Examination of Witness (Question Numbers
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
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
Mr Hill: You have to understand
that this was the only show around at that time. We were getting
10,000 messagesI am not just talking about hitson
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
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
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
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
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.