Robert Murat, the British expatriate falsely linked to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal, has said his life has been “scarred forever” by the tabloid press.
The property consultant, who last year won £600,000 in libel damages for almost 100 “seriously defamatory” stories in British newspapers, was speaking at the Cambridge Union Society in favour of a motion that “the tabloid press does more harm than good”.
In his first public speech on the matter, Murat said the intense press interest in him for eight months turned his home village into a “ghoulish carnival” and “nearly destroyed” his family’s lives.
Murat accepted “substantial” damages from Associated, Mirror Group, News Group and Express Newspapers in July last year.
Express Newspapers also paid out to Madeleine’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, and the so-called “tapas seven” – the group of friends staying in the Algarve holiday resort of Praia da Luiz when the three-year-old girl disappeared.
“There was never a shred of evidence that I was in any way involved, despite eight months of lurid headlines,” Murat said.
“At times, I felt like a fox being pursued by a pack of hounds. I was literally forced to jump over fences to avoid the scramble of photographers waiting outside.”
Murat claimed British journalists sent out to Portugal were so anxious to develop new angles that they fabricated stories – and “the lies got bigger and bolder”.
“To my personal cost, I now know what the maxim: ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ really means,” he said.
“Mobiles glued to their ears, ringing through to their newsdesks to bid and outbid one another for the next outlandish tale, British tabloid journalists did not so much cover the story as move it on from one breathless mix of speculation and invention to the next.”
He later added: “My own life will be scarred forever by the lies they printed.”
Murat’s lawyer, Louis Charalambous from Simons Muirhead and Burton, was also speaking in favour of the motion.
He said: “It’s not the fact that they are tabloids, or the fact that they are not broadsheets, but that they cynically exploit their readers, with an agenda which suits their editors and owners, often at the expense of their targets – be they good or bad, deserving or undeserving.”
Also speaking in support of the motion were Montgomeryshire MP Lembit Opik and Guardian assistant editor Michael White.
The motion was opposed by media consultant Peter Bazalgette and Sport Newspapers editor-in-chief Murray Morse.