Journalists covering Madeleine McCann’s disappearance in Portugal were under great pressure to bring in stories although it was “near impossible”, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.
Daily Express reporter David Pilditch said it was a “ludicrous state of affairs” because the police were not providing any information directly to the British press.
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Dispatched to Portugal to cover the story six times between 2007 and 2008, he described how he had to resort to gleaning information from Portuguese journalists who were speaking to the police.
He admitted that although he was “confident of the veracity of the reports” he was writing, he did feel uncomfortable about the situation.
“I knew that the reports were correct but I also knew that because there was no confirmation, there were going to be difficulties if any complaints were made because they weren’t publicly declared statements,” he said.
Asked if he had hesitated at all before writing the stories that he did, Pilditch said he had.
“I feel uncomfortable writing stories where you’ve been put in a position where you can’t do it in the way that you’re used to, to be certain that what you’re saying is fair and accurate,” he added.
He said there was “obviously a lot of pressure” to produce stories as newspapers and television networks from all over Europe were taking an interest and “you can’t not cover the story”.
As the law in Portugal prevents police from discussing details of their investigations with the media, “this was a ludicrous state of affairs which made covering the story near impossible”, Pilditch wrote in his witness statement.
Leveson: ‘It’s all fluff’
Madeleine went missing from her family’s holiday flat in Praia da Luz in the Algarve on May 3 2007, as her parents Kate and Gerry dined with friends nearby.
In March 2008 Express Newspapers paid £550,000 libel damages and printed front page apologies to the missing girl’s parents over a series of articles falsely alleging that they were responsible for their daughter’s death.
Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked Pilditch if he shared his concerns about what he was writing with his news desk.
The witness replied: “I said ‘If we’re going to have any problems, we might not be able to defend these things because we just can’t get any information’ and that was the difficulty.”
Pilditch went on to say that his bosses “took my comments onboard”.
But he added: “You’re in a situation where it’s a story of great interest and you’ve got newspapers and television from all around the world who are covering it and you know that your rivals are working on similar information and they’ve got similar issues.”
Pilditch was questioned about the sources he used for stories he had written after the McCanns were made “arguidos”, or official suspects.
“It’s not something you can ignore,” he said. “It’s not something where you can just present a story that was based on a comment from the McCanns’ official spokesperson.”
Pilditch was asked about his story which claimed a priest in Praia da Luz would not tell police about what Katy McCann had said in a confessional. The article included a reference to the priest vowing “to take the secrets of the confessional to the grave”, Jay said.
Lord Justice Leveson, chairman of the inquiry, commented: “All the stuff, for example, about what the priest might have been told, it’s all fluff. There’s nothing to it.”
Pilditch replied: “It’s all the things that were happening at the time, but if you look at things now, knowing what we know in the public domain, it’s a very different picture.”
McCann story was an ‘obsession’
Two other journalists who were also sent to Portugal by the Daily Express to cover the Madeleine McCann story said they too had made the strength of their articles clear to their news desk.
But the story had become an “obsession” of their editor, the inquiry heard, and the material was published anyway.
Padraic Flanagan, a senior news reporter at the paper, was quizzed over a story he had written on October 25, 2007, under the headline “Police want answers to 14 questions”.
The story had originated in one of the Portuguese newspapers and it would be “very difficult” to stand it up, he said.
But he told the inquiry: “These stories were all the result of conversations with the news desk about the strength of them and the sources. I’m not trying to evade responsibility but I had to make to make it clear to my superiors the strength of the story and whether it was something they would want me to stand up.”
He said he did not feel it was his “sole decision” to establish whether he could stand up in a court of law and defend the story.
“I think once we had told them the sources and where it had come from they could draw their own conclusions,” he said.
His primary concern in Portugal was considering what new material he could offer up to the news desk each day, he said.
“Considerations of the law were always going to be further down the line that day for my superiors,” he added.
The obligation under the Press Complaints Commission to publish accurate material was ultimately for others and not for him to think about, he told the hearing.
He went on: “It would be quite a brave reporter to call the desk and say ‘I’m not really sure about this, I’m not going to send anything back today’.”
‘Natural tendency to fill a vacuum’
Asked by Lord Justice Leveson whether he had ever expressed his concern about the riskiness of the stories, he replied: “I didn’t raise it specifically, I didn’t phone anyone and say ‘I’m really worried about this’ but I think everyone was aware of the strength of these stories, how fragile they were.”
It was not uncommon to find a “natural tendency to fill a vacuum” in the absence of any hard information on a crime story, he added.
And in Portugal “there was a very large vacuum there”.
He offered his apologies to the McCanns for “adding to their hurt and distress” through what he had written.
Another reporter, Nick Fagge, who has since moved to the Daily Mail, said he had always made the Express news desk aware of who the sources of his Madeleine McCann stories were but “ultimately said to them they had to make the decision whether or not it was legally safe”.
He was not surprised when litigation was brought in February 2008, he admitted.
“The editor at the time decided it was the only story he was interested in and put it on the front page almost regardless of how strong the story was,” he said. “It became an obsession of his.”
The story was on the front page of the Express more than on that of any other newspaper, the inquiry heard.
Peter Hill, who was the Daily Express editor at the time, told the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport in April 2009 that the stories were published in good faith as he believed them to have come from a credible source.