THE editor of Britain’s Daily Express newspaper had been obsessed with the abduction of four-year-old Madeleine McCann in 2007 and had routinely run her story on the front page to try to boost sales, the Leveson inquiry into the media has heard.
Three Express reporters who had filed on the story from Portugal told the hearing on Wednesday that they knew their stories relied on hearsay and would be difficult to “stand up” but left it to editors to assess whether to run them.
Some of the stories had claimed, wrongly, that Madeleine’s parents had been involved in her death and the disappearance of her body, and also suggested that the “Tapas Seven” — the people with whom the parents were dining when the child disappeared — could have had a hand in it.
In 2008, Express Newspapers paid out £500,000 for libel to the McCanns and another sum to their dining companions and ran front-page apologies withdrawing the claims.
Nick Fagge, who filed on the case for the paper, said reporters were stymied because Portuguese police would not verify anything, forcing them to rely on less credible sources such as “somebody who had talked to somebody else”.
He said the editor at the time, Peter Hill, “decided it was the only story he was interested in and put it on the front page almost despite how strong the story was. Madeleine’s story was on the front page of the Daily Express more than any other newspaper because he decided it would sell newspapers. It became an obsession of his.”
From August to November 2007, at least part of 100 Express front pages covered the story.
David Pilditch wrote a story claiming that Madeleine’s mother’s “tormented priest insisted he would stand by his vow to take the secrets of the confession to the grave”. This was based only on Mr Pilditch having heard that police had interviewed the priest and learned nothing. Madeleine’s mother, Kate McCann, had not even made her confession to him. Mr Pilditch said the story was accurate because “that is how confession works”.
Meanwhile, the former wife of Sir Paul McCartney announced on her website that she had never disclosed private voicemail messages from her former husband to former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan.
“I can categorically state that I have never, ever played Piers Morgan a tape of any kind, never mind a voice message from my ex-husband . . . As stated in a press release by my ex-husband, he has never insinuated that I have leaked tapes of him to the media.”
In other developments, a former editor of News of the World, Andy Coulson, lost a court case in which he had tried to force News Group Newspapers to pay his potential legal costs over the phone-hacking affair. The High Court ruled that his contract with his former employer does not oblige the company to pay his legal bills over any allegations of criminal activity. However, private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, who carried out much of the hacking, won his bid to have News Group pay his legal fees in hacking-related civil cases.
The Leveson inquiry will resume on January 9.First published in The Age.