UK tabloid editors describe lax standards

January 12, 2012 - 3:21 PM

LONDON (AP) — A former tabloid newspaper editor told Britain's media ethics inquiry Thursday that he published an inflammatory story about the parents of a missing girl because he thought there was a possibility the story could be true.

The unfounded Daily Express story suggested that Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing schoolgirl Madeleine McCann, might have been linked to her 2007 abduction and possible death.

The Daily Express newspaper had to make a front-page apology and pay a substantial settlement to the parents, but former chief editor Peter Hill seemed unrepentant when quizzed about the decision to publish.

"I felt the stories should be published because there was reason to believe they might possibly be true," he said, suggesting that the saga of the young girl's disappearance from a holiday resort in Portugal had generated extraordinary interest throughout the world.

Hill testified before the Leveson Inquiry, a wide-ranging investigation of wrongdoing at British newspapers. The inquiry stems from public anger about the phone hacking scandal, which saw reporters and private detectives hack into the voicemail systems of celebrities, sports stars, crime victims and royal aides.

Committee lawyer Robert Jay seemed angered by Hill's casual explanation of the decision to link Madeline McCann's parents to her disappearance, suggesting that Hill had just "whacked it into the paper" regardless of its veracity.

Hill responded angrily that he felt he was being put on trial and said other British papers had taken similar liberties in reporting the McCann case.

The hacking scandal has centered on Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, which the media mogul shut down in July.

More than a dozen journalists have been arrested in the probe, senior executives with Murdoch's News Corp. media empire have lost their jobs, and top U.K. police officers have resigned over their failure to tackle the problem.

Another tabloid editor, Dawn Neesom of the Daily Star, testified that reporters do exaggerate headlines, dramatize reporting and occasionally go too far. She said stories are written "to put a smile on people's faces."

Neesom's paper is among the smallest of Britain's daily tabloids, with a circulation of about 650,000 and a decidedly lowbrow tone. Front pages typically feature seminude reality television stars, celebrity gossip and sensationalized stories about immigration.

Neesom said her paper's mission was to entertain, but she evaded claims that the paper systematically distorted stories to titillate its readership.

"To be entertaining doesn't necessarily mean that you can just make a story up," she said.

Inquiry lawyer Robert Jay then flipped through some of the paper's more creative headlines — including one stark front-page story that appeared to claim that "American Idol" star Simon Cowell had died.

"TELLY KING COWELL IS DEAD," the June 2, 2011 headline read, followed by the subtitle: "The show's finally over for Simon."

The story itself referred to an off-the-cuff remark by rival talent show judge Gary Barlow claiming that Cowell's reign at the top of British television was over. Cowell himself is alive and well.

Inquiry lawyer Robert Jay asked Neesom how she could justify the alarmist headline.

"It's wrong, isn't it?" Jay said.

"Um ... it's dramatic," Neesom said. "Eye-catching."

Even more dramatic was a front-page story published on April 21, 2010, when international air traffic had been paralyzed by a huge ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokul. Over a picture of an airplane wreathed in ash and fire, the headline read: "TERROR AS PLANE HITS ASH CLOUD: Dramatic pictures as jets get OK to defy volcano."

The "pictures" were actually from a television reconstruction of an event that had occurred almost three decades earlier. Jay told Neesom that U.K. airport officials had been so horrified by the misleading headline that they had pulled the paper from their newsstands.

Neesom agreed the ash cloud terror story may have "over-egged the pudding."

"Occasionally, I admit, we do cross lines," she said. "But we do have standards."