Abandonment, Abduction … Murder? Media Success and Sorrow : Madeline McCann & Qian Xun ‘Pumpkin’ Xue

In this paper I will explore two highly contrasting media framing instances and their direct impact on the success or failure of Police investigations.

Firstly we will look at the abduction of Madeline McCann in Portugal, which still unresolved, has developed into a situation of public no confidence for both the media and investigating police.

Secondly, we will look at the case of ‘Pumpkin’ – three year old Qian Xun, dubbed ‘Pumpkin’ by the media, who was abandoned by her father Nai Yin Xue at Melbourne’s Southern Cross train station shortly before he fled to the United States. Subsequent investigations found Pumpkin’s mother had been murdered and dumped in the trunk of one of Xue’s cars outside their Auckland home. With a strongly focused international media campaign to locate Xue over a prolonged period of time, the media’s contribution to the police investigation resulted in Xue’s capture.

By comparing these two tragedies I will demonstrate just how powerfully effective a tool media framing can be and also just how detrimentally obstructive and misguided media framing can affect police investigations.

Trial by Media: Gerry & Kate McCann

“On May 3, nine days before her fourth birthday, Madeline McCann, a British girl on vacation with her parents in Portugal, disappeared. She hasn’t been found in more than four months despite one of the most intensive and far-flung missing-person searches in history. This past spring and summer, Europe and much of the rest of globe became fixated on the disappearance, which carries both the international breath of the Diana tragedy and the hypersentimental, at times prurient fascination that Americans brought to the unsolved case of another little blond girl, Jon Benet Ramsey.” (Cloud 2007)

The inexplicable disappearance of a child is always a newsworthy event. In the process of framing a story, the media attempts to make the news look natural by selecting the information which is best suited to a prepackaged world. TV and radio represent events to us, which we usually have no experience of our own to identify with, hence the power the media has in eliciting emotion, fear and anger, is enormous (Harrington, 1998)

As in the case of missing toddler Madeline McCann, the media were initially highly supportive of parents Kate and Gerry. The British media in particular showed significant sympathy towards the couple. The perfect family who had experienced unimaginable tragedy on a holiday to Portugal. The frames employed by the media make the story real, ensuring the viewers and readers can relate to these seemingly normal parents who take their young family abroad on vacation each year.

Support and empathy soon turned to guilt and deceit – unexpectedly the media turned on the McCann’s.
“ Semiology involves the reading of media output… for the hidden messages it is thought to convey… Editors, journalists… use these signs. We the audience are unconscious of the connotations they evoke in our minds… example : News shots of policing picket lines or inner city riots are often taken from behind the lines of police. Thus the viewer is encouraged to identify with the policeman and to share his fear and anxiety.” (Harrington 1998)

Just as the media invoke fear and anxiety reporting ‘through the eyes’ of the policeman, the media initially took a similar role with the McCann’s. The catalyst of the media turning against the McCann’s is hard to define. As quickly as the Portuguese Police named the McCann’s as suspects in the disappearance of their daughter, the media changed sides. The McCann’s were now the enemy, accused of murdering their daughter, selling her to pedophiles to pay off debts and of sedating their children to have a night out with their friends.

Media framing of the family changed from a positive support force, to a debilitating defamation campaign. The McCann’s accused the Police of failing to properly investigate the alleged kidnapping and using them as scapegoats in the face of international media focus on a case which had no suspects. The Police alleged they had DNA evidence that proved the McCann’s somehow killed and disposed of Madeline’s body weeks after her ‘disappearance’.

The media frames turned away from the search for Madeline and toward the McCann’s with such a vicious ferocity that, for a time, the search for Madeline became a secondary concern for the media. Framing the parents for her disappearance is far more newsworthy than the unfortunate reality : The case had gone cold and the Police had no firm suspects regarding Madeline’s disappearance.

Abandoning ‘Pumpkin’

“ The humble migrants who captured Pumpkin’s fugitive father in the US will hand most of their reward money to the abandoned girl … The group of six cooks and delivery men recognised Xue from a photo in a Chinese-language newspaper. They lured Xue to a meeting where they tied him up with his own pants and belt before calling police. Xue was wanted in New Zealand over the murder of his wife Anan Liu, whose body was found in the boot of a car outside their home in Auckland. Qian Xun, nicknamed Pumpkin, was abandoned by Xue at a Melbourne train station last September before he fled to the US.” (ninemsn staff 2008)

A violent father and husband murder’s his wife and stuffs her body into the trunk of his car at the family home in Auckland. He abducts his daughter and flies to Melbourne where after two days he abandons her at a major railway station before flying to the United States and blending into obscurity.

“ If it wasn’t for the real life tragedy that’s befallen Qian Xun Xue or Pumpkin as everyone’s come to know her, this would read like the plot from a crime thriller…” (Holland, 2007)

The story of Pumpkin has highlighted what a sensationally productive relationship the media can enjoy with the Police. Without the cooperation of both investigators and their journalistic counterparts the search for Pumpkin’s father, Nai Yin Xue, could have ended without result. Intense, localized publicity of Xue’s picture, biography and his crimes led to his eventual arrest by none other than those in the community he attempted to hide within.

Combined with public outrage and an outpouring of support for Pumpkin, this news story could almost be considered frameless. Xue gave the media their frames through his actions – the media did not need to come up with any information or creative writing to make him appear more callous or dangerous, as he had already proven this through murdering his wife and abandoning his daughter.

The story of Pumpkin continues to play out in the media with episodic framing – As new information is uncovered and Xue faces prosecution, news stories update the public on the outcomes of the case. The media framing employed after the initial storyline had run it course, moves the audience into another genre;
“Episodic framing depicts concrete events that illustrates issues… episodic reports were less likely to be considered society responsibly for the event.” (London, 1993)

The resolution of the case and Xue’s imminent prosecution are realities, the reasoning behind the ability of Xue to flee New Zealand with Pumpkin and the countless other children who are ‘kidnapped’ by one of their parents is now brought to the public’s attention.

Media Framing & the Effect on Police Investigations

“ The public have an insatiable appetite for stories, and are particularly fascinated by crime stories. This fascination can be harnessed to help solve crimes…” (Wilson 2001)

When we compare the cases of Pumpkin and the McCann’s we can see both are crime stories which have generated massive amount of publicity. In Pumpkin’s case the media generated has been focused on the capture of her fugitive father, whilst in the McCann’s case, media attention has turned from Madeline to the Portuguese Police’s inept investigation skills, to the possible guilt of her Parents and the hiring of a private detective who claims to know more than the Police.
Where the media succeed for Pumpkin, it has failed the McCann’s.

Pumpkin’s plight has led to the media focusing on the way in which the law protects children in relationships where restraining orders exist and domestic violence is well documented.
“ She’d (Anan Liu) taken out apprehended violence orders against her 54-year old estranged husband. He’d been convicted of assaulting her. He repeatedly made threats against her life. Annie Liu won sole custody of the three year old girl, Qian Xun Xue… given those protection orders being in place, given his violent record and given the fact that mother had sole custody, how was be able to leave New Zealand … with the little girl…. He had to call in at a local suburban Police station and pick up his passport and a samurai sword…” (Lewis, 2007)

Media framing, as is seen currently in Pumpkin’s case, has established Fourth Estate ideals of social justice and Police accountability. In New Zealand, there is public outrage at the handling of the Pumpkin case. How could a man with no access or rights to his child take her from the country? Police actions have been called into review by parents in similar situations to that of the late Anan Liu.
“ There’s been nothing by condemnation, criticism and frankly, disbelief in the New Zealand community this morning. For 48hours police literally walked around that vehicle parked in the front of the family’s home… and it transpires she was in the boot of that car all this time…US Law Enforcement agencies have confirmed that they still had no official word from New Zealand Police…” (Lewis, 2007)

The use of media framing in the Pumpkin case has been highly effective and largely an unprecedented account of media honesty and transparency.

Fourth Estate ideals are not present in the McCann case, which remains unresolved. Portuguese Police have not been held accountable for their lax investigation into Madeline’s disappearance, nor have they been asked to explain failures in their own procedures.
“ … holidaymaker Bridget O’Donnell – a former BBC producer who worked on Crimewatch (revealed the Portuguese Police)… failing to recognize a picture of Madeline McCann and taking notes on scrap paper….forgotten to secure the crime scene ….” (Whitaker, 2007)

The media framing of both stories have directly impacted the way in which the community perceives crime and police actions, on occasion to the detriment of their own credibility.
“… Madeline McCann’s parents will receive ‘substantial damages’ from two newspapers that ran a series of articles alleging that they killed her and covered up her death… The Daily Express and Daily Star published front-page apologies saying there was no proof to support the allegations they made…” ( Gulf, 2007)

The resulting impression given to the public from both these events are a cause of concern. Public confidence in both the Portuguese and New Zealand Police are in question, accountable for the their actions they are being called to explain how their investigations missed critical information which led to the further failure of policy and procedure.

Media framing, as seen in the McCann case, has highlighted the media’s eye for profit and scandal over facts, damaging the confidence in the very public they pledge to serve.

In contrast, media framing in the case of Pumpkin and her father significantly contributed to his capture.

Sometimes the media get it wrong. Regardless of how the McCann case is resolved the media framing of their ‘guilt’ is nothing short of defamation. However in the case of Pumpkin, it is heartening to see the media get it so right.


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This paper was first published in 2008 as part of her Masters programme. (c) Nicole Matejic 2008.