Press standards, privacy and libel - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 180-199)


10 MARCH 2009

  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 UK press there did seem to be an empathy and they did not want, at least initially, to unduly upset. That wore off fairly quickly but generally I felt we were treated quite well. When we came back from the police station on the first night and I saw the press pack and the frenzy there, I had the most horrible visions of complete intrusion, invasion of privacy, and in those first days and weeks while we stayed on the Ocean Club complex there was an order about it. We agreed that we did not mind being filmed going about our normal activity but we were not going to be engaging in giving stories on a day to day basis. That seemed to work quite well. Both sides seemed to be quite happy. What we envisaged was that demand would rapidly tail off which it never quite did really and that certainly took me by surprise.

  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 Portugal first. Without knowing the intricate dealings of what happens around the police station and what is on and off the record, clearly someone else within Portugal has been quoted as saying that judicial secrecy is a bit like the speeding law. Everyone knows there is a law but no one sticks to it. It was not me who said it but there is that element. There is a cultural difference and obviously we do not speak the language. With hindsight, we only really started paying attention more to the Portuguese press when we realised what was happening. I know in your submissions there are a lot of elements about the digitisation of media and also the globalisation of it. Clearly, this is a very strong example of where you have media very quickly feeding off each other and the day after it would be front page headlines and in the UK press there would be a front page headline of what was a tiny little story. There was this positive reinforcement: The Times of London has carried it; that means it is true. That was quoted on more than one occasion.

  Mr Mitchell: We would see things appearing in the Portuguese press get misreported in Britain and get misreported again back in Portugal. It was just this circle of lunacy at times.

  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 UK articles. We do not know the answer directly but I am pretty sure that the overwhelming majority of the allegations that appeared here had been sourced from the Portuguese media, first and foremost, rather than direct sources.

  Q185  Paul Farrelly: I want to move to the PCC but before that I want to establish what the legal situation of the reporting was in Portugal. Irrespective of press standards and libel, when a potential criminal investigation is run in the UK there are laws of contempt. The Portuguese police leaking is clearly reprehensible but they are not the only police force to do it. When it came to the case of the care home in Jersey recently, it went to a different level where police were making statements that could be reported with impunity but the press was not sceptical about them. We do not have this arguido category here. Often we have people helping the police with their inquiries. In Portugal were both the UK and the Portuguese press in any way breaking Portuguese laws of contempt in any of the reporting? This is perhaps one for Mr Tudor.

  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 UK. I believe in terms of the legal situation, if a police officer gave information which was known to be on the file and only on the file relevant to it then technically I believe that is probably correct.

  Q186  Paul Farrelly: Have you ever speculated as to how this might have developed had Madeleine disappeared in Britain and what the difference might have been in the press reporting?

  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 in Portugal, it is important that you know if you did not know already that at the very least in October 2007 Leicestershire Police did indeed issue a missive to the media asking them to be a bit more careful about how they were going about this. Even though it was overseas, the nature of the reporting was obviously an issue which as I understand it was of concern to Leicestershire Police as well.

  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 UK. We are thankful for that. There was also help in removing photographers from outside our drive after what we felt was a very over long period, when news had really gone quite quiet and we were still being subjected to camera lenses up against our car with the twins in the back, which was inappropriate. In terms of the defamatory and libellous stories, clearly the advice from both the PCC and our legal advisers was that the PCC was not the route.

  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 Portugal. It was on the basis that, "We need a today picture", which was exactly identical to the one six months before. Utter nonsense. When the PCC made representations formally and at the right levels, that presence dissipated very quickly. They were a substantial help on certain practical aspects, but we all knew and the PCC themselves knew that, given the gravity of the defamations that were occurring and the sheer volume and scale of it and the unique nature of this particular situation, really the legal route was then the only option. With self-regulation, I echo Gerry. Free speech in a democracy has to stand. Of course it does. With the changing media landscape now, in the new multi-connected, multi-layered, multi-platform world we live in, self-regulation is an issue the press need to address themselves in terms of improving it and widening it. The whole aspect of the social networking that occurs now, the readers' comments, their own websites—many newspaper groups are now almost broadcasters in their own right and look like that when you walk into the news room. I am not sure personally whether self-regulation is keeping up with that advance in technology. It is something that they really will need to address in the coming months and years. It has been said that information travels these days beyond the speed of thought and I think that does happen more and more frequently. If the press do not keep their own house in order, they may run the risk of some other regulatory body coming in.

  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 was 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.

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