Noble English Tradition

Jane Tanner. Truth is all

It was Jane Tanner who, towards the end of her UK police interview, best expressed the group's view about the way they’d behaved during their holiday and the utterly unfair criticism that they’d subsequently faced. All of the seven gave the police the same basic picture of their time in Praia de Luz: taking the children to the Mark Warner crèche in the mornings, going to tennis, sailing or windsurfing lessons, meeting up, usually, for sandwich lunches at the Paynes’ apartment, dropping the children back at the crèche – which most of the kids seemed to love – and exhausting themselves with more sport for the rest of the afternoon, before the usual routine of tea with the children, bath and bedtime story. Once the children were finally asleep they all met for their evening meal at the so-called tapas bar, sitting at a sheltered outside table which looked across the pool to their apartments beyond the Ocean Club perimeter.

Documentary evidence, the crèche records and restaurant reservation sheets, for example, generally backed up the group's version of events, as did the police statements of independent witnesses such as the Mark Warner and restaurant staff, confirming, in particular, that they had indeed left the dinner table at intervals, apparently to check on their children. There were no major discrepancies in the versions of events which the seven provided to the UK police; evidence of conspiracy, either to disguise the true nature of their stay in Praia de Luz, or to assist the McCanns in a cover-up of some kind was conspicuously absent; and not one of them, despite the Damocletian possibility that they might be compelled to return to Portugal, ever took refuge in a “no comment” answer.

These interviews, coming as they did after almost a year's silence, tended in many cases to strengthen the seven's credibility, which had been under attack in the media of both countries: Russell O’ Brien’s claim, for instance, that he had been dealing with his sick child’s bed sheets on the night of May 3 had been mocked as a lie for months, for Mark Warner employees had told the Portuguese press that he had never requested clean sheets. Quite right, said O’ Brien dismissively, he hadn’t – because the apartment had a washing machine, which he’d used that night. Of course, he added with his characteristic resentment, the Portuguese press hadn’t reported that, had they? Nor, it transpired, had the group spent forty suspicious minutes after the child's disappearance, possibly preparing their story, before eventually calling the police: the first call, as confirmed by Mark Warner staff, had been made by 10.15. And, as we have seen, Praia de Luz was not a carefully selected venue for suspect private pleasures – it was a David Payne small-print botch-up, with facilities that satisfied nobody.

A few days after the interviews had finished and the Portuguese police observers had flown home, Rachael Oldfield was willing to comment on them for a BBC documentary on the disappearance. Had any of them changed their story? No, replied Rachael coolly, they certainly hadn’t – there’d never been a group “story” in the first place.

To many, of course, such self-confidence was a sure sign that they were all under protection of some kind, perhaps because this little group of provincial nonentities had powerful connections, or maybe because they were uncomfortably close to organised VIP paedophile rings whose exposure would bring the government, or the monarchy, crashing down. After all, hadn’t the "UK Secret Services," whoever they might be, arrived within forty-eight hours of Madeleine McCann vanishing from her bed? However possible or impossible such theories may be, one can only say that they are not obviously derived from the available evidence, although that evidence can, naturally, be used to support them.

Jane Tanner, brought by fate into the bleak surroundings of the Leicester Police interview room, watched by both a video camera and, behind a two way mirror, the Portuguese police, had had her fill of “theories.”

“There’s a lot been said but, you know, we’re not a bunch of swingers that went out there for a swinging holiday,” she protested, adding the fascinating aside that, “I can’t think of anything worse, to be honest.” Her questioner, possibly intrigued by this insight into her personal tastes, let her proceed. “We didn’t go out there on a swingers’ holiday to dump our kids in the kids club while we got pissed and shagged each other, you know. That’s not what we did. One week a year,” she added bitterly, “there’s, there’s one week a year, the other fifty one weeks of the year with the kids all the time! In terms of our family, you know every spare moment’s with the kids: Russell doesn’t go off playing golf or go to the football’s spent with the kids. I just think the Portuguese police have obviously got this idea of us and it’s completely, completely wrong in terms of the way we are and what, you know, our motives for being on holiday there were.” She added, as Jane Tanner often did, “I’m telling the truth.”

Given their manic sporting activity – just reading about those fearsome sweat-drenched afternoon jogs above Praia de Luz makes the spirits drop – and the tedious and exhausting nature of the teatime-bath-and-bed children’s routine, let alone the disabling stomach infection which laid most of them out at one time or another, one is inclined to accept her protestations. No handcuffs or copies of A Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom spilled out of their luggage onto the airport carousel; fifteen minutes at a time away from the supper table was hardly sufficient for refined and inventive sexual variations; the crack of whips was not to be heard through the cheap, badly insulated, apartment walls. I can’t think of anything worse to be honest - cue Gerry McCann in that fleece of his: let’s face it, as hedonists the tapas nine are nowhere.

Such fun

But let’s be clear here – we are talking primarily about the seven who were questioned in the UK, not the nine. Gerry and Kate, whom the Portuguese authorities saw fit to make arguidos, or suspects, in the disappearance of their own child, an action for which they have expressed no regrets and few reservations, have their own story to tell, as we shall see. The behaviour of the seven needs to be considered quite separately from that of their two friends.

Jane Tanner’s outburst sounds sincere and conforms to the author’s personal view that the group's manifest belief in its own innocence is justified as far as the actual disappearance is concerned. But once again we see the weird tunnel vision of this tightly connected and slightly odd clique: just how had the Portuguese police come to believe that they might have been there to “dump the kids in the kids club, get pissed and shag each other?” Didn’t Jane Tanner ever ask herself this question? Had it never occurred to her that the seven’s own actions might have contributed to the way they were seen? The problem here, the one that lies right at the heart of the police enquiry, was that while the seven had an unshakable conviction of both their own and the McCanns’ innocence regarding the actual disappearance, perfectly justifiable, it seems, in the former case, rather less so perhaps in the latter, their attitude and behaviour as far as the rest of their holiday is concerned is a quite different matter. Yes, they described the broad picture but when it came to the details of the children’s care, well, as Fiona Payne might say, Phew! A witches brew of guilt, shame, inability to confront their own actions and - with the growing realization of how their behaviour was being seen by outsiders - barely controlled fear of legal action, made their responses to the Portuguese police very far from frank and open.

The crime of child neglect, in the English sense of failing in a duty of care, does not exist in Portugal. Its nearest equivalent, sometimes translated as “neglect”, is a much more serious matter – effectively abandoning a child to its fate with the intention that it should come to harm. There was no reason for the seven to be aware of these fine details, at least until these innocent “witnesses of interest” started, no doubt for very good reasons, to consult lawyers, and not just libel lawyers at that. All of them, however, must have had a pretty good sense of potential risk, perhaps in Portugal, very possibly from the UK’s increasingly draconian, if often ineffective, child protection laws.

In their first, hurried, statements, on May 4, the group made almost no comments about the child care arrangements, except to confirm the obvious fact that Madeleine McCann had been left alone, for short periods, while they all ate. In the second set of interviews at police headquarters in the charmless town of Portimao almost a week later, however, a more detailed picture was emerging of their activities, including, as we have seen, the uncomfortable fact that far from being a one-off, “all right we made a mistake,” aberration, the decision to leave the children alone every night was consciously taken near the beginning of the holiday in the knowledge, as Jane Tanner has confirmed, that there were risks involved.

It was rapidly becoming clear that they had certainly not taken action to obviate those risks. Leaving the “checks” aside only Tanner and O’ Brien had been able to maintain that they had secured the critical children’s bedroom windows; it was certain that none of the others, despite David Payne’s and Matthew Oldfield’s bullish assertions to the contrary, had done so. Worse, it was now evident that the McCanns themselves, who in their statements on May 4 had been ambiguous about just how they had entered their apartment, had in fact been leaving their rear patio doors unlocked, for no better reason, apparently, than because it made for a quicker and easier walk between there and the tapas bar.
Conscious awareness of risk to others, combined with repeated failure to take all reasonable precautions to counter it, means the possibility of criminal charges in almost any Western society and in almost any field, whether it’s a matter of child care, public safety or, as the group must have known, medical practice. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the seven were not particularly forthcoming to the Leicester police about the effect this awareness might have had on their responses to the Portuguese criminal police, or PJ, as we shall now refer to them.

The same Jane Tanner who made those passionate assertions that the PJ had a totally false picture of her and her companions began her Portimao interview on the evening of May 10 with some interesting social insights. Asked about the decision to leave the children unattended, the gist of her reply, according to the PJ records, was that:

“It was quite normal, culturally and traditionally, for English tourists to leave their small children alone in the bedroom or apartment to sleep while the parents are absent.”

Well now! Hotel bedrooms, with fire doors, smoke alarms and a certain amount of security and porterage do, no doubt, lull some people into leaving their children unattended at times, but to describe it as “normal” and extend it to apartments was a bit of a stretch wasn't it? Culturally and traditionally? Whose culture and what tradition? Jane seemed to be hoping to fall back on the traditions of that venerable British institution Mark Warner, a cultural beacon to us all no doubt, but she wouldn’t have been able to find an example of MW encouraging such a practice in external apartments whose security they didn’t control. It didn’t happen because it was far too dangerous for MW, or any other holiday company, to contemplate.

The reaction of her interrogators to these insights is not recorded but one can venture that it wasn’t a vote of thanks, especially as the interviewers were already lining up some tough questions about her reliability as a witness. Perhaps their failure to welcome her brief lecture unnerved her somewhat because pretty soon she grew altogether less certain about the strength and dignity of British tradition, turning, in fact, about one hundred and eighty degrees: “...personally,” the record continued, “personally she didn’t make a habit of leaving her daughters alone this way but only did so because all the couples of the group did it.”

What was that Jane?

Neither then nor later did Jane Tanner enlarge on this alternative explanation of peer pressure and it remains another of those little gems that she drops now and then without quite realising the impact of what she has said, especially since it implies that she might, under some circumstances, be just be a tiny bit, well, suggestible. We can recall also the “well organized” Russell O’ Brien’s flat, “It [the decision to leave the children] was a group decision, collectively taken.” So nobody’s going to hear anymore about that, then. In any case, by the time Jane addressed the question in Enderby a year after her uncomfortable Portimao experience, both of her earlier “explanations” had vanished without trace.

"Of course, you look back now and think, yes, probably we were stupid but I think we were lulled into a false sense of security because this baby listening service is offered in other places and yeah you look at it now knowing what happened and... you’d think we were probably reckless...”

Reckless? Oops. But then she added, “...this [baby-listening] is a service that is offered, you know, marketed as a service in other resorts and we felt we were doing more than is maybe offered there.”
In this, another of her helpful and highly incautious comments, Jane had summed up the “line” that they were all to take regarding the child care, or rather the slightly disgusting shortage of it, that ultimate, "collectively expressed," view of the seven as a whole. It was a neat and highly difficult to refute position, covered in lawyer’s fingerprints and with conclusions that followed as smoothly as a well oiled exercise bike - these sports freaks can get to one's brain - or perhaps a defence counsel’s final address: it was their understanding [members of the jury?] that a famous and reputable holiday group, Mark Warner, regularly uses a baby listening service by which employees listen from outside for sounds of disturbance or distress every half an hour or so. By doing it themselves they were not merely following good and accepted practice, members of the jury, but were actually improving on this highly respected holiday company’s child care - by listening at the same or more frequent intervals than MW. Cute, eh? The reason for the unanimity regarding the magic “every half hour” should now be clear, despite the irrefutable evidence that on at least one night the interval was considerably longer and featured an uncontrollably sobbing child in the McCanns' darkened apartment.

Sweet dreams, kids

Still, knowing, as all professional English people do, the nightmare possibilities associated with child neglect accusations, such as their removal by the mad, incompetent, commissars of the social services without the irritating formality of a trial, who can blame the seven for tacitly adopting a line and sticking to it? Wouldn’t you? The trouble was that the fumbling and ashamed stonewalling of the seven which preceded the “emergence” of a defensible line on the neglect issue was perfectly obvious to the trained officers of the PJ, making it dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, for them to decide whether they were truthful witnesses or not in the separate and altogether more serious matter of the disappearance issue. It was a situation that was never resolved and its ultimate consequences for the investigation were, as we shall see, profound.