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

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 604-619)


28 APRIL 2009

  Chairman: Good morning. This is the eighth session of the Committee's inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. I am pleased to welcome the editor of the Daily Express, Peter Hill.

  Q604 Philip Davies: Were you surprised when the McCanns decided to sue you for libel?

  Mr Hill: I was surprised that the McCanns at that time sued only the Daily Express for libel. This had been a remarkable case which had had headlines around the entire world. It was in every newspaper, all the developments from the very beginning; it was in all the newspapers in Britain, it was on all the television stations in Britain. Given what happened, that the police case turned out to be a complete travesty, because all the media all around the world had repeated the allegations which had been made by the Portuguese police in various ways, it was inevitable that the McCanns, certainly in British law though probably not in very many other jurisdictions, would certainly have a case to sue for libel. However, they would have been able to sue and still could sue any newspaper at all. I was a bit surprised that we were at that time the only newspaper, though since then the McCanns have settled with at least two other newspaper groups and I believe also with a television station.

  Q605  Philip Davies: You give the impression that the Daily Express was just one of many newspapers.

  Mr Hill: Absolutely; and it was.

  Q606  Philip Davies: Would you not accept that the Daily Express was milking the story far more than anybody else, in fact when Gerry McCann gave evidence he said: "Undoubtedly, we could have sued all the newspaper groups." "The Express was the worst offender by some distance". Would you accept that?

  Mr Hill: Absolutely not. The events surrounding the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and everything that happened afterwards were certainly on at least one television station every single day and in at least one other newspaper every single day month after month. I do not accept that at all. However, having said that, I have personally apologised to Mr and Mrs McCann for the mistakes which we made. I wrote the apology myself, I insisted that it should go on the front page; I did not have to put it on the front page but I put it on the front page. The other editors in my group also agreed to do the same and we did pay considerable damages to Mr and Mrs McCann and their costs. I acknowledge of course that we were in error, yes.

  Q607  Philip Davies: You say it was on the front page of one paper or another every day.

  Mr Hill: I did not say the front page; I said that it was on or in the papers every day.

  Q608  Philip Davies: It was in your paper every day.

  Mr Hill: All of the newspapers, even the BBC's Panorama, all repeated these allegations because the allegations were the news.

  Q609  Philip Davies: I am surprised you do not accept even at this stage that the Express was probably the worst offender. Gerry McCann said: "The Express rehashed it and it was a very easy decision as to which group of newspapers to issue the complaint against". They identified more than 100 false stories in Express newspapers. Do you accept that there were that many false stories?

  Mr Hill: I can only speak for the Daily Express. There were 38 headlines that they complained about in the Daily Express. I can equally find you more than 80 headlines which were positive towards the McCanns. Do not just think that what happened in the newspaper was completely one-sided and that we took a decision to attack Mr and Mrs McCann, because that is not the case. We did many, many stories which were positive towards them and we did quite a number of stories which were the other way round. That is because the turn of events completely changed when the police decided to make Mr and Mrs McCann suspects in the case. Of course their status as suspects continued for a very, very long time. Portugal is a fully-fledged democratic member of the European Community. How were we to know that the police force was completely incompetent in this case? In hindsight we know that this is the case but at the time we did not know. What was happening there was that Mr and Mrs McCann had a very, very strong public relations machine which they had built up quite brilliantly and quite rightly and I am not in any way criticising them for it. However, the Portuguese police, because of the rules in Portugal which forbid them from commenting on cases, resorted to leaking all manner of information to the Portuguese media and this was where we went wrong of course because we picked up these stories.

  Q610  Philip Davies: We are not really looking at the accuracy of the Portuguese police and their standards. It is really about your standards at the newspaper.

  Mr Hill: That is all we had to go on.

  Q611  Philip Davies: It is not really a question either of whether your paper was pro the McCanns or anti the McCanns, it is about whether or not what was written in the paper was accurate or not.

  Mr Hill: We know it was not accurate now. We know now in hindsight that it was not accurate but we did not know at the time. We did not publish this material maliciously. How could we know then? We know now but we did not know then. We had no idea. All I do know is that there was an insatiable clamour for information about what was going on and that clamour was all centred on this one question: what has happened to Madeleine? This was the question to which everybody in the whole country wanted to know the answer, not just in this country but many other countries and wherever you went—and I am sure you can agree with this—at that time that was what people talked about. The question on everybody's lips was: what has happened to Madeleine? We at the Daily Express pursued every possible lead. We sent teams of people all over Europe, North Africa, to follow up sightings and I tell you, we did make genuine efforts to find Madeleine and we would still love to do that if we possibly could.

  Q612  Philip Davies: The theory goes that there was a great clamour from the public and from your readers.

  Mr Hill: Not just from my readers; from everybody.

  Q613  Philip Davies: No, indeed. Therefore that led to a clamour from the editors, news editors, whoever it might be on the papers, to the reporters to come up with a new story each day to make sure there was something in the paper. If there was nothing to report, they must find something to report because you needed something about this in the paper. Do you accept that kind of culture went on?

  Mr Hill: No, that is not the way it works. The fact of the matter is that there was a news story every day and both sides in this particular case were briefing and leaking all the time, every day; every single day people were being briefed by one side and the other side.

  Q614  Philip Davies: Given that there were so many stories which were inaccurate as it happened, could you explain to us what fact-checking your paper indulged in, either then or now, to make sure what you do print is true? It seems in this particular case something went badly wrong.

  Mr Hill: That is a very, very good question. In this particular case, as I explained to you, the Portuguese police were unable, because of the legal restrictions in Portugal, to make any official comment on the case. What happened was that they resorted to leaking things to the Portuguese press. We did our best to check up on these things but of course it was not very easy to do so. We always put the stories to Mr and Mrs McCann's PR team but most of the time the people they had then, after the McCann's had been named as suspects, did not return our calls. So this was a more difficult situation than any of us had ever encountered. Yes, there was a clamour for information and we did our best to provide it. Of course we do check as thoroughly as we can. Newspapers operate at very high speed and it is quite true that sometimes it is not possible to check things as thoroughly as you would like.

  Q615  Chairman: You said there were 38 headlines which the McCanns complained about.

  Mr Hill: Yes, there were.

  Q616  Chairman: When you approved those headlines were you in each case confident that they were justified?

  Mr Hill: At the time, yes, of course, otherwise I would not have approved them.

  Q617  Chairman: So things like "Parents' car hid a corpse" "Someone's holding back the truth".

  Mr Hill: Many other newspapers and the media used that. This was also on television. This was what happened at the time. This came from the police and this also came from the British forensic science laboratory which had also briefed people on that. I do not know where it came from but we had every reason to believe that it was a genuine line at that time. Absolutely.

  Q618  Chairman: But you printed it as fact and you say you did not know where it came from. Surely it was your duty to know where it came from?

  Mr Hill: We do know where it came from. It came from the Portuguese police and similar lines came from the British forensic scientists who examined samples from the car. I agree that it is an astonishing thing but at the time it was not thought to be untrue. We had no reason to believe that it was untrue. You have to remember that this was the most astonishing train of events that anybody has seen in living memory. This was not just any old bit of a story; nothing comparable to this had been seen since the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. It was a very, very extraordinary situation and I certainly believe that it was a unique situation. I am a very, very experienced journalist and I have never seen anything like this, neither have my colleagues ever in their experience. The longevity of the story was another remarkable factor because it went on month after month.

  Q619  Chairman: You said in your apology: "We trust that the suspicion that has clouded their lives for many months will soon be lifted". You will acknowledge that the reason for that suspicion was in large part the activities of your newspaper and other newspapers?

  Mr Hill: No. We were part of that process but the principal reason for that suspicion has to be laid at the door of the Portuguese police. They were the people who named Mr and Mrs McCann as the suspects and repeatedly questioned them for many, many hours and they were the people who leaked all the information about them. Yes, we were reporting what happened. The alternative would have been for the British press not to report anything. Do you think that would have been a possibility, when the rest of the world was reporting on this case, for the British press to say nothing? It is not practical. We are all talking here in hindsight and hindsight is a marvellous thing but the fact of the matter is that at the time these reports and these leaks were happening on a daily basis and that is the truth.

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