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

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 700-719)


28 APRIL 2009

  Q700  Rosemary McKenna: Yes, but the whole world knows about it, does it not?

  Mr Hill: I wonder whether it does.

  Q701  Rosemary McKenna: If you have anything to do with it they certainly will.

  Mr Hill: There are many things we do not know about but I would like to find out.

  Q702  Paul Farrelly: I am listening very carefully to you saying that the PCC is the best route, that people should have confidence in its procedures, that you take note of the PCC. At the same time your newspapers are not subscribing to it. Is that not a ludicrous position to be in?

  Mr Hill: It is only a temporary thing. You have to understand that this dispute is nothing whatever to do with the PCC; it is nothing whatever to do with it. It is a dispute with the Newspaper Publishers Association and we are trying to find a way of not being part of the Newspaper Publishers Association yet still making our contribution towards the running costs of the PCC. We will resolve that matter and we will resume. We have written to the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof) which is the financial arm and we have said that we want to resume these payments as soon as we can. Yes, there is a dispute over some part of it. I cannot settle that myself; I am not the person who deals with that. I have recommended very, very strongly that we resolve this as soon as we possibly can, but I cannot do any more than that. I promise you that it will be resolved.

  Q703  Alan Keen: When Rosemary McKenna asked you whether you thought the PCC was a good route and if the McCanns had used it that it would have been effective, presumably what the McCanns would have said to you was, "Mr Hill, you have no proof that we killed our child. We didn't kill our child". Then you said "If the PCC had been approached [ ... ]" but you did not actually say you would stop doing it you said you would give it a good bit of thought. That is not a lot of comfort for somebody who is accused of killing their own child, is it?

  Mr Hill: I was not making these allegations. I repeated the allegations: I was not making them. The allegations were made by the Portuguese police who appeared to be very confident of the rightness of what they were saying but of course it turned out to be nonsense. How was I to know that? It was a reputable police force of a civilised reputable country. I did not know that they were behaving like some tin-pot Ruritanian idiots. How would I know that?

  Q704  Alan Keen: I do not read the Express.

  Mr Hill: That is a shame; you ought to.

  Q705  Alan Keen: I do not read most newspapers so I cannot recall. You have a vivid recollection.

  Mr Hill: As a Member of Parliament you ought to read all the newspapers.

  Q706  Alan Keen: I am sure you have a vivid recollection of the headlines. Did you make any attempt, when you were trying to sell more newspapers, to mislead the public into thinking the McCanns had killed their child?

  Mr Hill: No, of course not.

  Q707  Alan Keen: What headlines did you use?

  Mr Hill: I cannot remember. I have used lots of headlines. No, I do not think we ever said that the McCanns had killed their child.

  Q708  Alan Keen: Did you make any attempt to get people to buy papers by believing that you were saying they had killed their child?

  Mr Hill: No; no. People will believe what they believe. People had all kinds of opinions about this happening.

  Q709  Alan Keen: On the question of headlines, this is a serious issue which has arisen during this inquiry and you have complained about the pressure of libel threats and freedom of the press. Would you agree that one way in which newspapers do mislead the public is by putting a headline on the front page? I understand it has to be brief and you cannot put 47 words on the front page but do you not agree that newspapers do mislead the public by headlines followed by a first couple of paragraphs?

  Mr Hill: It can happen, yes of course.

  Q710  Alan Keen: It is not really recognised. Do you think that misleading people in order to sell more newspapers by the headline and the first couple of paragraphs, corrected or some doubt put in right at the end in one little sentence—

  Mr Hill: No, no; we do try to qualify the headlines. Often you will find that there is a big headline and a smaller headline which does qualify it because it is what you said in the first place; if you only have a few letters to write your headline you do try to qualify the headlines all the time with sub-headings. We do try, yes, of course.

  Q711  Alan Keen: What I am asking really and I do not suppose you will agree because you do not want to be attacked by the libel lawyers, but even if it is accepted that you do not do it on purpose, the public are seriously misled by headlines and the introductory part of articles. Do you not think, to be fair to people who have been libelled, that should go into the law to make it even tougher for newspapers?

  Mr Hill: Believe me, the libel laws are concerned with the headlines just as much as the text. If you write headlines which are libellous, then you can be sued because of the headline. If the headline says something that the copy below it does not say, you can be equally be sued for libel and quite rightly so. I am not disputing it.

  Q712  Alan Keen: That is not what I understand by it.

  Mr Hill: I believe of course you can be sued for libel because of headlines which you write. Yes, you can be sued for headlines.

  Q713  Alan Keen: What I do recall, because I can recall some of the Express headlines by seeing them on What the Papers Say on TV and you have mentioned the BBC. I am one of the biggest supporters of the BBC and I would have been down to see the chairman straightaway if the BBC headline on the Ten O'clock News said "McCanns killed their own child".

  Mr Hill: I did not write a headline saying the McCanns killed their own child that I can recall.

  Q714  Alan Keen: You cannot recall.

  Mr Hill: I am sure I did not; I did not write that headline. The BBC repeated all the allegations, of course they did, and a Panorama programme repeated every single one.

  Q715  Alan Keen: I am really asking a specific question about the headlines.

  Mr Hill: I appreciate that headlines can be a problem. They are difficult to write often, especially when there are not many words and we do try to qualify them; we do try.

  Q716  Alan Keen: I am happy that you accept that because that could well be a recommendation that we make that that is looked at more seriously as they can be misleading. Coming on to the state of the press today, we are all sad that the printed press is struggling financially. We know the internet has taken a lot of advertising and it satisfies some people who like to see very straightforward comments, not necessarily true, and it must take some readers away. We have taken evidence from experienced journalists who say they feel the standard of journalism has reduced and they use a very clever word "churnalism" as one of the reasons why. Obviously editors can cut costs tremendously by just repeating what other newspapers say. Do you think that is also adding to that downward spiral? Is there anything which can be done about it?

  Mr Hill: First of all I do not accept it. The word "churnalism" is a rubbish word and does not have any meaning anyway. It is just a gimmicky word. The standards of journalism have massively increased over the years, the standards of education of the people in the business have massively increased, the constraints on them have enormously increased. The newspapers used to be like a frontier many, many years ago. It is nothing like that now and I would strongly dispute that the standards have fallen. I believe that the standards have massively improved. I think the people working for newspapers have far more knowledge; they take far more care and put in far more effort. They look into their stories far more than they used to. I totally dispute the idea that newspaper standards are diminishing; they are not diminishing.

  Q717  Alan Keen: You have just rejected the word "churnalism" yet almost all the answers you have given this morning about the McCanns have been that it said it in this paper, it said it on the news, it said it here so all you did was repeat it. That is "churnalism" is it not?

  Mr Hill: No, I did not say that. I said that all the newspapers and all the television stations repeated the allegations that were being leaked by the Portuguese police. That is what I said. I did not say they were lifting one from the other. That is what I said.

  Q718  Chairman: You became editor of the Daily Express about six years ago.

  Mr Hill: Yes; five and a half.

  Q719  Chairman: How many journalists were employed by the Express when you became editor?

  Mr Hill: A very similar number to the number employed now.

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