The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann

last updated: 22 March 2019 (approximate reading time: 4 minutes; 833 words)

There’s a new Netflix documentary: The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann. The title tells you what you’re going to get.

Now you know the basic outline of the content, should you watch it? In short, probably not, but let me tell you a bit about it before you make up you mind.

What Happened?

Madeleine McCann disappeared on the evening of 3 May 2007 in Praia da Luz, Portugal.

This basic fact is the situation as it was on 4 May 2007 and is the situation as it is today. I’ve written before about the three plausible options for her disappearance. Those three options remain the same today.

The fundamental challenge with any retelling of the Madeleine McCann story is that there has been no new evidence since her disappearance. So, if there’s no new evidence, why has there been a documentary?

In short because lots has happened. However, none of the events since 3 May 2007 has done anything to answer the basic question: what happened to Madeleine?

The Documentary

The documentary runs through the events since 3 May 2007—the investigation by the Portuguese police, two detective agencies, and the British police. It looks at the suspects, the theories (however crazy), and the near-real time media commentary.

Apart from the representatives of the child protection agencies, very few individuals or organizations come out with any level of dignity. Two organizations seem to be particularly singled out for criticism: the Portuguese police and the media (both local Portuguese and the international media).

The People

The documentary is primarily constructed from talking head commentaries. These commentaries have then been edited and woven into a narrative. In other words, someone is making editorial decisions around what story is told.

The individuals who chose to participate were, at best, only peripheral to events and, at worst, have little credibility. The McCanns did not participate, nor did any of their friends. Those bit part players who are involved seem more interested in their own reputation, expressing their poor view of the McCanns, or talking about the product they have to sell.

If these individuals were interviewed by the documentary’s producers, we do not know what questions were asked, nor do we have any idea of the context in which the answers were given. Any inconsistencies are rebutted by a different individual giving a different take—at no point is any individual directly challenged about their account.

The talking head who was most closely involved in the case is former Inspector Gonçalo Amaral who led the initial investigation. While he offers firsthand experience, Amaral was fired by the Portuguese police and was subsequently involved in a legal battle with the McCann family. This context and the clear animosity felt by many in the documentary toward Amaral leaves the former detective’s contribution feeling like a man justifying past mistakes and settling scores.

After Amaral many of the contributions are from journalists. Some were in Praia da Luz in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance and reported on the case; others began their investigations at a later stage. Some of these journalists cite Amaral as the source for some of their reports.

I found the journalists particularly troubling. None has any firsthand knowledge of what happened—only the person responsible for the child’s disappearance has that knowledge. However, they all appeared to believe they know better and had knowledge that was not backed by evidence.

Most seemed to believe they could divine the truth by observation. For the journalists, it was a simple link: I observed this person behaving in this manner and so I knew [something they then assert] because a person in this situation would always behave in this manner. Of course, what they thought they knew was pure conjecture based on hunches, prejudices, personal fears, and so on.

Having been wrong—and been proved to be manifestly incorrect—these people did not then reconsider and question their own judgement. Worse, these self-proclaimed human lie detectors then seemed utterly incapable of even suspecting when their sources lied to them. And none acknowledged any personal culpability in fostering a climate where the focus shifted from looking from a missing child to one where dirt was dug up on anyone who looked different.

Should You Watch this Documentary?

In short, I’d give it a miss.

The documentary is a reminder of events, but ultimately it’s an unsatisfactory telling. Maybe it’s an object lesson in the failures of the press, but that aspect is somewhat peripheral.

The documentary doesn’t shed any light or add new information—it merely repeats the details known on 4 May 2006 and then mixes in a lump of conjecture and conspiracy nonsense. It doesn’t move a step forward to finding Madeleine and it doesn’t analyze any of the failures such that there can be a learning from these mistakes.


Madeleine McCann will be sixteen years old in May (2019).

If she’s still alive, then her welfare must be our prime concern, and this documentary seems remarkably unconcerned about her best interests.

Filed under

Category: books, tv, and movies
People: Madeleine McCann