Meyer hits out at PCC critics

The former chair of the Press Complaints Commission has made a staunch defence of the self-regulation body at the Leveson Inquiry today.

Sir Christopher Meyer, who chaired the self-regulation body from 2003 to 2009, grew exasperated as he was asked by counsel Robert Jay QC whether the body should stop the press coming up with stories to fit supposed facts. “As long as human beings are involved, there will be fallibility,” Meyer told the Inquiry.

“It is as if you say to the police ‘you are useless because you can’t stop crime’,” Meyer said. “These are ridiculous arguments.”

In one of the more heated sessions of the Inquiry, Meyer told Jay that he seemed “to ignore” that the public has confidence in the complaints body, which has faced criticism in various witness testimony for having failed to deal proactively with complaints. In her evidence to the Inquiry in November, Harry Potter author JK Rowling called it a “wrist-slapping exercise at best”, while the father of missing toddler Madeleine McCann suggested “repeat offenders” of incorrect coverage should lose their privilege of practising journalism.

Meyer contended it was unfair for Jay to suggest he was slow in protecting the McCanns or condemning the Express’s coverage of them. The couple, whose daughter went missing in Portugal in 2007, received a libel payout of £550,000 from Express Newspapers for defamatory articles published about them.

Meyer said he had made it “perfectly plain” to Gerry McCann that he had an option of taking a legal route or the PCC, stressing to the Inquiry that the PCC made “particular efforts” to make itself available to the McCanns within 48 hours of their daughter, Madeleine, disappearing.

He added that he told the then-editor, Peter Hill, “you have to resign” after the payout.

He continued, “the McCanns needed the press for publicity’s sake”, adding that the couple had made a “Faustian” bargain with the media.

He also rejected Jay’s suggestion that, had the PCC taken a more proactive stance with the McCanns, the libellous coverage of Bristol landlord Chris Jefferies would not have been able to go so far.

“Don’t drag me down that path,” he told Jay, noting that he was no longer the PCC chairman at the time, and that the body had been successful in containing media scrums.

Quizzed about why the PCC did not call in newspaper editors in the wake of the Information Commissioner’s reports on Operation Motorman, Meyer said he needed “actionable information” and wanted to “see the beef” before talking to editors.

Last month, the former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas told the Inquiry the PCC “should have done more” in response to the Motorman findings, and that he “just did not buy [the] line”, that the PCC could not intervene because the use of private investigators by the press was a criminal matter.

Discussing the oft-criticised PCC report on phone hacking in 2007, published after the jailing of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman on related offences, Meyer argued it was not useful for the PCC to “duplicate” the police inquiry, and that interviewing former News of the World editor Andy Coulson would not have added “anything of value” to the report.

He said the PCC decided to conduct a “lessons-learned exercise” to shed a “little more light” on what had occurred at the News of the World. Meyer called the report “monumental” and said the police and papers uncovered more evidence of phone hacking than was known in 2006.

His exchange with Robert Jay QC became more agitated as they moved on to Max Mosley, who sued the News of the World in 2008 for publishing a story accusing him of engaging in a Nazi-themed orgy.

Meyer said Mosley was “extremely rude” about the PCC after he decided to launch a legal complaint against the News of the World, adding later that “the whole thing might have taken a different course” had Mosley had gone to the PCC before the tabloid published its sting. “We around the table — the commissioners — would have had a very interesting debate,” Meyer said, adding, “we would have found for him.”

He added that the PCC could have attempted to halt the publication of Mosley sting, as the body “regularly” gave pre-publication advice and there would have been a “big debate” about whether the Nazi theme of the story “affected the central argument”.

Meyer grew increasingly frustrated when asked if there was “collusion” between the PCC and editors serving on its board.

“God knows I had my conflicts with the editors on all kinds of things,” he told the Inquiry. “If you think I was sitting in their pocket not daring to do things that they did not like, think again Mr Jay.”

Meyer gave a staunch defence of free expression, noting that he was a “strong believer of freedom of the press” and “very firmly of the view that you do not go down the road of statute”.

Meyer warned that state involvement in press regulation was a “slippery slope”. He argued that in the future a “less permissive, less liberal state” may try to take advantage of existing legislation to do things that “might be offensive to freedom of expression”.

He added that the press is “quite closely hemmed in by statute and code of practice”, adding that he would not not want to see a “system of regulation that is more repressive than need be.” Referring to a 2003 speech, Meyer said he still believed the PCC should not be able to fine newspapers, contrary to current PCC director Stephen Abell’s view expressed yesterday.

Contrasting with the testimony of Abell and former director Tim Toulmin, Meyer said he believed “very firmly” that the PCC was a regulator, noting that “it is regulation unlike anything else”.

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Ex Express editor says McCann stories boosted circulation

The former editor of the Daily Express has denied claims made to the Leveson Inquiry that he was “obsessed” over coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

Peter Hill said it was an “international story on an enormous scale” and that there was an “enormous clamour” for information.

“It was not a story you could ignore”, he said, “you simply had to cover it as best you could.”

Hill said it was “nothing to do with an obsession”, adding that the “entire country” had an opinion about the 2007 disappearance of McCann.

Express reporter Nick Fagge told the Leveson Inquiry in December that Hill had “decided it was the only story he was interested in.”

There was a tense exchange between Hill and Robert Jay QC, during which Hill accused the Inquiry counsel of putting him “on trial” during questioning about the tabloid’s McCann coverage. Lord Justice Leveson reassured him he was not.

“I did not accuse them of killing their child. The story that I ran were the people that did accuse them and those were the Portuguese police,” he said.

He added that there was “reason to believe that they might possibly be true.”

When asked by Jay about checking the accuracy of the stories, Hill said: “We did the best we could do which was not very much.” He added that the McCann stories boosted circulation “on many days”.

Madeleine’s parents accepted £550,000 in damages and an apology from Express Newspapers in March 2008 for what the company said were “entirely untrue” and “defamatory” articles. Hill told the “nothing” further happened after the libel case.

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Express Editor claims PCC 'should have intervened' in McCann coverage

The editor of the Daily Express has suggested to the Leveson Inquiry today that one of the reasons for the paper opting out of the Press Complaints Commission was because it failed to stop the tabloid publishing defamatory articles about the McCanns.

Hugh Whittow said: “Because of the McCanns I think that was a huge problem for us and I think they should have intervened.” He added that “no one was intervening at all, and the coverage “just went on and on”.

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.

Whittow told Lord Justice Leveson: “I don’t blame the PCC. I just think in hindsight they might have been able to intervene and perhaps this will reflect in the body that you set up.”

Whittow was deputy editor at the time of the paper’s libellous coverage of the parents of the missing toddler, and said was not party to the decision to withdraw from the PCC.

Daily Star editor Dawn Neesom also testified to the Inquiry this morning. As counsel Robert Jay QC took her through a series of front-page stories from the paper, Neesom admitted headlines can at times “go too far”, with one story headlined “Terror as plane hits ash cloud” resulting in copies of the paper being removed from airport newsagents’ shelves over fears they could cause panic among travellers.

Earlier in the day Express Newspapers’ legal chief, Nicole Patterson, revealed to the Inquiry that the company was using private investigator Steve Whittamore in 2010, five years after he had been convicted for illegally trading information.

Going through a list of invoices from Whittamore’s company, JJ Services, Jay revealed that the earliest date of payments to the firm was 31 January 2005, and that Whittamore was still carrying out services for Express Newspapers in 2010.

Patterson said was not sure if Whittamore was still being used by the company’s papers. Jay called this surprising, given the “cloud hanging over” the private investigator.

Patterson added that the company carried out an internal investigation into phone hacking and other unlawful news gathering methods at its tabloids going back to 2000. She said there was no evidence to suggest phone hacking “or anything of that nature” had occurred.

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Gerry McCann calls for press reform at Leveson Inquiry

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.

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