Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


April 27, 2008

A Rare British Tabloid Apology

When strict libel laws meet loose standards journalistic standards, front pages can be turned into newspaper mea culpas.

Michael Gluckstadt

There was little surprise for Gelf in seeing Gerry and Kate McCann on the cover of The Daily Express, as we've already chronicled the British press's obsession with the story of missing child Madeline McCann and the plight of her parents. It was, however, downright shocking to see the paper apologizing to the family for its sensational coverage of the case, which has included criminal allegations against the parents. The headlines reading "Kate and Gerry McCann: Sorry" across the covers of the Express and its sister papers—the Daily Star, the Sunday Star, and the Sunday Express—came about as a result of a successful libel suit filed by the McCanns against the Express newspapers. The papers were also required to pay more than $1 million in damages and had to remove all of the offending stories from their news archives. Robert Murat, another named suspect in the Maddy kidnapping, is—quite literally—following suit.

The Front Page of the Daily Express
"It is highly unusual for British newspapers to correct errors, let alone apologize for them."—Tim Fenton, NYU in London Journalism Professor

The Front Page of the Daily Express

According to Adrian Morgan, a British-based writer for and the Western Resistance blog, libel suits in the UK place the burden of proof on the defendant, and so they are much easier to win than in the US. Many libel cases which were dismissed outright in other countries find their way into British court rooms. In one memorable case, author Rachel Ehrenfeld was ordered to pay $225,000 to Saudi billionaire Sheikh Mahfouz for accusations in her book Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It. Though the book was never released in Britain, it sold 23 copies on the internet throughout the UK, which was enough for activist High Court Justice David Eady to rule against her. Ehrenfeld countersued in New York, and her case is stretching the idea of comity, or reciprocation, in free-speech laws between the two countries.

Last December, a New York Court of Appeals judge referred the Ehrenfeld case to the state legislature, expressing concern about "libel tourism" and attempts to "chill free speech." In the state legislature, "tourism" turned into "terrorism" and last month, Albany unanimously passed the Libel Terrorism Protection Act, to "protect our journalists and authors from trumped up libel charges in kangaroo courts in overseas jurisdictions which don't share our commitment to free speech and freedom of the press."

One might think that the tighter libel standards in those "kangaroo courts" would carry the positive effect of a more responsible national press, but anyone who has followed the McCann story in the UK press knows how far this is from reality. For months, all of the tabloid British newspapers—as well as many of the qualities—were consumed with the missing blonde four-year-old. In their hunger for a story, many of them printed anything they could find as news, including the statements of inept Portuguese police officials who named the parents as suspects. The Daily Express was one of the worst offenders in abusing the Maddy storyline, dedicating room on their front page for 100 straight days.

In the apology, the Express Newspapers admit that there was "no evidence whatsoever" implicating the McCanns in their child's abduction, and wrote to them: "Kate and Gerry, we are truly sorry to have added to your distress. We assure you that we hope Madeleine will one day be found alive and well and will be restored to her loving family."

This is a remarkably rare event in the world of UK tabloids, since they are not usually held accountable for their missteps. With respect to the apology, the New York Times writes, "It is highly unusual for British newspapers to correct errors, let alone apologize for them. It is even rarer for them to publish corrections or apologies that readers are actually able to find." Tim Fenton, a former BBC reporter and manager and professor of journalism at NYU in London, agrees. "Apologies are often much smaller than the articles they relate to," he tells Gelf, though he adds, "Lawyers have gotten better at specifying how and where apologies will be placed."

British media critic Roy Greenslade is delighted to see the papers humbling themselves, though the title of his piece on the Guardian media blog seems to indicate the opposite sentiment— "Express and Star apologies to McCanns bring all journalism into disrepute." Editing miscues aside, Greenslade has called the apology almost unprecedented, and unlike anything seen since the Sun apologized to the Queen and Elton John (on separate occasions) back in the 1980s. Like Greenslade, Fenton is also surprised by the apology. "I can't think of anything quite like this," he says. "The Mirror ran a big apology over the British soldiers wrongly accused of abusing prisoners in Iraq, but they claimed they'd been hoaxed. There's no hoax issue here—it's just an admission of guilt."

Another prominent British media critic, Peter Wilby, uses the apology as a chance to excoriate the press for its dwindling standards. In his angry commentary he writes, "The sin to which the Express titles confessed—presenting gossip and hearsay as hard news—has become the staple of downmarket journalism and is infecting upmarket papers too. It is accompanied by casual cruelty and a highly judgmental tone." While he throws in a jab at the New York Times over the unsavory implication that John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, the bulk of his venom is reserved for the UK press.

This characterization raises a difficult question: How does a country with strict libel laws have such loose standards in the daily print media? "The UK press is more national than that in the States and more dependent on sales on the day," Fenton says. "So the competition is tougher and sales often depend on the front page. There's more pressure to be sensational. It's been like that for a long time so some bad habits have developed (and some good ones too, like sharper and crisper writing)."

Fenton's answer explains the sensational nature of the press, but still doesn't account for the discrepancy between law and practice. The solution to that problem, like so many others, comes down to money. Adrian Morgan tells Gelf, "The reason why Britain's tabloid journalists can attack people with little substantiation is to do with the massive legal costs required to sue." The McCanns were able to garner an historic apology because of their media savvy and their ability to pay expensive lawyer fees. Generally, the British press avoids libel laws by preying on people who can't afford to sue, or are ignorant of the process.

"The costs of mounting a libel case are so high that only the super-rich are able to cover the costs from the outset," says Morgan. "Once they make their cases in the court, it is so easy to convict for libel that a defendant's best ploy (even if innocent) is sometimes to reach an out-of-court settlement." This explains why there are select high-profile peopleSir Elton, Yusuf Islam aka Cat Stevens, Van Morrison, and Robbie Williams, to name a few—who are able to settle, while the press can trash anyone else with little repercussions. There has been some slight effort to help out the slandered poor. The Defamation Act of 1996 was designed to assist plaintiffs who felt they had been libeled for suits up to £10,000 in damages. For the most part, however, only the wealthy can afford to take advantage of the law.

Regardless of who uses them, the harsh libel laws stifle free speech in Britain. In court, there is no need to show that the defendant acted with malice, and the burden of proof is placed entirely on the accused. In fact, as evidenced by the Ehrenfeld case, British libel law stifles free speech everywhere.

The irony in all of this is that the British press's tenacity in its coverage of politicians has built the very distrust that has led British lawmakers to stonewalling efforts at reforming the libel laws. There is a telling anecdote in a 1997 New York Times piece addressing this issue. The Times writes, "Anthony Lester, a leading advocate for free speech, introduced legislation in the House of Lords that would have given more latitude in libel cases. The measure was all but laughed out of Parliament."

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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