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July 28, 2008

Madeleine needs to be centre stage – not this legal circus

By David Banks

So, Robert Murat and his two friends are a little better off, their big-win, fat-fee lawyers are a lot better off and 11 British tabloids are wiser but poorer after deciding not to have their day in court.

Well, up to a point. Split 11 ways and taking into account the tabloids’ marketing budgets – £16m (The Sun), £20m (Daily Mail), £5m (NoW) – they will be not very much wiser and certainly not a great deal poorer.

Those budgets are guesswork, by the way, based on 2007 figures. When the writ hits the fan, editors always go to ground. No one will talk, much less confirm or deny what’s in the slush fund.

You can see the reason for NoW editor Colin Myler’s silence: he’s got his hands full of Max Mosley, while The Sun’s editor Rebekah Wade speaks only to Rupert, and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre talks only with God.

Richard Wallace is hardly likely to take my calls, either. The last time we Mirror boys met I blagged a confidential lunch off him then spilled the beans anyway.

‘Twas ever thus. Editors who spend their lives thundering that everyone else should be accountable are very shy when it comes to accounting for themselves.

A little ferreting down Wapping’s Mahogany Row (management are often a good deal gabbier than editorial) reveals an injured smugness: ‘At least Murat only complained about one article in News of the World while he complained about dozens in the other papers,’I was twice told by faceless high-ups.

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Of course, a large proportion of those ‘dozens’of complaints were made against the Screws’ sister paper, but no matter. And it’s worth pointing out that the muck-raking People and the Mail’s Sunday sister entirely escaped the litigants’ legal toothcomb, though Lord knows how.

Plenty of comment, mostly disapproving, from the previous generation of editors, of course.

Stephen Glover in The Independent castigated the ‘abominable’tabloids but warned that the broadsheets were just as culpable, only sneakier. Peter Wilby’s Guardian column attacked conditional fee arrangements meant to arm Mr and Mrs Ordinary against the big boys but are now increasingly used by celebritydom to dissuade investigative journalism.

And there, in my view, lies the greater danger: that the next headlong rush into print with an unchecked bundle of gossip from foreign parts (and thus, in the minds of scoop-junkie journalists, ‘safe’ as far as British law is concerned) will persuade another maligned innocent to make a million out of media mendacity.

Economics has long since killed real investigative journalism: the Daily Mirror’s Jeremy Thorpe inquiries in the 1970s and the Mail’s more recent pursuit of Stephen Lawrence’s killers were brilliant examples of the press’s determination to publish and be damned.

The scuttlebutt and sensation presented to a cynical public today – more publish and be doomed – is a shameful collective dereliction of duty which will be the death of real reporting and see the rise of a back-door privacy law.

Lest we forget, colleagues, all of this is a mere sideshow to the real story: Madeleine McCann was abducted 14 months ago and is still missing. Investigate that.

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