LONDON — The parents of missing child Madeleine McCann called Wednesday for fundamental changes to Britain's media culture, saying they were left distraught by false stories and the publication of private information by a rapacious tabloid press.
Kate and Gerry McCann told a media ethics inquiry that they felt powerless in the face of stories, based on confected evidence, suggesting they had killed their daughter, who vanished during the British family's vacation in Portugal in 2007. The disappearance of the 3-year-old, and her parents' search for her, fueled a media frenzy.
"Lives are being harmed by these stories, and something has to change," Gerry McCann said. "A commercial imperative is not acceptable."
The couple appeared as witnesses at an inquiry set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in response to a scandal over phone hacking by journalists at the now-shuttered News of the World tabloid. A judge at London's Royal Courts of Justice has heard evidence from celebrities including actor Hugh Grant and comedian Steve Coogan, and from ordinary people like the McCanns left bruised by unwanted media attention.
The McCanns, both 43, said press coverage of Madeleine's disappearance was initially sympathetic but soon changed, with some articles implying the parents were hiding something. One story said the couple had sold their daughter into slavery, another that they had killed her and hid her body in a freezer.
Gerry McCann said such articles were "nothing short of disgusting."
His wife said they felt powerless to do anything about the coverage,
"These were desperate times," Kate McCann said. "When it's your voice against a powerful media, it just doesn't hold weight."
The couple successfully sued several British newspapers over suggestions that they had caused their daughter's death and then covered it up. Two, the Daily Express and the Daily Star, were forced to print front-page apologies to the McCanns.
Kate McCann described her dismay when extracts from her private diary – in which she wrote to her missing daughter – appeared in the News of the World in 2008. The couple is still unsure how the newspaper obtained the journal.
"I felt totally violated," she said. "There was absolutely no respect shown to me as a grieving mother or as a human being, or to my daughter.
"I just felt so worthless we'd been treated like that."
Gerry McCann said he and his wife did not think their phones had been hacked, but had 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."
They acknowledged seeking media coverage of the search for their daughter, but said it had triggered a wave of intrusion. Gerry McCann said that "by engaging, it was more or less open season" on them for the tabloid 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.
The inquiry, led by Judge Brian Leveson, plans to issue a report next year and could recommend major changes to media regulation in Britain.
The hearings have heard allegations of media malpractice and intrusion that extend far beyond the News of the World, which has admitted illegally accessing the mobile phone voice mails of celebrities, politicians and crime victims and was shut down by owner Rupert Murdoch in July.
On Thursday the inquiry will hear from actress Sienna Miller, who won damages for phone hacking from the News of the World, and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, one of Britain's richest people, who has fought to keep her children out of the media glare.
A lawyer for several phone hacking victims told the inquiry Wednesday that illegal eavesdropping was not limited to the News of the World.
"It was a much more widespread practice than just one newspaper," said Mark Lewis, whose clients include 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.
Milly Dowler's parents spoke Monday before the inquiry, saying the hacking gave them false hope their daughter was still alive during the investigation into her disappearance.
Lewis claimed that listening in on voice mails was so easy that many journalists regarded it as no more serious than "driving at 35 mph in a 30 mph 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.
More than a dozen News of the World journalists and editors have been arrested over allegations of illegal eavesdropping, and two top London police officers also lost their jobs, along with Cameron's media adviser.
Several senior Murdoch executives have resigned in the still-evolving scandal, which has fueled calls for the mogul's son James Murdoch to step down as head of the international branch of his father's News Corp.
On Wednesday the company confirmed that James Murdoch had resigned in September as a director of the companies that publish The Sun and The Times of London newspapers, although he remains chairman of News International, the British arm of News Corp.
Leveson Inquiry: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless