Madeleine: a grimly compelling story that will end badly for us all
We're divided and now confused by the McCann investigation - and in real danger of losing our common decency
Visit the Sky News website and you'll see in the menu of topics the single word Madeleine, sandwiched between UK News and World News.
The story is now so big that it commands its own category, on a par with Politics or Business.
There is, of course, no need to supply a last name or any other details: Madeleine refers to what is surely becoming the biggest human interest story of the decade.
It's not just the hour-by-hour updates on television news or the you-the-jury phone-ins on the radio.
A more reliable indicator is the chatter heard in offices, at bus stops or in queues at the shops.
Thanks to the astonishing twist of recent days, the British collective conversation is not focused on the war in Iraq or the efficiency of the NHS, even if it should be. Instead, its great preoccupation is the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, a story that gets ever more strange.
Even before last week, the case had gripped.
The apparently random abduction and murder of children always does, whether it's Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, Sarah Payne or the victims of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. We fear these crimes like no other; they touch fears with deep roots in the cultural soil. The child snatcher is a creature from myth, whether the oldest Gaelic folktales or Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel.
Modern storytelling is hardly immune: my own generation once cowered in terror from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's Child Catcher. So when the news first broke in May that a sleeping child had vanished from her bed in a Portuguese holiday resort, all the familiar fears were stirred.
But last week brought a dizzying twist, one that has left the watching public badly confused.
The notion of a predatory stranger seizing Madeleine McCann was terrifying but uncomplicated: we knew how we were supposed to feel.
The naming by Portuguese police of the little girl's parents as formal suspects has obliged us to contemplate not an ancient fear but a grave taboo: infanticide.
Of course, the grim reality is that cases of parents slaying their young are all too common.
The boyfriend battering his lover's child to death has become a grisly staple of the news bulletin, usually consigned to halfway down the running order.
The middle-class temptation in such cases is to comfort themselves with the thought that these families are dysfunctional, that they are nothing like them.
The branding of the McCanns as suspects allows for no such lazy response.
Their campaign enjoyed such widespread press backing in part because they are the very model of a middle-class, professional couple: both are doctors, still society's most trusted group.
Indeed, since May, the sight of a distraught Kate McCann clutching Madeleine's toy Cuddle Cat had become the very image of parental love.
Even to conceive of them as the suspected killers of the daughter whose loss they have been grieving is to experience cognitive dissonance.
Which is why people don't know how to react.
Suddenly we have to hold two entirely contradictory thoughts in our head at the same time.
For the McCanns have now either suffered the cruellest fate imaginable - not only to have innocently lost their beloved daughter but also to have been publicly accused of a wicked crime - or they are guilty of the most elaborate and heinous confidence trick in history, deceitfully winning the trust and sympathy of the world's media, a British prime minister, the wife of the American president and even the Pope, to say nothing of international public opinion.
One of those statements, both of them extraordinary, describes the truth.
As a senior tabloid journalist put it to me yesterday: "They're either the victims of a horrible smear which they will never fully escape or they are cold, psychotic killers" responsible for the death of their own child.
His own newspaper now covers this story with both possibilities in mind.
Note the headlines in the Sun and the Mirror, carefully surrounded by caveats and qualifiers, just in case the other scenario proves to be true.
This is not how stories like this usually play out.
Ordinarily, the popular papers, in particular, have a hunch about the culprit (and very often their hunches are right).
Not this time, however.
The press pack following the McCann case is apparently split into two camps, for and against the couple, with some reporters refusing to speak to those on the other side.
One tabloid editor is changing his mind on where guilt lies "on an hourly basis".
It's easy to see why.
Yesterday it was reported that the Portuguese police had found not just the odd DNA trace in the boot of the McCanns' hire car - rented weeks after Madeleine's disappearance - but substantial amounts of the child's hair and even bodily fluids.
Suddenly, an entire narrative assembles itself, built from leaked nuggets and speculative fragments, which runs as follows.
The McCanns had sedated their children so that they could have an undisturbed dinner with friends (hence the failure of the two younger McCann children to awake even during the loud chaos of the night of May 3).
They returned to find Madeleine dead.
Fearing their twins would be taken from them if they confessed the truth, they hid Madeleine's body, then hid it again in the spare wheel compartment of their rented car until finally burying it somewhere else.
(Where? The anti-McCann view even has an answer to this question. Portuguese police are reported to be planning to search the Our Lady of the Light church in Praia da Luz, where the McCanns prayed regularly and to which they were given the keys, so they might visit day or night. Detectives are said to be set on digging up an area around the church - including one cobbled street where roadworks were under way when Madeleine disappeared.)
It hangs together well enough until you start asking questions.
How could two people under constant media scrutiny possibly have carried out and hidden their daughter's body without being seen?
If they really had concealed a corpse in their car, wouldn't the smell have been obvious?
How could two people unfamiliar with the local landscape have found an eventual hiding place that would still, months later, remain undiscovered?
Is it plausible to imagine that, in the moments after suffering the trauma of a dead child, two people could have constructed such an elaborate cover-up plan, executed it coolly and remained steady ever since?
Could anybody maintain this front, a global lie, for so long without cracking?
Arguments like that are going on everywhere, in pubs or the train to work, as well as in newsrooms around the world.
The McCanns must hate it but they cannot be surprised by it.
For wholly understandable reasons, they chose to make the loss of their daughter public property, to recruit the media to their cause.
So now we are like folk gathered in the village square, offering our two-pennyworth on the mysterious events that have befallen one benighted family.
How will this story end?
That's what makes it so grimly compelling: none of us knows.
Until we do, basic justice demands that we presume the McCanns are wholly innocent.
Common decency demands the same.
For if they are eventually found guilty, there will be plenty of time for condemnation.
But if they are innocent, to presume otherwise is to commit a second crime against people who have already suffered enough.
FOOTNOTE : We have come a long way since 2007. We now know the Campaign fund money is used to pay legal fees, to silence those who question the McCanns 'theory' of an abduction, for it can never be more, there is not a shred of evidence.
The McCanns have also chosen to live with people pointing the finger at them for it was they, and they alone who chose to have the case shelved and by refusing to co-operate in the investigation, not returning to carry out the police reconstruction they remain prime suspects in the disappearance/death of their daughter Madeleine. With or without a body!