Madeleine's parents win libel damages

LONDON (Reuters) - Two tabloid newspapers made unprecedented front page apologies on Wednesday to the parents of missing girl Madeleine McCann for suggesting they might have killed their daughter and covered up her death.

The Daily Express and Daily Star admitted the allegations against Kate and Gerry McCann, whose daughter went missing on holiday in Portugal last May, were “baseless” and agreed in court to pay 550,000 pounds in libel damages.

Madeleine’s disappearance prompted intense international media coverage.

“We accept that a number of articles in the newspaper have suggested that the couple caused the death of their missing daughter Madeleine and then covered it up,” the Daily Express said.

“We acknowledge that there is no evidence whatsoever to support this theory and that Kate and Gerry are completely innocent of any involvement in their daughter’s disappearance.”

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At a High Court hearing London, the McCanns’ lawyer Adam Tudor said it was “difficult to conceive a more serious allegation than to be falsely accused of being responsible for the death of one’s daughter.”

He told the court that the articles included a variety of false claims, including that the McCanns killed their daughter, sold her to pay off debts or were involved in “wife-swapping”.

A lawyer for the newspapers told the court: “Express Newspapers regrets publishing these extremely serious, yet baseless, allegations.” The Sunday Express and the Daily Star Sunday are also expected to apologise in issues this weekend.

The McCanns hired the London media law firm Carter-Ruck earlier this month to sue for libel. The McCanns said the damages awarded would be donated to the fund set up to find their daughter. Their spokesman said the family had not yet decided whether to take action against other newspapers.

Madeleine McCann disappeared shortly before her fourth birthday while on a family holiday in the Algarve resort of Praia da Luz, prompting a huge police investigation.

The McCanns believe she was abducted from their holiday apartment while they were dining with friends nearby.

They hired private investigators to help find their daughter after Portuguese police named them as suspects in September. The investigation dominated newspapers and TV bulletins for months.

Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City University London, said the apology was unprecedented and that it was significant the newspapers had settled out of court.

“It shows just how culpable they were that they didn’t even try to fight the action in court,” he told BBC radio.

Despite a string of reported possible sightings from Morocco to Spain to France to Malta, Madeleine is still missing.

Additional reporting by Kate Kelland; editing by Paul Casciato