Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
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 wayand
Gerry would probably amplify thisI 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
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
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 bidand I still get them on a daily basisKate
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
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
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.