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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 560-579)


23 APRIL 2009

  Q560  Paul Farrelly: So people have to take the rough with the smooth, basically?

  Mr Dacre: I do not know whether I would choose those words but roughly, yes.

  Q561  Paul Farrelly: I would be interested in your opinion as to what was wrong with the newspaper reporting of the McCann case, and whether you think it was a one-off and unique.

  Mr Dacre: Firstly, the obvious point: it was not just the newspapers. The BBC carried live interviews on the doorstep of one of the witnesses there; BBC talk shows were full of speculation about this, ITV was equally involved. Again, let's examine the context. This was a great human story. Terrible night, parents racked with guilt about should they have been there when a terrible thing happened to their daughter, but let's be very, very clear about this: The McCanns went out of their way to enlist press help. They invited the press into their lives—very understandably; they wanted to keep the story going because the more pictures were carried the more the chances were that their daughter might have been seen if she had been abducted, but nevertheless, far from shirking the oxygen of publicity, they sought it. They did endless photo opportunities—they played to the media brilliantly. The trouble is this created a vortex, I suspect, where some newspapers saw it as open season to carry stories, if they thought they had the implicit permission of the McCanns almost to publish any story if it kept the story alive, i.e. kept interest in the story going so the chances of spotting the poor child would have been increased. This was compounded by the Portuguese police who, of course, labelled the McCanns suspects. They were busy smearing the McCanns. Portuguese newspapers were carrying many irresponsible stories about this; again, regrettably in some areas of the press these were picked up too assiduously. There was war between the British police and the Portuguese police, both sides furiously leaking against each other, and yes, there was the issue of circulation. I do not remember a story for some time now that actually increased circulation like the McCann story. I remember the furious rows we used to have in our office at time because other papers, opposition papers possibly, were putting the McCanns on the front page and you could see the next week their circulation had gone up that day and there were great recriminations about whether we should engage in that and carry those kinds of stories. By and large I think we resisted that temptation—by and large—but what I do deeply regret is that the PCC, I believe, did contact the McCanns in the early days and offer their services particularly regarding harassment, and I deeply regret that the McCanns, if they felt they were being portrayed in such an inaccurate way, did not immediately lodge a complaint with the PCC which I believe profoundly—

  Q562  Paul Farrelly: In shorthand you seem to be suggesting they were fair game?

  Mr Dacre: No, not at all. I am saying some newspapers did, and wrongly so.

  Q563  Paul Farrelly: But when you are saying "some newspapers and the press" it just reminds me, and you are talking in the third party, of the famous attribute attributed to the Royals: "We are not amused". Are you saying you bore no responsibility for any of the reporting at all?

  Mr Dacre: Of course not. I have said by and large I hope we resisted the more extreme reckless behaviour that some newspapers manifested over the McCann story.

  Q564  Paul Farrelly: But in inviting the press to help with their search and publicising the case you seem to be suggesting they also invited you into their parlour room to suggest that they were in some way responsible?

  Mr Dacre: Not at all. I think with great respect that is very unfair interpretation of what I have said. Yes, they sought publicity assiduously very, very understandably, and I think some newspapers took that as a green light to carry anything about them. But I do wish they had lodged a complaint with the PCC. It would have been adjudicated on very quickly—

  Q565  Paul Farrelly: We have heard some evidence from Sir Christopher Meyer which was not terribly persuasive in the way they went about it. But you reached an out-of-court settlement with the McCanns. Can I ask you what lessons you have learned and communicated to your reporters out of the affair?

  Mr Dacre: You said we reached an out-of-court settlement. That is slightly misleading. There was not a writ served and nothing was read out on the steps of the Court or anything. I believe the McCanns did write to a set of newspapers. They raised some concerns. They mostly focused on the Evening Standard. By and large the Mail was not concerned. There were civilised and positive discussions. As a result of them the Evening Standard, the Standard, carried a brief statement expressing regret together with an appeal for its readers to assist in the search for Madeleine and made a donation for the purpose. That was the Standard. The Mail interestingly before all that had been carrying free adverts in its continental edition for the McCanns which I think they were very grateful for. Yes, there were intense discussions in all papers I think about the McCann case afterwards. Not related to it but as a result of a whole sequence of events we certainly now hold seminars for all our staff on data protection, privacy, defamation—everything. It is a matter of great concern to us that all our reporters understand this.

  Q566  Chairman: Did you take any action against the journalists who wrote the specific stories?

  Mr Dacre: On the Standard?

  Q567  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Dacre: By and large, I think it was mostly the Standard, and the answer is no. The Standard is now owned by another owner, and the editor is no longer there.

  Q568  Paul Farrelly: One of the reasons to prompt this inquiry, and you may think "Who are we to judge the press", was that, in any other sphere of life, if something like this had happened that was a collective failure of standards there would be demands for an inquiry. The press jumps up and down for inquiries into the police or social services when they get things wrong but in this case there has been no inquiry, certainly not by the PCC, and the press has not jumped up and down to demand an inquiry. Is that not hypocritical?

  Mr Dacre: I make no comment. No newspaper or television company has a perfect record in this area, on the McCanns. I am not sure it is a "collective" failure; I think some newspapers went too far. There was a huge court case, as you know.

  Q569  Paul Farrelly: Was the McCann case unique in your view? Should no lessons be drawn from this?

  Mr Dacre: Oh yes, I think lessons should be learned from it. It was not unique but it was one of the greatest human stories.

  Q570  Paul Farrelly: And what lessons should be drawn from it?

  Mr Dacre: The lesson should be learned that however considerable the interest in that story the correct boundaries of correct newspaper journalism should be observed. What was unique about it was that those boundaries were transgressed rather recklessly by some areas of the industry.

  Q571  Paul Farrelly: And you would say that you have not since then transgressed those boundaries again? Can you think of a case where you might have done?

  Mr Dacre: I am sure we have. As I said, it is a 120-page paper.

  Q572  Paul Farrelly: You read every word presumably?

  Mr Dacre: Of course not, no.

  Q573  Paul Farrelly: As a good editor?

  Mr Dacre: As a journalist you know that is not possible. I read more words of my paper than most editors; I do not read every word in the sports pages—

  Q574  Paul Farrelly: But you read the lead stories of most interest?

  Mr Dacre: I read the features and the commentary and a lot of the news stories, yes.

  Q575  Paul Farrelly: And are there any examples since the McCann case where you would say yes, in our heart of hearts we have gone over the boundary this time and we will not do it again?

  Mr Dacre: Mr Farrelly, I will be very honest with you, there may possibly have been, I hope we did not do it deliberately or intentionally, but I cannot honestly say.

  Q576  Paul Farrelly: One specific question. Why on 11 March did you publish the name of the village where Elisabeth, the daughter of Josef Fritzl lived who was trying to be resettled to live what you would hope would be a normal-ish life, given what she has been through?

  Mr Dacre: You have caught me absolutely cold. I am not aware we did—

  Q577  Paul Farrelly: You did.

  Mr Dacre: I do not know the answer. Did other newspapers?

  Q578  Paul Farrelly: You did it first and they followed you.

  Mr Dacre: Could I look into it and send you a note on that?

  Q579  Paul Farrelly: Given that you did, would you say that was responsible journalism?

  Mr Dacre: I do not know the circumstances, whether it came over from a news agency, whether it was our journalist who did it. I am very happy to look into it.

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