Former Associated Newspapers managing director Murdoch MacLennan has rubbished the suggestion that he brokered a ‘non-aggression pact’with Express Newspapers owner Richard Desmond.
At the Leveson Inquiry today MacLennan, who is now chief executive of Telegraph Media Group, was asked about a lunch meeting he held with Desmond when the pair reportedly agreed to end the ‘mud-slinging’between Desmond and the Daily Mail proprietor Viscount Rothermere.
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Rothermere recently told the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions that MacLennan told him after the meeting that ‘Desmond and himself agreed that it was not in the best interests of the respective groups to use the pages of our newspaper for mud-slinging, and that was a matter for [Daily Mail editor] Paul Dacre”.
But asked whether he had encountered ‘non-aggression pacts’during his long career in newspapers – including 10 years as MD at Associated until 2004 – MacLennan said today: ‘I would know about them and they don’t exist.”
He insisted that The Telegraph’s current proprietor was a ‘very private individual’who left the editorial side ‘entirely in the hands of his editors”. TMG is owned by the billionaire Barclay brothers and run on their behalf by Aidan Barclay.
During his long career in the newspaper industry most proprietors had accepted the separation between ‘church and state”, said MacLennan.
He went on to claim that ‘some players in the industry are more obsessed with the media business than I think our readers are,’and that there were ‘far too many stories by the press on the press, almost to an obsession”.
On the Richard Desmond meeting, MacLennan told the inquiry he had ‘never been in favour of mud-slinging” but insisted there was no agreement with Desmond.
He said that during the lunch Desmond made a series of demands to stop the articles, which included stories in the Daily Mail that Desmond was a “pornographer”, from appearing – though MacLennan said he was unable to recall the exact details of the conversation.
“Anyone who knows Mr Dacre would have laughed at the suggestion that he stopped publishing because of a threat,” he added.
When MacLennan went on to claim that were far too many stories ‘by the press on the press” –arguing that readers were not as ‘obsessed as we are by our own business’– Lord Justice Leveson said the lack of coverage on the phone-hacking scandal before July 2011 would suggest this was not the case.
Leveson said it concerned him that while the press was willing to expose wrongdoing in areas such as the Government and judiciary it was less willing to do the same in relation to the press.
‘The perception, if not the reality… is that one doesn’t really have a go at other titles,’said Leveson.
If the phone-hacking scandal had involved ‘some other organ of the state’it would have received more coverage, said Leveson, before MacLennan insisted that newspapers were willing to report on each other ‘without fear of favour”.
Leveson paid tribute to The Guardian and said the lack of coverage among the rest of the press did not ‘square with a determination to get to the bottom of wrongdoing”.
‘We were astonished about the business of phone-hacking at the News of the World,’said MacLennan. ‘I was really surprised by it.”
MacLennan went on to echo earlier evidence from Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, calling for fines to be imposed against the worst offending newspapers and admitting that there was a ‘general consensus things need to change”.
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