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Leveson Inquiry: We became scapegoats in Madeleine McCann case, says press baron

Original Source: SCOTSMAN:  FRIDAY 13 JANUARY 2012
Published on Friday 13 January 2012 08:53

THE owner of the Daily Express and Daily Star has said that his newspapers were “scapegoated” for their coverage of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. 

Richard Desmond told the Leveson Inquiry that his titles were “the only honest ones and straightforward ones” for the way they printed a front-page apology to the missing girl’s parents and paid them £550,000 in a libel settlement.


He hit out at Sir Christopher Meyer, former head of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), for criticising Daily Express editor Peter Hill over the paper’s reporting of the case in more than 100 articles.


“Every paper was doing the same thing, which is why every paper or most papers paid money to the McCanns. Only we were scapegoated by the ex-chairman of the PCC,” he said.


Mr Desmond, who bought Express Newspapers in 2000, apologised to Kate and Gerry McCann, adding: “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to find Madeleine”.


But he told the inquiry into press standards that other newspapers also printed negative stories about the couple. “At the end of the day, all the others were doing the same, plus or minus, and basically I saw it as we were the only honest ones and straightforward ones,” he said.


“We stood up and said ‘Yes, we got it wrong, there’s the money for the marketing fund, let’s try and find McCann, the poor little girl, let’s put it on the front page and apologise properly’.”


He added: “Yet the ex-chairman [of the PCC] and his cronies thought: ‘We’ll hang out Peter Hill and the Daily Express’. They should have all stood up and said ‘You know what, we’ve all wronged, let’s all bung in £500,000 each’.


“If there were 102 articles on the McCanns, there were 38 bad ones but you could argue there were 65 or 70 good ones.”


Mr Desmond suggested that the McCanns were content with his papers’ extensive coverage of Madeleine’s disappearance because it helped the search for her.


Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, described this as a “grotesque” characterisation, adding: “Your paper was accusing the McCanns on occasion of having killed their daughter. Are you seriously saying that they were sitting there quite happy, rather than entirely anguished by your paper’s bad behaviour?”


Mr Desmond replied: “I do apologise to the McCanns. I am very sorry for the thing and I am very sorry that we got it wrong.”


Mr Hill said the Daily Express ran stories suggesting the McCanns could be responsible for Madeleine’s death because at the time “there was reason to believe” they might be true.


Mr Desmond was scathing about the phone-hacking scandal, telling the hearing: “It’s ridiculous the amount of money, time, expense etc etc etc we’re all putting in to look at this, that and the other, when these companies have committed criminal acts and should be prosecuted.”


Mr Desmond said the only thing that attracted him to being a newspaper owner was the business opportunity and ruled out buying any other national titles.


Asked what interest he took in ethical constraints at his papers, he said: “Ethical? I don’t quite know what the word means.”


The media baron made digs at his rival, the Daily Mail, which he described as the “Daily Malicious” in a deliberate slip.


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