guardian.co.uk, Friday 6 March 2009 11.13 GMT
Robert Murat, the man falsely suspected by the world's media and Portuguese police of involvement in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, spoke last night of the "very real harm tabloid journalism has done to me and those close to me", adding: "It came close to destroying our lives."
In what he said would be his "first and only public statement" on his ordeal, 35-year-old Murat gave a measured account of his treatment, which won him an estimated £600,000 in libel settlements, mostly involving tabloid newspapers.
He told a student audience at Cambridge University that he had "felt like a fox being pursued by a pack of hounds ... [caught] between a Kafka novel and the Will Smith movie Enemy of the State".
It was all lies, covering acres of newsprint which could have been devoted to trying to find the daughter of British doctors Kate and Gerry McCann, he said. But those lies had generated hate mail and personal threats. Murat's mother, his partner, daughter and ex-wife had been besieged in their homes.
(Funnily enough, bloggers and forum members, and even their children, are also on the receiving end of hate mail and personal threats from Kate and Gerry McCann's supporters, but the police don't care about that.)
The Algarve-based property consultant explained that he had become involved in the McCann case after he offered to translate witness statements during the police search for Madeleine following her disappearance from a hotel in Praia da Luz in May 2007. She has never been found and her parents – also suspects at one stage – received libel damages too.
In Murat's case, a British journalist covering the disappearance had been "so anxious to break the story" that she created it. "She tried to convince the Portuguese police that I was acting suspiciously."
He had never been arrested but had been interviewed and made an "arguido", or official suspect. His arguido status unleashed a "torrent of outlandish, untrue and deeply hurtful allegations".
It was claimed he was a sexual predator, seen outside the McCanns' holiday flat, that incriminating DNA had been found, that his nearby home contained a secret chamber – all "fairy tales" concocted to generate sales and profit, as the police later concluded.
Blind in one eye because of a detached retina, he had read that he actually had a glass eye. Soon newspapers were quoting contemporaries from his school days "saying I popped out my eye and rolled it around the playground as a party trick … I do not have a glass eye".
Murat, who was accompanied by Louis Charalambous, his London lawyer in the case, was speaking at a Cambridge Union debate on the motion titled "this House believes the tabloids do more harm than good".
Speaking against the pair were Murray Morse, a former editor of the Cambridge Evening News, now editor-in-chief of the Daily and Sunday Sport, and the television entrepreneur, Peter Bazalgette, co-creator of Big Brother and a former president of the university's debating society.
Both speakers were generous in acknowledging the grave harm done to Murat. The Daily Sport had not joined the attacks on him, Mr Morse pointed out. But they insisted that in their campaigning roles the tabloids do more good than harm among their millions of readers, cheering them up, articulating their concerns as well as educating them. The motion reflected snobbery in British society, Mr Morse argued.
But Murat's speech, delivered from a carefully prepared text by a self-confessed novice, was the focus of the evening's event. "From my own personal cost, I now know what the maxim 'never let the truth stand in the way of a good story' really means," he told a crowded house.
Relatives had been offered "huge amounts of money" to confirm obscene theories about him. While he stressed that he understood the importance of free and open journalism in a democratic society, "the tabloids are not a force for good, in my experience they are a force for harm".
Charalambous, an experienced lawyer from law firm Simons, Muirhead & Burton, widened the attack on the tabloids by arguing that the drama surrounding Jade Goody's cancer was "a voyeuristic circus with ringmaster Max Clifford cracking his whip … we have lost all sense of perspective, all sense of decency".
Morse had argued that Goody's decision to publicise her cervical cancer had been the "morally right" thing to do. He said that in promoting public awareness of the disease as no NHS campaign could have done it had been a force for good. Accusing the broadsheet media of hypocrisy he joked: "At a time of crisis the Sport can be relied on to panic and give you plenty of naked ladies."
But Charalambous countered this defence in describing how Goody had been fiercely denounced before her recent rehabilitation by tabloids that had cynically wiped clean their collective memory. His claims were reinforced by Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik.
A Daily Sport columnist, Opik admitted having a relationship with the tabloids "because they have a relationship with my relationships". Much of it was funny, but not the libels – which had won him "loads of cases", most of them out of court, the MP said. When his ex-fiancée revealed she had suffered a miscarriage he learned about it from the newspaper headline: "I lost Lembit's baby."
"From that day I have never been in any doubt that the tabloids do more harm than good," the MP said, adding that in the search for profits the press had lost its moral compass.
The motion was later carried by about 230 votes to 30.
Express Newspapers titles the Daily Express, Sunday Express and Daily Star; Associated's Daily Mail, London Evening Standard and Metro; MGN's Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and Daily Record; and News International's Sun and News of the World apologised and agreed to pay Murat £600,000 in libel damages in July last year over making false allegations against him. In November, Sky News apologised in the high court and agreed to pay "substantial damages" over a libellous web story and video about the Madeleine McCann disappearance.
Michael White also took part in last night's debate, speaking in support of the motion.
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I BELIEVE LORI CAMPBELL SHOULD BE CRIMINALLY INVESTIGATED
Lori Campbell of The Daily Mirror lied about Murat