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The father of missing toddler Madeleine McCann called for change in the British press at the Leveson Inquiry today, saying that a “commercial imperative is not acceptable.”
In a powerful reminder of some of British media’s darkest days, Gerry McCann, with counsel to the Inquiry Robert Jay QC, ran through a series of Daily Express and Daily Star articles from September 2007 to January 2008 insinuating that he and his wife, Kate, had killed or sold their daughter, who went missing in Portugal in May 2007.
One headline read, “It was her blood in parents’ hire car, new DNA tests report”. Kate McCann said this was untrue.
Jay said there were about 25 similar stories over a three to four month period implying the McCanns had hidden their daughter’s corpse in the car. Another article was built around a Portuguese story that quoted a police officer saying he did not know if Madeleine was dead or alive. His quotation of “probably dead” turned into the headline “She’s Dead” on the front page of The Mirror, McCann said.
David Sherborne, the lawyer representing core participant victims, last week called the red tops’ treatment of the McCanns a “national scandal.”
Describing legal action as a “last resort”, the McCanns accepted £550,000 in damages and 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.
Gerry McCann, while conceding the press had been useful on occasions of appeals launched to help find his daughter, said that the “tremendous speculation” in reports that followed his daughter’s disappearance was unhelpful. “It’s crass and insensitive to say that engaging with the media to find our daughter meant the press could do what they liked,” he said.
Questions remain as to how the News of the World gained access to copies of Kate McCann’s diaries that she had written to her missing daughter. McCann revealed that the journal had been taken in the police clear-out of their holiday apartment in Portugal, and it was later deemed by Portuguese police as of no use to the investigation.
McCann said the paper’s printing of her diary in its entirety and without her knowledge showed “no respect for me as a grieving mother or as a human being, or for my daughter”. She added the experience left her feeling “totally violated.”
Wrapping up his testimony, Gerry McCann said that “lives are being harmed” on daily basis by stories that are distorted or factually incorrect. Of holding journalists to account, he said, “if they are repeat offenders they should lose their privilege of practising.”
Earlier in the day, solicitor Mark Lewis said that when journalists talk about press freedom, “it’s not freedom of the press they want, it’s freedom to do what they like.”
Lewis, who represents the Dowler family and was recently revealed as having been under surveillance by a private investigator hired by the News of the World, spoke out against statutory regulation of the press. He said that self-regulation “should be what journalists do and newspapers do themselves, not the PCC.”
He also warned of a “reverse chilling effect” if people cannot afford legal fees to bring a claim forward to stop certain information about them being printed.
Voicing his support for libel reform, Lewis advocated a cheaper and more accessible system in which it would be possible for libel or privacy cases to heard in county courts and not just the high court.
“Libel is something for the very rich,” he said, arguing against merely abolishing conditional fee agreements — in which fees are only payable in the case of a favourable results — would lead to people not being able to bring cases forward.
Also giving evidence today was journalist Tom Rowland, who argued that defamation lawyers acted as a “quality control mechanism”. He added that it was “wrong” to say that “having lawyers at your elbow inhibits press freedom”.
Sheryl Gascoigne, ex-wife of footballer Paul Gascoigne, also called for improved journalistic standards. While conceding media attention “comes with the territory” of being married to a celebrity, Gascoigne took issue with inaccurate reporting. “If you’re going to print anything about me, just make sure it’s factual,” she said.
She added, “the onus is on you as the victim to prove your innocence, not the journalist to prove what he has printed is true.”
She gave a detailed account of her experience of press intrusion, noting that papparazzi had camped outside her home, and that one photographer followed her as she drove to a police station to try to escape from him. Heavily pregnant at the time, Gascoigne was told by the police that they were not able to take action unless the photographer had touched her.
The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with anonymous evidence to be heard first from “HJK”, for which the court will be closed to press and public. Sienna Miller, JK Rowling, Max Mosley and Mark Thomson will follow.
Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson.