Friday

Sunday Express faces Press Complaints Commission Investigation over Madeleine Foundation slurs

Daily Express Quote of the Day: "Crusading for a Fairer Britain"

By Tony Bennett, Secretary of the Madeleine Foundation

The ‘Sunday Express’ is to be investigated by the Press Complaints Commission after Madeleine Foundation Chairman Debbie Butler was the subject of a front-page headline in that paper on Sunday 16 August, falsely describing her as ‘The McCanns’ Stalker’, writes Tony Bennett, former Solicitor and Madeleine Foundation Secretary. The complaint was lodged on Wednesday 19 August.

The Press Complaints Commission regulates the press in the United Kingdom and has the power, effectively, to discipline newspapers which do not report any issue both fairly and accurately. They have been described as relatively toothless, and Press Complaints Commissioners are of course mostly senior figures in the newspaper industry who are in effect voluntarily regulating themselves. But they do have the power to order newspapers to print retractions, corrections and apologies.

THE COMPLAINT

The complaint to the Press Complaints Commission was set out as follows:

From: Tony Bennett

To: Press Complaints Commission Wednesday 19 August 2009

Dear Sir,

I act for Miss Debbie Butler in the matter of her formal complaint to you about the contents of Sunday's front-page article: "The McCanns' Stalker". This is a complaint under the Press Complaints Commission code and a copy is being sent to Scott Langham at the Press Complaints Commission for immediate action. A summary of Miss Butler's complaints is as follows: The 'Sunday Express', like all other newspapers, has a duty under the Press Complaints Code to be fair and accurate.

Against those benchmarks, here are the complaints about the Sunday Express article that Miss Butler now makes.

For the record, her address is [withheld] :

1. Describing Debbie Butler as a 'stalker' in respect of one leaflet drop in Rothley and nothing else was neither fair nor accurate. Making it a front-page leaflet with a picture clearly exposes her to risk of unfair attack. What she has done is distribute a factual leaflet. There is absolutely no course of conduct by her in relation to the McCanns that could remotely be described as 'stalking'.

2. Describing '10 Reasons' as a 'hate leaflet' (one villager was quoted as saying the leaflet was 'drumming up hate' and the 'Sunday Express' described it as 'highly inflammatory') was grossly unfair and grossly inaccurate, especially as the 'Sunday Express' did not explain the contents of the leaflet

3. The 'Sunday Express' deliberately chose the worst photograph they could take of her to portray her as 'a hard cow', which she is not. That was manifestly unfair

4. Neither Debbie Butler nor anyone else in the Madeleine Foundation sent a leaflet to Brian and Janet Kennedy. We do not know where she lives. This was therefore inaccurate.

5. It was not a 'late-night' leaflet drop. It took place between 3pm and 6pm. That was also therefore inaccurate.

6. The leaflet drop did not involve 10 people, it involved 3. That was also inaccurate.

7. Dr Gerald McCann was allowed to get away with describing the leaflet as 'despicable lies'. The 'Sunday Express' made no attempt to inform its readers that the content of the leaflet was the truth and that the McCanns had never rebutted any of the claims made in either '60 Reasons' or '10 Reasons'. This was grossly unfair and inaccurate. The leaflet was not 'lies' nor 'despicable lies'. It was the truth.

8. Debbie Butler was described in the 'Sunday Express' article as 'a single parent family with two children'. A more accurate description would have been 'a successful Kent businesswoman' - a fact which the reporter was made well aware of. The mere description of her as 'single parent' was unfair.

As remedies, Debbie Butler seeks:

1. A full retraction on the 'Sunday Express' front page of the description of her as 'The McCanns' Stalker'

2. A fulsome apology.

3, A payment of compensation which she tells me, if awarded, she would like to be paid in full to ChildLine.

Yours sincerely
Tony Bennett
Secretary
The Madeleine Foundation

SECOND COMPLAINT TO THE PRESS COMPLAINTS COMMISSION

From: Tony Bennett

To: Press Complaints Commission Thursday 20 August 2009

Dear Sir,

I make an additional complaint about the ‘Sunday Express’ as a result of the under mentioned events which took place yesterday. A 'Sunday Express' journalist telephoned Debbie's ex-husband and under false pretences obtained his address. He was then door-stepped. The journalist then fired a series of questions at him, like:

"Do you have a comment to make on your ex-wife stalking the McCanns?"
"Is she mentally stable?"
"Aren't you worried about the children’s' welfare?" etc. etc.

Debbie is on cordial terms with her ex-husband who helps out with child care and odd jobs that need doing in the house etc. He has computer/I.T. expertise and helps out with that when needed. I'm told by Debbie that her ex-husband basically said he did not want to get involved in talking to the press and was not willing to give a view on what really happened to Madeleine McCann. However, he did say a couple of things to the journalist, and I note them here for the record. Debbie's ex-husband asked why they had printed such a bad picture of Debbie in the 'Sunday Express' and why they had apparently chosen the worst one. The answer from the journalist, verbatim, was: "The editor told me he wanted her portrayed as a hard cow".

Asked about Debbie's campaign about Madeleine and his views on it, he said: "I will say this. Her father is a policeman and if she says anything, she gives you the facts; that's the way she was brought up". It was the 'Sunday Express' who led with a front-page headline: 'The McCanns' Stalker' and of course its sister paper 'The Star' who branded the Madeleine Foundation leafleters in Leicestershire as 'sickos'. The 'Sunday Express' is clearly putting resources into planning a further personal attack on Debbie.

Yours sincerely
Tony Bennett
Secretary The Madeleine Foundation

CORRESPONDENCE WITH STEPHEN RIGLEY, NEWS EDITOR, SUNDAY EXPRESS

From Tony Bennett, 19 August 2009:

Dear Mr Rigley,

Thank you for having a word just now.

You informed me that Martin Townsend the News Editor was currently away on holiday and that you were now in sole charge of editing the newspaper in his absence. Please see this complaint which we tried to forward to the Sunday Express last night. I should be glad if you could inform me as soon as possible what action you propose to take in response to Debbie Butler's complaint against you.

The Press Complaints Commission has already been informed.

Sincerely
Tony Bennett for Debbie Butler

From Stephen Rigley, News Editor, Sunday Express, 20 August 2009

Dear Mr Bennett, Thank you for your correspondence, it has been forwarded to our legal department who will deal only through the PCC.

Stephen Rigley
News Editor Sunday Express0208 612 707507974 944 338 stephen.rigley@express.co.uk

WHAT YOU SAY ABOUT THE SUNDAY EXPRESS’S CONDUCT

Here’s a small sample of dozens of comments you have sent us about the Sunday Express’s conduct:

(1) The Sunday Express, along with every other newspaper in Britain, is responsible for the fact that leaflets are necessary. They have only ever told one side of the story and if they really thought they could hide the other side for ever they now know differently. I think this is what causes them such anger - the fact that the public are now getting to know that the press have totally failed to report the other side of this story. Who is ever going to trust the papers again, when what's in the official files about this case becomes generally known? No wonder the sales figures for newspapers are dire and getting worse with every passing month. Debbie, I'm sorry for what you've had to put up with and with the sick 'journalists' who are nothing but bullies and cowards. I will certainly send my complaints to this excuse for a newspaper, but going on past experience I don't expect them to have the courage or decency to admit how wrong they are. As I've said many times, not one of these newspapers cares two straws for Madeleine or for trying to find out the truth about what happened to her. They would rather the truth be hidden forever than read the police files and be forced to admit they could well have been badly mistaken in their judgment. They are truly despicable in their wish to hide the facts, but this is one fight they are unable to win and they know it.

(2) The journalist is way out of line, we cannot stand for this. It’s appalling.

(3) Debbie, I am so sorry to hear that you have been vilified by the press while you were engaged in a truly honourable effort to enlighten others.

(4) Tony, Please pass on support to Debbie from me in Edinburgh.

(5) This is disgusting behaviour from the Express, but considering everything I have learned about the UK press over the past two years it sadly does not surprise me. You, Debbie an the rest of your team in The Madeleine Foundation are brave. You put your heads up over the parapet and voice in public the concerns many of us have. I will order some '10 Reasons' leaflets from your website when I get paid and start leaving them about in Edinburgh.

(6) The truth has to be put out there.

(7) Nasty. It's interesting how putting a leaflet through someone's door is construed as 'harassment', but door-stepping someone and bombarding them with questions is considered perfectly acceptable by the very same people.

(8) In my opinion, you as Editor of the Sunday Express have treated and portrayed Mrs. Butler dishonestly and dishonourably.

(9) Tony, I'm really shocked by this. So shocked. Please pass on my regards to Debbie. I have posted this on my blog and will email the newspaper which is stalking Debbie. If I wasn't already angry with the McCanns, my emotions now know no bounds. I'm totally sickened by it all. I just don't know how anyone can crack the protective shield around these child neglecters. I feel so sad about everything tonight. God bless you and Debbie and Grenville and Helen and Sharon. I wish I knew what the answer was, Tony, I really do. I feel so shocked.

Tony Bennett comments: It is one of the extraordinary paradoxes of this case that in the summer of 2007, it was the Express Group newspapers, including the ‘Daily Star’, that gave us the best coverage on the Madeleine McCann case. It was they who above all other British newspapers dared to cover the powerful evidence of the cadaver dogs, who alerted to the scent of a corpse in four places in the McCanns’ apartment, two places in their hired Renault Scenic, two of Dr Kate McCann’s clothes, one of the children’s T-shirts, and on the pink soft toy, Cuddle Cat. It was the Express Group again who reported that blood and body fluids under the tiled floor in the McCanns’ apartment and in their hired car was almost certainly Madeleine’s. For weeks, the Express Group led the way in helping us understand what really happened to Madeleine McCann. But then it all changed. The Express Group caved in to the strident demands of the McCanns and their ‘Tapas 9’ friends (and Robert Murat) for massive libel awards.

With the help of leading libel lawyers Carter Ruck, they extracted from the Express Group and other British newspapers the following awards: Dr Gerald and Dr Kate McCann: £550,000 between them
Robert Murat: £600,000
Robert Murat’s partner and now wife Michaela Walczuk: £100,000 Sergei Malinka, friend of Robert Murat: £100,000
The other 7 members of the ‘Tapas 9’: £375,000.
TOTAL: £1,725,000.

This strange, staged, carefully sequenced payouts of libel damages has undoubtedly influenced the British press not to report the many facts in this case which point away from the McCanns’ abduction claim and clearly point to something else that happened to Madeleine in Praia da Luz.

Now, it seems, the ‘Sunday Express’ has sunk to portraying a distributor of true facts about the Madeleine McCann case as a ‘stalker’, and, in doing so, they print the worst possible picture of her. In the words of the stand-in Editor of the ‘Sunday Express’, this was because they wanted to portray her as ‘a hard cow’.

This is the depth to which British journalism has sunk.

Scarce wonder that so many people are engaged in flight from the gutter journalism of the tabloids to the internet. There, the true facts about the case can be presented and discussed. There is an interesting story to be told sometime. What exactly caused the Express Group Newspapers to cave in and fold under pressure when they had, in August 2007, led the way in letting the British public know the true facts about the case?

Tony Bennett, 21 August 2009

Biographical Note:

Tony, 61, attended The Law Society’s Store Street college and in 1993 passed Law Society Finals, becoming a Trainee Solicitor for Harlow firm Lee Davies. In 1995 he was admitted to the Law Society. In 1997, he set up his own legal practice, Bennetts. In November 1999, his legal career ended when he accepted the full-time post of Political Secretary to Jeffery Titford. M.E.P. for Eastern England. Tony practised mostly in the fields of child care law, employment law, and welfare benefits law. He is also a fully qualified social worker.