Maddie: Parents tell of relentless media
London - The parents of Madeleine McCann, whose 2007 disappearance sparked a media frenzy, told a London courtroom on Wednesday how they were left distraught by the relentless UK press and its insinuations they were responsible for their daughter's death.
Kate and Gerry McCann told Britain's media ethics inquiry that the coverage had hurt their efforts to find their daughter after she vanished during a family vacation in Portugal, shortly before her fourth birthday.
"We were trying to find our daughter and you [the media] are stopping our chances of doing that," Kate McCann said.
"These were desperate times," she said, adding that the couple felt powerless. "When it's your voice against a powerful media, it just doesn't hold weight."
Madeleine's disappearance sparked an international manhunt and intense press coverage. The McCanns said the press was initially sympathetic but soon changed, with some articles implying the couple was hiding something.
The couple successfully sued several British newspapers over suggestions that they had caused their daughter's death and then covered it up.
Prime Minister David Cameron set up the public inquiry into media ethics and practices in response to a still-evolving scandal over phone hacking by tabloid journalists.
This week it has taken evidence from celebrities including actor Hugh Grant and comedian Steve Coogan, and from ordinary people left bruised by unwanted media attention.
Gerry McCann said he and his wife did not think their phones had been hacked, but he volunteered to testify at the inquiry "for one simple reason - we feel a system has to be put in place to protect ordinary people from the damage the media can cause".
Inquiry lawyer Robert Jay said the couple had experienced "the good, the bad and the particularly ugly side of the press".
It is still not clear what happened to Madeleine, despite her parents' far-reaching international campaign and numerous reported sightings from around the world.
Earlier, a lawyer for several phone hacking victims said that illegal eavesdropping was widely practised by Britain's tabloid journalists, producing stories that were both intrusive and untrue.
Mark Lewis said phone hacking was not limited to Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which the media mogul shut down earlier this year as outrage grew over the scandal.
"It was a much more widespread practice than just one newspaper," he said.
Lewis claimed that listening in on voice mails was so easy that many journalists regarded it as no more serious than "driving at 35 miles per hour in a 30 miles an hour zone".
He said the News of the World got caught because it hired a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who kept detailed records of his snooping assignments. Mulcaire and News of the World reporter Clive Goodman were jailed in 2007 for hacking into the voice mails of royal aides.
"The fact that evidence doesn't exist in written form doesn't mean to say that the crime didn't happen," Lewis said.
Lewis said when a News of the World reporter was arrested for phone hacking in 2006, he had a "eureka moment" about the source of a false story on two of his clients.
The story alleged a romantic relationship between soccer players' association chief Gordon Taylor and lawyer Joanne Armstrong. Taylor said he believed the story was based on a voice mail message from Armstrong thanking Taylor for speaking at her father's funeral.
2 + 2 = 84
The message said: "Thank you for yesterday. You were wonderful."
Lewis said a tabloid journalist "added two and two and made 84. ... If it hadn't been so sad, it would have been funny."
In 2008, Murdoch's News International agreed to pay Taylor hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation for the hacking of his phone in return for keeping quiet about the deal - one of several attempts by the company to hush up the scale of its illegal activity.
Murdoch shut down the News of the World in July after evidence emerged that it had routinely eavesdropped on the voice mails of public figures, celebrities and even crime victims in its search for scoops.
More than a dozen News of the World journalists and editors have been arrested and several senior Murdoch executives have resigned in the still-evolving scandal. Two top London police officers also lost their jobs, along with Cameron's media adviser.
Lewis has represented many prominent hacking victims, including the family of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, whose voice mails were accessed by the News of the World after she disappeared in 2002.
The girl's parents spoke on Monday before the UK inquiry, saying the hacking gave them false hope their daughter was still alive during the investigation into her disappearance.
The inquiry, led by Judge Brian Leveson, plans to issue a report next year and could recommend major changes to media regulation in Britain.