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


Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 640-659)

MR PETER HILL

28 APRIL 2009

  Q640  Paul Farrelly: I find that quite surprising given the number of stories you have published and that your papers would also be available in Portugal.

  Mr Hill: Why would I? All I know is what was appearing in the Portuguese press and on Portuguese television and it seems to me that there were no restrictions whatsoever at the time. I have since heard that Portugal does have a press law but there was certainly no evidence of it being in operation at the time.

  Q641  Paul Farrelly: That speaks for itself.

  Mr Hill: Yes.

  Q642  Paul Farrelly: Your submission asserts that the McCann case was unique but we have heard evidence that actually it is pretty much the tip of the iceberg and exposes a culture which is commonplace in the British tabloid press. How do you respond to that?

  Mr Hill: I would say that I have never ever come upon a series of events anything like this particular case. I absolutely believe that it was unique in every sense of that word. No-one can recall anything like this ever. Here you had a successful professional couple on holiday with their family and their friends, an absolute nightmare thing happens, their daughter disappears and of course we have no idea still, absolutely no idea what happened to Madeleine. We do not know whether she was kidnapped or simply disappeared; no-one knows. This in itself was a tremendous thing that happened. On top of that, immediately Mr and Mrs McCann orchestrated the most brilliant public relations campaign, a professional public relations team was hired, they flew in a private jet to have an audience with the Pope, they themselves—this is not a criticism because who would not have done this—courted publicity as much as they possibly could day after day and we responded to that. The newspapers and the media did have a genuine wish to help to find Madeleine. Everybody wanted to know what had happened to Madeleine and people hoped and prayed she would be found. This in itself was an extraordinary thing to happen; it had never been seen before and it came at a time when, unlike in the Lindbergh case when really the newspapers were all there were, television is such a pervasive part of life; but not just television, also the internet was at that time starting to be a most astonishing phenomenon. Since then it has grown and grown and grown and now there is so much information on the internet that it is like a wild place. On top of that, if that were not enough, out of the blue Mr and Mrs McCann, this perfectly respectable couple, were accused of being responsible by the Portuguese police and, not only that, named officially as suspects and questioned repeatedly by the Portuguese police. How can anybody pretend this was anything but the most extraordinary, extraordinary chain of events? If anyone can say this was just another story, it is absolute nonsense to pretend that. Nothing like this has ever been seen before.

  Q643  Paul Farrelly: Have you therefore not done anything at the Daily Express to make sure that this sort of thing never happens again?

  Mr Hill: Yes, we are very, very careful. As a matter of fact, in my 10 and a half years as a newspaper editor, I have had very, very few complaints against me. We have averaged about seven complaints to the Press Complaints Commission per year and I think pretty much all of them have been settled, apart from perhaps only one. I do not think there have been any major law suits against the newspaper that I was operating at that time. No, this was a unique case, an absolutely unique case without a doubt and I think any of my colleagues would certainly say that.

  Q644  Paul Farrelly: Has anyone been reprimanded, disciplined, sacked, demoted at the Express over what happened with the McCanns?

  Mr Hill: I have reprimanded myself because I was responsible.

  Q645  Paul Farrelly: How far did your self-reprimands go? Piers Morgan lost his job after the fake pictures and Andrew Coulson lost his job after the Clive Goodman affair. Did you offer to resign?

  Mr Hill: Certainly not. If editors had to resign every time there was a libel action against them, there would be no editors.

  Q646  Paul Farrelly: So it was just the libel action.

  Mr Hill: Yes, it was a libel action.

  Q647  Paul Farrelly: Just a libel action, there was nothing else to consider about the way the Express reported the affair.

  Mr Hill: If I were to have to resign over this particular affair, then every other newspaper editor in Britain would have to resign because everybody did it. The Chairman of the BBC would have to resign and all the directors. Everybody concerned at Sky Television and other TV stations would also have to resign. It is not a suggestion that makes any sense at all. I have not noticed members of the Government resigning over anything, so I think it somewhat ridiculous for you to suggest to me that I should resign. Has the Home Secretary resigned over abusing the parliamentary expenses system? Has the Prime Minister resigned for destroying the British economy? No. This was an unfortunate thing to have happened and I have apologised for it, which is more than most politicians have ever done. I have apologised on the front page; I apologised genuinely and sincerely but it is ridiculous to suggest that I should resign for it.

  Q648  Paul Farrelly: With respect, they have not suggested that a family in effect murdered their own daughter without being professional enough as an editor to check out what Portuguese press law was?

  Mr Hill: What have Portuguese press laws got to do with it?

  Q649  Paul Farrelly: Whether your reporting was actually breaking the law or not.

  Mr Hill: If I was breaking the law, then every other media outlet in Portugal was breaking the law.

  Q650  Paul Farrelly: And that is a defence?

  Mr Hill: And every other newspaper that might have had a single copy go to Portugal was breaking the law. In that case yes, technically everybody was breaking the law, but I tell you this was the most astonishing chain of events which simply had to be reported; it simply had to be reported. We did not report this maliciously and our concern was genuinely to help to find Madeleine McCann. By the way, that continued all the time Mr and Mrs McCann were suspects because during that time we did not only carry stories which were making accusations against Mr and Mrs McCann, we carried many, many reports on continuing the hunt for Madeleine McCann. You are trying to present this as being a completely one-sided thing but it was not that. This entire phenomenon changed all the time. It was the most astonishing thing; absolutely.

  Q651  Chairman: You said that this story was unique.

  Mr Hill: Yes.

  Q652  Chairman: And that you had never known anything like it in your lifetime.

  Mr Hill: No.

  Q653  Chairman: May I point to another example where your paper, day after day, carried stories which actually were completely untrue but which nevertheless I believe increased your circulation and that is the stories about the death of Princess Diana.

  Mr Hill: We did not believe the stories were untrue.

  Q654  Chairman: But you believe that now. You do not believe that Princess Diana was murdered or that there was a conspiracy by the security services or that senior members of the royal family were involved.

  Mr Hill: The inquest on Princess Diana, for me, was pretty much the end of the matter. I think you will find that after the inquest we published hardly any, if any, reports or stories, about Princess Diana. Up to that time it was a similar situation but not as intense a situation as the McCanns. Our readers were absolutely avid for news about the death of Princess Diana because there certainly was a theory that Princess Diana might have been murdered.

  Q655  Chairman: So you take the same view of the headlines that you printed about Princess Diana's death that at the time they were completely justified and that they genuinely did reflect reports you were getting that actually this was a conspiracy by the security services.

  Mr Hill: That it might have been a conspiracy by the security forces. Yes, of course we believed it. I do not print stories that I believe to be untrue; that is not what I do.

  Q656  Chairman: The difference is that in the McCann case you rightly say that you were acting alongside almost every other newspaper. In the Princess Diana case you were not. It was the Daily Express really which had an obsession with the story which no other paper really followed.

  Mr Hill: It is not a crime to have an obsession.

  Q657  Chairman: Was it not driven by circulation?

  Mr Hill: No; not at all.

  Q658  Chairman: Your decision to run Diana stories day after day was not to boost your circulation.

  Mr Hill: Everything you do in a sense is calculated to sell the newspapers. I do not go out of my way every day to put on the most boring story I can find so that nobody will buy the newspaper. That is not what I do. I try to find a story which I think will be the most interesting story for my readers and hopefully for the readers of other newspapers, so that if they see my headline and my picture on the front page they think they will buy my newspaper because it looks interesting. That is my job; that is what I do.

  Q659  Chairman: But are we not verging slightly towards the sort of Daily Star type of approach of saying Elvis has been found on the moon because that is interesting.

  Mr Hill: That was not the Daily Star that did that. I used to be the editor of the Daily Star and I did not run that story.



 
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