Daily Express editor Hugh Whittow has backed the decision by Express Newspapers to withdraw from the Press Complaints Commission last year – and claimed it was partly because of the watchdog’s failure to intervene over the Madeleine McCann stories.
In March 2008 Express Newspapers – which includes the Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star and Daily Star on Sunday – agreed to pay £500,000 in libel damages to the Madeleine fund for a series of articles described as ‘grossly libellous’at the Leveson Inquiry this afternoon.
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“Because of the McCanns, I think that was a huge problem for us and I feel perhaps that they [the PCC] should have intervened,” said Whittow.
“Everyone had too much leeway. There was nobody intervening at all. As a result, the story carried on and on and on.”
In his witness statement, however, Whittow said the chief reason behind the decision was that the PCC had changed the way it resolved disputes.
“At one time, if people went to the PCC, it was on the understanding that they would not take any legal action following the PCC’s decision,” he wrote.
“However, complainants started to use the PCC’s decisions to support legal claims.”
Peter Hill, who was editor of the paper when it withdrew from the PCC, told the inquiry: ‘I was not comfortable with the idea we were withdrawing from self-regulation… but I was comfortable with the decision at that time.”
Echoing the comments of Whittow, Hill said the main reason they withdrew was that the PCC was that it ‘no longer did the job it needed it needed to do”.
Initially, people who made complaints to the PCC did not pursue legal action, he said, but that was ‘abandoned’and complainants began using PCC decisions in court.
‘What’s the point of the PCC if people are going to go to the law anyway?’he said.
Hill also told the inquiry that he didn’t like the way it was being run by various individuals, who he declined to name.
Hill, who retired from the paper in February 2011, denied claims he became ‘obsessed’with the Madeleine McCann story when he was editor of the Express.
He described the story as ‘unprecedented’during his 50-year journalism career, and a ‘story that you couldn’t ignore”.
But when asked by the counsel to the inquiry, Robert Jay QC, what steps his paper took to check the validity of claims that were apparently being leaked by the Portuguese police, he replied: ‘We did the best that we would, which was not very much. I’m not saying it was nothing but it was not very much.”
In November Express owner Richard Desmond indicated that he could bring his newspapers and magazines back under the gaze of a press regulator.
He described the PCC as an “Old Boys’ Club” but told a parliamentary committee investigating privacy laws that he hoped to be able to rejoin the body under the new leadership of Lord Hunt.
“I am sure that with a chairman like that, we could be working together again,” he said.
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