retiring editor of the Daily Express on the costly libel and his
relationship with Richard Desmond
Peter Hill who has retired as the editor of the Daily
Express newspaper Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris for the
has pulled off that most difficult of tricks in the media world. He has
managed to maintain a low profile despite being at the centre of several
controversies and attracting considerable criticism during his seven
years as editor of the Daily Express. He has also achieved the rare
distinction in national newspapers of choosing to retire rather than
being axed. Friday evening was his last in the Express chair, and marked
the end of a journalistic career stretching back 50 years.
waited until his final week to give a rare formal interview, at the
Northern & Shell building beside the Thames, to look back over his years
in newspapers and to answer his critics. Hill is certainly not reticent.
He does not apologise for his lengthy campaign against immigration,
which earned him odium, nor for his paper's derided obsession with the
death of Princess Diana.
is contrite about the sad episode that ended with Express Newspapers
being landed with one of the most expensive legal bills in newspaper
history ' the coverage of the disappearance of
McCann in Hill's paper and its three other titles, the Daily
Star, Sunday Express and Daily Star Sunday. He says: "I did too much on
the story. I accept that."
wasn't the only problem though. There were also the stories that
suggested Madeleine's parents,
Gerry and Kate McCann,
might have been complicit in her disappearance, which in its apology
Express Newspapers admitted were "seriously defamatory".
whether he regretted libelling the McCanns, he replies: "Of course I do.
And I insisted on apologising on the front of the newspaper when it
became clear that it was a complete fabrication. We gave them '500,000.
It doesn't redound to my credit but it did help them to continue the
did it happen' "It was a huge story, and every adult in the country had
an opinion on it. I admit it helped to sell the paper. There were many
factors involved, such as the way Maddy's parents sought publicity in an
way through, our principal focus was on 'what's happened to Maddy'' The
Portuguese police and British legal sources were leaking stories that
implied the McCanns were guilty in some way. We were not to know that
the Portuguese police were ineffectual and, in some cases, corrupt."
furore following the legal settlement led to questions about press
behaviour in parliament and to attacks on the Press Complaints
Commission for what was perceived as a failure of the self-regulatory
body to act decisively. Hill was a member of the PCC and remained in
place for several months after the court case until suddenly departing.
"I was not ousted," he stresses. "We all agreed it would be better for
the PCC if I went."
suggested to him that the PCC's then chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer,
was disappointed that he had not walked earlier. Hill flushes and says
scornfully: "I have no time whatsoever for Christopher Meyer. He is a
complete hypocrite. I was disgusted with him.
"Throughout the time that the McCann stories were running he was
friendly towards me. He never said a word about it, and nothing was said
about it at the PCC. There was no criticism, no suggestion that papers
should rein back on the coverage.
quite suddenly, Meyer went on television to denounce me. I was
absolutely astonished, because, until that time, he'd said nothing about
it. I was very angry about it. I shall never forgive him. He didn't
disclose that his wife was intimately connected to the McCanns through
her charity. But what can you expect from a man who ratted on all his
previous colleagues and intimates in the Foreign Office'"
disputes Hill's account, but does say that his PCC membership was not
tenable after the McCanns' settlement. He strenuously denies that his
wife, Catherine, was close to the McCanns. He says she made a single
trip with them to Brussels to lobby the EU over the need for resources
to fight child abduction.
Hill's PCC departure linked to the recent decision by the owner of
Express Newspapers, Richard Desmond, to withhold the fees to fund the
commission' Hill says: "Richard was disgusted with the way Christopher
irked by the mention of the McCanns episode, Hill says: "I will not
allow that to be the only thing that people talk about in relation to
me, though the Guardian likes to mention it. It was not the defining
moment of my career."
much more eager to point to what he calls "crusades", such as "changing
Tory policy on inheritance tax" and showing that "99.9% of Express
readers support getting Britain out of the European Union".
not in the least defensive about his paper's lengthy campaign against
asylum seekers in particular and immigrants in general. "People
condemned me over immigration," he says. "But several years down the
line everybody now agrees with me, including the Labour party and
out that he is married to the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, he adds:
"I'm not against immigrants. It's about taking in too many. We can't
cope. Express readers agreed with me."
suggest he turned "asylum seekers" into a dirty phrase. "That's because
many of them were faking it, and still are. Most of them are economic
migrants, which does not give them the right to come to this country.
They come because our benefits system is so incredibly generous."
the hallmarks of Hill's editorship has been his refusal to splash on the
main news story of the day, that featured on other front pages or led
the BBC News.
that deliberately," he says. "Unless a paper is a market leader, it's
foolish to follow the same agenda as everyone else. You'll lose sales
that way. Anyway, what's on the front doesn't really matter. Look at the
Daily Mail. I defy anyone to tell me its splash most days.
buy it out of habit, for what's inside, because it's enormous, not for
what's on the front. They spend tens of millions on promotions and
they're a billion pounds in debt. If we'd done the same we'd have gone
bankrupt. And Richard wouldn't even consider running this company on
that level of debt."
has Hill managed to work under a proprietor renowned for his aggression'
Hill chooses his words carefully: "The reason that Richard and I have
got on very well is that we can both be very abrasive and combative. I
think we worked out, over a period, a way of working with each other and
not killing each other. That took some doing, but we did it. The fact
that I'm still here 10 years down the line proves that." After a pause,
he laughs loudly as he adds: "It's not a job for a weak person."
also reveals that he petitioned Desmond for the Express editorship in
2003. At the time, he was the editor of the Daily Star, a job he had
been given by Lord Hollick, the former owner of Express Newspapers who
sold to Desmond in 2000.
engineered a remarkable circulation success at the Star. When he took
over in October 1998, it was selling 540,000 copies a day. By September
2003, it was up to 928,000 copies, and he was named editor of the year
in the What The Papers Say awards. He ascribes the paper's success
partly to persuading Desmond to double his picture budget. "In the
beginning," says Hill, "Richard was quite nervous about newspapers
because he didn't really understand them. But he is a very, very
intelligent person. If people are prepared to help him, he is very
positive about them. And I resolved to help him."
turned the Star into an unashamed celebrity sheet. He laughs at the
memory of running Big Brother stories on the front page 28 days in a row
and fulfilling a promise to himself to publish a photograph of the
Russian tennis star Anna Kournikova every day for a year. But Hill, a
former sub, also produced a superb paper on 9/11, as good, if not
better, than rival tabloids.
He is 66
in two months' time, but stresses that, after a short break, he wants to
"give something back" by helping young people to become journalists. "I
might even teach," he says. He will also go on writing occasionally for
Hulme Grammar School, Oldham; Manchester University
Colne Valley Guardian 1963
subeditor, Huddersfield Examiner
Manchester Evening News 1966
leader writer, Oldham Evening Chronicle
1969 subeditor, Daily
chief subeditor, Sunday People (Saturday only)
1976 University of Manchester, mature student, American
studies and political philosophy
1978 subeditor, Daily Star
1982 chief subeditor,
night editor, Star 1988
associate editor, Star 1994
deputy editor, Star 1998
editor, Daily Star 2003
editor, Daily Express