Kate and Gerry McCann

Kate and Gerry McCann speaking earlier today at Lord Leveson's inquiry into press standards

Gerry and Kate McCann, whose daughter Madeleine went missing from their holiday apartment more than four years ago, today said they were "tried by the media" in the wake of her disappearance.

Appearing at the Leveson inquiry today, the McCanns, who received a front-page apology and damages from Express Newspapers in 2008 over incorrect allegations against them, recounted their experience of the press from the moment their daughter was reported missing in May 2007.

In his opening comments Gerry McCann, who called certain coverage "nothing short of disgusting", called for a system to be put in place "to protect ordinary people from the damage media can cause by activity that falls well below standards I would deem as acceptable".

The couple said originally that they had seen interactions with the media as "an opportunity to issue an appeal" and Gerry McCann added that while he "knew there could be a very heavy downside" he nevertheless "made the decision with the information I had that it would probably be in the best interest of the search for our daughter."

"It was a very unusual scenario and I got the distinct impression there was a genuine want to help attitude from journalists and executives who perhaps saw what had happened to us and had a huge amount of empathy. There was a desire to help."

But he said he "quickly realised that there was tremendous amount of speculation", with coverage becoming often "exaggerated" and other reports were "simply made up" and "inaccurate, untruthful and incredibly damaging".

He told the inquiry there had been "several hundreds" of articles written about them, but it was one about Madeleine, which ran with a headline "She's dead" which he described as "one of the most distressing headlines".

"It was just incredible," he said.

Kate McCann also referred to the publication of extracts of her personal diary by the News of the World, which she said left her feeling "totally violated".

"It was totally out of the blue ... It was lifted in its entirety and put in the newspaper without my knowledge.

"I felt totally violated. I had written these words at the most desperate times of my life ... only way of communicating with Madeleine. No respect for me as grieving mother or for Madeleine. Made me feel very vulnerable."

"Stress caused to us was the clear message going out internationally was that there was strong evidence our daughter was dead and we were somehow implicated in her death," Gerry McCan added.

This meant there "couldn't be a meaningful search", he said.

"Any aspect of campaigning with what happened to us meant we were completely hamstrung in our ability to counter anything."

More recent reports, such as of unchecked alleged sightings of Madeleine, showed the "story has precedence over the safety of our child", he added.

As well as the reporting of false claims, which the couple said were "repeated so often they became fact", the family were also hounded by the press from the day they returned home from Portugal, Kate McCann told the inquiry.

"When we got back to home there were tens of journalists … there were helicopter crews … we were hemmed in the house for a couple of days before police moved them to end of the drive.

"They stayed until December 2007, every day and would wait for Gerry to go then I'd have to go out of house with children. They would either spring out from behind the hedge to give startled look to go with headline … on several occasions would bang on windows and Amelie would say 'mummy I'm scared'.

Their two other children, who were both two and a half years old, were "very frightened", Gerry McCann added.

Reflecting today on changes for the future he warned that damage has become "widespread" and called for change: "Information is being written and lives are being harmed, and something needs to change."

"Once it's there yes the apology goes part of the way, but as we've seen the reporting goes much wider ... and the damage is long lasting."

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