Margaret and James Watson told the inquiry that after their daughter, Diane, was murdered in 1991 inaccurate press reporting implying that she bore some responsibility for her own death contributed to the suicide of their fifteen-year-old son, Alan. When his body was found he had copies of the articles in his hand.
Margaret Watson said: ‘I’m afraid that all just became too much for Alan. And I don’t blame him because I can understand. So the journalists in this country kicking on about the chilling effect if you do away with the Press Complaints Commission – which you have to do away with – that if you do away with the Press Complaints Commission it will have a chilling effect on journalists. What about the deadly effect it has on the victims and misreporting, the malicious lies, the malicious falsehoods? Just because a person’s deceased, you can write what you want, and they certainly did it.’
Asked about an article published on the day Alan was buried, she replied: ‘I thought at least they would leave us alone for Alan’s funeral. They took away his respect, they took away his dignity, and the very day that we were laying our son to rest . . . If you say that’s good journalism, if any journalist thinks that’s good, God forgive you, because I won’t.’
After three year old Madeleine McCann disappeared on holiday in Portugal in 2007, the tabloid press published a series of contradictory, incorrect and upsetting stories about her parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, and their friends. In a sample period between September 2007 and February 2008 the papers had between them published 110 articles, many of them on their front pages, suggesting among other things that the couple had murdered their own daughter, disposed of the body and then engaged in a series of further deceptions on the police and the public. Some articles also cast doubt on the relationship between the couple, on their morality and on the genuineness of their religious faith.
On top of this, the News of the World editor, Colin Myler, once bullied the McCanns into giving an interview they did not want to give on the grounds that they owed a debt to the paper for publicizing their case. Later, he published long extracts from Kate McCann’s personal diary, claiming the paper had permission when it did not. Kate McCann described to the Leveson Inquiry the sense of violation she felt as she read her private thoughts in the tabloid. And she described the anxiety that goes with knowing that her younger children can still, today, see repeated on internet websites the lies conjured up by the newspapers that have since apologised.
The former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings wrote: ‘I hang my head in shame at what our trade, as well as the Portuguese police, has made of the McCann story.’ In August 2007 Gerry McCann spoke in a televised interview about ‘huge amounts written with no substance’ and ‘absolutely wild speculation’. And the couple, through lawyers, repeatedly appealed to papers to check things more carefully. Yet no investigation was carried out and no journalists were punished. Asked by MPs who at the Express papers had been reprimanded, editor Peter Hill replied: ‘I reprimanded myself, because I was responsible.’
In July 2008 the McCanns sued Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail and (at that time) the Evening Standard, in relation to eighty-five articles. As Gerry McCann later explained to the Leveson Inquiry: ‘The complaint was resolved with the payment of a substantial donation to be used in the search for Madeleine, and the publication of an apology by the Evening Standard. While the Daily Mail agreed to carry a number of free adverts (or appeals for information) on behalf of the Find Madeleine campaign in their contintental editions, they were not willing to publish an apology. The Mail resisted on the basis that they had published a number of articles which were supportive of us which they believed largely balanced the articles reporting allegations and suspicions about us.’ In other words, he said that the Mail did not deny publishing allegations and suspicions it could not justify. The industry paid out probably more than £2 million in damages to a dozen people because it had published an astonishing tally of more than 300 libels against them over a period of nine months. And, as Gerry McCann pointed out, many other libels – probably hundreds more – went unprosecuted.
Around New Year of 2010/11 retired teacher Christopher Jefferies was arrested in Bristol on suspicion of murdering his tenant Joanna Yeates, but released without charge. He was found entirely innocent when another man confessed to the murder. But for the three days that followed his arrest he was monstered by the press. Even when Joanna Yeates’s grieving boyfriend, Greg Reardon, lent his support to Jefferies and challenged the morality of the press, the Mail on Sunday, Sunday Mirror and Sunday Express chose not to mention this fact to their readers. He was ‘weird’, ‘creepy’, ‘lewd’, ‘a loner’ and ‘obsessed by death’, according to the Sun. One day the paper reported he was a homosexual and the next that he had stalked a blonde woman. For the Daily Mirror he was a gay, dirty, eccentric peeping Tom and a friend of paedophiles. The Mail called him ‘Mr Strange’ and ‘Wizard’, wrote that he introduced pupils to macabre books and alleged that he had deserted his dying mother. The Star and the Express and the Sunday papers followed similar lines.
Jefferies has said that his arrest and his treatment in the press left him feeling that his real identity had been torn away and another entirely false one foisted upon him. He said: ‘I don’t think it would be too strong a word to say that it was a kind of rape that had taken place.’ But he added that whatever he felt, it had been worse for his friends and family: one relative spoke of feeling as though she had aged 100 years in the few days when Jefferies was under attack.
Jefferies sued. The result, again, was a collective apology in court, this time by the Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Record, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Star and the Scotsman, and an admission that the published allegations had been entirely untrue. The damages were reported to have been around £500,000. The Mirror and the Sun were later also prosecuted by the attorney general under the Contempt of Court Act and fined £68,000 between them.
THE HILLSBOROUGH DISASTER
After the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of April 1989, in which ninety-six people died, the Sun alleged on its front page that drunken Liverpool fans picked the pockets of the dead and urinated on them, and that they attacked rescue workers. It wasn’t true and it caused such outrage in Liverpool that to this day many in the city will not touch the paper. Earlier this year, twenty-three years after the disaster, the Sun published an apology on their front page following the end of the inquiry into the conduct.