Richard Desmond, founder and owner of Daily Express owner Northern & Shell, today defended his editor’s coverage of missing toddler Madeleine McCann despite the volume of defamatory articles the paper published.
I don’t wish to minimise it,” he told the Leveson Inquiry, “but if there were 102 articles on the McCanns, and 38 bad ones, you could argue there were 68 or 70 good ones.”
He told the Inquiry that the McCanns took four months to take legal action over the paper’s coverage, claiming that until then “they seemed quite happy for us to run articles about their poor daughter.”
Counsel to the Inquiry, Robert Jay QC, called this a “grotesque characterisation”. He also said the coverage of the Express and the Star, also owned by Northern & Shell, were the “most egregious defamations” of all the redtops.
Despite apologising and paying Kate and Gerry McCann over £500,000 in damages for “entirely untrue” and “defamatory” articles written about their daughter’s disappearance, Desmond believes the Express was “scapegoated by the PCC” over its coverage, claiming it was only the Express that “stood up and said yes we got it wrong”.
An increasingly irritated Jay criticised Desmond for drawing comparisons with the death of Princess Diana and attempting to justify his papers’ coverage of the McCanns by arguing speculation over what had happened was rife.
“There has been speculation that Diana was killed by the royal family,” Desmond said. “The speculation has gone on and on. I don’t know the answer.”
Desmond’s performance this afternoon was pugnacious, with potshots being taken at rivals and regulators. He called the current Press Complaints Commission a “useless organisation run by people who wanted tea and biscuits and by phone hackers; it was run by people who wanted to destroy us.”
He called the Inquiry “probably the worst thing that’s ever happened to newspapers in my lifetime.” He said he would rather “get rid” of it, “prosecute people that committed offences, and get on with business.”
He also took particular care to reignite hostilities with the Daily Mail, calling it “the Daily Malicious”, “Britain’s worst enemy”, and referring to its editor Paul Dacre as “the fat butcher”.
Desmond seemed at pains to define the term “ethical”, adding: “We do not talk about ethics or morals because it’s a very fine line and everybody is different.”
The Inquiry continues on Monday.
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