Today, at the Hacked Off conference on the Leveson Bill, Dr Gerry McCann gave the keynote speech on where we are now, two and a half months after Lord Justice Leveson published his recommendations on press regulation. This is his speech in full.
Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I don’t often find myself making speeches at events like this. But I’m happy to do so for Hacked Off, because I passionately believe in the cause. And now is a critical time for the campaign.
We are at a crossroads. In one direction, the prospect of lasting change to the failed system of press regulation, based on the painstaking work of Lord Justice Leveson. In the other, attempts to brush the problem under the carpet – to create a fix – so that nothing really changes.
Our elected politicians face a critical choice. They can either do what Leveson recommends – wholeheartedly and properly – or they can turn their backs on the issue, and turn their backs on us, the victims of press abuse.
Kate and I had the misfortune to suffer the worst that the press could throw at us.
• We were labelled as murderers without a shred of evidence.
• Stories were published saying our daughter was dead – over and over again, with no evidence.
• We were subjected to round-the-clock intrusion at a time of terrible stress, with photographers camped outside our door.
• We were intimidated. Our young children, especially, were scared out of their wits.
• My wife’s private diary, revealing her innermost thoughts in her darkest days, was published without her consent.
• Rumours were dressed up as the truth
• and downright lies became front-page news. One newspaper claimed that we sold Madeleine into slavery in order to pay off our mortgage.
The slurs went on for months- despite our best efforts: Meetings with editors, assurances from our lawyers, a letter from the chief constable of Leicestershire police calling for restraint- all ignored. And they continued for the simple reason that there was no-one and nothing with the power to stop them.
People say: ‘Your experience was so unusual, we can’t draw any lessons from it.’ Well I disagree. Our experience was extreme, but it was a consequence of the same sick culture that led to the abuse of many other people, some of whom are here in this room today.
An insatiable hunt for headlines combined with a total lack of respect for other people. The mentality that can turn a family’s distress into cold, hard cash. Profit from misery.
In our case it led to the sacrifice, not only of the truth, but of our dignity, privacy, well-being and most importantly the search for our missing daughter, Madeleine.
I believe we have a responsibility, as decent citizens in a democratic and caring society, to learn lessons from it.
The parliamentary select committee on the media said in 2010:
“The newspaper industry’s assertion that the McCann case is a one-off event shows that it is in denial about the scale and gravity of what went wrong and about the need to learn from those mistakes. The industry’s words and actions suggest a desire to bury the affair without confronting its serious implications, the kind of avoidance which newspapers would criticise mercilessly and rightly if it occurred in any other part of society.”
Three years later, I see little remorse, no contrition. Sections of the press are still in denial. The sick culture has not changed, and they can’t be trusted to change it of their own accord.
If you look at the reporting of the Leveson Inquiry and the behaviour of some newspapers since then, it’s clear that they aren’t sorry and they still think they should not have to answer to anyone when they publish harmful lies and distortions.
The reason Kate and I put ourselves through the ordeal of giving evidence to Leveson was simple: Nobody should have to endure what we went through. A system has to be put in place to protect ordinary people from the devastating damage that the media can cause.
When David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry he said in parliament: “We must keep the public – and the victims of what has now emerged – front and centre at all times.” And he also said: ‘We will have to be guided by what the inquiry finds.”
When he gave his own evidence to the Leveson inquiry he promised to protect the people who have been thrown to the wolves as we were. We saw this as grounds for hope that we’d see real change.
What Lord Leveson proposed last November is not tough on the press and it’s not a threat to free speech. For me personally, he did not go far enough. It seems to me that the judge did everything he could to make his proposals workable for the newspapers while giving the public some protection.
In the end they get to regulate themselves, which is something very few industries are allowed to do, and which many people felt they had lost the right to do so.
For us and for other victims of press abuses, Leveson’s proposal is the minimum acceptable compromise – and, judging by the opinion polls, the public feels the same way.
But what has happened? Two and a half months on we can see precious little progress towards implementation of Leveson, and we are hearing backsliding words from politicians. This is an opportunity for our elected MP’s, whose reputation with the British public is at an all time low, to redeem themselves. The Leveson report is not something to be negotiated with their friends in the press. Any watering down of the Leveson plan now, whether in a Bill or a Royal Charter or whatever, would be like surrendering to the press and saying the whole Leveson process was a waste of time.
And the idea that Kate and I, and all those other victims, might have relived our darkest days in the full glare of the media, for no good reason, is offensive. If our testimony was in vain, it will be a permanent stain on the reputation of this Government, and I believe that many other families will pay a heavy price in press mistreatment.”
Sometimes it seems as if our politicians just don’t know what the right thing to do is. Just like in the past, they seem to be so compromised by their own relationships with the press that they are unable to see what needs to be done for the sake of the public. And that is exactly what the newspapers want. They want politicians to squabble and manoeuvre, so that they get to carry on business as usual. They need a compliant Government to tiptoe around them and avoid hurting their feelings.
It’s obvious that no one wants the Government to shackle the press. What we all want is a free press –indeed Leveson would enshrine it- but we need a free press which is both responsible and accountable- two values which are in short supply. So that if the press trample on people, they have some remedy.
We need a proper watchdog whose independence and effectiveness is guaranteed. That is what Leveson recommends. He says the press can regulate themselves, on condition that their regulator meets some basic standards. He says what those standards are, and he says there must be an independent body that checks those standards are met. He says that it is essential- not desirable, ESSENTIAL- that the body carrying out the checks is set up in statute, though it must be completely free of political influence after that.
Considering what the press has been doing to people, they should see that as a good deal. All the polls show that is what the public thinks. And it looks as though most parliamentarians think that too.
Leveson without the law is no change. It’s the PCC all over again. It’s the world we know, of newspapers abusing innocent families with impunity. What happened to us would happen to other British families in the future.
It is up to our Prime Minister and our other politicians to prevent that. He promised he would. To keep his promise, all he has to do is follow what Leveson said, and put the Leveson recommendations into law through parliament, without meddling and back-door deals. And without checking whether the press is happy about it.
There can’t be any half measures or compromises. Leveson made many concessions to the press so his recommendations are already a compromise. In fact they are the minimum acceptable compromise for the people who, in the Prime Minister’s words, were “picked up and thrown to the wolves.” That is us. That is Kate and I, and some of the people in this room, and many other people around the country.
I said at the beginning that we are at a crossroads. Please, this time, let’s choose the right road.