McCanns relive the ordeal: papers said we killed and even sold Madeleine

Mother tells of how she felt 'violated' by the press after her daughter's disappearance

Since three-year-old Madeleine McCann vanished from a holiday villa in Portugal in May 2007, her parents have been accused of everything from selling their child to hiding her body in a freezer. Yesterday at the High Court, the "national scandal" of Kate and Gerry McCann's trial by tabloid press was emotionally retraced.

As the couple told the Leveson Inquiry about the accusations, lies, inaccuracies, baseless headlines and virtual blackmail that have characterised coverage of their daughter's disappearance, Dr Gerry McCann attempted to deliver a clinical analysis of two parents who tried always to remain focused on getting their daughter back. But, for his wife, reliving events in Portugal looked and sounded like a painful ordeal.

She told the inquiry of one night in Praia da Luz when, just as she was about to go to bed, her husband learnt of a headline on the front page of the Daily Mirror. "She's dead", the paper claimed. No one in Portugal knew for sure if Madeleine was alive or had been killed. There were no facts. It was all supposition. "It was incredible," Mr McCann told a hushed inquiry room.

Hundreds of journalists and 24-hour television broadcasters had descended on Praia da Luz after Madeleine disappeared and a tabloid siege began, but, under the Portuguese criminal investigation system, the McCanns were required to remain silent. Mr McCann said he suspected the press might leave after a few weeks.

But they stayed and, as the pressure to come up with new stories about the missing girl increased, a "shift in emphasis" became apparent from June. An article in a local newspaper that mentioned a "a pact of silence" between the parents and friends on holiday snowballed into more sinister coverage by the British tabloids.

Identified as "arguido" in Portuguese law, which means "person of interest", Dr McCann said this was translated by the papers as "suspect". The implication was barely disguised.

The inquiry was told of a Mail journalist, David Jones, writing: "From the start a terrible doubt has never left me."

The accusations continued to pile up, and, even when the McCann family returned home, the hounding continued, enough for one of the McCann's twins to tell Mrs McCann, "Mummy I'm frightened".

Mr McCann said even after they had started a campaign to find Madeleine, he felt powerless stop untrue and baseless stories. "We were being tried by the media and couldn't defend ourselves. They were risking our chances of ever finding Madeleine."

The fantasy headlines kept coming: stories about a "corpse" in a car the McCanns had hired after Madeleine went missing, or "body fluids" found in the car. The McCanns named the Express newspapers as serious offenders. A story in the Daily Star read: "Maddy sold" by hard-up McCanns. Mr McCann said the story was "nothing short of disgusting". A story by the same reporter said Maddy's body had been stored by them in a freezer.

Other stories pointed to an "orgy" at the villa; a local priest who had once helped the McCanns removing helpful posters; the McCanns as the "main suspects"; DNA tests confirming Maddy's blood in the hired car; and Maddy sold into "white slavery" by her parents.

There were other stories pointing to the McCanns engaging in "swinging" and "wife-swapping". Mr McCann described their effect as bringing "untold stress".

The coupled hired a team of defamation specialists and successfully sued the Express Newspapers Group for £500,000 and a hard-won front-page apology.

Friends also named in the untrue stories received £375,000. Actions against coverage by the Mail and Evening Standard were settled out of court.

Although there was a change in the coverage after the Express damages, the McCanns' pain didn't stop. Madeleine was still missing, and the story, for many of the tabloids, was still there to bring in valuable readers.

On the first anniversary of their daughter's disappearance, the couple agreed to an interview with Hello! magazine, which sells Europe-wide.

The deal caused outrage in the offices of the News of the World and the paper's then-editor, Colin Myler, phoned them. Mr McCann described him as "irate", describing how he "berated us into giving them an interview. He beat us into submission." Kate McCann said she almost felt guilty about not offering the interview to the paper after the call, but both parents knew the NOTW's focus was not on Madeleine or grieving parents, but on the commercial value of a McCann front page.

In September 2008 the NOTW had another surprise for Mrs McCann. A friend called her and said she had seen her diary in the paper. Mrs McCann said, "When I read it was there, in its entirety, I felt totally violated. It was written just after Madeleine went missing and was my only way of communicating with her."

She described seeing the intimate link to her daughter spread across the NOTW as "traumatic", adding, "It made me feel worthless".

Lord Leveson asked the inquiry's counsel to investigate how the NOTW came to publish the diaries, believed to have been in the hands of the Portuguese police. Lord Leveson said the diary story carried a byline – "Exclusive – Daniel Sanderson" and said that should be the first line of inquiry.

Tabloid targets: The victims in court yesterday

Sheryl Gascoigne

The former wife of Paul Gascoigne said she had to crawl at home under window-level to avoid the unwanted attentions of photographers outside.

Press interest in her persisted long after her divorce from the former England star in 1998. Mrs Gascoigne said she accepted unwanted media attention "went with the territory". But the newspapers had impacted significantly on her life and she was portrayed wrongly as a "money- grabber". Mrs Gascoigne said she had been forced to put her house up for sale to find £200,000 to fund a libel action against the Sunday Mirror in 2009. The case was settled before the sale went through.

Tom Rowland

A mobile phone registered to the News of the World made dozens of calls to the voicemail of business journalist Tom Rowland. The "hub" handset left a five-page log of calls which Mr Rowland said showed he was repeatedly targeted, possibly to obtain details about property deals and yacht sales involving monied public figures and to steal high-profile contacts.

Mark Lewis

The lawyer said he believed phone hacking scandal is "much more widespread" in newspapers. Mr Lewis said journalists had found the task of illegally accessing the voicemails of public figures "too easy to do" and that it was not thought of as being "any worse than driving at 35mph in a 30mph zone".

The solicitor, whose clients include the parents of Milly Dowler, said the NOTW had been caught because its private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, kept detailed records.

Kate McCann On the publication of her diaries by the News of the World in 2008:

"I felt totally violated. I had written these words at the most desperate time of my life...There was absolutely no respect shown for me as a grieving mother or a human being or to my daughter"

Gerry McCann On the reaction of NOTW editor Colin Myler when the couple gave an interview to Hello!:

"He was berating us for not doing an interview with the News of the World and told us how supportive the newspaper had been. He basically beat us into submission, verbally, and we agreed to do an interview."

Gerry McCann On the practice of British newspapers repeating information published in the Portuguese press:

"They didn't know the source, they didn't know whether it was accurate, it was exaggerated and often downright untruthful and often, I believe, on occasions, made up."

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