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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 200-219)


10 MARCH 2009

  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 CFA. 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 CFA?

  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 than 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 damaged Express Newspapers or not.

  Q218  Paul 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 telling Cambridge University that a British journalist covering this was so anxious to break the story that she created it. "She tried to convince the Portuguese Police that I was acting suspiciously"; yet nobody has paid any penalty. What does that say about the press?

  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.

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