Stephen Glover on The Press

Murat's victory should serve as a warning to the entire British press
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The Independent Online

All of us will feel a great deal of sympathy for Robert Murat, who accepted damages of £600,000 from 11 British national newspapers last Thursday. Mr Murat was for a time an official police suspect in the search for Madeleine McCann, the little girl who disappeared in a Portuguese resort last May.

All of us will feel a great deal of sympathy for Robert Murat, who accepted damages of £600,000 from 11 British national newspapers last Thursday. Mr Murat was for a time an official police suspect in the search for Madeleine McCann, the little girl who disappeared in a Portuguese resort last May.

Many will note that all the newspapers involved, which also paid damages to two associates of Mr Murat, were tabloids. Among the false and highly defamatory allegations they published were claims that Mr Murat and his two friends had been part of a paedophile ring, that they had lied to police, and that Madeleine's DNA had been found in his house. Last Friday and yesterday the guilty newspapers published apologies, which, as is regrettably usual in these cases, were deliberately tucked away.

Another case of trial by tabloid? Of course. To differing degrees, the newspapers, which include pretty well every tabloid in the country, behaved abominably. But it would be wrong, I think, to exclude the Portuguese police and our so-called quality newspapers from general censure.

By way of an experiment, I have been re-reading accounts of Mr Murat's arrest and police examination in the quality press. It devoted an enormous amount of space to him over a period of months. I believe that a reasonable person who read these stories at the time may well have have formed the view – completely mistaken, as we now know – that Mr Murat was quite likely to be involved in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

To a considerable extent, this was a consequence of the behaviour of the police, which these newspapers reported. The police named Mr Murat as an "arguido" or formal suspect, and for several months, until Kate and Gerry McCann were similarly identified, he was the sole person in this category. They removed computers and a mobile telephone from his house. They dug up his garden and searched his home. They interviewed him at length on numerous occasions.

All this contributed to what seemed a reasonable assumption, but of course was not, that he might very well be guilty. These newspapers, however, added touches of their own. We were often told that his villa was only 100 yards from Maddy's room, and his allegedly odd behaviour was much remarked on. It is true that the testimonies of friends and relatives about his good character were reported, as they were in the tabloid press.

The Times also mentioned on at least three occasions that Mr Murat had told friends that he was missing his own estranged daughter, who was the same age as Maddy. On 18 May the Daily Telegraph reported claims that a home-made video of a "disturbing sexual nature" had been found in Mr Murat's villa, and on 11 July it informed readers that he could be questioned by police over "intriguing emails". Such vivid details, whose veracity has never been established, hardly undermined the false impression of Mr Murat's involvement.

I do not deny the tabloids sometimes went further, with the Daily Express probably being the most egregious in its suggestions of a paedophile ring. No doubt tabloid headlines were also bigger and more dramatic. But it is surely undeniable that, albeit in a more circumspect way, the quality papers also implicated Mr Murat, relying mostly on police evidence, but sometimes adding touches of their own. Incidentally, I am sure that some television news programmes also displayed tabloid excesses.

Whether Mr Murat and his two friends could have profitably included quality papers and broadcasters in their action I will leave to my learned friends to decide. I only observe that it suits many of us to pretend that the tabloids inhabit a depraved world all of their own, where more elevated mortals never place a toe. It is not so. One can also not help observing that Mr Justice Eady, who presided at the case last week, appears to have an animus against the tabloid press which does not extend to the more respectable prints. This inclination may not have been lost on Max Clifford, the PR expert who advised Mr Murat, and is himself an advanced student of red-top tabloids.

We are all guilty to a lesser or a greater extent: that is my message. I don't for a moment imagine that having collectively forked out a relatively modest sum of £600,000 plus costs, the tabloids will behave much better in the future. Nor do I suppose that next time the qualities will act differently. They will go pretending they inhabit a separate moral universe while committing many of the same faults as the tabloids.

But perhaps there won't be a next time, unless there is a crime in Portugal. With their public naming of suspects, and their feeding of lurid and apparently discreditable information to the press, the police excited the worst instincts of the British tabloids. If we are to attribute blame for the injustice done to Mr Murat and his friends, the Portuguese police should now link hands with the British press.

Trinity Mirror going for a song

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that shares in Trinity Mirror, owner of the Mirror titles and a string of regional newspapers, were undervalued at 94p. Last week, after a new spasm of panic, they plunged to 41.5p before climbing two days later on Friday to 91.5p. They then fell back to about 85p. Even at this price the company is barely worth more than the pre-tax profits of £190m which it posted last year.

The shares plunged a couple of weeks ago after Trinity Mirror warned that profits this year would be 10 per cent lower than expected, largely because of a rapid decline in regional classified advertising revenue, to which it is especially exposed. Last week's panic was partly set off by a short report in Wednesday's Times (talk about dog not eating dog!) claiming the company is in danger of breaking covenants, and has obtained a bank loan facility with tighter covenants.

This has been strongly denied by Trinity, which also dismisses suggestions that its pension scheme is short of cash. There is talk of the group suing The Times, though I don't suppose anything will come of it. Trinity's robust response to these rumours explains the partial recovery in its share price, though I expect it will remain volatile, and the smallest new rumour may send it plummeting again.

The market hates newspaper shares at the moment, and Trinity Mirror's in particular. I suppose it is silly to talk of 'market madness', but I still maintain that the reaction to Trinity's difficulties, although they should not be underestimated, verges on the hysterical. An enterprising investor could get control of a newspaper group for not much more than its projected earnings for this year. I only wish my own funds were not committed elsewhere, or I would consider making a bid.

scmgox@aol.com

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