After Madeleine McCann disappeared from a holiday resort in Portugal on May 3, it seemed like the whole world joined in the search. Over four months later, Madeleine is still missing, but the world's attention has shifted. Instead of looking out for the 4-year-old British girl, all eyes are on her parents, who were recently named as official suspects in her disappearance. Now, Kate and Gerry McCann find themselves fighting two battles: one to clear their names, and another to convince everyone that their missing daughter is still the big story. Over the weekend, help came from a brand-new media push and a high-profile cash injection.
On Sept. 15, the McCanns announced the launch of a new ad campaign to reinvigorate the search for Madeleine. Using over $150,000 from Madeleine's Fund which has grown to over $2 million thanks to donations from the public the new campaign will use billboards, newspaper ads and TV spots "to remind everyone that Madeleine is still missing," the family said in a statement.
"The rationale is to focus attention back onto the fact that's been lost in the last couple of months, that a little girl is missing and that her parents are desperate that she be found," says a spokesman for the McCann family about the campaign that's due to start in two weeks and will run in Spain, Portugal and "other European countries." The details are still being ironed out, but it's likely the new initiative will be similar to the one that has been running in England, where billboards show photos of Madeleine and the distinctive mark in her right eye alongside a number people can call with any information. "The campaign is seeking to raise awareness," says the spokesman. "And ask for any assistance that people can give us in finding her."
But while Madeleine's Fund is being used to help find the missing girl, it can't help her parents fight their legal battle. After the Fund directors decided last week not to pay for the family's legal costs making it clear that the McCanns never asked for money from the fund relatives said they would sell their homes to pay the McCanns' legal bills. So Virgin Group head Richard Branson stepped in, announcing that he would donate $200,000 to "kick-start a legal fund" for the McCanns, says his spokeswoman, Jackie McQuillan. "If other businessmen and women also decide to donate something, all the better."
In a statement, Branson stressed that his donation shouldn't be seen as a proclamation of the McCanns' innocence: "In the midst of all of this speculation and rumor, we must remember there is a family in pain and a little four-year-old girl is still missing. We must not lose sight of this fact. It is the only solid fact we know. The search for Madeleine must not let up for one moment." Says McQuillan: "Richard is a family man himself, and he's very conscious of the fact that there are other family members who are all affected by this. He wanted to do a small thing to relieve some of the burden from the family."
Good timing. Changes to Portugal's secrecy laws over the weekend give suspects and third parties who were previously not allowed to know the details of a police investigation greater access to case files, meaning the McCanns' legal team could get hold of the 4,000-page police file on Madeleine's parents sooner than anticipated. So far, the McCanns' lawyers haven't had much to work with. But reports that they got in touch with lawyers for a man in Wisconsin who, in defending their client against murder charges, are challenging evidence uncovered by sniffer dogs, has led to speculation that the McCann team might do the same after "cadaver dogs" who are trained to smell death picked up the scent on several items, including Kate McCann's clothes and Madeleine's soft toy.
Later this week, a Portuguese judge will hand down the ruling on where the case goes from here, including whether or not the police can conduct new searches and call in Kate McCann for another interview. It could take another few weeks, or even months, before any formal charges are made, if they are at all. In the meantime, the McCanns will keep trying to shift the focus away from themselves and back onto the search for their daughter. The world is watching, but it will take more than some new ads to avert its gaze.