You may have missed it: at the High Court in London on 15 October, Express Newspapers agreed to pay £375,000 in libel damages to the so-called "Tapas Seven", the friends of Kate and Gerry McCann who were with the couple in Portugal when Madeleine McCann disappeared.
This development did not receive much coverage. There were three sentences in the Sun on page 21, for example, and just a little more in the Daily Mirror on page 20. In the Daily Express itself you might easily have failed to spot the apology that was part of the settlement, as the two paragraphs in the top corner of page five were a little lost beside the bold headline blaring out across the rest of the spread: "Let the jobless lag lofts, says Brown". The Tapas Seven victory, it seems, was treated as a minor footnote to a burned-out story; few people were likely to be interested.
Well, they ought to be interested, because the McCann case was the greatest scandal in our news media in at least a decade - an outrage far worse than the Andrew Gilligan "sexed-up dossier" affair of 2003 - and those responsible are now slinking away almost unpunished. They are escaping, moreover, by the most shameful of means. The editors and proprietors of the papers responsible for the great balloon of speculative nonsense that was the McCann story had the power to kill off discussion of what went wrong in the press, and they used it. When their balloon burst, they simply began pretending it had never existed.
Not one editor and, so far as I know, not one reporter has lost his or her job or even faced formal reprimand as a result of the McCann coverage. There has been no serious inquest in the industry and no organised attempt to establish what went wrong, while no measures have been taken to prevent a repetition. Where there have been consequences, as with the Tapas Seven, they have come from outside and been reported to the public with the most grudging economy.
This is a remarkable evasion of responsibility by an industry which is the first to boast of its own importance to a healthy democracy, and it is all the more unpalatable when you consider the standards this same industry expects of others.
"We want scapegoats," wrote Max Hastings in the Daily Mail recently, as he surveyed the wreckage of the banking industry. "And when we have the names, like the profiteers of the First World War, they should be perceived as men and women whom decent people will not share a park bench with." Patrick O'Flynn, chief political commentator of the Daily Express, took a similar line: "Setting aside the quite understandable desire for revenge against the reckless bankers who enriched themselves for so long at our expense, there are other perfectly sound reasons for insisting that the bosses of British finance are dispatched to the nearest jobcentre."
The Mirror applauded Gordon Brown when he went "gunning for greedy bankers" and demanded that "heads must roll". So did the Guardian's business editor, Deborah Hargreaves, who wanted to see the fat cats in court, while in the same paper Simon Jenkins thought the time might have come for firing squads.
Error on this scale, involving hundreds of “completely untrue” news reports, published on front pages month after month in the teeth of desperate denials, can only be systemic
Our national press is unforgiving when things go wrong, and the problem doesn’t have to be as apocalyptic as the banking crisis. Ask Steve McClaren, pilloried so comprehensively for his performance as England manager that he now coaches at a small club in the eastern Netherlands. Ask Sir Ian Blair, the former Commissioner of the Met, whose scalp was demanded by most of the right-wing press even though crime figures were improving. Ask the two BA executives who had to go after the disastrous opening of Heathrow’s Terminal Five (Willie Walsh, their boss, survived a clamour of calls for his own resignation). Ask, indeed, the long line of government ministers from Charles Clarke back to Cecil Parkinson and beyond, who have been ordered out of office by editors and leader writers whose high expectations they failed to satisfy. If anything like the same standards were applied to the people running national newspapers, at least three or four of them would have been dispatched to their nearest jobcentres months ago for their conduct in the McCann coverage.
Very few stories have commanded such intense public interest since the death of Princess Diana, and editors found that the image of Madeleine, or her name in a headline, was almost a daily necessity. If it didn't add sales, then at least it helped a paper compete with other titles doing the same thing. But look at what we now know about the stories published in this hyster ical atmosphere, starting with ones about the Tapas Seven. In as many as 20 articles published over six months, the Sunday and Daily Express and the Daily Star suggested that this group covered up the truth about the girl's disappearance and misled the police who were invest igating the case. They also suggested that one member of the group was officially suspected of being in volved in abducting Madeleine.
As the official apology put it: "We now accept that these suggestions should never have been made and were completely untrue." That apology came three months after the former suspect Robert Murat and two associates, Michaela Walczuch and Sergey Malinka, accepted between them £800,000 in damages from the Daily and Sunday Express, the Daily Star, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Record, Metro, the London Evening Standard, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the News of the World.
In nearly 100 articles, these 11 newspapers made allegations against the three which they admitted were entirely without foundation - allegations which could hardly have been graver, since they included lying to the police, paedophile activities and involvement in the abduction of Madeleine McCann. And four months before that apology, Express Newspapers paid £550,000 to Gerry and Kate McCann, who had sued over more than 100 stories about them in the group's four titles, some of which were "grossly defamatory". The real picture is probably even worse, since, in a perverse way, the Express papers were unlucky to be singled out. Anyone who read the McCann coverage elsewhere in the national press will know that the McCanns could probably have sued other titles with equal success; why they didn't is their business.
Such a catalogue cannot be dismissed as a one-off error caused by the misjudgements of individuals - a description that might be applied to the Andrew Gilligan affair and certainly applies to the Daily Mirror fake Iraq torture photo graphs scandal (both of which, incidentally, led to resignations and sackings). Error on this scale, involving hundreds of "completely untrue" news reports, published on front pages month after month in the teeth of desperate denials, can only be systemic. Judging by what appeared in print, it involved a reckless neglect of ethical standards, a persistent failure to apply even the most basic journalistic rigour, and plenty of plain cruelty.
No explanation has emerged besides the obvious one: that this was all done to sell newspapers. Seeing the scale of public interest, it looks as though editors were ready to publish stories, and reporters were ready to write them, even when they had no merit whatsoever. Is that better or worse than the crimes of Sir Fred "the Shred" Goodwin, now shamed out of his job running Royal Bank of Scotland, or of Steve McClaren, or of Sir Ian Blair? Perhaps this judgement is harsh. Perhaps what went wrong in Praia da Luz was more innocent or subtle than it appears. Perhaps it was really all the fault of the Portuguese police, or of the unreasonable demands of the newspaper-reading public.
In that case, as these papers might say in other circumstances, we should be told. If a matter is complicated, the standard response of the leader writers is to demand a public inquiry to get all the evidence out in the open and deliver an informed verdict. And an inquiry might not only look at the conduct of reporters and newspapers, but could also assess the arguments about the conduct of the McCanns, who have been accused of manipulating public opinion through adept use of public relations. Journalists have made much of this, though it is hard to see how anything the couple did could justify so many unfounded news stories, most of them published on front pages.
But fitting as these matters are for an inquiry, and enlightening though it would be to hear the evidence of the various parties, as things stand there is no likelihood that an inquiry might take place. What we have had instead is a brief flurry of brooms as this shameful episode was swept under the carpet, and no acknowledgement whatever of the scale of the fault. And it is useless to protest that justice has been done in the courts, with those damages and apologies. The sums are far below the levels that might alter behaviour in Fleet Street; indeed, editors laugh off such penalties when, as in this case and in the recent Max Mosley sadomasochist sex scandal, they can be set against extra copies sold.
What is to be done with proprietors and editors who are shameless enough to tolerate such errors, cynical enough to cover them up and hypocritical enough to demand that others resign for faults that are less grave? All I can suggest, taking my lead from Max Hastings, is this: if you happen to see one of them on a park bench, make a point of sitting somewhere else.
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University