No story since the death of Princess Diana has played as big in the British press as the disappearance last May 3 of British toddler Madeleine McCann from a vacation apartment in Portugal. But as the U.K.'s famously aggressive tabloid press prepares stories to mark the anniversary of that sad event, they are now likely to proceed with uncharacteristic caution: on Wednesday, London's High Court handed a libel victory to the child's parents, Kate and Gerry McCann, with a chilling effect.
The Express Newspapers group owner of tabloid papers the Daily Express, the Sunday Express, the Daily Star and the Sunday Star agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle a claim that the papers had defamed them by alleging that the couple themselves were responsible for the death of their 4-year-old daughter. The daily outlets on Wednesday also published page-one apologies to the McCanns, as their Sunday stablemates are expected to do as well, admitting to the "utter falsity" of a series of articles published between late last summer and February.
For a paper to now imply that the couple was somehow guilty of killing Madeleine "is now a door marked 'closed,'" says Adrian Monck, head of London's City University's Department of Journalism, "and if you're going to open it, you had better have substantial evidence."
The McCanns themselves proved adept at keeping the story of Madeleine's disappearance on front pages throughout last summer. They secured an audience with the Pope, and enlisted celebrities like soccer star David Beckham to make appeals for the public to help find Madeleine. But the story went into overdrive early last September when Portuguese police investigating the crime named the McCanns as official suspects a status they still officially hold.
Most British press coverage had been largely sympathetic to the McCanns. But after they were named suspects, more stories falsely suggesting their possible involvement in Madeleine's disappearance began appearing. Media experts here say the Express papers were the worst offenders, printing a steady and in circulation terms lucrative flow of arch but unsubstantiated innuendo. "There was a drip, drip, drip of negative splash headlines," says Charlie Beckett, a media expert at the London School of Economics. "Syringe that 'Knocked Out Maddie' Found," claimed one ludicrous Star headline, while the Express screamed: "Find the Body or McCanns Will Escape." Some stories in those papers alleged the McCanns might have sold Madeleine because of financial woes, while others among the Express titles claimed the couple was involved in partner-swapping orgies.
Much of what the British papers printed were allegations that first surfaced in Portuguese newspapers, which were having a field day of their own. But that is "absolutely not" a defense in British libel law, says Michael Smyth, a partner at international law firm Clifford Chance. Adds Beckett: "There's a notion that if you repeat a lie from a foreign newspaper it's somehow okay. But most media lawyers will tell you it's still a bloody lie."
Smyth says the settlement, though huge and "highly unusual," wasn't unprecedented. The McCanns say the money will go to the fund they set up to help find Madeleine. It's possible, Smyth says, the newspaper group decided the cost of the penalty was worth the "commercial advantage they received for obsessively covering every twist and turn."
Even if police in Portugal eventually withdraw the McCanns' suspect status and leave the case open but unsolved, the taint of suspicion could remain clinging to the couple. So forcing their main tormentors in the media to publicly say in court that the McCanns are "completely innocent of any involvement in their daughter's disappearance" may be their best chance at gaining an official exoneration. It's scant comfort for their loss, surely, but vital for their reputations.