From Empathy to Suspicion: Britain Reacts to New Twist in Maddie Case

In the five months since Madeleine McCann's disappearance last May, media attention and public support have been relentless. Gerry and Kate McCann's persistence in searching for their daughter has garnered them the empathy of families and celebrities around the globe, who made appeals, distributed flyers or made donations to the Madeleine Fund. (The fund now stands at more than $2 million.)

But since the Portuguese police announced last weekend that Kate and Gerry McCann were officially being designated as suspects in the case, they went from brave victims to possible murderers in the eyes of the public. A chilling swirl of suspicion led by the press has now strained their campaign.

"Did You Kill Her by Accident?" titled the Daily Mirror on Sunday. "Maddie's Hair in Car Boot" led the Daily Mail on Wednesday. As the cameras turn their lenses from Madeleine to her parents, there is a sense among some in the British public of having been tricked. Her baby boy in her arms, Seema Arun told ABC News how the Portuguese police mishandled the investigation. "Why wasn't there an investigation into the parents earlier," she asked. "Why do it now?"

Although the police have been heavily criticized for their shortcomings in the investigation, the press is now sharing the blame. On Monday, BBC Radio 5 Live, one of Britain's most popular morning shows, was forced to abandon a debate on the case after the station was flooded by calls of virulent criticism. "I do not support the BBC helicopter following them all the way home whilst the reporter camped on their front lawn tells me how hard it must be putting up with all the media attention," was one of the comments posted on Radio 5 Live's Web site.

The BBC was not the only network to welcome the McCanns back to England from Portugal. A horde of cameras and satellite trucks was awaiting them in their hometown of Rothley, Leicestershire. In a half day's time, the small village found itself under siege, and the villagers made their disapproval known by shunning reporters. "The press did have the goodwill of the people here," Percy Hartshorn, chairman of Rothley Parish Council, told the London Times, "but it's going fast."

Paradoxically, the media was first welcomed in the case. In the days following Madeleine's disappearance May 3, Kate and Gerry McCann distributed photos of their daughter and gave interviews to all major networks in an effort to boost Madeleine's profile. As the chance to find Madeleine alive appeared to thin with time, the McCanns benefited from the media's help in keeping their daughter's name in the spotlight. Their meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in May was broadcast around the world, and so was the celebration jointly held in Liverpool and Praia da Luz last month, "100 Days Without Madeleine," during which the child's grandparents led a group of supporters in a mass release of balloons.

But for London resident Jeremy Eomanski, attracting so much attention to the Madeleine case was wrong in the first place. "How many kids have gone missing and this one is very blown out of proportion," he told ABC News. "So many resources were put into that little girl, so now they are blaming the Portuguese police."

Gerry McCann's sister, Phylomena, had mixed feelings about the media's involvement in the case. Some journalists, she told BBC Radio, "overstepped their mark." Yet, she said, "if it hadn't been for the help of the media, Madeleine's case might have disappeared."

But the new twist in the investigation has inevitably damaged the McCanns' popularity.

Some donors to the Madeleine Fund were appalled to learn that the couple was looking into ways to legally dip into the fund to cover the fees of their stellar legal team that includes attorney Michael Caplan, who represented ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and renowned criminal attorney Angus McBride. But the McCanns backtracked Wednesday, announcing instead that they would create a separate fund for their defense.

Meanwhile, British tabloids who helped raise Madeleine's profile could be the ones to tarnish the McCanns' reputation. A look at the headlines of one particular newspaper, which led on Saturday with the headline "Death on Mum's Bible," on Sunday with "Forensic Evidence a Bluff" and then on Monday with the accusative "Madeleine: We can prove parents did it," leaves no doubt that the McCanns' close relationship with the press is past turning sour.

The Portuguese prosecution is now reviewing the evidence in Madeleine's case, and themselves may be backtracking. Reports that investigators have tied blood in a rental car the McCanns used to Madeleine were downplayed by Portugal's national police chief who said Monday that the forensic tests on a car were not conclusive.

The coming days should tell whether the suspicion surrounding her parents has irreparably hampered the feverish public determination to find missing Madeleine.