Tuesday, June 28, 2011

John McCann : Downing Street and a circus born over a late night chat !

It is late Sunday night, and in the kitchen of a large house in the Jordanhill area of Glasgow John McCann, uncle of the abducted four-year-old Madeleine McCann, is brainstorming with Andrew and Jill Renwick and Paul Macintyre, medical friends of Madeleine’s parents, Gerry and Kate.

They talk of getting bookmarks with Madeleine’s picture inserted into every copy of the final Harry Potter book this summer. They are enlisting the help of the actors Ewan McGregor and Daniel Craig and the director Stephen Frears at the Cannes Film Festival. They want to highlight Madeleine’s plight at the Tour de France, at the summer’s international golf tournaments, and at next weekend’s grand prix in Monaco where the Spyker team has agreed to put posters on its cars.

They want appeals for information screened in cinemas across Europe, and Mrs Renwick suggests asking the cartoon channel Nickelodeon to broadcast Madeleine’s picture.

It all sounds hugely ambitious, but in the 18 days since Madeleine’s abduction the McCann family and their friends have shown that little is beyond them.
Resourceful, tireless and determined, they have mounted a DIY campaign to find Madeleine unprecedented in its scale and scope. They have made Madeleine’s face ubiquitous. They have turned her into one of the few people known internationally by a single name.

The www.findmadeleine.com website went live last Tuesday. A chain e-mail begun by Philomena McCann, an Ullapool teacher who is Madeleine’s aunt, has carried her picture into tens of millions of homes worldwide. The campaign has attracted offers of more than £2.5 million in rewards from the likes of J. K. Rowling, Sir Richard Branson, Sir Philip Green and the Scottish tycoon Stephen Winyard. More than 50,000 people have sent messages of support, and John McCann expects the campaign to have raised more than £1 million by the week’s end.

The campaign had an appeal broadcast on Wembley’s giant screens at last Saturday’s FA Cup final – reaching a potential audience of 500 million in 160 countries, and at the Uefa Cup final in Glasgow between the Spanish teams Espanyol and Sevilla. It has enlisted the help of Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham and John Terry, and of Liverpool’s players before tomorrow’s European Champions League final.

England’s cricketers wore yellow ribbons at Lord’s. The racing drivers Jenson Button and David Coulthard have put Madeleine’s pictures on their websites. BP, Exxon, McDonald’s and other retail chains such as Carrefour have agreed to display posters at thousands of outlets across Europe.

Gordon Brown has pledged his support. Last Friday John McCann was dining with friends when Downing Street called to say that the Chancellor was on the line. Minutes later Mr McCann’s mobile – on which he takes hundreds of calls daily – ran out of power, cutting off Britain’s next Prime Minister in mid-sentence. Yesterday morning, as Mr McCann was talking to The Times, his mobile rang again. It was Revenue & Customs, calling at Mr Brown’s request to discuss how the fund could gain charitable status.

As John McCann points out, it is not bad for a “bunch of amateurs”. The campaign has now employed professional media and legal advisers, and will shortly take on a manager and financial administrator, but it has for the most part been inspired and run by Madeleine’s parents and a small circle of relatives and friends – several of them medical colleagues of the McCanns – using every contact they can muster.

Their link to the football world was Stuart Hillis, a Glasgow cardiologist who worked with Scotland’s football team and knew Sir Alex Ferguson. A Leicester cardiologist and rugby fan roped in Martin Johnson. A former pupil of Philomena McCann’s set up the website. An Aberdeen GP enlisted the oil companies through executives he knows.

When Gerry McCann promised to leave “no stone unturned” in his hunt for his daughter, he meant it. His doctor friends have mobilised medical associations throughout Europe, and are doing the same with other professional organisations representing lawyers, dentists, accountants, ophthalmologists and the like. Appeals for Madeleine are now available on the internet in 16 languages. The campaign is about to distribute 1.2 million leaflets at London’s three main airports.

Everyone wants to help. Lorry drivers supplying Glasgow’s fruit market are dropping off posters at all the caf├ęs and petrol stations on their routes across Europe. Travel agents send out pictures with customers’ tickets.

The campaign has two nerve centres. One is in Praia da Luz. The other is the Glasgow sitting room of John McCann, 48, who is on indefinite leave from his job as a medical rep for the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. There he fields endless e-mails and telephone calls.

Arguably the campaign has been almost too successful. The Portuguese police may be so overwhelmed with tips that the critical one will be overlooked. “I’m a bit scared that something will get swamped,” John McCann says.

The other danger is that after so much exposure, Madeleine’s kidnappers will never dare to take her anywhere public.

The campaigners are exhausted, but remain resolutely optimistic. They talk of things they will do “when Madeleine is back”, of using unspent money to help to find other abducted children.

“The thing that’s kept us going is hope, hope and prayer,” said John McCann. “Someone out there must know something about it. The world is too small nowadays for this sort of thing to happen and just be buried.”

But they admit to black moments. “I’m worst in the mornings,” said Andrew Renwick. John McCann admits bursting into tears on the treadmill one day, but says: “It’s usually late at night it hits me.”

The worst scenario of all would be for the weeks to turn into months, and the months into years, with the family never hearing of her again. John McCann finds that too awful to contemplate. “I don’t know how we’d cope with that,” he says.