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Peter Hill: 'I did too much on the Madeleine McCann story'

Original Source: GUARDIAN: MONDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2010
Roy Greenslade   The Guardian, Monday 21 February 2011

The 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 Guardian

Peter Hill 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.

He 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.

But he 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 Madeleine 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."

Too much 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".

Asked 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 search."

Leaking stories

So why 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 unprecedented way.

"All the 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."

The 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."

I 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.

"Then, 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'"

Meyer 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.

But was 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 Meyer behaved."

Clearly 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."

He is 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".

He is 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 Newsnight."

Pointing 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."

I 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."

One of 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.

"I did 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.

"People 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."

So how 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."

Circulation success

Hill 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.

Hill had 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."

Hill 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 the Express.

Age 65

Education Hulme Grammar School, Oldham; Manchester University

Career 1961 reporter, Colne Valley Guardian 1963 subeditor, Huddersfield Examiner 1964 subeditor, Manchester Evening News 1966 leader writer, Oldham Evening Chronicle 1969 subeditor, Daily Telegraph 1975 chief subeditor, Sunday People (Saturday only) 1976 University of Manchester, mature student, American studies and political philosophy 1978 subeditor, Daily Star 1982 chief subeditor, Star 1984 night editor, Star 1988 associate editor, Star 1994 deputy editor, Star 1998 editor, Daily Star 2003 editor, Daily Express


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