Five years ago a young British girl disappeared, leaving her family distraught. She hasn't been seen since.
You wouldn't recognise her name or her face because she wasn't a pretty white child with middle-class professional parents. The world's press didn't descend on the place she was last seen, there were no reconstructions, and innocent bystanders didn't have their lives turned over in a fever of innuendo and accusation. There are no websites today dedicated to finding her.
To be honest, I don't know who she is either. But I know she exists. Every year the police receive 360,000 reports of people who have gone missing in the UK - in case you didn't manage your primary school arithmetic, that's about a thousand every day.
Two thirds of them are under 18, overwhelmingly teenagers, and many are in care.Thankfully, the vast majority are swiftly found safe and well. At any one time, though, about 2,000 people have been missing for more than a year.
In 2007, the year Madeleine McCann vanished, nearly 600 children were abducted from Britain and removed from the country. Some were taken in so-called 'tug of love' cases, some were victims of forced marriage or honour killings, some were trafficked or groomed for the sex trade. What we can surmise from a respected review three years earlier is that some 60 of these children were spirited away by strangers - "every parent's nightmare" as the cliche writers would have it.
And so, on the basis that this works out at an average of five a month, I am making the extravagant assumption that at some time in May 2007, someone abducted a girl who wasn't Madeleine McCann.
With the fifth anniversary of Madeleine's disappearance coming up on Thursday the
mawk machine has been cranked up to full output. The Express has featured the girl in various guises on its front pages six times in the past fortnight, including the preposterous She is Alive heading you see above. How can they possibly write that without so much as a quote mark? The story certainly doesn't justify it, even if the quotes were there.
And the hard news to back this flurry of activity? Well, there isn't any actually. What happened was that Panorama decided to make an anniversary documentary. In the course of filming, a detective was interviewed and expressed the opinion that there was no reason to assume that Madeleine was dead. He also thought it would be good if the Portuguese police were to reopen the case. Every newspaper - even The Times, which has been largely a Madeleine-free zone under James Harding - reported this, some more breathlessly than others.
A noticeable feature of the reports was the restrained response from the McCann camp. Kate and Gerry didn't speak at all (possibly holding their fire for next week); their spokesman said simply that they had been encouraged by the Met's attitude.
So great excitement in Britain. Or at least great excitement in the British press. And then yesterday those horrid foreign coppers had to go and put a damper on it, saying they wouldn't reopen the case unless they had some credible new evidence to go on, rather than speculation and sentimentality. Boo! Hiss!
Most papers reported that, too, today. The Telegraph, Times and Independent all made it a top brief; it was (surprisingly) a page lead in the Guardian and a front page puff and inside page lead in the Express, Sun and Mirror.
Ah no, I've got that wrong. There was one paper that didn't report the Portuguese rebuff: the Mail. But then, it had a full page of Jan Moir under the heading
Miracles do happen - why not for Maddie
in which she says
Let's hope the Portuguese authorities do the decent thing and follow up every single lead that Scotland Yard now unearth. The world would expect the British police to do the same if a Portuguese child went missing here - and you can bet your beat-pounding boots that our cops absolutely would.
Never miss an opportunity for unfounded xenophobia.
But look at the Express today, with its puff
Madeleine: Parents 'hugely encouraged' by new police hunt
The basis for that line is the spokesman's quote on breakfast TV yesterday in response to the policeman's remarks broadcast on Panorama on Wednesday - a little behind the curve.
But the story does at least have the good grace to acknowledge that the Portuguese have said no dice.
Of course what we all wish is that Madeleine was taken by a woman desperate for a child and then cosseted by a warm and devoted family. But we know that is unlikely to be the case. Would such a loving woman simultaneously be so hard-hearted as to torture another family?
So then we get the Natasha Kampusch / Jaycee Lee Dugard camp. She could be alive and have been kept prisoner as some kind of toy or slave. That is the scenario Jan Moir sees as a potential miracle. Jesus!
We have an obsession with anniversaries. Last year we had a letter from the McCanns urging David Cameron to gee up the police; a letter delivered not by the Royal Mail but by the Sun's front page. The Prime Minister dutifully responded with a 'Dear Kate and Gerry' letter (that also quickly found its way into print), promising to ask the Home Secretary to ask the Met to do something. Oh dear. How must all those other families with missing relatives feel? And now the Telegraph is pouncing on the triple joy of the Murdochs at Leveson, the general Cameron discomfort and the Madeleine anniversary to accuse News International of pressuring the Prime Minister into action.
Now all this is just so much fish and chip paper - but the tragedy is that something worthwhile could have been crafted from this fascination with one blonde blue-eyed girl.
In 1986 the estate agent Suzy Lamplugh disappeared as she went to keep an appointment with a client noted in her diary as Mr Kipper. She was never found and was declared dead in 1994. Even so, the hunt goes on for her remains and her killer - with two or three convicted murderers seen as suspects.
As you can see, Miss Lamplugh was an attractive woman, so there was plenty of coverage of her disappearance with all the usual appeals from her parents, Diana and Paul, reconstructions of her last movements etc etc.
But the Lamplughs were pretty extraordinary people. They didn't just weep and wail; they quickly set up the Suzy Lamplugh Trust with the aim of highlighting the risks of single life and offering advice so that people could avoid or reduce danger. A practical example of "We don't want others to suffer as we have".
In the same year Mary Asprey and Janet Newman were inspired by the Lamplugh case to found an organisation to help and support families of missing people. They started in a bedroom and eventually remortgaged their homes to register Missing People as a charity. They are still involved today and also run a sister charity the Missing Foundation. Last week they hosted their annual conference, attended by 250 delegates who discussed practical measures to try to trace missing people and help their families. Total number of national press column inches devoted to coverage of this event: 0.
I am not joining the chorus of damnation surrounding the McCanns. I don't think they are evil cold fish; I don't think they killed their daughter (and, incidentally, I'm aghast at the Yahoo Answers website which asks people "Madeleine McCann: Do you think it was Kate that done her in, or Gerry?). I do think they were irresponsible parents to leave the children alone in the flat, but that's a personal view, and by God they've paid the price. Nor am I condemning the tunnel vision approach of the Find Madeleine campaign and websites. They simply echo those of Ben Needham, the toddler snatched in Kos 21 years ago (we can expect further anniversary fever about him in July). You cannot require every grieving family to be as selfless as the Lamplughs.
But the press doesn't have to follow the one-child agenda.
Wouldn't it be so much better if our newspapers used this anniversary to shine a light on the whole issue of missing people, to look at the continued abductions, grooming and forced repatriations? Just one little fact box with a few statistics would be a start.
Her accident would be worth no more than a filler in the normal course of things. After all, to put it crudely, nobody died.
But Kaya Burgess didn't just turn up at hospital to read to his comatose friend in the hope that she might be aware of something. He also got to work and started to look at how such accidents could be avoided, how roads could be made safer for cyclists.
And so in February, The Times launched its Cyclesafe campaign to coincide with an upcoming parliamentary debate. It was well-prepared and thoughtful. The paper produced an eight-point manifesto it wanted MPs to adopt; writers across the paper added different angles on the joys and pitfalls of life on two wheels; families of cyclists who had been killed told their stories (26 people have died on their bikes so far this year, each one diligently recorded by Burgess).
The issue took off immediately. Within two weeks 30,000 people had expressed support; cities at home and abroad had signed up; MPs had crammed into Westminster Hall for the debate.
Then readers were asked to pinpoint danger spots around the country and this week the paper published a graphic showing 10,000 stretches of road deemed too risky for cyclists. The editor presented the evidence to a Transport Select Committee inquiry into road safety on Tuesday - at the very moment his former boss James Murdoch was being questioned at the High Court about the conduct of the press. The MPs promised to look further. We can but hope.
Of course no paper other than The Times reported Harding's appearance at the committee; they had other fish to fry. But this is a campaign that will affect their readers as well as those of the News International pariahs. It is worthy of wider dissemination.
And so, you see, it is perfectly possible to take one girl or one woman's great misfortune and turn it into a force for a greater good.
Madeleine McCann is a phenomenon. If you google her name you get 65,500 results in 0.14 seconds. Wouldn't it be wonderful if just one paper could harvest a pebble of wisdom from the sea of sentimentality we can expect next Thursday.
Thank you for sticking with it to the end. Please do share your thoughts below. And please take a look at the other posts. They are all media related.
Sold down the river the Beeb's flotilla and fireworks fiasco - and a feeble fightback. Why didn't the top man have his hand on the tiller?
Hello and goodbye to Wapping a personal diary of life inside the fortress in the days before the strike that changed newspapers forever
Out of print a love letter to newspapers in this digital age. Why they don't have to die if we have the will to let them live and thrive
Why local newspapers matter Why we should care about the revolution in the regional press
Riding for a fall Does buying a ticket for a jolly day out at the races mean you are fair game for the snobs who sneer and snipe?
Just a pretty face Illustrating the business pages isn't the easiest job in the world, but spare us the celebs who aren't even mentioned in the story
Food for thought a case study in why we should take health advice with a pinch of salt (and a glass of red wine and a helping of roast beef)
The world's gone mad Don Draper returns and the drooling thirtysomethings go into overdrive But does anybody watch the show? (But there is more Whipple in this post!)