Hoaxes and false hope: The unbearable taunting of Kate and Gerry McCann.

A little blonde girl with a ruler-straight fringe and a direct gaze is in a hospital elevator, in the north of England. 

She is in the arms of a woman who clearly, if judged by age alone, is not her mother. 

Heads turn. This little girl looks so familiar. 

Her face, after all, is everywhere. Something terrible has happened to her. 

"She looks a lot like..." One person starts, leaning towards the child. 

"That girl in Portugal..."

"That Maddie..."


It was 2007. My mum was holding my niece in her arms, taking the toddler to visit her baby brother for the very first time. 

My niece, of course, wasn’t the girl on every newspaper's front page, every news bulletin, every news site. She was one of thousands of children who was being looked at just a little more closely than usual, that week, that month, that year.

The UK was in a fever about the disappearance of a Scottish girl who, on holiday in Praia de Luz with her family, had vanished without a trace. Taken from her bed.  

It was the kind of story that captivated a nation. Eventually, a world. 

My mum held her granddaughter closer. "It’s not her," she said. None of those examined little faces were her, then. 

In 2023, we've now been looking for Madeleine McCann for almost 16 years. Every so often a spasm of viral excitement revives the search, pushes her name back into headlines, reignites theories.


It happened this week. A young Polish woman, Julia Wendell, has been posting on Instagram under the account name @iammadeleinemcann.

Read more: A 21yo Polish woman is claiming to be Madeleine McCann. She isn't the first person to do so.

This is what she’s been saying. 

There are no photographs of her as a small child, and that her mother has no record of being pregnant with her. 

She is a survivor of child sexual abuse. 

She shares some physical similarities to Madeleine, including, "a defect in my eye, in the same eye, the kind of defect Madeleine had. Except that in my case it’s faded more and more every year."

She also says she's been "begging" the Polish and British police to interview her. And is 'desperate' to get in touch, directly with Madeleine's parents. 

The headlines are vivid. The Facebook groups and Twitter threads have been throbbing with excitement. 

And, as ever, what follows a 'development' in the long and twisty story of one little girl’s vanishing is the relentless abuse and trolling of her parents, Kate and Gerry McCann. 

 Kate and Gerry McCann in 2017. Image: Getty.


There are some things you do not want to be famous for under any circumstances.

And one of them is for being the grieving parents of a lost child.

These two humans - and the rest of their family, including their now 18-year-old twins - have been through the worst thing imaginable and dared to survive. Worse, they've been blamed for it. And under suspicion for more than a decade. 

There are podcasts about them. Books. Several high-production-value documentaries. They've been played by actors in a mini-series. There are countless Facebook groups and Reddit threads and Quora chats and social posts. 

They have endured the kind of trolling and abuse reserved for actual murderers, over and again. They have been labelled negligent parents, callous opportunists, paedophiles. They have been called gold diggers, fraudsters, snobs, quacks. Their parenting has been scrutinised and dissected in a way that very few of us would survive. 


And Kate and Gerry have lived under a thick cloud of suspicion that it was them, all along. That they did something unspeakable to their own daughter, Madeleine, when she was three.

It's hard to imagine surviving any of that. But of course, they have. What choice is there? They have kids to raise, they have a life to live, and they have a mission - to find out what really did happen to Madeleine.

This week, all the noise and abuse started up once more, when Wendall became only the latest young woman to use social media to claim they are the stolen girl. Not even the first, after TikTok went through a viral McCann imposter phase a year or so ago. 

Wendall has been publicly begging the McCanns to respond to her. 

Imagine, the online world screeched, imagine not even giving a DNA sample to this poor abused girl. Imagine not wanting to rule this out. Imagine not rushing to Poland on the first flight to make sure, with your own eyes, that this isn’t your girl. Your baby. Your flesh and blood. 

The screeching is about other things, too. It treads the same old ground. Why haven’t these people ever been charged with negligence for having dinner with friends while their kids slept in an unattended hotel room, 50 metres away? They are monsters. They deserve it all. 

Listen to Mamamia's daily news podcast The Quicky. Post continues below.

The likelihood of the real Madeleine McCann, if she still walks this earth, needing to reach her desperate parents via an Instagram account is almost laughably ridiculous. The idea that she would need to beg them for a DNA match, when all of Maddie’s DNA and family DNA has been on record with international law enforcement agencies for over a decade is also ridiculous. The idea that no-one, anywhere, is invested enough in finding a resolution to this mystery to check her story out, is worse. 


But we’ve lost sight of all that. 

In a rush of DIY sleuthing, fuelled by our obsession with 'true crime', we know best, now. 

Two weeks ago, a grown woman went missing in Lancashire, northern England. One minute, she was taking a work call while walking her dog. The next, she was gone. 

The police, as police have always done, released news of Nicola Bulley's disappearance. And the particular details, and the absence of others, set something alight on social media. The investigation to find Nicola was severely hampered by an influx of armchair detectives who went to such extreme lengths to be the ones who could claim to "solve" this case that TikToks were posted of people digging up woodland and a group of men who had travelled from another city had to be dispersed outside Nicola's home. 

The body of Nicola Bulley was found on February 20, close to where she was last seen. We might never know exactly what happened to her, but the official position of the authorities tasked with providing answers - real answers - to her loved ones, is that there are no suspicious circumstances, and no evidence of a crime.

It doesn't matter. The damage was done. For Bulley's relatives, the intrusion they've suffered from the media and the furore it stoked has made an impossible situation unbearable. 


Just as it has for the McCanns, for years. 

Madeline McCann’s name has become shorthand for a generation of parents. An efficient way to convey a cautionary tale. And everyone who remembers the face of that little girl has a theory about what happened to her. 

To attention-seekers and injured parties she’s a cypher - a phantom you can try on to work through your own unthinkable trauma. A way to momentarily receive the attention you know you deserve and are not getting. 

But Madeleine McCann is not a phenomenon, or a fictional character. She is all too real. 

The McCanns have not dodged this spotlight. 

They always wanted heads to turn towards my niece and my mum in that hospital elevator, back in 2007. It was the whole point of making themselves so very famous. The only point. 

The McCanns have sacrificed the dignity of their own lives in the search for their daughter. 

Their decision to go so public with their faces, voices, their story, their family, to continue to make appearances for the media, year in and out, showing computer-generated, age-progressed imaginings of the little girl lost so long ago, is an act of extreme love. 

An act of extreme love that the world repays, over and again, with suspicion and abuse. 

It's time for the taunting to stop.

Feature Image: Getty.

Can’t live without your phone or the internet? Take our survey now and you go in the running to win a $100 gift voucher!