Friday, November 30, 2012

Leveson condemns press on McCanns

In his report proposing stricter regulation of the British press, Lord Justice Leveson cited what he called “outrageous” newspaper stories about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann while on holiday in the Algarve in 2007.
This comes a year after Kate and Gerry McCann made an impassioned plea for tougher press control when they gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry. In doing so last November, they spoke at length of their treatment by the British tabloids. They said they found some of the stories published about them “disgusting” and “offensive.”
Kate McCann said she felt “totally violated"  when the News of the World published her personal diary in which she recorded very private thoughts about her missing daughter. The diary, which had been seized and copied by the Portuguese police, was leaked to the Murdoch tabloid. The paper showed “absolutely no respect for me as a grieving mother,” she told the inquiry. She said she felt like “climbing into a hole and not coming out.” 
Leveson heard how the Daily Express reported there was DNA evidence to show Madeleine’s body had been stored in the spare tyre well of a hire car. It turned out that this allegation was baseless. An analysis conducted in the UK was “inconclusive.” Express Newspapers paid £550,000 damages to the McCann’s in 2008 for inaccurate reporting by the Daily Express and the publisher’s three other titles.
In a relatively small but striking section of his massive report, Leveson devoted almost 12 pages to the McCann family, noting that some papers were “guilty of gross libels” against them. He mentioned in particular the Daily Star, which ran a headline claiming the “hard up” McCanns had sold their daughter.
Whatever many people in Portugal may think about the behaviour of the McCanns as parents at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance, and regardless of the belief among many in this country that somehow they may have been involved, the fact of the matter is they must be presumed to be innocent. In legal terms, the presumption of innocence is the same in Portugal as it is in Britain.
In addition to the McCanns, many other innocent people were caught up in the press frenzy over Madeleine’s disappearance. The investigating Polícia Judiciária were crudely smeared. Individuals in Praia da Luz and elsewhere in the Algarve were directly accused or indirectly harmed by grossly insensitive, inaccurate or totally fabricated stories.
Whatever tougher regulations emerge from the debate now going on in the UK about what form the regulations should take, it is unlikely - thanks to Leveson - that British newspapers will get away with such crassness in future.
The agony of bringing about stricter regulation of the print press in Britain - self-imposed or with statutory underpinning - is just the tip of the iceberg.
Freedom of expression is a precious ideal, but innocent people continue to be widely abused in the digital world, often in the most vitriolic of terms by ranters hiding behind anonymity or pseudonyms. Facebook and Twitter fantasists and fanatics – or barmy bloggers - can carry on blurting out whatever they like with little fear of punishment.
In suggesting that bloggers might like to join his proposed new regulatory system, Leveson noted that some have called the Internet a “wild west." He preferred to think of it as an “ethical vacuum.”  
Those are not outrageous comments. They are probably understatements. The “vacuum” does not look like being filled any time soon - and the “west” is almost certainly going to get wilder. 

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