The McCanns: guilty or not guilty? If ever we needed proof that our culture has blurred the lines between reality and reality TV, this is it.

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

A little girl has been missing for 150 days, apparently snatched from her bed while she slept.

Meanwhile, some media pundits and members of an overtaxed police force feed off - or fend off - each other, trying to protect their respective reputations.

We don't yet know what happened to little Madeleine on that summer's night in a quiet corner of Portugal. Indeed, we don't honestly know whether her parents are guilty of any crime or not.

But we do know that sections of the Portuguese police and the international media have added to the emotional turmoil of Madeleine's parents, all for the sake of reputation.

The most unsettling aspect of this whole affair is that it involves, on the one hand, a police task force that is desperate to find a culprit. And on the other hand, it features a media pack that's desperate to keep the story alive and interesting.

In it all, two normally trusted public institutions have often acted as if they are above account to anyone; both have succumbed to peddling assumptions as facts in order to achieve, in the short-term, selfish ends.

Normally, in any investigation which captures the public imagination, it is the police who will complain about improper use of the media. Family members sharing details of the case with the media can interfere with the course of their investigations and prejudice any judicial process that might arise.

The international media took an interest in this case from the very beginning. This is not surprising, for several reasons. First, the parents of this missing child are both middle-class professionals; not the kinds of people we normally associate, for some reason, with situations like this. There was novelty value in this.

Second, the parents - and their friends - looked good and carried themselves well on camera, despite the pressures they were under. So, there was never a shortage of friends or family members who could be interviewed for TV.

Third, the site of the alleged abduction was a family oriented holiday enclave in sunny Portugal; not a place we associate with major crime.

To some people, that is the most haunting aspect of the story - that the crime took place in a seemingly safe place, suggesting that it could happen to anyone, which of course it can.

Now, there were obvious advantages for the family in the media's involvement, at least in the beginning. Through their dealings with the media Kate and Gerry McCann were able, very skilfully, to enlist a huge international army of volunteers in the search for their child.

They were also able to make brief contact with the Pope, something which must have been very comforting for them as practising Catholics. They probably could not have hoped to see him had it not been for the international media interest.

But the media attention carried a sting in its tail - as it always does.