Leveson Inquiry: McCanns left 'distraught' by press

Kate McCann: "We desperately wanted to shout out 'It's not true'"

The parents of missing girl Madeleine McCann have told a judge-led inquiry into UK media practices they were left distraught by press suggestions they were responsible for Madeleine's death.

Gerry McCann told the Leveson Inquiry many of the stories were untruthful, sinister or, he believed, made up.

His wife, Kate, said seeing her private diary published in the News of the World made her feel "totally violated".

Earlier lawyer Mark Lewis said phone hacking was not restricted to the NoW.

Madeleine went missing aged three on holiday in Portugal in May 2007.

In the first stage of his inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson is hearing from alleged victims of media intrusion at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.

Asked why he and his wife had agreed to give evidence, Mr McCann said there was "one simple reason".

"We feel that a system has to be put in place to protect ordinary people from the damage that the media can cause by behaviour which falls far below what I would call acceptable."

The McCanns' evidence was a searing indictment of the way the media can operate when in full flight.

The couple have suffered in many ways. Their daughter is still missing and in the process of trying to find her they have been damaged by the way their search has been reported. "It's your voice against the powerful media", was how Kate McCann put it.

A new low, after months and months of lows, came when Kate McCann's once private diary was published by the News of the World. The tabloid may have folded, but its publisher isn't off the hook. Lord Justice Leveson wants to know how the paper got hold of words a mother wrote at the "most desperate time" of her life.

The McCanns' motive for giving evidence was a simple one. They don't want others to experience what they experienced after Madeleine disappeared.

Mr McCann said the couple had got the impression there was a "genuine want to help attitude from journalists" shortly after their daughter's disappearance and "a huge amount of empathy".

He also acknowledged that the media had been helpful on occasions, particularly when launching appeals - and thanked people who had come forward as a result of them.

But Mrs McCann said she felt the relentless coverage was "stopping their chances" of finding Madeleine.

"She was on the front page every day for a period.... When a story is so negative, it's not helpful," she said.

Mr McCann said the couple also quickly realised there was a "tremendous amount of speculation" and he believed "elements" of the police inquiry were being leaked to the Portuguese press, which was running stories based on "snippets of information".

These were picked up by the British press, which could not tell if these stories were true or not, he said.

"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," he said.

Mr McCann said a Daily Mirror headline, which read "She's dead", was "one of the most distressing headlines that was presented as factual and it was just taken from a supposition".

He went on to say "more sinister elements" then started to creep in, the first of which was a Portuguese article which suggested a cover-up, "some sort of sinister agreement between us and our friends".

'Terrifying'

The inquiry also heard a flavour of the articles which led the couple to successfully pursue a libel action, including a Daily Star headline which read: "Maddy 'sold' by hard-up McCanns", which Mr McCann said "was nothing short of disgusting".

Mrs McCann said the same paper accused the family of storing her body in a freezer.

Mr McCann also described how on one occasion the News of the World's editor Colin Myler called them, "irate", because they had done an unpaid interview with Hello! magazine to promote a campaign for an alert system for missing children and "berated" them for not doing a NoW interview.

"He beat us into submission verbally and we agreed to do an interview the day after," Mr McCann said.

Kate McCann also told the inquiry that finding out her private diary - which the couple believe was taken for a time by the Portuguese police - had been published in the NoW in 2008 had made her feel "totally violated" and she wanted to "climb into a hole and not coming out".

"I'd written these words at the most difficult time of my life.... It was my only way of communicating with Madeleine," she said.

Kate McCann said she "felt totally violated" when the News of the World published entries from her diary

Mr McCann also talked about being constantly pursued by photographers and of the journalists camped outside their house in Rothley, Mrs McCann said: "Often they would spring out from a hedge so they could get a startled look so they could attach 'frail' or 'fragile'."

Mr McCann said he felt the couple "speak with experience about how powerful the media is and how much damage they can do", adding that he believed journalists that broke rules should "lose their privilege of practising".

Earlier on Wednesday, hacking victims' lawyer Mr Lewis, who represents the family of murdered Milly Dowler, said preserving the media's current system of self-regulation was "the preservation of no regulation at all".

He said the NoW had been the focus of the phone-hacking row because private investigator Glenn Mulcaire had written things down, but that evidence from his clients inferred other news organisations also illegally accessed phones.

Voicemail interception had been easy to do and that journalists would use it to "pry on things", he said.

"I don't think they necessarily thought of it as any worse - certainly at the beginning - than driving at 35mph in a 30mph zone."

Sheryl Gascoigne - former wife of ex-footballer Paul - and journalist Tom Rowland also gave evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday.

Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry is looking at the "culture, practices and ethics of the media" and whether the self-regulation of the press works.

A second phase of the inquiry will commence after the conclusion of a police investigation into NoW phone hacking and any resultant prosecutions. It will examine the extent of unlawful conduct by the press and look at the police's initial hacking investigation.

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