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19 March 2008

Time for some forceful self-regulation

As the Express and Star apologise to the McCanns, newspaper editors should be calling for a full pub

By Brian Cathcart

After the Express papers, who? Which other newspapers should be getting ready to grovel to the McCanns and their readers for printing speculative stories with no better grounding than the prior speculations of the Portuguese press (and sometimes not even that)? And is anybody going to apologise to Robert Murat?

There should be a queue of titles, indeed there is hardly a single national paper that should not be anxiously combing through its back numbers and examining its conscience, for this was an orgy of misconduct with many participants.

And yet unless something very unusual is done it will happen again, and again.

My suggestion is a forthright act of self-regulation and house-cleaning by the same trade union of national newspaper editors which proved so effective in co-ordinating the concealment of Prince Harry’s posting to Afghanistan.

They should immediately demand the resignation of the editors of the Express and Star; they should establish a credible, independent, public inquiry into their papers’ coverage of the McCann story, and they should promise that any other editors whose ethics and standards were found seriously wanting by that inquiry will also resign.

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This may seem extreme, but it is nothing more than the press would demand of any other managers in any other industry who were responsible for an outrage on this scale. An apology (however prominent) and damages are not enough.

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Imagine a bank that made a gross error of judgement from which it earned extra profits at the expense of a small minority of customers. Imagine that the error was pointed out repeatedly, but the bank continued to make it for month after month after month. Imagine, then, that the victims took it to court and won. What would the press demand?

Yes, we would want the apology and the damages. But we would also pillory those responsible and require that they be sacked (ask Adam Applegarth, formerly of Northern Rock). And we would be demanding of the bank, its regulators and the government that they demonstrate to us that steps have been taken to ensure that the error could not be repeated.

This is nothing more than standard procedure, as experienced by police forces, government ministries, railway companies – any institutions that stray. But for the press the standards are different. Why?

There are good reasons why policing press behaviour is difficult. The idea of a powerful press regulator backed by government sanction is obviously not compatible with freedom of expression, and the principal beneficiaries would be those who want the public kept in the dark. The problem is that this is taken as a licence for reckless conduct.

It is not good enough for the apologists to say that the McCanns have always had the option of going to court to put the record straight. This is a very slow and very expensive option, and is probably only viable where the offence is flagrant.

More than that, the McCanns were themselves under scrutiny thanks to these stories. They must have been conscious that taking legal action would have made them unpopular with the rest of the press, and would probably have been presented to the public as evidence that they were aggressive and grasping.

The headlines would have said, “Now Kate and Gerry turn on the press”, and “McCanns: the backlash”. The papers would have reminded readers of all the publicity they had given to the Madeleine appeals, and would deliberately have made the parents appear ungrateful. The pictures would have shown Gerry McCann snarling and his wife looking sour.

It is hardly surprising that the couple hesitated before risking this treatment. Any victim would.

What we are looking at, then, is bullying and hypocrisy. Powerless people are bullied by the press, and yet the press, which would not let anyone else away with such behaviour, hides behind the need for freedom of expression.

And worse, the press are collectively in control of the principal public forum for the discussion of these issues, and they abuse that control. Of today’s papers, only a minority dwell on the Express’s humiliation.

What is to be done, short of handing the government regulatory powers which it would inevitably misuse?

The sanctions on newspapers in this case must be far higher, and that trade union of national newspaper editors should take responsibility for that. Resignations, a public inquiry and full accountability would be a good example of the kind of action the press always expects of others.

So let the editors take some of their own medicine; it would do us all good.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University