A packed Cambridge Union chamber fell utterly silent last night as Robert Murat, the man named as an arguido (formal suspect) in the Madeleine McCann case and later cleared of any involvement, spoke about his experiences in a debate titled “The tabloid press does more harm than good”.

Speaking on a public platform for the first time in his life, Murat described how he had been caught up in a nightmare and, as the world’s press closed in on him and helicopters circled over his Portuguese home, he had felt like “a fox pursued by hounds”. It was an ordeal that almost destroyed both him and those close to him, he said.

He had initially come forward to help in the search for Madeleine as he was fluent in Portuguese, Murat told the chamber. A journalist for one of the British tabloids had literally “invented” stories that he had been behaving suspiciously. The tabloids went into overdrive with an unstoppable web of lies, one paper offering huge amounts of money to a relative to discredit him.

The press and police focus on Murat as a suspect had constituted “a huge waste” of time and money - resources that might otherwise have been devoted to the search for Madeleine, he argued. His and his family’s suffering, though hard to bear, was overshadowed by that of the tragedy experienced by McCanns whose daughter has never been found.

The debate, which brought together some famous names from the media, was notable for emotional highs and lows, as well as some colourful tabloid-style language and plenty of laughter.

Speaking for the motion were Michael White, Associate Editor of the Guardian, Robert Murat and his lawyer Louis Charalambous, and the Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, whose personal life has regularly been splashed across the front pages of the tabloids. Opik contributes a regular column to the Daily Sport – a role he sought to play down, explaining that his relationship with the tabloids stemmed from “their relationship with my relationships”.

Against the motion were Murray Morse, Editor of the Daily Sport and former editor of the Cambridge Evening News, Cambridge undergraduate and joint-editor of The Cambridge Student, Shane Murray (who had been co-opted to speak at two hours’ notice), and Peter Bazalgette, co-creator of Big Brother and a former Cambridge Union president.

The arguments centred on the role of the press to educate and inform, its need to sell newspapers in order to survive in a declining market, and the existence of, or need for, a “moral compass” to guide newspapers’ conduct. Mr Morse played the class card, arguing that the chattering classes sneered at the tabloids because they were read by the “lower classes”. The three million Sun readers are paying the taxes funding your education, he told the student audience.

All the speakers held the chamber riveted with their arguments. Opik and Bazalgette, in particular, impressed with their brilliance, quick-wittedness and humour. But it was Robert Murat’s calm and measured account of his terrible ordeal that the audience will remember most vividly. The motion was carried by 230 votes to 30.

The Cambridge Union Society is a private debating society for members of the University of Cambridge which regularly draws world famous names to take part in its debates. Recent speakers have included the Secretary General of NATO, Former Chief UN Weapons Inspector Dr Hans Blix, and Academy Award wining documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.

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