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Thursday, January 12, 2012 

"It kept it on the front page."

It is incredibly easy to make fun of the Leveson inquiry. (It is though far more difficult to be funny when making fun of the Leveson inquiry, as yesterday's post showed.) Up until today this had been by far its least insightful week, partially down to those giving evidence and partially down to the interrogators having something of an off week. Dominic Mohan on Monday was allowed to get away with the obvious inconsistency of paying tribute at the 2002 Shaftas to "Vodafone's lack of security" and his insistence that this was merely a joke, rather than any indication that either the Mirror or Sun were engaged in phone hacking at the time. Such was either Mohan's preparation and one would expect his work with the best of News International's lawyers, or Robert Jay QC's hangover from the weekend that all that seemed to come across was just how wonderfully philanthropic the paper is.

We should perhaps have expected something different when the representatives of the Daily Express and Daily Star came to pay their visit. They are after all the rogue operators on what used to be Fleet Street, having decided last January to leave the Press Complaints Commission, although they had previously refused for a time to pay their accreditation fees. This issue was also the only thing it seemed that the two current editors, the one previous and then Richard Desmond all agreed upon, apparently having decided on a common line when they came to write their witness statements: they had left, not because the PCC had made stringent criticism in two separate adjudications, one against the Daily Star over the "Muslim-only public loos" story, the other against the Scottish Sunday Express and its quite amazing decision to publish an "outraged" story about the private lives of those who survived the Dunblane massacre, but due to how complainants were now going to the PCC and then suing anyway. Never mind that there was never any rule, written or unwritten, that you couldn't then sue after getting the PCC involved; there had to be some other excuse found for removing themselves from even the lamentable regulatory oversight of the PCC.

First up was Dawn Neesom, the lesser spotted editor of the Daily Star. Richard Peppiatt, who resigned from the Star last March in protest at the paper's stance on Muslims, tweeted that she prefers to keep a low profile. Indeed, I can't remember ever seeing a photograph of her prior to today, and only had the the description of her as "editirix" in Private Eye to go by. On the basis of her evidence, as with some of the other editors and reporters, you'd have never believed she had risen to her position on the basis of merit: some recent stories she couldn't remember at all, while others she was forced to admit treated readers like idiots. Like the one declaring Simon Cowell to be dead, which wasn't even based on someone saying he had passed on, or the report during the ash cloud disruption last year headlined "TERROR AS PLANE HITS ASH CLOUD" which referred to, err, a TV reconstruction of a previous incident due to be broadcast on Channel 5 (prop. R Desmond).

One thing Neesom was convinced of was that the low number of staff under her supervision most certainly didn't compromise accuracy. "We always try to employ people that pride accuracy above all else," she stated, something it seems would be news to Rockstar Games, who were paid damages after the paper claimed that the next title in the Grand Theft Auto series would be based around Raoul Moat's stand-off with the police. Nor would the PCC agree, commenting in their adjudication on the "Muslim-only loos" story that they were "particularly concerned at the lack of care the newspaper had taken in its presentation of the story". She also denied that the paper had any anti-Islamic bias, despite the Star's legal representative later complaining she hadn't been given any of the front pages in advance of Jay asking about them. He later provided two examples of "positive" coverage of Muslims, both notably from late last year, after Peppiatt had resigned in the pages of the Graun.

Up next, and notable perhaps only for one thing was current Express editor Hugh Whittow. His remarkable statement when asked on why the group he worked for had left the PCC was to claim it was because it hadn't intervened sooner over their coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. This rather staggered Jay momentarily, as it did everyone else. To quote him:

Are you seriously putting that forward as a reason, that the PCC failed to stop you freely publishing a defamatory article?

It was just one of the things happening at the time, Whittow responded. Everyone it seemed other than the journalists on the Express were to blame for the repeated libels, as the then editor Peter Hill elaborated on next. According to him it was all the fault of the dastardly Portuguese police, who kept insisting that he print whatever they unofficially told his journalists, even though it all but impossible to check anything they leaked. The Express weren't the ones accusing the McCanns of killing their daughter, even if they were publishing the unverifiable claims of those who did. There was "reason to believe they might be true", so Hill kept on putting it on the front page day after day. Despite costing Desmond £550,000 and having to give an unprecedented apology, according to the Hill there were no internal repercussions whatsoever for his part in the sorry saga.

Hill was though thoroughly upstaged by his former boss, who breezed in and did his absolute best to come across as the cheeky upstart wideboy he imagines himself to be. This might have changed had someone, as Michael White notes, uttered the dreaded "p" word, Desmond having made most of his fortune through his past ownership of a vast array of porn mags. Happily, this was skirted around, with Desmond himself making the only mention of his involvement in "adult magazines". His initial approach was to try to bore the inquiry into submission by droning on about how he had cut costs when he bought the Express group, including how he sacked the one correspondent they had in New York, America after all being a country where not a lot happens

Only then did we get onto the good bit, Desmond first livening things up by asking Jay to define ethical, claiming not to know what it meant, only clarifying slightly with his comment in his witness statement (PDF) that everyone's morals and ethics were different and that "it's a very fine line". Just how fine his ethical line is quickly became clear, as Jay tussled with him over the McCanns. Disagreeing that there had been 38 libellous articles, he then went on to suggest that over the four month period if there had been 38 "bad" articles there must have been around 68 "good" ones. Startled by this novel logic, Jay tried breaking his point down to its component parts: that if people believed Madeleine was dead, as the Express was suggesting, they were less likely to look for her. Desmond, having clearly imbibed the Daily Express's other obsession down the years, suggested this wasn't the case as people were still talking about the death of Diana and "these situations where no one actually knows the answer, as it turns out, it just goes on and goes on". Except there was a body in Diana's case, as Jay exasperatedly pointed out.

With his hole duly dug, he kept on going down. It wasn't until the McCanns had taken on new lawyers that they decided to sue, and in any case, it kept it on the front page. As for the PCC, only the Express were made scapegoats by ex-head Christopher Meyer. How much better regulation would be if instead it was done in Desmond's own image, with proper business people, proper legal people, not these other industry johnnies that had slandered him ever since he bought the Express.

If anything, Desmond got off lightly. Like with the non-mention of the pornography, no one brought up his goose-stepping and sieg heiling at a meeting with the Telegraph bosses, the time he punched a journalist in the stomach for not running an obituary of a friend of Desmond's, or any real instances where he had directly interfered in the Express's editorial process, such as when he described a front page Peter Hill had put together as "fucking shit", the then Express editor downing tools as a result. Instead, he dropped himself in it. How one hopes the circulation of his "fantastic" Daily Star drops in a similar fashion.

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