Twitter, trolls and the rise of casual sexism

The Times, Tuesday 30 July 2013

A woman who campaigned for female figureheads on banknotes has received abuse and rape threats. Why aren’t I surprised, asks Joan Smith

Wolf whistles, Pirelli calendars, patronising remarks about women not knowing anything about car engines – it’s all in the past, right? Women of all ages can walk past a building site without a single shout of ‘nice bum’ or ‘cheer up, love’, and not just because their employers are so proud of belonging to a civil contractors’ scheme. That kind of behaviour is seen as cheesy and old-fashioned, the kind of thing you might see in re-runs of Sixties or Seventies sitcoms. It’s so rare, in fact, that I have to assure friends who’ve been wolf-whistled in my street that I don’t live next to one of the last unreconstructed sexists: the culprit is actually my neighbour’s African grey parrot.

At one level, I’m cheered by all this. I’m glad that my god-daughter, who’s in her 20s, doesn’t seem to regard the street as an obstacle course of sexist cat-calling in the way I did at her age. On occasion I took my life in my hands, once telling a bunch of jeering football fans who surrounded me on an escalator at Euston station where they could put themselves. Of course I was a veteran by then, having first encountered casual sexism at primary school (they started early in those days). ‘You can’t do that, you’re a girl’, piped a classmate as we waited in line to see teacher. He was lucky I was only nine and not yet versed in the language of feminism and patriarchy but it got me in practice for the astonishing assumptions I encountered at work. One boss told me quite seriously that women were better suited to boring jobs (I actually had more qualifications than he did).

So here I am, hoping against hope that casual sexism is a thing of the past, and then I get a nasty shock. Take the end of last week, when BBC presenter Colin Murray was warming up the audience in the run-up to the Anniversary Games at the Olympic stadium. Musing about the qualities which would make the ultimate athlete, Murray came up with the stamina of Mo [Farah], the speed of [Usain] Bolt, the leap of [Greg] Rutherford and the bottom of Jess Ennis[-Hill]’. Forget the gold medal, the woman’s only there for her shape – and this from a man who left Radio 5 Live after hosting a discussion about ‘turning’ gay racing presenter Clare Balding. Murray’s remark about Ennis-Hill recalled John Inverdale’s comment about this year’s Wimbledon champion, Marion Bartoli, whom he disparaged on air as ‘never going to be a looker’.

Both these incidents prompted a storm of indignation and rightly so. It confirms the sad fact that casual sexism hasn’t disappeared, it’s just migrated from the places where it used to be endemic. It’s shocking on TV precisely because it’s been to some extent rooted out of organisations and institutions, most of which boast in mission statements about their commitment to gender equality. These days it’s found new outlets, flourishing on the internet where men who dislike women hide behind anonymity and encourage each other to greater excesses. Cyberspace has become a kind of virtual building site where girls and women have to negotiate the equivalent not just of wolf whistles but a barrage of sexist abuse.

I used to be astounded by this, but now it’s become horribly familiar. Here’s just one recent example: when I took part in a discussion on Sky News last week, a male viewer sought out my Twitter account so he could call me a ‘stupid bitch’.  That’s not on the scale of the rape threats received on Twitter last weekend by Caroline Criado-Perez, after she ran a successful campaign to persuade the Bank of England to keep famous women from hstory on bank notes. It happens just about every time I appear on TV, wen a proportion f the male audience is usually moved to make gratuitous comments on my hair and clothes.

I have never gone on a social networking site to tell a total stranger I don’t like his shirt. But women who appear on TV are regarded as fair game, as the Classicist and TV presenter Mary Beard has discovered. When she appeared on Question Time at the beginning of this year, Beard was subjected to a torrent of abuse which she described as ‘truly vile’, including discussions of her pubic hair. I worry that this climate of sexist slap-downs will make women in their 20s think twice about putting their heads above the parapet.

It’s already having an effect, I think, on the way younger men treat women. The posts to Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism Project (everydaysexism.com) have included one from a 14-year-old schoolgirl who’d been told ‘all I’m good for is cleaning, cooking, and blowjobs’. What’s happening, I think, is that the never-ending discussion and denigration of women’s sexual parts is encouraging men in their teens and 20s to assume they have a right to control their girlfriends’ bodies. At the launch of my latest book, a young woman spoke about a boyfriend who’d pressured her to have her pubic hair shaped – and even suggested she have surgery on her vagina. Sensibly, she decided to change her boyfriend.

The sad truth is that misogyny, as fast as we’ve expelled it from one area of our lives, has popped up somewhere else. It’s almost as if it’s been privatised, moving onto social networking sites where some men post what would have been their innermost thoughts a couple of decades ago. I wish they’d stayed there; wolf whistles, it turns out, weren’t even the half of it. Casual sexism is still with us – and nastier than ever.

 

 

This has been a good week to be a republican

Independent on Sunday, 28 July 2013

You wouldn’t know it from the deference of the royal baby coverage, but a poll this month showed more than half of us weren’t bothered

The expectation of deference has largely disappeared: politicians, business leaders, even archbishops, now expect to be questioned robustly by journalists. There’s only one institution left which doesn’t get this degree of critical scrutiny and the results range from banal to hilarious; I couldn’t help feeling sorry last week for the reporters camped outside Buckingham Palace and St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, waiting for a royal birth in the hottest weather for years. As time passed, they fell back on the old standby of interviewing each other, but there were surreal moments as well. One of the most choice was hearing the Queen’s former press secretary talking with a straight face about the “people’s pregnancy”.

I’d like to put on record that I had no part in it, although I can’t speak for the millions of men inadvertently implicated in the conception. A more imaginative species of paternity was implied by a man who turned up in Paddington with a painting showing the Duchess of Cambridge as the Virgin Mary; his insistence that her child would turn out to be the baby Jesus was cut short by an astonished interviewer, though not quickly enough to avoid comparison with some of the more extravagant claims made after the death of Princess Diana. These events illustrate two iron rules of royal “stories”: nothing much happens most of the time, and reporters end up trying to extract sound bites from people they’d normally run a mile to avoid.

This has been a good week to be a republican. Strike that: it’s been a fantastic week, as news organisations wake up to the fact that sentimental attitudes to the royal family are not universally shared. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked to provide “a republican voice” by broadcasters, which is a very welcome change. But editors should have been warned by a YouGov poll earlier this month, which showed that more people in India than the UK were interested in the royal birth. Far from a nation panting for news, just over half of British adults (53 per cent) were uninterested, compared to 46 per cent who were “very” or “fairly” interested. In this context, any headline beginning “the country” or “the world” is bound to be wrong; I’m sure there were swathes of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the arrival of Prince George went entirely unremarked, but degrees of indifference were visible in London as well. When I arrived on Monday evening to do a TV interview outside Buckingham Palace, where an eager crowd had supposedly gathered to wait for news, I found what looked like the usual complement of tourists. There were dozens of film crews, but that’s a different matter.

To return to that YouGov poll, I’m not surprised that Tory supporters were more interested in the birth than Labour voters. More significant for monarchists was the gender breakdown, which showed that more women than men were following the event. The scenes following Diana’s death in 1997 revealed a previously unremarked tendency among women to identify with female members of the royal family, and there seems to have been a marked preference among women last week for a female baby. That’s why the birth of a male heir is not great news for the monarchy, which now offers an unbroken line of three kings when the present Queen’s reign ends. Whether the institution can survive a couple of decades with the meddling Prince Charles at its head is another question, but we have the prospect of a male head of state for the rest of this century.

Not just that but a head of state who, by virtue of the way hereditary monarchy works, may not be crowned until he is in his sixties or seventies. Age isn’t a reason for ruling someone out of a job, but this is a system which fails every single test of diversity and equality. Once the Queen dies, the de facto list of exclusions from the throne will go like this: no women, no black people, no Asians, no Jews, no Catholics (still barred by law) and probably no one under the age of 50. I also doubt whether we’ll see an openly gay king, unless the royal family changes radically. The good news as far as I’m concerned is that the number of people who are unhappy with this situation is growing, judging by the hostile reaction to uncritical reporting of the royal birth. The monarchy got its most recent crisis in early, before bankers and MPs, and it’s had longer to recover. But the royal family’s popularity is shallow, and its entanglement with celebrity involves
considerable risk.

I know nothing about Prince George, other than the fact that he’s six days old. But the notion that this tiny baby automatically has the qualities to do anything, whether it’s becoming a plumber or a monarch, belongs in the Middle Ages. I live in a modern democracy and I want every child, regardless of background, to grow up knowing he or she could become head of state.

A mind for revenge

Sunday Times, 28 July 2013

A psychoanalyst with a grudge and one of the year’s best crime novels top Joan Smith’s round-up

Most murder victims are killed by someone they know, which is why the police often turn the spotlight on the surviving partner. But the main character in A S A Harrison’s superb novel The Silent Wife (Headline £ 12.99) is as unlikely a murderer as it’s possible to imagine. She’s a psychoanalyst, seeing clients in the airy apartment in Chicago which she shares with her long-term partner, and she prides herself on being unsurprised by her patients’ self-deceptions.

Unfortunately for Jodi, her own life is based on a deception. She doesn’t know it but Todd is having an affair with a much younger woman. For years his blue-collar mates have ribbed him about his brainy feminist wife and suddenly Jodi’s principles are being used against her; the couple never married, the apartment is in Todd’s name and now he wants her out. This perfectly-pitched first novel offers sharp insights into the grievances which accumulate over a long relationship, and the lengths to which a woman will go when her world collapses. It’s been enthusiastically endorsed by leading writers, and it’s poignant that the Toronto-based author died from cancer not long before publication.

Jane Casey’s police procedurals go from strength to strength. In The Stranger You Know (Ebury Press £12.99), DC Maeve Kerrigan is investigating the murders of three young women in London. The killer observes the same rituals each time, and the gaps between the murders are becoming shorter. Kerrigan is an intuitive investigator, often at odds with her macho boss DI Josh Derwent, and the case turns out to have disturbing parallels with the unsolved murder of his girlfriend many years ago. When Derwent becomes a suspect, Kerrigan has to examine her loyalties at the same time as trying to stop a killer.

Lars Kepler is the latest Swedish crime-writing sensation. Kepler is the pseudonym of Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril whose earlier novel, The Hypnotist, sold 100,000 copies in the UK. The Fire Witness (Blue Door £16.99), translated by Laura A Wideburg, begins with a murder at a home for troubled teenage girls. When a woman claiming to be a medium keeps calling DI Joona Linna, claiming to know something about the murder, he doesn’t take her seriously but something about her intrigues him. So does a missing girl, and the trail of violence she has left in a series of foster homes leads Linna to uncover a lurid tale of child abuse.

Jussi Adler-Olsen gets rather deeper into the human psyche in Redemption (Penguin £7.99), translated by Martin Aitken. It begins with a message in a bottle, scrawled in blood by a teenage boy who has been kidnapped. The bottle sets off on a long and tortuous journey before finally landing up in Department Q, where DI Carl Morck investigates cold cases on behalf of Copenhagen police. Although the trail has long gone cold, Morck uncovers a killer who is still operating in one of the best crime novels published this year.

Harry Bingham’s Love Story, With Murders (Orion £12.99) boasts what must be the most startling protagonist in modern crime fiction. In her teens, DC Fiona Griffiths suffered from Cotard’s syndrome, a rare condition which makes people believe they’re dead. Now she’s a detective in Cardiff, where she’s called to a gruesome discovery – part of a woman’s leg – in a freezer. Other body parts begin to appear, some belonging to the dead woman and others which are more recent. The investigation forces Griffiths to confront the mystery of her own origins – she was adopted by a local crime boss – and her strange psychological condition. Brutal, freakish and totally original.

 

Convictions for female genital mutilation. France: 100. UK: Nil

Independent on Sunday,  21 July 2013

This country has a very poor record on the prevention of female genital mutilation. A new approach from the police could change that. But they need help

Back in 1999, a group of MPs criticised the author Germaine Greer. They were astonished by her claim in a book that criminalising female genital mutilation (FGM) amounted to “an attack on cultural identity”. The MPs described Greer’s view as “simplistic and offensive” but the fact that she could write in those terms less than 15 years ago, when FGM was already illegal in this country, is sobering. It’s also an indication of how the debate has moved on, to the point where FGM is widely regarded as a form of child abuse. But it remains a hidden practice, carried out in secrecy, and not a single person has been convicted of mutilating a girl’s or woman’s genitals in this country.

Unsurprisingly, this fact has caused trenchant criticism of the police and the prosecuting authorities; the UK is often contrasted unfavourably with France, where more than 100 people have been convicted. Some of the French convictions arose from two incidents where something went wrong and the families reported the practitioner to the police,
but one recent case came to light when a child was treated for appendicitis and the hospital reported it to a prosecutor. The reporting system in this country is nothing like as robust, as The IoS revealed in January; a survey of 500 hospitals and local education authorities found that less than 50 kept records of women and girls who had undergone FGM or were believed to be at risk.

This lack of intelligence, say the police, goes to the heart of why there haven’t been prosecutions in this country. It’s also the reason why they’ve changed tack in London, appealing for information from the public about people who are doing the cutting. “We’ve been waiting for victims to come forward,” Detective Chief Inspector Iqbal Singh told me last week. “It hasn’t worked, so now we’re targeting cutters. FGM is child abuse and we’re trying to get intelligence flowing into the police about cutters in the community.”

In retrospect, the 1985 law outlawing what was euphemistically described as “female circumcision” created unrealistic expectations about children giving evidence against their parents. So the Metropolitan Police has adopted a new strategy, which it describes as “intelligence, prevention and enforcement”. A key element is the NSPCC helpline set up last month for the public to report their suspicions about FGM, which was a police initiative. “People don’t want to talk to the police about this,” Detective Chief Superintendent Keith Niven says frankly. “I understand that. Now there’s another route.”

Niven is head of Scotland Yard’s Sexual Offences, Exploitation and Child Abuse Command. He’s also in charge of Operation Yewtree, the inquiry into the late Jimmy Savile, and he’s worked closely with the NSPCC during that investigation. “You don’t have to carry the weight of this information alone,” is his message to families where FGM is carried out. “Please just tell us who’s doing it. You can remain anonymous if you like. We need a starting point.” His officers admit they don’t even have as much information as they’d like on who is doing the cutting: “It could be a matriarchal figure or it could be a GP who’s doing it as a sideline,” says Singh.

If this sounds a rather candid admission of helplessness, the frustration of senior officers is palpable. Thousands of girls are believed to be at risk – the figures are estimates and vary widely – but what is known is that more than 1,700 victims of FGM have been referred to specialist health clinics in the UK in the past two years. In London, a women’s organisation, Imkaan, has carried out research suggesting that 7,000 women affected by FGM give birth in the city each year, which is a clear risk indicator for their daughters. So here’s a startling figure: the police have received only 167 referrals about FGM since 2009. “Other state organisations are dealing with victims on a daily basis,” Singh points out. “Why isn’t that information coming in to the police?”

In a heartening sign, the NSPCC helpline received 39 calls in the first two weeks of operation. During the first week, five of the calls related to the area covered by the Met. So far they’ve been what Singh calls “snippets” – a teacher reporting anxiety about a girl being taken to an FGM-practising country for six weeks, for example. He sounds a word of caution: “It may be to do with FGM but it doesn’t always turn out to be an allegation of crime. We need evidence – are these grounds to examine the children?”

Girls are routinely checked for FGM in France, but there’s little appetite for compulsory examination in this country. The practice is unlike other forms of child abuse in one crucial respect. Most intelligence that a child is being abused comes to the police via relatives, teachers and organisations such as youth clubs – for example a teacher seeing bruises during a PE lesson. “In a lot of child protection cases there’s a build-up,” says Niven. “But it doesn’t happen with this type of crime. There’s no contact with social services and no previous offences. The child could live in a family where there’s no other detriment to them. That’s one of the reasons we aren’t getting those referrals.”

The subject is particularly urgent as the summer holidays begin and girls are at risk of being sent abroad to be cut. There is also a worrying degree of ignorance: in March, the NSPCC published a survey of 1,000 teachers which showed that one in six didn’t know that FGM is illegal in the UK. Almost the same proportion didn’t regard FGM as child abuse, while four out of five said they’d had no training on how to spot warning signs.

It sometimes feels as if that elusive first prosecution is as far away as ever. While the kind of attitude expressed by Germaine Greer in 1999 seems anachronistic, the authorities remain caught between opposing accusations: not doing enough to stop FGM because of “political correctness” on the one hand, and encouraging “racist
curtain-twitching” on the other. (That’s the accusation recently levelled at the NSPCC by a mischief-making website, by the way.) The police in London say they want to eradicate FGM within 10 years, which is ambitious. But it’s a serious form of violence
against women, and they need all the help the public can give them.

Joan Smith is co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel

(Royal) Baby Talk, this Saturday at the Wapping Project

THE WAPPING PROJECT & THE ICARUS PROJECT, EAST LONDON

Saturday 20 August 2013

Accompanied by Pimms, the smell of magnolias, a cushion in the garden, and assured sunshine, talk ranges across a thousand ideas:

Tickets for each afternoon (including a glass of Pimms) £12.00.

14.00-15.00

BABY TALK: HOW MONARCHY INFANTILISES US ALL

Joan Smith is a columnist, novelist, human rights activist – and a Classicist

 

15.30-16.30

BROOKLYNBRIDGE: THE GREAT EAST RIVER BRIDGE AND WAGNER’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE MAN WHO BUILT IT.

Erica Wagner is an author and is the Literary Editor of The Times

 

17.00-18.00

ETERNITY IS OVERRATED: THE USES OF TIME IN ARCHITECTURE

Rowan Moore is architecture critic of the Observer and author of Why We Build:
power and desire in architecture

J K Rowling’s book ruse is a cautionary tale for unknown writers

The Cuckoo’s Calling became an instant bestseller once the Rowling brand
emerged – a sad indictment of publishing

The Guardian, Monday 15 July 2013

When JK Rowling published a crime novel under a pseudonym earlier this year, she didn’t have to worry about sales. The book did quite well for a piece of fiction by an unknown author; it got some good reviews and sold 1,500 copies, which is more than respectable for a first novel. But there was always the possibility of revealing the ruse or having it exposed by someone else, which is what happened at the weekend when the Sunday Times named her as the author. The transformation in the fortunes of The Cuckoo’s Calling was immediate, with the book soaring from number 4,709 to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.

In that sense, what Rowling has done, however admirable her intentions, was less risky than it first appeared. She took a gamble when she wrote as Robert Galbraith, instead of under her own name, but she admits that the chances of keeping the secret were “incredibly remote”. The book had the same editor and publisher as her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, and it wouldn’t have been hard to predict the likely impact once the secret was out.

Most first novelists don’t have the option of doing something that will have such a dramatic effect on sales, and they’re already painfully aware that the situation for unknown authors is dire. Publishers have seldom been so reluctant not just to take a risk on new writers, but to back up publication with the resources which go into promoting successful authors. Indeed, while I don’t doubt Rowling’s motives for one moment, it’s instructive that the revelation of her authorship has quickly become a story about a well-known writer doing something quirky and eccentric – rather than a telling tale about the state of publishing. Whether she likes it or not, she is in that category of stratospherically famous authors who have become brands; Dan Brown is another obvious example. This is a recent development and its impact on other writers is disastrous, creating a situation in which huge publicity budgets are placed behind a handful of authors, skewing bestseller lists.

I have a declaration to make here: much as I would love to see my novels and non-fiction advertised on posters on the London Underground, I have only ever had one paid-for advert in my writing career, and that was in a trade magazine. Most authors are in the same position, but very few readers think about the vast discrepancy in promotional budgets when they look at the bestseller lists. It’s also interesting to compare the effects of Rowling’s experiment with an almost identical one staged by Doris Lessing three decades ago. These days Lessing is a winner of the Nobel prize for literature, but she was already highly regarded in the early 1980s when she sent out a couple of novels under a pseudonym.

Unlike Rowling, who decided to disguise herself as a man even though crime fiction is supposedly a level playing field in gender terms, Lessing chose a female alter ego. Her novel The Golden Notebook had sold almost 900,000 copies in hardback and won one of the top literary prizes in France, but the efforts of “Jane Somers” were not so well received. The first book was rejected by Lessing’s long-time publisher, who decided it wasn’t “commercially viable”, and it was eventually published by Michael Joseph. The novel got few reviews and Lessing said her point had been proved. “I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success’”, she explained in 1984.

Interestingly, the revelation of Lessing’s hoax did not propel her Jane Somers novels into the bestseller charts. It caused ripples in literary circles, but nothing like the furore over Rowling’s ruse. But then Lessing has never been a celebrity, unlike Rowling, who has had to suffer the kind of intense media scrutiny usually reserved for pop stars and supermodels. That’s one of the disadvantages of the author-as-celebrity phenomenon, as Rowling explained in her testimony to the Leveson inquiry.

But there’s another downside, which is the negative impact on thousands of writers the public has never heard of or, more importantly, had the opportunity to read. In that sense, it could even be argued that Rowling’s well-intended hoax has backfired, turning into yet another story about fame in the modern world.

 

 

Why the delay on plain packs for cigarettes?

Independent on Sunday, 14 July 2013

It’s hard to see how the PM can justify holding back when lives are at stake

If you manufacture a product which steadily kills off the people who use it, you have to keep finding new customers. That’s the unusual, if not unique, problem facing the big tobacco companies. Picture a queue for cigarettes in your local supermarket and the fact is that half the people in it will gradually disappear, struck down by cancer, heart disease, pneumonia or emphysema. Around 100,000 people die from smoking-related diseases each year in the UK.

With such a high attrition rate, it’s no surprise that the tobacco companies kick and scream whenever someone suggests measures to discourage smoking. They did it in Australia when the government proposed legislation to enforce plain packaging; they lost that battle, but they’re doing better in the UK where the Government has announced a delay in introducing similar proposals.

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said in a written statement on Friday that he wants to see the impact in Australia before going ahead in this country, but the delay makes no sense at all. Plain packaging is actually a misnomer – it involves brand names in plain type, overshadowed by huge health warnings – and photographs of gangrenous limbs are hardly likely to encourage anyone to take up the habit. So the Government had nothing to lose by making the change, and potentially a lot to gain in terms of improving public health.

To anyone who’s witnessed the dire effects of smoking on a friend or relative, the decision is indefensible. I remember vividly how the final 18 months of my father’s life were blighted by lung cancer; he died at the age of 63, too young to enjoy the retirement he’d saved for throughout his working life. He got hooked in his teens, and it’s obvious that getting people young is the most effective way of creating lifelong
addicts.

Critics of the Government’s decision suspect another Australian connection in the shape of the Tories’ election campaign manager, Lynton Crosby. His company, Crosby Textor, does not reveal its clients but is said to have long-standing links with the tobacco industry in Australia, where the three biggest companies spent $5m on their campaign against plain packaging. The Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston demanded
“clarity” on Crosby’s role in this and another controversial announcement, shelving a minimum price for alcohol; Labour’s Diane Abbott asked why the Tories were backing down on a proposal they supported before David Cameron gave a job to Crosby. Cameron insists Crosby hasn’t lobbied him but refuses to say whether they’ve discussed plain packaging.

One thing is clear. Few modern industries kill as many of their customers as the tobacco companies. They’ve managed to persuade more than a quarter of people in their twenties to take up the habit, despite all the evidence of damage to health. Ministers should hang their heads in shame for not doing everything possible to encourage them to give up – and for failing to protect the next generation from this pointless, health-destroying habit.

 

The McCanns: innocent until tried by newspapers

Independent on Sunday, 7 July 2013

As British police begin an investigation six years on, Kate and Gerry McCann face weeks of press chatter

There is often a moment in old-fashioned detective fiction when someone decides to “call in the Yard”. Bumbling local cops are sidelined as worldly-wise detectives arrive from London, spotting missed clues and identifying suspects. Hence the sense of déjà vu I experienced a couple of days ago when there was a “breakthrough” in the Madeleine McCann case. Scotland Yard has launched a new investigation, detectives are supposedly about to “swoop” and arrests could be made “within weeks”.

The popular press has always treated this abduction as a completely irresistible mystery. Since she disappeared in Portugal in 2007, Madeleine has been “spotted” I don’t know how many times, while one “suspect” after another has been dismissed from the inquiry. There is a difference this time, which is that Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, are being treated with kid gloves. I suspect this has more to do with their successful libel action against Express newspapers, in which they were awarded damages of £550,000, than a sudden outbreak of compassion and decency.

In other respects, the announcement produced the usual round of febrile speculation, despite an attempt by Scotland Yard to manage expectations. All we know for certain is that detectives have identified 38 “persons of interest”, including known sex offenders, during a lengthy review of the case. Twelve are UK nationals whom the police believe were in Portugal when Madeleine went missing.

But a “person of interest” is not the same as a prime suspect. Logic dictates that most, if not all, of the 38 will turn out to have nothing to do with the case, while the police have been careful to talk about no more than the “possibility” that Madeleine is alive. The review which preceded the inquiry involved 30,500 documents, material collected by both British and Portuguese police forces and the findings of seven private-detective agencies. The fact that so much material has been amassed without producing hard evidence shows how difficult this case is; vital leads are usually generated within hours of a crime, and detectives are dealing with events that took place six years ago.

I’m sure Kate and Gerry McCann, whom I’ve met on several occasions, are desperately hoping they will finally discover what happened to their daughter. No one who heard their testimony to the Leveson inquiry could doubt how much they’ve suffered because of the loss of their child, but I can’t help wondering about the timing of the decision. It comes after a dreadful few weeks for the Metropolitan Police, whose reputation seems to become ever more battered with every news bulletin.

Already the McCann inquiry has produced headlines suggesting that Scotland Yard will succeed where their Portuguese colleagues failed, but it’s a risky strategy. Meanwhile, the McCanns will have to brace themselves for weeks of speculation – and what could be a big test of the conduct of the popular press after the drubbing it received in the Leveson report.