House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
CULTURE, MEDIA AND SPORT COMMITTEE
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Taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee
Mr John Whittingdale, in the Chair
Mr Nigel Evans
Mr Mike Hall
Mr Adrian Sanders
Witnesses: Mr Gerry McCann, Mr Clarence Mitchell, the McCanns' Media Adviser and Spokesman, and Mr Adam Tudor, Carter Ruck, Solicitors, gave evidence.
Q168 Chairman: Good afternoon, everybody. This is the third session of the Committee's inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. I would like to welcome as our witnesses this afternoon Gerry McCann, his media spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, and Adam Tudor of Carter Ruck. Obviously we are going to be focusing this afternoon specifically on media issues but perhaps I could just start off by expressing, I think on behalf of all of the Committee, our sympathy to Gerry McCann for the ordeal that he and his family have had to undergo and also to express the hope still that Madeleine might one day be found. Before we come to questions, I know that you would like to make a short statement.
Mr McCann: Thank you. I am Gerald McCann, the father of Madeleine,
who was abducted in Praia da Luz on
Q169 Chairman: Can I ask you to say a little bit more about your impression of the reporting of the case and how it changed over time?
Mr McCann: The first impressions really
started on day one when we came back to Praia da Luz having spent the day in
Portimao at the police station. Clearly,
there was a huge media presence there already.
My natural instinct was to appeal for information, for people to come
forward. At that point we were desperate
for information and desperate, as we still are, that our daughter could be
found and we wanted people to help in that.
That is why we spoke to the media and did our appeals. Particularly early on, there was a general
willingness of the media, an engagement and a real desire to try and help get
information leading to Madeleine's whereabouts.
Fairly quickly though both Kate and myself, certainly when we were in
the apartment watching the broadcasting, particularly on the news channels, and
subsequently when we looked at the newspapers, saw that much of the content of
the material, even within the first few days - possibly particularly in the
first few days - was highly speculative.
It was not at all helpful to us and we fairly quickly decided, for our
own benefit, not to watch the broadcasting or indeed to read the newspapers in
detail. Of course the speculation
aspects are still ongoing in many respects until we all know where Madeleine is
and who took her. There were elements as
we went along where clearly we wanted to get the message out there and
particularly the fact that, when it became apparent to us that Madeleine could
quite easily have been transferred out of
Q170 Chairman: Your impression was that the newspapers wanted to go on reporting stories about Madeleine's disappearance and, if there were no new facts to report, they started to resort to making up things?
Mr McCann: I totally agree with that. Prior to becoming involved in this experience, I always believed that, although there might be quite marked exaggeration to some front page headline stories, I never really believed that many of them could be absolutely blatantly made up. I believe that was the case with Madeleine.
Q171 Chairman: Did you feel that once that point had been reached the majority of press coverage then become negative and unhelpful to you or were there specific worst offenders?
Mr McCann: Obviously there were fictitious stories which were not necessarily libellous or defamatory and clearly there was another turn when we were declared arguido and it was a free for all really. A different process went on before that which was largely where Madeleine, I believe, was made a commodity and profits were to be made. As far as I could see, having front page news stories or indeed any stories in newspapers on a daily basis was not helpful to the search. There was that element, but that was not particularly damaging at that point other than that there was a lot of misinformation and we would have been spending all of our time if we were trying to correct it. There was something very early on which I was uneasy with and that was in terms of the confidentiality of the investigation, whether it be in this country or in a foreign country. I think there is information related to a crime that you do not want to be made public because only the witnesses who were there will know that information. It concerned me greatly that elements of the time line were becoming increasingly apparent through leaks and a desire to have every single bit of information known; whereas at the time I remember speaking to Kate and her other friends and saying, "In some ways, judicial secrecy is good because the abductor will not be able to get access to information that only we know." That was pretty quickly eroded and was disappointing. That is very different to the senior investigating officer, as would happen in a serious case in this country, providing information to the public to try and get further intelligence. That aspect of it was concerning even quite early on.
Q172 Chairman: Do you believe that in the majority of cases the negative stories that appeared were completely fabricated or were there some people in the police who might have given them information which led them to write the stories they did?
Mr McCann: Do you mean the stories
Q173 Chairman: Yes.
Mr McCann: The worst stories that were
printed in this country were based on articles that had been directly published
Q174 Mr Sanders: Are you saying that the media impeded your campaigning and the search for Madeleine?
Mr McCann: I have made it clear that elements of the media were helpful in terms of the campaign. In terms of distribution of her image, it is incredibly powerful. There is absolutely no doubt about that. Subsequently the media were used by C-OP in terms of an appeal asking for tourists to come forward and there was a huge number of photographs uplifted and other information given. Elements of the appeal nature and awareness are there and are helpful but if you portray a missing child as dead and people believe she is dead without due evidence then people stop looking.
Q175 Mr Sanders: Did you feel the need to appoint media help to raise awareness through the press or did you feel the need to do that to deal with unwanted media attention?
Mr McCann: There are two elements. Right at the very beginning, Mark Warner had a media specialist, a crisis management specialist from Bell Pottinger called Alex Wilful, who was incredibly helpful to us and, in those early days, gave us quite simple guidance which we found particularly helpful. It was very much along the lines of: what are your objectives? What are you hoping to achieve by speaking to the media? Be very clear about what you want. That was very, very good because there is an element that they are there on your doorstep. Having never been exposed to media in any substantial amount previously, you are not quite sure where the boundaries are and what is expected. Having that protection and guidance in terms of dealing with it was very important. The government sent out a media adviser who had expertise in campaign management, Cherie Dodd, who previously worked at the DTI and started talking about planning for us, how we could utilise the media in terms of achieving objectives and then subsequently Clarence came out. That was very important, one, to assist us in trying to get information to help find our missing daughter and, secondly, in protecting us from the media because the demands were unbelievable. To be thrust from being on holiday one minute into the middle of an international media storm and knowing how to cope with that is very difficult. What we wanted and still want is a partnership with the media when we have information which we think may be relevant and can assist the search, obviously drawing the lines between the search for Madeleine and the Kate and Gerry Show, which the media were much more interested as most of the facts came out. Drawing the line between those two things was much harder.
Q176 Mr Sanders: It seems to prove almost impossible when you have that level of media attention to control it. It just becomes an uncontrollable vortex.
Mr McCann: Obviously the circumstances around this story are fairly unique but we were never under the impression that we were controlling the media. We did not set the media agenda.
Q177 Mr Sanders: I do not think you gave that impression.
Mr McCann: For the record, I have to be categorically clear about this. The media decide what they publish and what they broadcast. Obviously we were asking for help and we got a lot of exposure and, even early on, unwanted exposure. It was more about influencing the content and being clear about when we were engaging about what we were hoping to get out of it.
Q178 Adam Price: You mentioned a moment ago the pressures that you felt some journalists were facing in terms of having to deliver stories 24/7. Did any of the journalists that you would have met on a face to face basis ever express any sense of regret or remorse at some of the stories that they were printing or were they fairly brazen?
Mr McCann: At the time the most damaging stories were published, we were not really speaking to many journalists face to face. Kate and I, despite the coverage, particularly after the first five weeks or so, have been in front of the media very periodically. Very rarely have we come face to face with a journalist whose name was by the byline or the story. We have had Clarence with us during most of this so he has dealt with it more. I know that Clarence has had apologies from journalists and there has been, "I wrote this but the headline was done by the news desk." There is clearly pressure on the journalists on the ground who are being funded on expenses and are under pressure to produce copy. There is pressure from the news desk to write a headline which does not necessarily reflect the factual content available for the story.
Mr Mitchell: Gerry is absolutely
right. The reporters on the ground were
only doing their job. We are not
critical of them in that sense, but they were under intense pressure from their
news desks and within themselves as well.
We had a pack - this is just
Q179 Mr Evans: Do you think you got better treatment from the television news than you did from the printed press?
Mr McCann: By and large the broadcasters have been more responsible. I would not say they have been without fault, particularly around the arguido time. There are elements that were too accepting of information that was becoming available from sources and we still are not sure where they are. Whether the coverage was all entirely appropriate I am not the best person to decide because obviously we are biased.
Q180 Mr Evans: At any time was any journalist in a face to face with you - although you just said that was rather contained - abusive to either you or Kate?
Mr McCann: Not so much directly. I did speak to Christopher Meyer about this
in the summer of 2007. "Reverence" is
the wrong word but amongst the
Q181 Mr Evans: Did any of them have your mobile numbers for instance and phone you at odd times or pester you all the time?
Mr McCann: I have to say it was remarkably few. My mobile number was known to a proportion of the journalists. The vast majority called through the media liaison, whether it be Bell Pottinger with Alex Wilful first of all or Clarence and his predecessors. I had a few calls. One of them was phoning to say, "I think what is happening right now is getting out of hand and you need to try and do something." It was advice as much as tapping us up. That happened on one or two occasions and we just directed it back to the media.
Mr Mitchell: One of the problems was on the ground. Because of judicial secrecy and the police not being able or willing to say anything publicly, certainly the British journalists and the Americans to a certain extent had come to expect a very open attitude from the authorities and, when they did not get that, they had nowhere to fall back on. They were not able to do any real investigative digging of their own or they did not seem particularly inclined to. As a practical illustration of that, they tended to congregate at one particular bar which had a pretty lethal combination of free Wi-Fi and alcohol and that became the news room for the duration of the trip, I am afraid. They would get the Portuguese press each morning translated for them with mistranslations occasionally occurring in that as well. Then, no matter what rubbish, frankly, was appearing in the Portuguese press from whatever source, they would then come to me and I would either deny it or try and correct it or say, "We are just not talking about this today." That was effectively a balancing of the story and there was no further effort to pursue any independent journalism as we might recognise it.
Q182 Mr Evans: Are you suggesting that some of the stuff that we read in the newspapers was fuelled by alcohol?
Mr Mitchell: I am not suggesting anything was written in that particular state. I am just trying to illustrate the point that it was a convivial atmosphere. The journalists found it easy to work there and I had to go down to brief them there. Broadcasters tend to hunt in a different pack from print, so I would have to go down to where the broadcasters were and talk to them for the day on any agreed messages that I had agreed with Kate and Gerry. Then the print press would have different agendas and different deadlines and they tended to congregate at the bar. I am not saying that in a pejorative sense. I am just illustrating that as an example of where they were, but that is what they had to do because they had no other traditional sources that would normally be available to them. Frankly, because of that, they did not really push any further.
Q183 Mr Evans: I want to touch on the distinction, when the information that the media managed to get one way or another was useful and when it was not, which is the suggestion almost that information that could only be made available to the police - only the police would know it and yourselves - somehow got out into the media world. Do you believe therefore that this information was directly leaked to certain newspapers? Is there any suggestion - Clarence, maybe this is one for you - that any British journalists were paying the police for information that they later used which went against your best interests?
Mr Mitchell: I have no proof of that. I cannot prove where any of the leaks came from but you only have to look at the nature of the stories and the content within them to make certain presumptions. My situation was dealing with those leaks once they appeared. Something that was even often just a suggestion or an allegation, unsourced in the Portuguese press, by the time it found its way across the Channel, had become hardened up into fact with an extra scare headline or whatever on top of it. That is where the real problems started because these things would end up in the cuttings file and would become an accepted fact in the story when in fact they were complete distortions in many cases or entirely untrue in others.
Q184 Mr Evans: In those instances where the information was true, was the source originally Portuguese newspaper and then transferred after translation into British papers or did now and again some stuff that only the police and yourselves knew get into British newspapers first?
Mr McCann: As far as I could see, almost
all of the information available had arisen within
Mr Mitchell: We would see things appearing
in the Portuguese press get misreported in
Mr Tudor: In order to be sure about
that you would have to do a line by line comparison of all of the Portuguese
articles and all of the
Farrelly: I want to move to the Press Complaints
Commission but before that I want to establish what the legal situation of the
reporting was in
Mr Tudor: I would not bank on it. I am not a Portuguese lawyer and I am not a criminal lawyer. I do not know is the short answer. So far as I am aware, there was no intervention by the Portuguese authorities along the lines of contempt in the way that you might expect to have seen here.
Mr McCann: This is my first hand
knowledge from discussions rather than knowledge of Portuguese law but clearly
within Portugal there has been a balance going on between laws, many of which
date back to them being a Fascist government and subsequently a Communist
one. Freedom of speech is perhaps more
freely enshrined there and yet we have this judicial secrecy which, in many
cases, does not function the way it should.
There is this element where the press there is potentially much less
well regulated, to use that in the loosest context, than it is in the
Farrelly: Have you ever speculated as to how this might
have developed had Madeleine disappeared in
Mr McCann: Speaking to law enforcement over here and in the US, obviously in Portugal and other organisations involved in child welfare and missing children, usually, certainly within this country, the senior investigating officer and the police force responsible have a media strategy. They give information which they want out there and that takes away the vacuum to some extent. In many countries that is the way it works.
Q187 Paul Farrelly: Have you had any sense from talking to law enforcement officers here that, had the media started on the trail that they followed leading to the completely made up and damaging stories, the police here might have stepped in and warned the media to calm it down?
Mr Tudor: Or the Attorney General even,
yes. I have always taken the view from a
non-criminal, legal perspective that if this "incident" had happened here there
is no way you would have had this nature of coverage. It would have been substantially different
and the newspapers would have been considerably more careful. Incidentally, even though this did take place
Q188 Paul Farrelly: This brings us neatly to press standards. There has been criticism of the Press Complaints Commission that they were not proactive. They stood by and did not invoke their own inquiry. They have said in evidence to us, defending that position, that to have done so would have been an impertinence to the McCanns. Would you have felt it an impertinence to you had the Press Complaints Commission in respect of press standards been more proactive and said, "Hold on, this is not the way a responsible press behaves"?
Mr McCann: No, I would not have found it
impertinent. I certainly would have been
open to dialogue if it was felt to be within the remit of the PCC. Having also read their evidence, they are
claiming it is not within their remit.
Aspects with the PCC have been helpful in terms of protecting privacy
particularly for our twins, which was a major concern for us. They were continuing to be photographed and
we wanted that stopped. Very quickly
that was taken up by the press and broadcasters within the
Q189 Paul Farrelly: You have described some of the interaction you had with the PCC. Did you consider making an official complaint to the PCC that they were publishing stories about you on the basis of no evidence at all and indeed about Mr Murat as well whose life was also destroyed?
Mr McCann: In terms of the defamatory stories on that specific point, we were advised that legal redress was the way to address that issue.
Q190 Paul Farrelly: You were advised by the PCC?
Mr McCann: I had an informal conversation that was directed to me, yes.
Q191 Paul Farrelly: Can you tell us who you had the conversation with?
Mr McCann: It was with the then chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer.
Q192 Paul Farrelly: There was no willingness to take up the issues around you therefore as a matter of press standards?
Mr McCann: At the time and on reading their submission, they say it is a very clear division between libel, for which there is legal redress, and when we spoke to Adam for Carter Ruck he also strongly advised us that if we wanted a stop put to it then legal redress was the way to go.
Q193 Paul Farrelly: There are wider issues: your personal safety and the ability to try and find your daughter. It was much wider than libel behaviour.
Mr McCann: Absolutely. From Kate's and my point of view, taking the legal route was a last resort. You are right. I think there is a gap there currently in the regulation. A complaint for example about stories which are about an invasion of privacy is always retrospective and the damage has often been done. There has to be some degree of control, I believe, or deterrent to publishing untrue and particularly damaging stories where they have the potential to ruin people's lives.
Q194 Paul Farrelly: The fact that newspaper editors, including The Daily Express editor, Peter Hill, were on the board of the PCC at the time - what sort of view did that leave with you as to how the Press Complaints Commission operates?
Mr McCann: It did cause me concern. We were in a dispute with them. Although ultimately they thankfully decided to settle before taking it on to court, they did not just roll over and say, "Oh, sorry." There was quite a bit of correspondence and we had to produce quite a bit of evidence. I did think it was surprising that an editor of a paper which had so flagrantly libelled us with the most devastating stories could hold a position on the board of the PCC.
Q195 Paul Farrelly: The newspaper industry of course is adamant that self-regulation works. I would be interested in your view of that but furthermore it has been remarked that in any other sphere of life, in any other profession, in business or in government, if something like this had happened there would have been an inquiry. Somebody, somewhere, would have launched an inquiry. We are mounting an inquiry here but we are not part of the media profession. What does the failure of any inquiry or any toughening of a code because of what you have been through say about not only the standards of the press in this country in your view but also the role of the regulator in upholding these standards of the media?
Mr McCann: Obviously speaking from our own experience, we have probably been the most high profile case or extreme case there has been. I think we do see almost on a daily basis information published that is damaging, possibly untruthful and defamatory to people. My own view is that there has to be some more stringent regulation of that. I will very much defend freedom of speech but when people's lives are put in jeopardy by different mechanisms there has to be redress.
Mr Tudor: We had a conversation about the PCC when Kate and Gerry first came to Carter Ruck. It was quite a short conversation. The PCC is perceived, to a considerable extent still correctly, as being wholly media friendly. It lacks teeth. It cannot award damages. It cannot force apologies. As soon as there is any dispute of fact between the newspaper and the victim of the libel, the PCC backs off and says, "This needs to go to law." To be fair to the PCC, I think they have accepted and said that the McCanns' case was never going to be appropriate for the PCC but should have gone to law and so on. How one views the PCC in this kind of scenario, extreme or otherwise, is that it can be summed up by the fact that if you were to ask me how I think The Express would have reacted if Kate and Gerry McCann had brought a PCC complaint rather than a Carter Ruck letter, you could probably have felt the sigh of relief all the way down Fleet Street. Perhaps that gives you a feel for how it would be perceived. First of all, I am afraid it would have led The Express to think that relatively speaking they were off the hook because of the lack of teeth that the PCC has. Secondly, almost by definition, by going to the PCC Kate and Gerry would have been tacitly sending out a signal, not only to The Express, but to the rest of Fleet Street that they had no appetite to see this through and therefore perhaps could be fobbed off, as it were. Time and again one comes across this being the reality of PCC complaints. I am not here to put the boot into the PCC. I think they have a very important role to perform. From my experience indirectly of how the McCanns have dealt with the PCC in relation to the children, harassment and so on, it certainly has a role to perform, but it is not the sort of role it is cut out for because of the inherent contradictions of self-regulation.
Mr Mitchell: On the practical aspects of
dealing with the press, they were a very substantial help. Kate and Gerry had photographers outside
their driveway for six months, every day, after they came from
Q196 Janet Anderson: Would it be fair to say to all three of you that there is an important, valuable role for the PCC to play but it is very limited? There is a gap in all of this that needs filling. You said, Gerry, that some of this irresponsible media coverage has the potential to ruin people's lives and that is exactly what it can and does do. You also made the point - Max Mosley in front of us this morning made a similar point - about, once this has happened, the damage has been done. I wanted to ask you two things really. To what extent were you given advance warning of the kinds of stories that were going to appear? When you talk about the need for more stringent regulation, would you favour a privacy law of the kind that exists in other countries? Do you think the press would be more responsible if we had that?
Mr McCann: In terms of privacy, I was certainly concerned about privacy but I do not think in general we had gross violation of our privacy. We had irritant elements of it but generally I feel it was respected. Any views I have on privacy are therefore very personal and I do not think I should be giving them in front of this Committee as having a specific experience. In terms of advance notice, I would often hear Clarence on the phone to journalists expressly telling them that the information they had was rubbish. It would not stop it being published.
Q197 Janet Anderson: It would still be published?
Mr McCann: Yes.
Mr Mitchell: We expected it to be published after a while. We just knew it was coming. Normally, we had a few hours' notice.
Mr McCann: We were talking about this again this morning. We possibly could have forgiven the furore around the arguido status at that time. Clearly that is going to be newsworthy, but when it became abundantly clear to newspapers that there was not any evidence to back up any allegations then they were warned. We wrote to them. Two newspapers, The Express and The London Evening Standard, were put on express notice that the stories they were running were defamatory. The editors were all visited personally by our spokesperson, Clarence, and Justine McGuinness before that, with a criminal lawyer, who told them that there was no evidence. It did not stop. It was the rehashing and this ad infinitum aspect that they could reproduce headlines at will that had no substance that forced us to take action.
Q198 Janet Anderson: The PCC was absolutely no help in that at all?
Mr McCann: It was again never offered in any way. Secondly, in the discussions, we were advised that they were not the correct vehicle for such complaints.
Mr Tudor: One can only speculate about what witness statement going on in that regard. The PCC in many respects, certainly when it comes to libel, is a passive body rather than a proactive body. That is just a fact, rightly or wrongly. If, let us say in another world, the PCC had decided to get involved in Kate and Gerry's predicament at a relatively early stage and contacted for example the editor or the journalists at The Express and any other newspapers that were reporting this stuff, tried to warn them off and said they understood that there was a danger that this could be a breach of the factual accuracy provisions in the PCC code, for example, I anticipate that the answer to the PCC would have been, "Well, these stories have all been well sourced. We are standing by our sources. It is a story of the most colossal public interest. Therefore, we are carrying on." The result would have been they would have carried on publishing. You would have ended up exactly back at square one. I am not saying there should be but there would have been no interventionist power on the part of the PCC to wade in and say, "You cannot publish that. You cannot publish this. You have to redraft that so it does not say this." That is obviously not what they do and probably not what they are there for. That would have been the reality of that kind of situation.
Mr Mitchell: When I visited Peter Hill with Angus McBride from Kingsley Napley, it was really an informal discussion to say, "Look, this is beginning to get out of hand. Can we rein it back in before it becomes necessary to take any action?" There was an acceptance by him on that day that "some of their headlines had overstepped the mark" and that they would be more cognisant of that in the future. For a week or two things did get better but I am afraid there was the competition and the urge for the front page. Off we went again and it led to the complaint that was lodged.
Q199 Chairman: The PCC has told us that on 5 May, two days after Madeleine's disappearance, they contacted the British Embassy to remind them that the PCC's jurisdiction extended to journalists working overseas and also to suggest that the embassy pass on the PCC's details to you. Did that happen and did you then have any contact with the PCC?
Mr McCann: If it did, it certainly was lost in the furore of the other information I was bombarded with at the time. I was not aware of that until I read the submission.
Q200 Alan Keen: Did you get the impression a lot of the time that the headlines were selling newspapers and the stuff following the articles was disconnected with the headline? Was the content as well as much rubbish as the headlines that were put out to sell the papers?
Mr McCann: On many occasions, yes. I can only assume that the stories were being published on a commercial decision.
Q201 Alan Keen: Have you tried to calculate roughly how much profit The Express made after deducting their costs?
Mr McCann: I have no idea.
Mr Mitchell: I heard from reporters on the ground that it was putting on upwards of 40,000 or 50,000 copies a day when Madeleine was on the front page. I have no way of knowing whether that figure is accurate but it certainly was putting on tens of thousands of paper sales at the height of it on a daily basis.
Q202 Alan Keen: In the same way as the photographs of Princess Di have appeared by the hundred.
Mr Mitchell: The Express Group, for whatever reasons, decided that Madeleine was a front page story come what may in the same way that they had treated the princess for the previous decade many times. We could only but draw the conclusion that there was a commercial imperative at work here.
Q203 Alan Keen: Has anyone tried to calculate the profit from this to The Express alone? Has any other newspaper criticised The Express? Have there been any articles saying that The Express went too far?
Mr Tudor: As one would expect, the usual broadsheets from memory ran some articles on it, The Guardian being the classic example. It has a good media section that tends to run a lot of articles commenting on other things. It has the Roy Greenslade blog and all that sort of thing. There was an element of coverage but of course the results against The Express, the front page apologies, the damages and so on, prompted a huge amount of coverage, not so much in the printed media perhaps unsurprisingly but certainly in the broadcast media, which was of course one of the reasons for having it in terms of the vindication that the McCanns were seeking and indeed the deterrent for that matter. If I may turn to your question, Mr Keen, yes, the headlines in many cases were appalling. I do not know if you have had the misfortune of having read them. A large number of them were appalling. A large number of them were on the front page. Almost all of them were big. Obviously they all appeared online as well. Leaving aside the legal aspects of how much an ordinary reader is assumed to have read the whole of the article, the House of Lords decided some time ago that the ordinary reader is assumed perhaps artificially to have read the whole article. In this case, I think we complained against The Express. I think there were about 110 articles. So far as I am concerned, every single one of those articles themselves, including the headlines, were actionable, very serious libels in their own right.
Q204 Alan Keen: Should there be a law to ensure that headlines do not exaggerate what is in the body of the article? It was so bad in your case that it is hardly relevant even but it is something that happens on a daily basis in the press. Should there not be a law to ensure that the headline does not imply more than is in the actual article?
Mr Tudor: It can be a big problem with websites even more so because they often have just the opening line plus the headline and you have to click on something to go over the whole article. From a legal perspective, you would probably expect me to say this but, yes, I think there is a lot to be said. If you go into a filling station or a newsagent and read the headline about Kate and Gerry McCann, you do not bother to buy the newspaper. You just absorb the headline and the subhead and go about your every day business without spending the money and reading the whole of the article. The assumption that people read the whole article is completely artificial. In practical terms, I would love the law to move in that direction but I would be surprised if it were ever to happen because of the practical difficulties.
Q205 Alan Keen: Would you like us to recommend that?
Mr Tudor: Yes. I think there is a huge amount to be said for it. To be fair to the newspapers, I do anticipate that it would lead to difficulties. Sometimes, to be fair, the headline by definition has to be attention grabbing within the realms of reasonableness.
Mr McCann: Your point is well made. It does not just apply to newspapers. If you watch any news channel, some of the banner strips that run there, often we would see headlines directly relating to ourselves and say, "That is not what was said." If you just looked at that banner, you would believe it was the case. The way we live our lives now, people are pulsing in and out and that will be the message they take away. Regarding the point of law, I defer to Adam, but clearly there is the potential for misinformation to be implied from headlines.
Mr Mitchell: Speaking as a former journalist, privacy law per se is going down a road that I know journalism and the media will directly oppose as an infringement on the right to speak freely. They would argue that they operate within the law as it currently stands. They did not in Kate and Gerry's case. That is why they paid the penalty they did. We have never asked for anything beyond free, fair and accurate reporting. When it overstepped that mark, that is why Adam and his colleagues assisted Kate and Gerry in the way they did. I notice in the NUJ submission they talk about a conscience clause. If a journalist feels they are being asked to write something, be it a headline or the copy, that they know to be demonstrably untrue or distorting, they should be able within their own terms of employment to object to that. That might be some sort of half way house but the concept of self-regulation is potentially under threat given the massive expansion of the media we have now seen. If the media do not police it themselves, they could well find that this sort of debate is increasing and the calls for a privacy law become louder.
Q206 Alan Keen: I asked earlier had anybody done a calculation as to what profit The Express made after the expense that you incurred. We all want freedom of expression but would it not be good for the public to be able to see what profit The Express made on that, just using The Express as one firm example? Would it not be good to know how many papers they sold and how much profit they made?
Mr McCann: If you can command that information, I would like to see it.
Mr Mitchell: It is quantifiable, I suppose, if you know the accurate figure for sales against cover price but that is not where they make most of the money. It is through the advertising anyway. It was definitely put on sales.
Q207 Alan Keen: It is not impossible to look at the advertising as well. That comes from numbers of copies sold. We are representing the public. We are not against the press. We agree with freedom of the press but it is our job to try to get the balance right. We are representing our constituents and it is an information age we are in. Would it not be good to get that information from the press so we can all see it?
Mr McCann: The one point I take from that is that, if we are relying on tabloid newspapers to present us with news and fact, then they should not be unduly influenced by profit. Clearly in our case I think they have been heavily influenced by profit. I can see no other reason for the way the stories were covered on such a consistent basis. I would be very interested to know what an economist within the newspaper industry could work out as a figure. It disturbed me to know that The Express sold out on the day the apologies were published.
Q208 Alan Keen: I believe the owner of The Express is closely tied in with what is put into the newspapers but if you take the press in general do you think the owners, the people who collect the profit at the end - it might be a holding company or a conglomerate which has broadcasting, news printing and all sorts - the people on that top board who are at arm's length all the time from the newspapers that are printed should somehow have to carry some responsibility rather than staying at arm's length and letting it be handled by the editors and the lawyers so that people higher up should not be able to escape? I gave the analogy this morning of corporate manslaughter. If a company is guilty of bad practices and causes danger to their employees or to the public - I am not a lawyer - but the company can be guilty of corporate manslaughter. Are owners of the groups, particularly of the print media, able to escape from any sort of liability other than the financial costs like the ones you have incurred?
Mr Tudor: I am primarily a claimant libel lawyer but I am a huge fan of newspapers. I think they perform an extremely valuable role in our society. I love reading them but, at the end of the day, they are commercial entities. I make no criticism of that. It is good to have a healthy, competitive newspaper market. The thing that hurts them, that makes them stop and think about whether they should be publishing serious libels or seriously infringing people's privacy, I am afraid to say somewhat cynically, is two things, not necessarily in this order. Firstly, how much it is going to cost them if they get caught out and if they get the story wrong. Secondly, to be fair to the newspapers, of course there is an element of professional pride in journalists, editors and so on and we have to assume that that is the bedrock of journalism in this country because, if it is not, heaven help us, frankly. The main stick to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again - that is, other far less serious, far less voluminous, but nevertheless still very serious for the victims - is financial. You have the theoretical possibility of having a statutory fines framework put into place. Personally, I am not a fan of that. I would be very surprised if it was ever to happen. The other stick, as we know, I suppose, is the potential humiliation of losing a libel or privacy action plus the damages they have to pay out which vindicate and compensate the victim of the libel or the breach of privacy. The jurisdiction, as I am sure you know, does exist within the civil court to award punitive damages, exemplary damages, in certain circumstances but those circumstances are very, very limited. The reason exemplary damages exist and the philosophy behind them very much reflects your point, Mr Keen. If you can see that a decision has been made to publish an article regardless of its truth in order to make more money out of sales that day, then perhaps the law should allow that to then be reflected in the damages. At the moment, the circumstances in which exemplary damages are awarded are very, very limited. I think it has been held that they cannot be awarded in privacy cases. They are available in libel cases but only very rarely. I take the view that Kate and Gerry's case was a classic one where punitive damages, exemplary damages, may well have been awarded if it had gone to court, in which case it may well have been that the judge would have thrown the book at Express Newspapers, but even then these things are never open and shut because you have to establish a state of mind, recklessness as to the truth or otherwise and so on. It is far from straightforward in terms of bringing a real, financial deterrent for publishers.
Q209 Alan Keen: Are you saying that, as with the banking system, self-regulation particularly in the print media must come to an end? Self-regulation has not worked, has it?
Mr Tudor: I am not sure it was ever intended to work in the kind of scenario we are talking about in terms of libel. I am not sure it works in terms of general privacy in the Max Mosley sense. I know Mr Mosley thinks there is a great deal to be said for having an obligation to pre-notify somebody before you publish something about their private life and I have considerable sympathy for that. There is a place for self-regulation but to suggest, as I think some media organisations do, that it is working perfectly, we do not need to worry and we do not need to bother the courts with more and more cases I think is simply not the case.
Q210 Chairman: You reached a settlement with Associated Newspapers and with News International in the form of The News of the World, but you decided to go to court against The Daily Express. Was that because you could not reach a settlement or was it because you decided that The Daily Express was so serious that you wanted to see them in court?
Mr McCann: We complained against the Express Group first because they were the most serious and the worst. We came to an agreement with them and there was an open statement in court in front of Mr Justice Eady. It did not actually go to trial.
Q211 Chairman: Mr Tudor, we have heard from other members of your firm a week ago about your firm quite often operating on a conditional fee arrangement. You have said in your view it is quite clear that there was serious defamation so you were very confident clearly that you would win this case. Did you consider a conditional fee arrangement?
Mr Tudor: Yes. My partners and I talked about it. We have a committee of partners that looks at whether or not a case is on a no win, no fee basis, as you probably heard from my partner, Mark Thompson. We did that with Kate and Gerry's case. It was a longer, more difficult discussion than would ordinarily be the case because of the extraordinary nature, volume and so on. We sent the complaints to The Express and The Star, at which point we were acting on a normal retainer. We indicated to Kate and Gerry and we told The Express and The Star at that time that if the matter was not resolved we would indeed go on to a no win, no fee arrangement.
Mr McCann: If there was not the facility for a conditional fee arrangement, it is very unlikely we would have continued with the action on the basis that this was not our main purpose. We are still looking for Madeleine. Much of our energies are diverted in that but also the prospect of a fairly swift, conclusive verdict along with taking away most of the risk - essentially, we would have had to remortgage our house to do that. It had a huge bearing and I am thankful to Carter Ruck for taking us on.
Q212 Mr Hall: You went to some extraordinary lengths I think to avoid having to take any legal action in this case. You really did go to the newspapers and point out to them that a lot of what they were reporting was factually incorrect or just pure fabrication. That clearly did not work with one group of newspapers. What was the final story that drove you to take legal action?
Mr McCann: We had done as much as we thought we could. There was a period where it seemed to go pretty quiet. After that, there was a short lull. In January 2008, we had the same headlines rehashed, the same stories with the same incredibly disturbing content. At that point we said, "Enough is enough. This cannot continue." It was a last resort. We did not want to get into an adversarial process with the media in general but we felt it had to be done. With hindsight, we probably should have done it earlier because it led to a dramatic change in the coverage.
Q213 Mr Hall: You chose one specific group of newspapers to take legal action against. Was that because they were the only serial offender, if you like, or was it just because the sheer nature of their reporting set them aside from all the other media reports?
Mr McCann: Undoubtedly, we could have sued all the newspaper groups. I feel fairly confident about that but that was not what we were interested in. We were interested in putting a stop to it first and foremost and looking for some redress primarily with an apology. The Express was the worst offender by some distance. After the quiet period, The Express rehashed it and it was a very easy decision as to which group of newspapers to issue the complaint against.
Q214 Mr Hall: Was the standard of the reporting in The Express significantly worse than the other newspapers, of a lower standard? I have no experience of this. I do not know how you managed to get the translations from the Portuguese newspapers. How did it compare with the reports in the Portuguese newspapers?
Mr McCann: Kate and I really did stop reading the newspapers very, very quickly. Unfortunately, many of our family and friends did not. Just to emphasise again how disturbing it was for us, often if we were going to bed, putting on the television and you had the newspapers being shown on the news last thing at night, to see a front page headline that you knew to be rubbish and, worse, insinuating that you were involved in your own daughter's death or disappearance was incredibly, unbelievably upsetting. Often, it was feedback through us or through our media person. What we did do though, for the reasons I outlined earlier, around July/August 2007, we had an offer from a Portuguese lady who said she could translate the Portuguese press for us on a daily basis. She did that and then it became very apparent to us the way the news cycle was happening. I want to make this absolutely clear: we could see that often what was a throw away line at the bottom of a Portuguese tabloid, along the lines of "Somebody said this", the next thing was fact in a headline and greatly embellished, rehashing much of the article but often in much stronger terms than had been originally reported.
Q215 Mr Hall: You said that your intention for the libel action was to stop factually incorrect, fictitious, fabricated stories appearing in the press.
Mr McCann: Yes. Again, I make this absolutely clear: our primary motive was we felt these were damaging the search. If people believed Madeleine was dead or that we were involved in her disappearance, then people would not look, would not come forward. That was our absolute, primary objective by taking action.
Q216 Mr Hall: What is your assessment of the success of that action?
Mr McCann: I think it has been incredibly successful. There was an overnight change in the reporting and what would be carried. I think Kate particularly wants me to say this: we would much rather that none of these stories had been published in the manner that they were and we would rather not have had to take action, because I cannot say that the damage that was done has been reversed. I hope it has but I cannot say that it has. We will not know until we find Madeleine and who took her.
Mr Mitchell: All it could have taken is one person who had information, who reads some of that and says, "It must not have been anything" and the call never comes through. It could all still hinge on one call.
Mr McCann: When people are presented with information on almost a daily basis insinuating something, even if it is on rather fragile ground, there is not always the reasoning and rationale behind it and the objectives of why that information is in the public domain in the first place are not always scrutinised.
Q217 Mr Hall: Other the financial penalty that the newspaper group suffered in having to settle the action, do you think they have suffered any other serious consequences for the misreporting in this case, because they clearly have damaged the case to find Madeleine. That I think goes beyond any shadow of a doubt. Do you think there should have been other consequences apart from the financial damages that they had to pay?
Mr McCann: I do not know if the Express Group stated exactly what action they have taken and who they have held accountable and responsible for that. You could apply that to the others. We should make that public. All of us would expect in our walks of life, in the jobs that we do, that when you get something so badly wrong so often, with potentially serious consequences, someone should be held to account. There has been a financial payment. I have no idea whether that has seriously damages Express Newspapers or not.
Farrelly: There have been scores of libellous articles
over months and months and no one has been sacked, demoted or reprimanded. Robert Murat was quoted at the weekend as
Mr Mitchell: It may be instructive to know that when the complaint first went in the initial response from the Express Group was to offer the chance to set everything right in an exclusive interview with OK Magazine, which is owned by Mr Desmond as well. You do not have to think too long and hard about our response to that offer.
Q219 Mr Sanders: It says in the Express's apology that they "promise to do all in their power to help efforts to find her". Have they done anything in their power since that apology to help you?
Mr Mitchell: I think our silence speaks volumes.
Q220 Adam Price: You described the process of embellishment whereby an originally inaccurate story in the Portuguese press then became magnified in the British press. Did you ever feel it necessary to take any legal action against any of the Portuguese newspapers for some of those original sources of inaccurate information?
Mr McCann: We have of
course considered it. In August 2007, we
did issue proceedings against the Tal e
Qual newspaper and that organisation has subsequently gone bust. An indicator of it is that is still going
through the process of the courts. It is
very unlikely that we will follow it up but we have chosen at this time not to
take action in
Q221 Adam Price: In that sense at least you think that the British system of libel law is more expeditious?
Mr McCann: Absolutely, and I know that the PCC in their submission have said that their process is fast, free and it is solved in a non-adversarial way, but that is not the advice that we were getting with regards our specific complaints. In some ways I have been very thankful that we have been able to put a stop to the reporting, the way it was going, and fairly quickly, and without a huge amount of time. Obviously we weighed up issuing the complaint very carefully and we felt that we were pushed into a corner, but in terms of our own time, how much Kate and I had to spend on it was really small in comparison with the amount of other activity that we are involved in with the on-going search.
Mr Tudor: Just on that point, and as a follow-up to Mr Farrelly's point as well, which is what does this say about British journalism and newspapers and so on, I am not going to comment on that in any detail other than to say that one of the themes that has come out of many of the submissions that you have had from the media for the purposes of today, and to some extent from the PCC as well, is this notion that the McCann phenomenon in libel terms and press terms was indeed just that, a phenomenon, and you cannot compare it with anything, it is not a model for where we are with press standards, and so on and so forth, and that is a real theme. That is Fleet Street's out, if you like, in this debate. This case was clearly unprecedented to some extent. I know Kelvin Mackenzie says he thinks that the "Madeleine story" was the biggest of his career, and whether or not that is right, I do not know. Either way - and Gerry would probably amplify this - I think that all this case has done in libel terms is magnify what I think is endemic anyway in terms of the pressure on journalists to deliver stories, the lack the sufficiently rigorous fact-checking and so on and so forth, and filling vacuums of news on the 24-hour news cycle. I do not think it is right to say there is no lesson to learn from this. I do not think that is right at all.
Mr McCann: I may just add one thing to that and it is that we know that journalists have always had deadlines and pressures, but it is quite apparent to me from reading several of the submissions that they are threatened by the change in the media, and where new media meets old they are competing, and what Clarence when he came on board told me about his rigorous fact-checking when he started as a journalist a few years ago, we have not seen evidence of that. They were prepared to do it. One other thing that I think is very important in regards to how this story was covered is that the media, particularly the press, became so obsessed with getting there first that Kate and I feel that on a number of occasions Madeleine's safety was completely disregarded. There were sightings and other information would have been followed up and there was no consideration to Kate's and my feelings, hurt or our wider family about anything that was printed. What we saw in the first few days very quickly evaporated.
Q222 Rosemary McKenna: It just must have been incredibly invasive and so difficult. In the time since Madeleine disappeared and all the issues surrounding your case, are there any general lessons that you think the press should learn?
Mr McCann: What all of us are asking for here is responsible reporting. Maybe it is too much to ask to go back to responsible journalism, fact-checking and checking of sources. I think it is too easy where new media meets old to pick up a slur on the internet and "here is my copy for today". It is lazy and it is dangerous and I think personally if I felt there was some way of regulating it, and I know it is incredibly complex, then I would like to see responsible reporting. A huge amount of the NUJ submission is very balanced, but I think in the commercial world, with the pressures, it is not going to happen. I think for me it is about responsibility and reporting truth and not making innuendo and speculation appear as fact.
Q223 Rosemary McKenna: I wonder how some of them can live with themselves. Finally, what level of media coverage would be useful to you now? Is there anything that can be done that the media itself, the journalists themselves could do now to help in your search for Madeleine?
Mr McCann: Our search is on-going and it is very much the way we can get the information to as many people as possible. We do not know how many people, first of all, may have information that might be relevant, who may or may not have come forward already. Clearly what we have been doing within the Find Madeleine team is to review the information available to us, and to look for areas where there are deficiencies, and to target where we think we want key information, and of course then if we think it is appropriate, and I have to say this has largely been left to ourselves throughout to identify these things, and continues to be left to the family and those who are working for us, then we will come and we will ask the media because we know we can reach people. If we think there is something they can help in then we will come to the media and ask for that help. I would ask if the media really have something which they think is potentially helpful then they come to us and ask whether we think it is helpful, or the police if they want.
Mr Mitchell: Every time I get an interview bid - and I still get them on a daily basis - Kate and Gerry turn round to me and say, "How is this going to help the search for Madeleine?" and, frankly, 98% of the time I have to say it is not. It is going to give them a good headline and it is interesting, but is it actually going to have a tangible, beneficial result; the answer is no. There are obvious points such as anniversaries and birthdays where the interest will come back again, legitimately we could argue. We had the nonsense where we had the 30-day anniversary, the 50-day anniversary, the 100-day anniversary, fatuous things like that. However, when there are legitimate anniversaries, God forbid that it goes on that long, Kate and Gerry may well choose to do some interviews, and we will choose which are the most effective and refine what messages there are from the search side, from the investigative side, that will hopefully yield that piece of information. That is when we will re-engage with the media. We are very grateful to them, Kate and Gerry are very grateful to them for their continued interest on that basis.
Mr McCann: It is quite difficult in terms of the calendars on the news desks because clearly they do mark dates on the calendar and they think, "Okay, we will come back to this story." The pressure mounts to give something. Of course, we do want people to know the search is on-going. It is and we are never going to give up; we cannot give up, but it is very much if we have something, then we will try to coincide that with what will be a natural increase in the media interest anyway.
Q224 Paul Farrelly: As MPs we get abusive letters and emails all the time; that is freedom of expression. People write hostile news stories but these days they invite comment on news stories on-line. On New Year's Eve, a friend of mine lost his son who was 16 years old in a tragic accident. There was a factual report in the local newspaper but some of the comments that the newspaper allowed on the story were obscene and sick, and it is a disgrace that they allowed them to be printed there. What was your experience was with the so-called on-line world, in particular how newspapers did or did not moderate comments that they invited on stories about Madeleine?
Mr Mitchell: I am not going to dignify some of the on-line comment or sites or forums that are out there around this particular case. A lot of what they say is, as you say, quite rightly, entirely disgusting and, nor, as I say, will I dignify it with any real comment. Where we see deeply offensive nonsense like that, inaccurate, libellous statements appearing, it has got to the stage where I will not even tell Kate and Gerry about it; it is pointless. I let Adam know and if it is a mainstream media outlet that is allowing this publication to occur, normally a call from Carter Ruck pointing out the legal problems they are facing with such comment sitting there will normally suffice to get it either retracted or taken off. That is not in any way trying to stop free speech. Expression of free speech within the law of the land is absolutely fine, but when it oversteps the mark, and I know exactly what you mean about that other tragedy, you just wonder about human nature, where is the compassion, and where is the heart in any of these people that they can say these things freely.
Q225 Paul Farrelly: With respect to newspaper sites you should not have to do this, should you, they should moderate themselves?
Mr Tudor: That is a moot point. In my experience, what happens, and I echo everything that Clarence has just said, with a slight exception, I remember at a fairly early stage of my retainment we wrote to a newspaper in respect of readers' obscene comments attached to several of the articles that that newspaper website was running, and we got the response back that said that they were not going to do anything to interfere with their readers' Article 10 rights to freedom of expression, which is ludicrous obviously given what these emails were saying. We upped the ante somewhat and it is fair to say that they then came down very, very quickly. Only last week we had a situation with a newspaper where we had to get stuff down. By and large, newspapers are quite responsible about it, not necessarily through any altruism but because as soon as they are on reasonable notice of it they become legally liable. One of the ways they try to protect themselves from the very point that you raise, Mr Farrelly, is that they deliberately say, as I understand it, and I will be corrected if I am wrong, that they are not moderating it because if they are not moderating it they are not responsible for it. Personally I think that is a rather unattractive way of looking at things. If they are going to host websites and allow people to put whatever comments they want on their websites, they should monitor them properly and spot libels and serious infringements of people's privacy or whatever and take them down themselves. It should not be necessarily incumbent on the victims of those libels or infringements to get in touch with them and get it taken down. That begs another question about the extent to which newspapers can be encouraged or forced to moderate.
Q226 Paul Farrelly: They would be in breach of what the PCC tells us is the Code position. One final question on electronic media. Since we have taken up the inquiry I have noticed that because our emails are public we are getting people who really should get a life coming to us with obscene stuff. We do not respond to it because it just encourages them, so we just delete it, but that begs the concern where this stuff is egged on and people have taken this up because they are quite sick, in large part because of the tenor of the newspaper coverage, to what extent are you plagued by this now and to what extent have there been fears for your personal safety?
Mr McCann: I think in general we have had a substantial amount of abusive mail. There have been one or two incidents around the house in which the police have been involved. Generally it is not such an issue, but clearly we have concerns for our own and our children's safety, and that should be borne in mind. I think in terms of electronic media, clearly some people have got too much time on their hands. I stopped reading any comments, much like most of the information on the internet regarding Madeleine, very, very early on. When the media said to us at the beginning about this being a campaign, it was a word that I really did not like. Actually I have realised why it is a campaign; it is because we have got one objective and we are trying to achieve it and other people are trying to derail us from our objective, and there is a war of attrition at times. I feel very sorry for those people who feel the need to do that. There is clearly something missing in their lives.
Mr Mitchell: I think the internet can give a spurious credibility to some of these views. A lot of these people have their own self-serving agendas based entirely on prejudice and inaccuracy and a churning of inaccuracy upon inaccuracy leading to this false horizon that they believe in themselves. We choose to ignore them because they are utterly irrelevant.
Chairman: Thank you. We have no more questions. Can I thank all three of you for coming this afternoon and in particular, Gerry, we greatly appreciate your willingness to come and talk to us, thank you.