Page last updated at 12:46 GMT, Wednesday, 19 March 2008

McCann apology a turning point?

Kate and Gerry McCann
The McCanns have welcomed the apology

As four newspapers apologise for wrongly suggesting Madeleine McCann's parents caused her death, how damaging is their admission and will it change the way the press operates in future?

In an unprecedented step, apologies have been printed simultaneously on the front pages of the Daily Express and Daily Star over unsubstantiated claims in more than 100 articles, with the Sunday Express and Daily Star Sunday set to follow suit.

The papers are also paying 550,000 to the Find Madeleine fund as part of an out-of-court libel action settlement.

The move has been described by media commentator Roy Greenslade as "an amazing stand-down".

'Grossly defamatory'

He says the sheer number of "grossly defamatory" stories now known to have been published by the Express group will "annihilate" its readers' sense of trust.

Libel lawyer Niri Shan told BBC News: "If the allegations are as serious as they are in this case, it's very difficult to defend such an allegation based on the types of articles that have been written.

Daily Express and Daily Star
The Express and Star published simultaneous front-page apologies
He added: "I think they would have made a very swift decision that this was a case that wasn't worth fighting, not only from the merits point of view but also from a PR point of view."

Newspaper coverage sparked controversy at the time, with the McCanns themselves among many expressing concern that inaccurate articles were appearing, which were based on speculation and potentially prejudicial to the case.

Intense competition

So how did so many unsubstantiated claims get to be published, running counter to the journalistic principle of accuracy?

Mr Greenslade told BBC News intense competition to be first to the story may be partly to blame, combined with a lack of confirmed facts and massive speculation, much of it fuelled by the Portuguese police and press.

Publicist Max Clifford agrees, telling BBC News: "It's a lot of journalists out in Portugal that have got no facts and are being told, 'We've got to have something, because this is a huge story.'

Lots of popular newspapers have to reflect on the way they covered the story
Max Clifford

"So rumours and allegations and nonsense is being then given to us as facts."

While the Express Group of newspapers are the ones being punished, they were not the only ones sailing close to the wind in the face of massive public interest in the McCanns.

Mr Greenslade says the McCanns are unlikely to take any other papers to court but their advisers will be watching, ready to take action if any more untrue allegations are published.

He said: "What the McCanns have done is chosen the worst example, which is the Daily Express and Daily Star, and held them up as an example to the others of what really all popular newspapers did in this country."

And despite the intense rivalry between the papers, there is a notable absence of crowing at the Express climb-down.

Mr Clifford said: "Lots of popular newspapers have to reflect on the way they covered the story."

'Say sorry'

"There's a lot of editors out there and journalists out there today looking at the Express and their apology and thinking. 'There but for the grace of God go us.'"

But he is unconvinced that much will change as only the rich can usually afford to challenge the media.

"There will be a lot of things written which have got absolutely no truth in them at all but a lot of ordinary members of the public cannot afford to take them on, so they just have to put up with it."

Bob Satchwell, executive editor of the Society of Editors, said the case was a "stark reminder" of the difficulties faced by the media and the price it had to pay for getting things wrong.

Madeleine McCann
Madeleine McCann went missing in Portugal in May 2007
However, the papers may have salvaged some respect with their unequivocal apologies.

He said: "The message is that if you get it wrong, the best thing to do is to hold your hands up and say, 'Sorry.'"

For Charlie Beckett, of media think-tank Polis, the case could mark "the moment when the tide turns" against certain media excesses.

He said: "Most of the media had gone a bit mad over this story while a minority had lost all their editorial senses.

He added: "The fact that the Express will pay the price should act as a warning to others who have strayed in similar ways."

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Daily Express and the Daily Star apologise

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