- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 23, 2011

LONDON (AP) - 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.

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