Examination of Witness (Question Numbers
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
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
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 wentand I am sure you can agree
with thisat 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;
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
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.