January 12, 2012 7:50 pm

Desmond rues Leveson inquiry into media

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Richard Desmond, the controversial owner of the Express and Star newspapers, told Lord Justice Leveson on Thursday that his inquiry was the worst thing that had happened to the industry in his lifetime.

Mr Desmond said that at a moment when consumers were “counting every single penny” the image of the press presented by the inquiry was highly damaging.

“If [people] believe that newspapers are basically dishonest, hacking, low-lifes . . . then they’re not going to buy newspapers, and [in] the last few months, the sales of newspapers have never been so bad,” Mr Desmond told Lord Justice Leveson.

He said he was not blaming the inquiry, but its cause, the phone-hacking scandal, and said the individuals and companies responsible should simply be prosecuted.

Mr Desmond’s evidence at times seemed to exasperate Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, who at one point accused him of a “grotesque characterisation” of the coverage the Express and Star papers had given to the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, the three-year-old who disappeared in Portugal in 2007.

After initially supportive articles turned to unsubstantiated speculation that her parents Kate and Gerry had been involved in her disappearance, the couple sued eight papers and Express Newspapers paid £550,000 in libel damages.

But the chairman of privately held Northern & Shell, which also owns Channel 5, had suggested that the McCanns had been “quite happy . . . in articles being run about their poor daughter, because it kept it on the front page”.

He suggested that it was only when a new firm of lawyers started working for the McCanns that they sued.

Mr Jay said: “That is a grotesque characterisation. Your paper was accusing the McCanns on occasion of having killed their daughter. Are you seriously saying that they were sitting there quite happy, rather than entirely anguished by your papers’ bad behaviour?”

Mr Desmond repeated his apology to the family, but claimed his newspapers had been the only ones honest enough to admit their mistake and put money into the fund to find Madeleine. He said they had been “scapegoated” by the Press Complaints Commission, which was one of the reasons he withdrew from it in January 2011.

Mr Jay said: “Mr Desmond, it’s clear that your position is, in relation to regulation, that really you think newspapers should be left to get on with it, and you don’t think there should be any regulator at all, do you? That would be your truthful answer?”

Mr Desmond replied that he had learned early in business life that integrity was the most important issue.

He said the PCC as constituted was “a useless organisation run by people who wanted tea and biscuits and by phone hackers”, but he could envisage a workable version with more lawyers and no current editors.

He said he could not participate in a body that included people such as Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, who Mr Desmond accused of vilifying him in print because he was angry that it was he, and not the Mail group, that had bought Express Newspapers in 2000.

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