Journalists covering the disappearance of Madeleine McCann “blatantly made up” stories in the pursuit of sales, her father has told MPs.
Giving evidence to the media select committee’s inquiry into press standards this afternoon, Gerry McCann accused the British press of “disgraceful conduct”.
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And he said that if he had not taken legal action, the media storm – which he called “the Kate and Gerry Show” – might have “resulted in the complete destruction of our family”.
Kate and Gerry McCann received a £550,000 libel payout from Express Newspapers last summer over a series of more than 100 defamatory articles.
“Our family has been the focus of some of the most sensational, untruthful, irresponsible and damaging reporting in the history of the press,” McCann told MPs.
“We saw pressure to produce stories when really there wasn’t anything new to report. That was the point where half-truths were making the front-page news.
“I always believe that other than maybe quite marked exaggeration to some front-page headline stories, I never really believed that many could be absolutely blatantly made up. I believe that was the case with Madeleine.”
He later said of the newspapers’ coverage: “Madeleine was a commodity and profits were to be made.”
McCann claimed the worst distortion came when British journalists in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luiz – who did not have access to many sources – took articles in the Portuguese press and embellished them.
“A single line buried deep in an article in a Portuguese newspaper – usually unsourced – it was front page and exaggerated to the extent where we had ridiculous headlines,” he said.
The McCanns’ press officer, former BBC journalist Clarence Mitchell, said reporters on the ground were under “intense pressure from their newsdesks”.
“We had a pack of UK reporters who were looking for their front page,” he told MPs.
“They had no other traditional sources that would be available to them – and because of that they didn’t push any further.
“Something that was just a suggestion or allegation in the Portuguese press, by the time it made it across the Channel became a fact in the story when in fact they were complete distortions or entirely untrue.”
Mitchell said there was also a “circle of lunacy” – where small nuggets of information would go from the Portuguese press to the UK papers and back again, picking up momentum on the way.
“Clarence I would often hear on the phone to journalists expressly telling them it was rubbish. It was still published,” McCann said, claiming journalists typically only gave a few hours’ notice ahead of publishing a story.
He added: “The most damning and damaging aspect of all the coverage that Kate and I cannot forgive was the presentation that there’s a substantial body of evidence that Madeleine is dead.
“If you portray a missing child as dead and people believe she’s dead without due evidence then people stop looking.”
McCann said he had an informal conversation with Press Complaints Commission chairman Sir Christopher Meyer, who advised them that “legal redress was the way to address the issue” of defamatory stories appearing in the papers.
He said if the McCanns had gone through the PCC instead of the courts, “it would have led the Express to thinking they were off the hook”.
“By going to the PCC, Kate and Gerry would have been sending out a signal that they had no appetite to see this through and could perhaps be fobbed off,” he said.
McCann added: “Undoubtedly we could have sued all the newspaper groups. But that wasn’t what we were interested in.
“The Express were the worst offenders by some distance and were the ones who, after the quiet period, rehashed it. It was a very easy decision.”