very same reason, insisting its careful retelling of the world’s most high-profile missing child was the best way to help “set the facts straight”. To provide a “staggering amount of information”. To, above all else, eerily and efficiently replicate “what it was like to experience the story of Madeleine in real time”.

According to executive producer Emma Cooper and director Chris Smith, this mimicry was entirely intentional. Speaking to The Atlantic, they explained that the show’s goal was “to take the viewer on the journey that the public went on” and “look at the case… closely and forensically, in a way that had never been laid out.”

Is it any wonder, then, that the first episode of this controversial series starts with a recap? 

On the evening of 3 May 2007, Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, had decided to dine with seven of their friends at a nearby tapas restaurant (the press would later refer to the group as the Tapas 9). Based some 55 metres away from the holiday apartment in which Madeleine and her two younger siblings lay sleeping, the couple left the apartment’s patio doors closed but unlocked, with the curtains drawn, so that they could let themselves in at regular intervals throughout the night to check on the children.

When Madeleine’s father carried out the first check at 9.05pm, the children were asleep and all was well. When Kate conducted her own check at 10pm, though, she noticed that the children’s bedroom door and window were both wide open. Within a few moments, she realised that Madeleine was gone.

The search that followed became one of the most high-profile missing person cases ever. Indeed, after the initial investigation by Portuguese officials came to a standstill, Scotland Yard launched their own, which remains ongoing as another £150,000 was granted to the probe last November.

However, while the police and Maddie’s parents have campaigned tirelessly for information, they are still no closer to finding out where Madeleine is, or what happened that night in Praia Da Luz.

So what is Netflix’s The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann about?

“A couple’s grief over their daughter’s disappearance is compounded by a frenzied media and a detective’s mistaken belief that they played a part,” reads Netflix’s official synopsis for The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

A spokesperson for the streaming service added: “By blending new interviews with more than 40 contributors, 120 hours of interviews, archival news footage and reenactments, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann goes beyond the headlines and takes a unique look at the facts of the case as well as its impact on media standards around the world.”

Watch the trailer for Netflix’s The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann below:

Who appears in Netflix’s The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann?

In a similar vein to The Staircase and Abducted in Plain Sight, The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann – which became available on the streaming platform at 8am on 15 March 2019 – features some 40 experts and key figures linked to the case.

And, according to Netflix, we can expect “never-before-heard testimonies from those at the heart of the story including friends of the McCann family, investigators working the case and from those who became the subject of media speculation and rumour”.

The list of key interviewees involved in the documentary includes:

  • Kelvin MacKenzie: Former editor of The Sun newspaper who clashed with the McCanns over the media’s standards when covering the case.
  • Jim Gamble: Senior child protection officer, who hints that Madeleine could still be alive and found with the help of improved technology. “There’s huge hope to be had with the advances in technology. Year on year DNA is getting better. Year on year other techniques, including facial recognition, are getting better,” he says in the series. “And as we use that technology to revisit and review that which we captured in the past, there’s every likelihood that something we already know will slip into position.”
  • Martin Grime: Forensic dog trainer who brought his blood-and cadaver-sniffing dogs to Praia da Luz.
  • David Hughes: PR advisor hired by the McCanns after they returned to England.
  • Ernie Allen: Former president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
  • Sandra Felgueiras: Journalist with RTP (Rádio e Televisão de Portugal) who covered the McCann case.
  • Robert Murat: Local Portuguese-British man who was declared arguido, or suspect, in the McCann case. His arguido status was lifted due to lack of evidence.
  • Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan: Investigative journalists who co-wrote Looking for Madeleine, a 2015 book about the McCann case.
  • Sergey Malinka: Russian immigrant who was questioned by the polícia judiciária because of his business relationship with Robert Murat.
  • Paulo Pereira Cristóvão: Former detective with the polícia judiciária.
  • Patrícia de Sousa Cipriano: Lawyer and president of the Portuguese Association of Missing Children.
  • Justine McGuinness: PR advisor to the McCanns.
  • Homayra Sellier: President of Innocence in Danger, an organisation that works to protect children from abuse and exploitation.
  • Margarida Davim: Journalist who co-authored the controversial Pact of Silence article, claiming the Tapas 9 had omitted information from their statements in a bid to protect the McCanns, which was published in a Portuguese newspaper.
  • Felícia Cabrita: Portuguese investigative journalist who co-authored the Pact of Silence article and is known for reporting on Portugal’s Casa Pia child abuse case.
  • Phil Hall: Former newspaper editor who worked as a PR consultant for the McCanns.
  • Jayne Jensen: Tourist at the Ocean Club Resort who reported seeing two strange men shortly before Madeleine disappeared.
  • Susan & Haynes Hubbard: Friends of the McCanns.
  • Gonçalo Amaral: Former chief investigating coordinator with the polícia judiciária in Portimão.
  • Brian Kennedy: Businessman and McCann benefactor who funded independent investigations into Madeleine’s disappearance.
  • Patrick Kennedy: Brian Kennedy’s son. He travelled with investigators to follow leads in the McCann case.
  • Rogério Alves: Lawyer for Kate and Gerry McCann.
  • Julian Peribañez: Spanish private investigator who went to the Algarve to try to uncover new information.
  • Melissa Little: Police forensic artist who sketched strange men witnesses say they spotted near the Ocean Club Resort.
  • Richard Parton: Freelance voice analyst hired by Washington, DC-based detective agency Oakley International.

Kate and Gerry McCann pose with an artist’s impression of how their daughter might look now at the age of nine ahead of a press conference in central London on May 2, 2012 (LEON NEAL/AFP/GettyImages).

Why has Netflix’s Madeleine McCann documentary been deemed controversial?

The documentary was originally met with controversy when Kate and Gerry McCann – insisting that the series could prove detrimental to the ongoing investigation – declined to be interviewed on camera.

“We are aware that Netflix is planning to screen a documentary in 2019 about Madeleine’s disappearance,” they said in a statement.

“We did not see – and still do not see – how this programme will help the search for Madeleine and, particularly given there is an active police investigation, it could potentially hinder it.”

The statement continued: “Consequently, our views and preferences are not reflected in the programme. We will not be making any further statements or giving interviews regarding this programme.”

It is also worth noting that others have criticised the documentary maker’s decision to include an interview with Gonçalo Amaral, the Portuguese officer who criticised the British police, wrongly claimed MI5 had involvement in hiding Madeleine’s body, and made the missing girl’s parents Kate and Gerry McCann “arguidos” or official suspects.

Amaral was later sued for defamation after he penned a damning book, The Truth of the Lie, in which he claimed that Madeleine had died in an accident and that her parents had covered it up. However, while an injunction against the book was issued in 2009 and the McCanns won the libel action six years later, the ruling was overturned on appeal and that decision upheld by Portugal’s Supreme Court in 2017.

The McCanns are now challenging Amaral at the European Court of Human Rights after they were ordered to pay him £750,000 compensation.

Why was Netflix’s Madeleine McCann documentary delayed?

The documentary was originally set for release last year. However, it was delayed to 2019 as it was decided it wasn’t ready to be viewed by the public.

Others have suggested that the release date was pushed back because key figures in the case repeatedly refused to take part. As such, the Guardian has speculated that the show will “lean heavily on interviews with the Portuguese officials who originally investigated the case, many of whom have since established media careers discussing the incident.”

The Disappearance Of Madeleine McCann became available on Netflix from Friday 15 March. This article was originally published on that same date, but has been updated to reflect the response of both the press and the general public.

Image: Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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