McCanns v Express - endgame

It was never a question of 'if' the McCanns would sue the Express but more a question of 'when'. With the time limit for bringing defamation claims ticking and the paper showing now sign of restraint in its quest to alternate its front pages with headlines about the McCanns with its tired but enduring attempt at using Diana's image to feed its dwindling circulation, the Express has belatedly but rightly been brought to book.

While there have been calls for heads to roll at the paper or to boycott it and its affiliated titles, the damage has been done. Its editorial stance and content have long overstepped the frontiers of ridicule and to the extent they endure on the newspaper landscape are no more taken seriously than their stories are well researched or founded. The £550,000 payout to the McCanns is high at an objective level but represents a damage limitation settlement. Had the Express risked a trial and sought to defend the 100 or so articles that could be construed as being defamatory about the McCanns then it is likely a jury would have awarded a significantly higher sum.

What this sorry episode highlights - other than the sad fact that there seems to be little progress in what is coming up to a year on in the quest to find Madeleine McCann - is that the quest for copy and content has overtaken journalistic values and ethics when it comes to stories that sell. We debate the issue of trust in journalism and seek to defend the right to free speech but there is a disconnect between ideals that should underpin the role of journalism in the democratic process and to inform the public and the commercial realities of consumer led and content driven businesses being pulled by material that sells rather than pushing material that informs and seeks to elicit the truth and find out what lies beyond and beneath the headlines. The case also highlights the fact that if you want to be able to force the press to act over its excesses then litigation - for those who can afford it - is how to get results while self regulation remains a fall-back option for those who may be content with a mere apology buried deep in a paper with little leverage to elicit anything more than this.

More comment on the McCanns v Express:
Press still needs proper safeguards
Paying the price of speculation
Express Newspapers forced to apologise to McCann family

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