Daily Mail proprietor Viscount Rothermere has denied the war of words between his newspaper group and the Daily Express following Richard Desmond’s takeover in 2000 amounted to a ‘monstrous example’of editorial interference.
Rothermere also claimed there was no ‘agreement’with the Express Newspapers owner to end the dispute – but admitted the then managing director of Associated Newspapers Murdoch MacLennan discussed the issue over lunch with Desmond.
He told the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions yesterday that MacLennan reported to him following the lunch 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”.
The “mud-slinging” included claims in the Daily Mail that Desmond was a “pornographer” and allegations in its competitor about the Rothermere family’s “war-time history”.
Labour’s Lord Myners said this was an ‘extraordinary incursion into editorial independence”, to which Rothermere replied: ‘Richard Desmond’s newspapers have subsequently published many stories about me and about our newspaper group. I don’t know how much of an agreement there was.’
Myners said this still amounted to a ‘pretty monstrous example of ownership interference in editorial policy’but Rothermere insisted that he ‘did not interfere – it was a unilateral decision by Mr MacLennan”.
Pressed on the same subject later on in the hearing, Rothermere added: ‘In this instance Paul Dacre made a decision when Richard Desmond bought the Express that he thought it was an outrage that Alastair Campbell together with the Labour Governemnt agreed to allow him to own a newspaper, and he made it clear in the pages of his newspaper”.
In retaliation, claimed Rothermere, Desmond embarked on an ‘attack’on him and his family.
MacLennan and Desmond later arranged the lunch ‘of their own volition’because Mclennan ‘felt this was the wrong thing to be doing for the newspaper.’
He continued: ‘He contacted me about it and I said it doesn’t matter to me, I’m not making any agreement with Richard Desmond. That’s the situation.’
‘I appeared on the front page of the Sunday Express as Lord Porn a few years afterwards,’he added. ‘It doesn’t sound like a very concrete agreement to me.’
Rothermere was also questioned on Associated Newspapers’ coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Her parents successfully sued the publisher in 2008.
Asked by Labour MP Paul Farrelly, who compared him to News International‘s James Murdoch, if any element of the papers gave him cause for concern, Rothermere replied: ‘My paper writes many things that give me cause for concern, but I feel it’s my duty to allow the editors the job to edit.
‘If I picked up the phone every single time I disagreed with an article then I would think I’d make their job an awful lot harder to do.”
He added: ‘I’m very deeply sympathetic to everything the McCanns have gone through.”
He later added: ‘I had personal concerns, yes. I think what the McCanns went through was very difficult for them, but I would not bring up the issue with Paul Dacre.’
In defence of his own titles he told the inquiry: ‘It’s in the interests of everyone here that we have a viable and financially strong newspaper industry, because I believe certainly the newspaper industry does a lot of good for people in this country.
‘It fights a lot of causes, raises a lot of money for charity and seeks out and exposes corruption.’