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

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 620-639)


28 APRIL 2009

  Q620  Chairman: So you reported a story about Madeleine McCann on your front page over many, many days. Can you tell us in terms roughly of newspaper sales the difference between the sales of the Daily Express on the day when you had a Madeleine McCann story and the days when you did not?

  Mr Hill: It certainly increased the circulation of the Daily Express by many thousands on those days without a doubt. As would any item which was of such great interest. It also massively increased the audiences on the BBC as their Head of News has acknowledged. It did this for all newspapers. The way that newspaper people work is that their job is to report on the events which are of interest to their readers and of course this was of consuming interest to readers of all the newspapers not just the Daily Express. Yes, it was a consequence. This is what newspapers do. Their job is to sell newspapers; that is what they do.

  Q621  Chairman: Their job is to sell newspapers as long as they are also telling the truth.

  Mr Hill: At the time we had no reason to believe we were not telling the truth.

  Q622  Chairman: You also took the decision to run a McCann story day after day. To what extent was that because you had seen the consequence it would have on your circulation?

  Mr Hill: You have to understand that this was the only show around at that time. We were getting 10,000 messages—I am not just talking about hits—on our website; we were getting at least 10,000 messages a day, comments from people. Nothing like this had ever been seen. It was quite clear to me that this was what the readers wanted to read about. So naturally I would do this because that is what newspapers do.

  Q623  Chairman: Did you say to your reporters in Portugal, "I want a McCann story"?

  Mr Hill: No, I do not think so. They were there and they provided them.

  Q624  Chairman: You never said to them, "I don't care what it is I want a McCann story for my front page"?

  Mr Hill: No.

  Q625  Chairman: All the stories which appeared originated in Portugal without your pressurising them.

  Mr Hill: No, not all the stories originated in Portugal because some of them of course originated in Britain in various places.

  Q626  Chairman: So you completely reject the accusation that your paper particularly, but not alone, was so desperate to increase sales that you were actually seeking out, and if necessary fabricating, Madeleine McCann stories?

  Mr Hill: Completely reject. This is not the way that anyone works as far as I know. People do not think that way. What they do is follow the news. They follow the hot story. This was the hottest story for many decades.

  Q627  Chairman: If you are so confident then, that actually at the time you wrote those stories they were perfectly legitimate stories based upon information that you had obtained, why did you not fight the libel action?

  Mr Hill: Are you familiar with British libel law?

  Q628  Chairman: Increasingly so, yes.

  Mr Hill: In that case you will know that we do not have the kind of libel law where, for instance, you could say that you published material in the firm belief at the time that it was true and in that case that would be a defence, as it is in some jurisdictions a defence. It is not in this country at all.

  Q629  Chairman: In actual fact it is. You may have chosen not to use it, but it is a defence.

  Mr Hill: Only in matters where it could be deemed an investigation in the public interest, which in my opinion is a very, very narrow definition.

  Q630  Chairman: You do not regard this as an investigation in the public interest.

  Mr Hill: No. I would not regard this as a matter within that very strict definition "in the public interest". No, it was certainly in the interests of the public but I would not describe it as "in the public interest" because in my opinion "in the public interest" means something which is of general concern to the wellbeing and safety or whatever it is of the public. This was a matter which involved a family. This was not in the public interest and could not be described as that. There would certainly have been no defence in that way; absolutely not. In this country I believe we have the most Draconian libel laws in the world. People come from all over the place to sue for libel in this country because they know they can get away with it. We have groups of lawyers who make it their business to go to people and tell them that they can sue for libel and that they will fight the case for them on a no-win no-fee basis. If they win, they can charge double the costs. It is a ridiculous and iniquitous situation. Having said all that, I accept that we did libel Mr and Mrs McCann because under the law we clearly did not tell the truth about them and as the law now stands we transgressed it. I have made no bones about apologising about it. Very few people do apologise for anything these days but I have apologised for it and I sincerely apologised and I apologise now.

  Q631  Paul Farrelly: Clearly we do have some of the most Draconian libel laws in the world but efforts to reform them to make it easier for journalism that is in the public interest to be practised is difficult because people say that if papers like yours behave like this when we have these libel laws, how will they behave if we do not have them. Do you not accept that your sort of reporting, with the McCann case being the highest profile, tars every newspaper with the same brush when it comes to reforming libel laws?

  Mr Hill: In the United States such a libel action would have been impossible because of the First Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees the freedom of the press. We do not have the freedom of the press in this country. We do not have a free press in this country but in my opinion a free press is a vital part of the democratic system and unfortunately that means the press have to be free to make mistakes. We have all made mistakes. Many politicians have made mistakes. I have certainly made mistakes and I do not know any editor who has not made mistakes. It is very easy to make mistakes and in my opinion we must be free to make mistakes.

  Q632  Paul Farrelly: I think you will find that the McCanns, not being public figures, would have a course of action in the United States.

  Mr Hill: I think not. Anyway that is beside the point because we were never actually sued by Mr and Mrs McCann. We received a complaint from Carter-Ruck and I immediately said that I believed it was better for all concerned, Mr and Mrs McCann and the newspapers, if we settled this case. It would have been unthinkable to drag Mr and Mrs McCann through the courts. I think that would have made things far, far worse. My advice prevailed that we should settle this matter as properly as we possibly could, which we did and Mr and Mrs McCann were content with the settlement and I made the apology. I could not do any more.

  Q633  Paul Farrelly: You said in your submission to us "The McCanns and others chose to use the legal route rather than resorting to the services of the PCC. That was their right and their decision".

  Mr Hill: Yes.

  Q634  Paul Farrelly: Then we heard from Gerry McCann that they did approach the Express to correct the stories and the offer which came back to the McCanns was that of an exclusive interview in OK magazine which is owned by Richard Desmond. You appear relatively contrite at the moment over the McCann saga.

  Mr Hill: I am.

  Q635  Paul Farrelly: But that response to the McCanns did not smack of any contrition at all at the time did it?

  Mr Hill: I think you are talking about a meeting which took place three days after Mr and Mrs McCann were declared to be suspects by the Portuguese police. The fact of the matter is that newspaper editors receive many complaints and warnings on a weekly basis and certainly I personally did not offer this interview. It is something which is done, but I am not quite sure where we are going with that.

  Q636  Paul Farrelly: I just want to come on to the alleged uniqueness of the McCann case.

  Mr Hill: Absolutely unique.

  Q637  Paul Farrelly: Could you satisfy one point of curiosity for me? In the UK there are reporting restrictions when people are charged, as you well know.

  Mr Hill: Yes, but they were never charged.

  Q638  Paul Farrelly: Can you tell me what restrictions, if any, apply to those people put in this position of being aguido?

  Mr Hill: In Portugal, as I understand it, and I do not really know that much about it, there are quite severe restrictions on the press but it seems to me that all of those restrictions went by the board in this particular case because it was so different.

  Q639  Paul Farrelly: Do you know what restrictions apply when somebody is an aguido?

  Mr Hill: No, I do not know.

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