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Daily Express editor was 'obsessed' with Madeleine McCann story, inquiry hears

Lisa O'Carroll and Jason Deans, Wednesday 21 December 2011 17.21 GMT

Lord Justice Leveson accuses newspaper of publishing 'complete piffle' and 'tittle-tattle' about missing girl

Former Daily Express journalist Nick Fagge leaves the Leveson inquiry, where he was quizzed about the paper's coverage of Madeleine McCann. Photograph: Lewis Whyld/PA

The Daily Express editor became "obsessed" with the Madeleine McCann story and put it on its front page repeatedly just to sell newspapers, the Leveson inquiry has heard.


Nick Fagge, a former reporter who worked on the story of the missing girl in 2007, said the reason his editor didn't care about the strength of individual stories was because he believed they would boost circulation.


"The editor of the time decided it was the only story he was interested in and put it on the front page regardless of how strong the story was.


"The Madeleine story was on the front page of the Daily Express more than any other newspaper, because he decided it would sell newspapers, it became an obsession of his," said Fagge.


Lord Justice Leveson said he would probably call the then editor, Peter Hill, to explain Fagge's assertion that he was "obsessed with the McCann story".


Leveson accused the newspaper of writing "complete piffle" and "tittle-tattle" about Madeleine McCann.


One story claimed there was DNA evidence that could show the little girl's body had been stored in the spare tyre well of a hire car, yet the DNA analysis was "inconclusive" and there was no foundation for making that allegation.


Another story claimed that Kate McCann had given some sort of confession to a local priest in Portugal. The story claimed "the tormented priest insisted he would stand by his vows and take his secrets to the grave".


The reporter was accused by the counsel for the inquiry, Robert Jay QC, of using "journalistic licence" to make an inference of innocence or guilt. Leveson went further, describing it as "fluff".


"All the things that are being written, about the priest it's all fluff, there's nothing to it," Leveson said.


The Express group, which includes the Daily Star, paid out 500,000 to Kate and Gerry McCann over libellous coverage of the disappearance of their daughter and published a front-page apology.


David Pilditch, another journalist at the Express, denied his stories were "tittle-tattle" and said they were based on information he had garnered from sources at the time. He said he warned his bosses in London that police were not briefing journalists officially and that it was their decision to decide whether to run them.


The judge heard from a former Daily Express reporter, Padraic Flanagan, who said the press were under pressure to fill the "very large vacuum" left by the lack on information on the McCann case.


Leveson warned: "The one thing that you don't want to fill the paper surely is stuff that is terribly damaging to people and maybe complete piffle."


Flanagan apologised to the McCanns for adding to their "distress and hurt".


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