Express Newspapers has paid £375,000 in libel damages and printed apologies to the seven holiday companions of Kate and Gerry McCann, whose daughter Madeleine disappeared in Portugal last May and is still missing.
The Daily Star and Daily Express published the apologies this morning to the group of friends, known in the press as the “tapas seven” because they had dined in a tapas resturant in the resort of Praia da Luiz on the night Madeleine went missing, days before her fourth birthday.
The seven also received an apology in the High Court in London this morning.
Solicitor-advocate Adam Tudor told Mr Justice Eady that the papers suggested that at least some of the seven – particularly Dr Russell O’Brien – had been identified as potential suspects by the Portuguese authorities, and also suggested that the friends had covered up the true facts and misled the authorities.
Referring to the articles, he told the court: “The defendant accepts that these allegations are wholly untrue and that there is no evidence to support them.
“The defendant acknowledges that the actions of the claimants following Madeleine’s disappearance were entirely proper and were motivated by a desire to find Madeleine and to support the McCann family through a very difficult and stressful time.”
Solicitor Keith Mathieson, for Express Newspapers, apologised to Jane Tanner, Dr O’Brien, Fiona Payne, David Payne, Matthew Oldfield, Rachael Oldfield and Dianne Webster, and accepted that the allegations were wholly untrue.
The Daily Express apology was printed on page five of today’s paper and also featured on the dailyexpress.co.uk website. A second apology will appear in this weekend’s edition of the Sunday Express.
It read: “In articles published between July and December last year we suggested that the holiday companions of Kate and Gerry McCann might have covered up the true facts concerning Madeleine McCann’s disappearance and/or misled the authorities investigating her disappearance.
“We also reported speculation that one member of the group, Dr Russell O’Brien, was suspected of involvement with Madeleine’s abduction.
“We now accept that these suggestions should never have been made and were completely untrue.
“We apologise to Jane Tanner, Russell O’Brien, Fiona Payne, David Payne, Matthew Oldfield, Rachael Oldfield and Diane Webster to whom we have agreed to pay substantial damages which they will be donating to the Find Madeleine Fund.”
A similarly worded statement appeared on page three of the Daily Star and the dailystar.co.uk website.
In a joint statement read outside court by Fiona Payne, the friends said: “The abduction of Madeleine McCann, the daughter of our friends, on May 3 2007 changed all our lives in an instant. But for no one more so than Madeleine.
“The defamatory stories written about us were not only extremely damaging on a personal level, but we strongly feel were detrimental to the search for Madeleine.
“This aspect has been particularly heartbreaking to witness.”
She added: “Although we are very pleased with today’s result, it changes little when Madeleine’s plight remains ongoing – she is still missing and the abductor is still free.
“Our only aim is to see her safely recovered and reunited with the family who so adore her.
“All the damages received today are being paid directly into the Find Madeleine Fund to continue the ongoing search and investigation into her disappearance.
“We believe that Madeleine is still alive and can be found. We ask anyone who has any information, however small, to come forward, and we thank wholeheartedly all those who have already done so.”
Express Newspapers paid Kate and Gerry McCann £550,000 in damages in March after alleging that the couple were responsible for the death of their daughter in a series of articles.
In July, four newspaper groups agreed a six-figure libel settlement with Robert Murat, at one point named by Portuguese police as a formal suspect in Madeleine’s disappearance.
Police also named the McCanns as suspects in September last year, but after an exhaustive 14-month inquiry, the Portuguese authorities announced in July that the case was being shelved and that all three suspects would have their status lifted.
Despite a huge police investigation and massive coverage in the Portuguese and British media, Madeleine McCann has not been found.