A journalist at the Daily Express who covered the disappearance of Madeleine McCann told the Leveson Inquiry that featuring the story on the front page became the editor’s “obsession”.
Nick Fagge said the tabloid’s then editor — Peter Hill — had decided the case of the toddler, who went missing in Portugal in May 2007, would “sell papers” and featured the story on the front page of the paper regardless of an article’s strength.
“The editor at the time decided it was the only story he was interested in,” Fagge said, adding that he himself was concerned over the direction the coverage was going in.
Kate and Gerry McCann accepted £550,000 in damages and an apology from Express Newspapers in March 2008 for what the publisher admitted were “entirely untrue” and “defamatory” articles. The damages were donated to the fund set up to find the toddler.
Another reporter on the case, David Pilditch, told the Inquiry that “getting to the truth” of the matter was “impossible” because of the laws in Portugal restricting police talking to the press about the case.
“There was no strategy, just confusion all round, when there should have been focus”.
Pilditch and Fagge’s colleague, Padraic Flanagan, told the Inquiry that they were sent to Portugal to “produce stories” and that it would take “quite a brave reporter to call the desk and say ‘I’m not really sure about this, I’m not going to send anything back today’.”
“The questions I asked myself,” he said, “were ‘what can I find today’, ‘what can I offer the newsdesk, how can I keep up with rivals?'”, Flanagan said.
Fagge said, ” I’d be thinking of verifying the story as best I could. I wouldn’t be thinking of a potential libel case.”
With the restrictions in place, Pilditch said his sources included Portuguese newspapers, the McCanns’ spokesman, local crime reporters who had been in contact with the police, and a police translator. He told the Inquiry he was able to develop dialogue with police through these third party sources.
“All I could do was present the information [to the newsdesk] and explain the sources where the information came from,” he said, adding that there was “no way round” the situation.
Counsel to the Inquiry Robert Jay QC ran Pilditch through a series of articles about the McCanns that had his byline. One reported “findings” of Madeleine’s DNA in the family’s hire car, which Jay said was “at best inconclusive”.
He pointed out that the toddler’s DNA was not uncovered in the car, to which Pilditch said, “we know that now, but we didn’t know that then”.
He added, “a problem with a lot of this stuff was the way information was leaking out”, noting it was as though the police were “thinking out loud”.
In an article that opened with “Kate and Gerry McCann are still regarded as the prime suspects in the disappearance of their daughter”, Pilditch claimed it he “didn’t really write the story”, but the piece was bylined with Pilditch and Fagge’s names.
Later, Jay put it to Pilditch that he was “getting all sorts of tittle-tattle form different people when you knew the police couldn’t officially talk”.
He also asked Pilditch if “people like you” thought about the impact of their stories, which “imply that the child has not been abducted but something far more sinister has happened”.
Pilditch denied it was tittle-tattle, telling Jay that the information came from senior detectives on the case.
Lord Justice Leveson said: “it’s all fluff.”
The Inquiry will continue on 9 January.
Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson