Daily Express editor Peter Hill has rejected claims that his paper was one of the “worst offenders” in its coverage of the Madeleine McCann disappearance.
Appearing before the media select committee in parliament this morning, Hill also dismissed suggestions that he should have resigned following the publisher’s libel payout to Kate and Gerry McCann.
The McCanns accepted £550,000 from Express Newspapers last summer over more than 100 defamatory articles in the Daily Express, Daily Star and their Sunday sister titles.
When he gave evidence to the committee last month, Gerry McCann said the Express titles were “the worst offenders by some distance” and added that suing them for libel was “a very easy decision”.
But Hill today defended his paper’s coverage. Asked whether he should have resigned, he replied: “If editors had to resign every time there was a libel action against them, there wouldn’t be any editors.”
He said the Express was right to give prominence to a story that everyone in Britain was talking about.
“There was an insatiable clamour for information about what was going on,” he told MPs.
“We pursued every possible lead, we sent teams all over Europe and North Africa to follow sightings. We did make genuine efforts to find Madeleine.”
He said that while he accepted the paper had not told the truth about the McCanns on a number of occasions, he said that the material was not published maliciously and he questioned why Express Newspapers had been singled out.
“They still could sue any newspaper at all,” Hill told the committee. “I was a bit surprised that we were the only newspaper.”
Hill acknowledged that putting Madeleine McCann on the front page of the Express increased circulation “by many thousand”, but he added: “It was clear that this is what readers wanted to read about.”
Asked by MP Philip Davies whether the Express “were milking the story”, Hill replied: “I do not accept that at all.”
In an earlier session with MPs, Gerry McCann claimed journalists “blatantly made up” stories in the pursuit of sales.
Hill said he had never put pressure on reporters in Portugal to provide a story for the paper when there was nothing new to report.
Committee chairman John Whittingdale asked him: “So the accusation that your paper was so desperate to increase sales that you were seeking out and, if necessary, fabricating Madeleine McCann stories you completely reject?”
Hill replied: “Completely reject. This is not the way people work. People don’t think that way.”
Express Newspapers made three separate libel payouts last year over the Madeleine McCann story.
As well as the £550,000 paid to the girl’s parents, the group was named alongside Associated Newspapers, Mirror Group and News Group Newspapers in a libel claim by Robert Murat, the British expatriate falsely linked to Madeleine’s disappearance. He won £600,000 in damages.
Express Newspapers also paid out to the so-called “tapas seven” – the group of friends staying in the Algarve holiday resort of Praia da Luiz in 2007 when the three-year-old girl disappeared.