Remote Viewing

Every few months the British media spotlights a missing schoolgirl. The younger and blonder the better, her photo appears constantly next to updates on the police search - even if the update is that the police are still searching.

Everyone knows she's almost certainly dead on the first day, but there's an unwritten rule forbidding anyone to say it.

Exactly like soap-opera addicts who can see the plot twist coming but wait on tenterhooks for it anyway, the viewing public follow the unfolding drama day-by-day. It's a familiar formula now, of parents reading prepared statements at press conferences, high ranking police officers appealing for leads while talking vaguely about already having promising ones, and journalists conducing pointless interviews with anyone who knew the victim.

There's a constant tone adopted across the media of the entire nation being united in grief and desperately hoping against hope that one ordinary family will resume their unnewsworthy lives.

Other unwritten rules are now firmly in place. The police obviously suspect the parents first of all, but the television never does - and if it turns out the parents are guilty, it's presented as a shocking bolt from the blue. Dark hints are dropped that the girl was kidnapped for sexual purposes, but the possibility is made more scary by being only implicit.

Ten days ago, three year old Madeleine McCann went missing in the Algarve. Little more than an hour later, the Praia da Luz holiday resort was swarming with camera crews, and I ate my breakfast watching police and reporters run around it.

By evening, there was an unidentified "strong lead", which was never mentioned again.

On the third day, the BBC News channel spent 45 minutes broadcasting live pictures of an empty back garden, while a voiceover informed us that the parents were due to make a statement soon. When it came, the father thanked the police, reiterated that he and his wife were devastated, and again begged for the public to come forward with information.

Yesterday, the police again admitted they had no leads, this time blaming the public for giving them too much information to process. A journalist tentatively asked whether it was worth spending more that two million pounds on a completely blind search, and received the weak (though true) response that all we can do is keep looking.

Today, it's headline news that the parents prayed in a Portuguese church for their daughter's return. Various celebrities have between them offered GBP1.5M for information leading to the Madeleine's discovery - interesting that they're now talking about "discovery" instead of "return".

And so the latest iteration of a much told story is nearing it's end. The cycle generally lasts about two weeks, wringing every last drop of wracking stage managed emotion from the audience - before winding down into the despondent attitude that nothing more can be done, as the story gets stale.

It goes through chapters of sympathy for the parents, displaced maternal instinct for the child, rage at the presumed abductor, a strange desire for revenge on people "like him", plucky but foolish hope against the odds, and finally the sense that your world has just caved in and you're falling with it.

It's like an overblown classical Tragedy, experienced at one remove through doom laden TV reports and hysterical newspaper columns. But unlike classical tragedy, the experience isn't cathartic.

It's...goulish, perhaps because somehow the murder of a child and the breaking of a family gets lost in all the noise.

Update: On the eleventh day, there were headlines screaming blame at the British police for not having found a single suspect.

On the twelfth day, the police tried to repair their damaged public image by finding a suspect. They chose the man who's been working with them as translator in liaising with the Portuguese police for the last twelve days. Then they let him go because they had absolutely no evidence against him. Which does rather beg the question why they arrested him in the first place, but we know the answer to that one.

The parents have chosen to believe their daughter is alive and being well treated. Well, if it helps them deal with their loss, so be it.

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