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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 220-226)


10 MARCH 2009

  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 Portugal, primarily because we have been advised that it would be a very long and drawn-out process. It would distract our energies in a direction which is not the main aspect of what we are trying to achieve in the search for Madeleine. Additionally, we think it would have a negative impact by rehashing the same information over and over again and adding what we saw in some of the jingoistic elements of the reporting an Anglo-Portuguese battle, which is not what this is about. We want to work with the Portuguese in the search and although we cannot and will not rule it out in future, for the time being we have decided to try and get on with doing what we think everyone should be doing, and focusing on Madeleine and not on what has been said in the past.

  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 National Union of Journalists 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.

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