Independent editor Roger Alton has said press treatment of the McCanns made him want to “viscerate his own bladder” – but said he did not believe that regulation needed an overhaul.
At a debate at the Frontline Club in London on the future of press regulation, the McCann case was used as an example of ineffective press regulation.
The family, whose daughter Madeleine is still missing, won £550,000 from Express Newspapers, and a front-page apology, after the group printed a number of untrue stories.
Gerry McCann said the family could have sued other papers, but the Express Group “was the worst”.
Alton said: “The McCanns was a case of such astonishing ghastliness, you feel like viscerating your own bladder with it. But you can’t say the whole industry is fucked.”
Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, argued the Press Complaints Commission was ineffective.
He said: “This guy [Gerry McCann], whose four-year-old daughter has gone missing, says it was the press that nearly destroyed his family. That’s outrageous. Who has been held accountable?”
Commentator and journalist Albert Scardino argued the PCC worked – but only for publishers.
“It’s working absolutely brilliantly – for publishers,” he said. “It’s a complete success as it protects publishers from people who have been victimised.
“It’s a protection system for people that would rather have this to deal with than deal with the courts. This was set up by publishers to protest publishers.
“It was not set up for the protection of the individual, to whom freedom of expression belongs.”
But Alton – a former member of the PCC – praised its work, and said: “It’s just not true the PCC is this big battalion, defending itself against the little people. That’s horse shit.”
Alton added the Media Standards Trust, which recently published a critical report on the PCC, was wrong.
“I was a member of the PCC for a number of years and was extraordinarily impressed by what went on,” he said.
“I do think there was a gross assumption that the PCC was a limp old crock, and it’s just not true.
“Sure there has been bad behaviour. That behaviour is getting less and less, not least because of the work of the PCC.”
‘They want to put Gordon Brown in charge of our papers’
Barnett said debate was difficult, because newspapers assumed abolishing the PCC meant state regulation.
“Every time we say the system isn’t working, there’s this mad rush from people like Roger to say: ‘Oh God, they want statutory regulation, they want to put Gordon Brown in charge of our papers’,” he said.
Barnett said newspapers could learn from broadcasting, which had more effective sanctions.
Phil Harding, former editor of the Today programme, was in the audience and said culture was more important than regulation. “Regulation is a back stop,” he said. “In the end, it has to be about culture.
“Journalists in general are very good at handing it out. They’re not very good at taking it. Regulation, in the end, is a back stop.”
One member of the audience said, like lawyers, journalists should be licensed, to improve professionalism.
But Alton replied: “I think it would be awful. Law, medicine, these are professions. Journalism is a trade.”
And, when asked where press regulation would be in five years’ time, Alton said: “In five years’ time, I feel I’ll be working behind the counter of the local kiosk, and hopefully someone will want to buy the one remaining newspaper that is left.”