by Dr Elizabeth Yardley, Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University

Ten years ago, three-year-old Madeleine McCann disappeared from a holiday apartment in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz. Though physically absent, she became a permanent presence in mainstream media and public consciousness. Both visible and invisible, seen and unseen, clear and blurred.

She embodies the concept of the ideal victim[1] – someone seen as completely innocent, vulnerable and deserving of our sympathy when they become the victim of crime. We were less willing to assign this status to her parents. Kate and Gerry McCann’s actions in leaving their three children in their apartment whilst they dined out with friends provided fodder for years’ worth of social commentary. Intense and ongoing scrutiny of this couple’s transgression from what mothers and fathers ‘should’ do represented an opportunity for a favourite contemporary pastime – smugly judging other people’s parenting.

The cost to the public purse of investigating Madeleine’s disappearance and the level of exposure around her case has brought into sharp focus the reality that some missing appear to be more valued than others. Tuesday 3rd May is the 14 year anniversary of the disappearance of seven-year-old Daniel Entwistle from Great Yarmouth. Patrick Warren and David Spencer, just 11 and 13, went missing from Birmingham in 1996. Elizabeth Ogungbayibi was five when she went missing from Manchester in 2006. Mariam Ashraff from Newcastle, also disappeared in 2006 when she was just 14. Would you have recognised those names? Probably not.

However, it is not Madeleine or her parents’ fault that their case has attracted so much attention whilst the cases of Daniel, Elizabeth, Mariam, Patrick and David have not. For this we can look to wider social and cultural factors that combine to create what criminologists call ‘hierarchies of victimization’.

This is basically a spectrum of media and official narratives along which different types of crime and victim are positioned. ‘Ideal victims’ like Madeleine sit right at the top of the pecking order because they embody ‘missing white girl syndrome’. This is described by the academic Sarah Stillman, “The phenomenon typically involves round the clock coverage of disappeared young females who qualify as ‘damsels in distress’ by race, class and other relevant social variables”[2].

Gender and ethnicity are a big deal when it comes to missing children. Social class is also crucially important. Going missing from a council estate does nothing for your status as a victim or the newsworthiness of your case, as the disappearance of Patrick Warren and David Spencer demonstrates.

We even make judgements about the characters of missing children, implicating some in their own victimization whilst continuing to highlight the innocence of others. Shortly after 13-year-old Milly Dowler went missing in 2002, a body was found at an abandoned cement works near to Tilbury docks. It soon emerged that the body was that of 14-year-old Hannah Williams. But Hannah didn’t generate any more than a few column inches in the inside pages of our newspapers. She was presented as culpable – she had ‘run away before’. This, combined with the fact that she had been raised by a single mother on a low income highlighted the runaway narrative in which she’d made a decision to leave and quashed any notion of her having been taken away or taken advantage of. Her background denied her the status of an ‘ideal victim’ worthy of our sympathy. Her name soon faded into the ether and if she was remembered at all it was as the body that ‘wasn’t Millie’.

Writing about Hannah’s case in 2002, Martin Bright argued, “There are certain rules in the missing person’s game. Don’t be a boy, don’t be working class, don’t be black. As for persistent runaways, children in care or teenagers with drugs problems, forget it”. Sadly, 15 years on, these comments are still all too accurate.

Hierarchies of victimization have existed for many years. However, since Madeleine went missing, there have been many shifts in how we consume stories of missing children. In the early days following Madeleine’s disappearance, we may have picked up a newspaper, tuned into breakfast television or read stories on our clunky desktop or cumbersome laptop computers to find out what was happening. However, in recent years, social media have become ubiquitous, mobile internet is a norm and we can access information as soon as someone puts it out there – whether or not this information is accurate.

Not only can we access the Madeleine story at the swipe of a screen – we can now contribute to it in ways that were not so common in 2007. We are now active participants in shaping the narrative around these cases by posting a comment on an online news article, writing a blog post, tweeting or joining a Facebook group. These are just some of the ways in which we are now producing as well as consuming stories about missing children – to use Ritzer and Jurgenson’s term, we are now all prosumers[3].

Madeleine disappeared at the dawn of the social media era. Her image has become iconic, she’s immediately recognisable. The case provides fertile ground for online gossip, speculation and all too often defamation. Kate and Gerry McCann have become the targets of judgement, hatred and vitriol. They have been abused by social media trolls for years, many of whom have never faced any consequences for their actions, shielded by anonymity, their campaigns of harassment intensified by the toxic disinhibition that characterises this type of activity. The case is also hotly debated in online forums as websleuths – the twenty first century’s answer to the armchair detective – trawl through the information available in the public domain, investigate, speculate and theorise. Over the past decade, Madeleine has become public property, people see themselves as stakeholders in her disappearance with a ‘right’ to their views and theories – no matter now fanciful.

Madeleine’s case is hungrily consumed like a long running crime drama. We the audience eagerly anticipate the ending. But do we really want to know what happened? I would argue that in our contemporary ‘wound culture’, no – some people don’t. Speculating about what happened and whodunit has become a form of macabre entrainment. ‘Wound culture’[4], Mark Seltzer argues, describes a pathological public, one drawn to the trauma and suffering of other people. Culture implies something learned, shared and transmitted – something that we do collectively, something that brings people together. Essentially we gather around other people’s misery. Ask someone at the bus stop or in the pub about their views on Madeleine’s disappearance and many will gladly chat away for ages. Madeleine has gone from missing girl to leisure activity in the depressive hedonia[5] of the twenty first century – a distraction from the mundane realities of our everyday lives in late capitalist society.

In our collective obsession with Madeleine’s disappearance and the noise generated around the case, we have stopped seeing her for what she is – a little girl who disappeared. In so doing we have sunk further into our state of interpretive denial about other missing children. We know other children go missing but we construe their disappearances in ways that justify not caring about them. They ran away. They chose to disappear. They were trouble. They came from ‘challenging’ circumstances. But let’s face facts – a missing child is a missing child, whether you believe they were taken away, ran away, fell away, were thrown or pushed away. All missing children matter, all missing children are vulnerable.

So what can you do? There are many ways to help. Support charities like the NSPCC, Barnado’s and the Children’s Society who work with children and families in difficult circumstances. Find a case of a missing child and raise awareness on social media. Follow @MissingPeople on Twitter and share their appeals. Just as Madeleine didn’t vanish off the face of the earth neither did these children. They are not just missing but missing from the public consciousness. That’s the shameful reality here. Let’s start to change it.



[1] Christie, N. (1986). The ideal victim. In E. A. Fattah (Ed.), From crime policy to victim policy: Reorienting the justice system (pp. 17–30). Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.ristie, N. (1986).

[2] Stillman, S. (2007). ‘The missing white girl syndrome’: disappeared women and media activism. Gender & Development15(3), p. 492.

[3] Ritzer, G., & Jurgenson, N. (2010). Production, consumption, prosumption: The nature of capitalism in the age of the digital “Prosumer.” Journal of Consumer Culture, 10(1), 13–36.

[4] Seltzer, M. (2007). True crime: Observations on violence and modernity. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

[5] Hall, S. and Winlow, S. (2015). Revitalizing Criminological Theory: Towards a new ultra-realism. London: Routledge.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.