This week, Portuguese police have issued a new e-fit of a man they say they want to interview in relation to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. This picture now stands on the front of every newspaper, website and television bulletin in the country. The e-fits produced are supposed to be two images of the same man. But they look totally different. Their eyes are different. Their eyebrows are different. Their cheekbones are different. Their hairline is different. Needless to say, they leave room for ambiguity.
Furthermore, the images of the “man” are being broadcast because, according to police, he represents a crucial lead and it is of “vital importance” the man in the images is identified and interviewed. According to Det Ch Insp Andy Redwood, the man “may or may not be key”. He conceded that “Whilst this man may or may not be the key to unlocking this investigation, tracing and speaking to him is of vital importance to us.”
This image has unfortunately triggered no memories from the public as of yet, although Portuguese police seem confident. But the whole effort seems futile, considering the resort’s population of 30,000 people - not including the resort's influx of thousands of holiday-makers per year. It seems like we’re searching for a needle in a haystack.
The image, however, embodies so much more about public perceptions of the media, who feed off the fact that, in terms of the investigation, no one really knows anything. This new e-fit seems only to be a symptom of our affinity with the popular press, providing the audience with a daily dose of vicarious participation in a ‘criminal drama’. This seems to have steadily developed into a trial by media, sustained by the rhetoric that encourages the audience to ‘take sides’.
Public images of this little girl’s face have become less of a trigger to find her than a cultural reference for the public representation of crime and justice. And furthermore, unless she’s found this could go on for years to come. Above all, the image portrays an awful fact of human nature, and an emotional weakness, that drives the sales of so many newspapers.
It is a frailty that is at the heart of politics, and our analysis of how to deal with that frailty determines such things as taxation, and public spending, and our whole concept of social justice and the redistribution of wealth. So, when you look into the eyes of this man, we’re not just speculating on, but becoming part of, a media circus - once again.