'I had never worked on a news story that so divided opinion': Mary Nightingale on the resolve of Gerry and Kate McCann

The story of Madeleine McCann has always prompted extreme emotions - from both ends of the spectrum: those appalled by the tragedy that engulfed a young family, and those who’ve always insisted there was more to it – that Gerry and Kate were guilty of neglect, at least - and maybe worse…

Before Brexit split the nation almost a decade later, I had never worked on a news story that so divided opinion.

It surprised me back in 2007 – and still does today. I’m aware, even as I write this, that some will furiously object to any sympathy I express. It’s a response I now expect: “The McCanns deserved it”, or even “everyone knows they did it”.

I was one of the first journalists to interview Kate and Gerry, just a couple of days after Madeleine vanished from their holiday apartment in Praia da Luz.

The details are well known now, but back then the idea of a little girl being snatched from her bed was almost unthinkable. For parents across the nation it was the stuff of nightmares - I suspect we all held our own young children extra closely during those early weeks as the story developed.

The last picture of Madeleine taken on holiday in 2007.

And right from the start we all judged: How could anyone leave their kids unattended as they ate and drank in a tapas bar?

Would any competent and loving parent ever consider such a thing?

It was a question I put to Gerry and Kate at our first meeting: how on earth had it seemed OK to leave Madeleine and the twins?

They knew everyone would ask. They’d asked it of themselves again and again.

How could it have seemed OK? They could only acknowledge it was a catastrophic error of judgement, one they would never ever have made, had it occurred to them that such a terrible thing could happen in that peaceful family resort.

It’s an error of judgement that has haunted them for the 13 years since.

I know and love Praia da Luz, and have holidayed there many times with my family, before and since Madeleine disappeared.

I always say it’s the sort of place you wouldn’t even expect to get your mobile phone stolen – let alone your three-year-old daughter.

But I suspect we can become naïve as we kick back and relax. We drink and sunbathe too much, and ride scooters without helmets; we take unfamiliar risks because everything seems OK - we’re on holiday.

Our instincts are dulled as we relax in the sunshine.

  • Mary Nightingale interviewing Gerry and Kate McCann in 2012 shortly after Madeleine's 9th birthday

Gerry and Kate could see the front door of their apartment as they ate dinner with their friends. The other couples too had left their sleeping children, and took it in turns to check on them every twenty minutes or so.

It was a system that had worked well all week. But when Kate went at 10pm that night she found the rear window open - and Madeleine gone.

And so the nightmare began.

Every detail is familiar now. The frantic all night search, the agonisingly slow police response, the TV appeals, the speculation, the spinning finger of suspicion. Everyone one had an opinion on Kate and Gerry. They were too calm; Gerry too calculating; Kate too attractive (“What mother looks that groomed when she’s just lost a child?”).

When I met them that first time I saw a couple in deep shock and grief. My own daughter is the same age as Madeleine, and I tried not to identify too closely with the horror they were enduring. But I admit it sometimes kept me awake at night. The image of Kate clutching Madeleine’s Cuddle Cat toy became emblematic of unimaginable loss.

Over the next few years I interviewed the McCanns several times, as key anniversaries came and went, and legal action swirled around them. Throughout, they remained outwardly calm, although increasingly haggard by strain. Early on Kate revealed they had been advised not to display emotion, as it might stimulate the abductor. The steely composure that so offended some was, it seemed, essential.

Kate and Gerry McCann talking to Mary Nightingale in 2012. Credit: ITV News

Of all the stories I have covered, this is the one that arouses most interest.

People often ask me what Kate and Gerry are really like. Of course I don’t know them. We have had some good chats over the years, and they have always been courteous and friendly, but I don’t kid myself that I have any insight into who they really are. Although – in case you’re wondering - I never believed they had killed their daughter.

I once suggested to Gerry that if they didn’t find Madeleine he would blame himself for not working hard enough. He agreed. He has never stopped trying to find his little girl. And while the case has ebbed and flowed in the public consciousness, for the McCanns, it’s never gone away.

Madeleine’s bedroom remained untouched for a long time. And, although family has life continued - for the sake of twins Sean and Amelie - it must have been defined by their terrible loss.

But they kept the belief that she was alive and would one day return. They had to keep looking for Madeleine. Anything else, they said, would be letting her down.

So here we are – almost exactly 13 years since the night she vanished - at last there has been a breakthrough.

Unlike the many times before, when hopes were raised and dashed, it seems there is a genuine suspect, and the real chance of charges.

The German police say this is a murder case – not that of a missing person. British police have not ruled it out, so far, and until there is a body there is hope.

But whatever the eventual outcome, perhaps at last this will put an end to the uncertainty – and the suspicion that has plagued Kate and Gerry McCann.

Then at last they can find peace.