International Bar Association
- Session annuelle 6.10.2009 à Madrid
Sous la présidence de Mark H. Stephens, cette session porte sur les différentes approches que peuvent adopter les avocats pour protéger la réputation de leurs clients, particuliers ou non. L'un des thèmes est le tourisme de la diffamation, les défis posés par la publication en ligne et les conséquences de la réputation déclarée droit de l'homme par la CEDH sur la liberté d'expression.
L'accent est mis sur les MC qui se sont trouvés sous le feu continu des médias après l'enlèvement de leur fille. Gerald MC parlera de leur combat pour tenir la presse et obtenir des excuses et des dommages en raison d'allégations diffamatoires.
Lessons learned the hard way: the reporting of the Madeleine McCann investigation
The tragic disappearance of three year old Madeleine McCann from a holiday apartment in Portugal has without doubt been one of the most prominent news stories in the UK for many years, and attracted considerable media coverage around the world.
Madeleine was abducted on the night of 3 May 2007 while her parents Gerry and Kate McCann dined with friends in a nearby tapas restaurant. The alarm was quickly raised to try to find their daughter, and public interest in the story fuelled a voracious desire by the media to report on the investigation and on Madeleine's likely whereabouts.
Although the case of Madeleine McCann is in many ways – thankfully – unique, the reporting of the investigation highlights a number of interesting aspects of English media law.
Beyond the reach of contempt of court laws
When the story broke, the media was immediately faced with a problem: there was enormous public interest in Madeleine's fate, but Portuguese law forbade either the police or, to a considerable extent, the McCanns themselves from providing information to the press about the investigation.
Unlike in the UK, where the police routinely brief the press on major investigations (both officially and off the record), journalists found themselves in a complete vacuum of confirmed facts yet under enormous editorial pressure to get a scoop on the latest developments.
What ensued was increasingly wild speculation about what had happened to Madeleine, as the finger of suspicion was pointed at a number of individuals – including, most notably, Madeleine's parents.
Kate and Gerry McCann were named as 'arguidos' by the Portuguese police on 7 September 2007 – which in fact meant they were 'persons of interest' to the Portuguese police, rather than that they were formally suspects, as the term 'arguido' was frequently mis-translated by the British press.
It was during this time that the McCanns were interviewed by Portuguese police, which sent the media into a frenzy of even wilder speculation.
Had the case concerned a criminal investigation in the UK, then the press would have been far more restricted by the laws of contempt of court. Section 2 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 makes it an offence of strict liability to publish anything which creates a 'substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.' The provision applies only to 'active' proceedings, which in essence means after someone has been arrested for, or charged with, a criminal offence. Although the McCanns were not arrested or charged under Portuguese law, the Contempt of Court Act in any event applies only to criminal proceedings brought in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; as such the media were able to report on the police investigation into the McCanns' alleged involvement with scant regard for how their coverage may ultimately prejudice any prosecution.
Of course, no prosecution was ultimately brought against the McCanns; having protested their innocence throughout, the Portuguese Prosecutor finally exonerated them on 21 July 2008 when their 'arguido' status was lifted and it was confirmed that there was no evidence whatsoever to suggest that they had played any part in their daughter's disappearance.
But throughout the autumn and early winter of 2007, the McCanns had continued to be the focus of relentless, and at times hysterical media coverage which made various allegations to the effect that they had killed their daughter and had conspired to cover-up her death.
Pleas made to the press to exercise greater caution and balance in reporting the story fell on deaf ears, and when the onslaught of allegations continued the McCanns decided they had to take action – not least because they feared that the campaign to find Madeleine would be irreparably damaged for as long as the public was misled into believing (entirely wrongly) that her parents had killed her.
In January 2008, complaints in libel were sent to four national newspapers published by the Express Group – the Daily Express, the Daily Star and their sister Sunday titles. These newspapers more than any had published grossly defamatory articles about the McCanns, often under sensational front page headlines such as 'PARENTS' CAR HID A CORPSE' and 'MADDIE MUM "SOLD HER".'
Because of the news 'vacuum', many of the articles complained of appeared to be based on nothing more than speculation, information from purported (but unnamed) 'police sources', and allegations regurgitated from the Portuguese press.
It is open to a newspaper to defend a libel complaint on a number of grounds. The most obvious defence is that of justification – if a defendant can prove that the allegations it published were substantially true, then the libel claim will fail. However, given the lurid and utterly baseless allegations which the McCanns complained about, a defence of justification seemed out of the question.
A second defence open to media defendants in England and Wales is that of Reynolds qualified privilege – responsible journalism on a matter of public interest. This defence is in a state of evolution, but there is an increasing body of English law which suggests that neutral reporting of serious allegations over a long period may be defensible, especially on a matter of high public interest – even where those allegations turn out to be untrue. However, it was immediately apparent that on any analysis the Express and Star's journalism was anything but responsible. While their journalists may have hoped that including token references to the McCanns' denials of wrongdoing may have been sufficient, it was clear that this did nothing to provide the balance necessary for a Reynolds defence to succeed.
It was perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the Express Group responded to the McCanns' libel complaints by admitting liability for the libels it had published about them.
Righting the wrong
The volume of the libellous coverage published – over 100 articles were complained about, many of them front-page – was unique in the history of English libel law. In the circumstances, the Express Group were forced to agree to take the equally unprecedented step of publishing prominent apologies on the front pages of the four newspapers in question.
The highly unusual nature of the complaints also had an effect on the damages which were claimed from the Express Group.
Under English libel law, general damages have for some time been effectively 'capped' in the region of a £200,000 to £250,000 maximum for awards made at trial, amounts which would of course be reduced where cases settle out of court.
However, quite apart from the fact that Gerry and Kate McCann were each entitled to claim separately for the damage they had each suffered, their case appeared to be in the territory of a potential exemplary damages claim.
Exemplary, or punitive, damages are available only in limited circumstances under English law – in libel proceedings the claimant must prove that the defendant has published the articles complained of 'with guilty knowledge, for the motive that the chances of economic advantage outweigh the chances of economic penalty' (Broome v Cassell 1972 A.C. 1027 at 1079). In practice, this can be a very difficult hurdle for a claimant to overcome, as not only does it involve demonstrating that the defendant was, at the very least, reckless as to the truth or falsity of the allegations complained of, but also that it acted in the hope or expectation of material gain.
Newspapers of course contain a large number of articles, so it will usually be impossible to prove that when the defendant took the decision to publish the article complained of, it expected this would lead to an increase in sales.
However, the sheer number of Express Group articles containing allegations about the McCanns – together with anecdotal evidence to the effect that a front-page article about Madeleine McCann added as many as 70,000 copies to the circulation of the Daily Express – suggested that a credible case for exemplary damages may be made out by the McCanns.
In the end, the question did not have to be decided in court, as the parties were able to agree an out of court settlement. However, the total amount agreed – £550,000, which was donated at the McCanns' request to the Find Madeleine Fund – suggests that the Express Group may have accepted that there was a real risk of an exemplary damages award being made against them if the matter did ever come to court.
The front page apologies and damages paid to the McCanns on 19 March 2008, together with the subsequent exoneration of the McCanns by the Portuguese prosecutor, have not only gone a long way to repairing the damage caused to the McCanns' reputations by the press, but have also undoubtedly caused the press to question their reporting methods in ongoing criminal investigations. Such are the repercussions of the case that it forms a central part of an ongoing UK Parliamentary inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel – indeed Mr McCann has recently given evidence to a government committee hearing on his family's experiences of the media.
As Kate and Gerry McCann's search for their daughter continues, it is to be hoped that the press as a whole has learned from what proved to be a very expensive lesson for the Express Group.
(2) Gerald MC tint un autre discours deux ans plus tard devant la Commission Leveson : Firstly, the first really bad thing was an article that was written in a Portuguese paper which was entitled, "Pact of silence", and it was starting to refer that there was some sort of sinister agreement between us and our friends to cover up what had happened, and I thought that was rather ludicrous, considering that we were all acting under judicial secrecy and couldn't speak about the details of the event. But that -- it was probably towards the end of June 2007, and slowly deteriorated through July, culminating in September 2007. Par ailleurs, lors du festival de Edinburgh le 24 août, GMC se livra à une attaque des médias qui en surprit plus d'un.
(3) L'enquête, pour différentes raisons dont le refus de la demande du procureur de procéder à une reconstitution n'est pas la moindre, ne permit pas de déterminer de quelle sorte de crime avait été victime Madeleine MC. Sans crime, pas d'accusation possible. Le rapport accompagnant l'ordonnance de classement sans suite ne peut logiquement pas être un certificat d'innocence.
(4) Gerald MC pense... mais cette pensée est discutable. Lui-même parle de l'interaction intense avec les médias comme d'une initiative inédite. La police, les magistrats du parquet, les profilers l'ont critiquée, argumentant que, si la fillette avait été enlevée et était encore vivante, cette hyperdivulgation de son minois mettait sa vie en danger ou inciterait à la soustraire totalement aux regards. Nul auparavant ne le fit et nul après ne le fera probablement, compte tenu du bilan désastreux : beaucoup de bruit pour rien.
(5) Gerald MC rapporte qu'il a parlé à ses proches, au téléphone, cette nuit-là, mais il passe sous silence ce qu'il leur a dit.. Or tout le monde conviendra que lesdits proches se sont fondés sur les paroles de GMC quand ils ont alerté les médias au petit matin. Or, ces paroles sont bien différentes du discours que Gerald MC tint aux gendarmes, puis aux OPJ. Aux proches (famille ou amis), qui sont plusieurs à l'avoir rapporté, GMC dit que l'appartement était verrouillé et que les persiennes et la fenêtre de la chambre où dormait Madeleine avaient été forcées. À la police il déclara seulement qu'ils avaient trouvé la fenêtre et les persiennes ouvertes. Ils ne fermaient pas la porte du patio..
(6) Cette allégation d'ignorance a été reprise, sur un mode allusif, lors de l'audition devant la Commission Leveson. Est-elle bien crédible ? Selon les relevés d'appels téléphoniques (dossier de police), les échanges ont été nombreux entre les MC et leur ami Jon C. D'où venaient les photos ?
(7) Ces éléments contribuent certainement à l'impressionnant succès médiatique. Mais on peut douter qu'ils auraient suffi sans l'absolument spectaculaire "persiennes/fenêtre forcées, enfant enlevée de son lit", une trépidante narration et une vraie rumeur qui, comme toutes les rumeurs, était née pour durer, non en dépit des dénégations (justifiées, aucun signe d'effraction) du gérant de l'Ocean Club, mais à cause d'elles.
(8) Le bilan, tout compte fait et sans oublier les fabuleuses sommes payées par les tabloïds, semble très positif. Gerald MC, du reste, dit plus loin que si c'était à refaire, il referait.
(9) Gerald évite remarquablement de signaler que ces campagnes, fortement déconseillées par les autorités judiciaires en charge de l'affaire, n'ont servi à rien sinon à imprimer durablement dans la tête des gens l'image de OM (Our Maddie) et à persuader que cette image correspondait à une petite fille réelle, vivante, en bon état, aimée peut-être et quelque part.
(11) Ce livre parut le 21 juillet dans 65 pays. Il suffit de lire "Madeleine" et le blog de Gerald pour voir que ce n'était pas alors la vie en rose du côté médiatique : Ce même 22 juillet, le Sunday Express publia "Les parents de Maddy confrontés à l'enquête", pour "négligence" selon le journal... Nous nous étions habitués à ce type d'attaque, mais c'était toujours incroyablement douloureux car c'était nous blâmer, indirectement, pour l'enlèvement de Madeleine.
(12) Nous ne voulions pas donner trop d'informations... Les MC étaient en fait censés n'en donner aucune ! La lecture du dossier de l'enquête montre toutefois qu'il n'y avait pas pléthore d'informations confidentielles. Le secret de l'instruction pourrait avoir essentiellement servi à se dérober aux questions embarrassantes.
"Pas trop d'informations" ? Kate MC n'a-t-elle pas refusé de répondre à 48 questions que lui posait la PJ ... et Gerald n'a-t-il pas, sans état âme, changé sa narration des faits entre le 4 et le 10 mai ?
(13) Les MC furent d'emblée victimes, Madeleine étant mineure, jusqu'au moment où ils devinrent témoins assistés.
(15) Gerald MC ne s'indigne cependant pas, au moins publiquement, du fait qu'on arrache une petite fille à ses parents parce qu'elle ressemble à Madeleine ! En montrant un visage à tous les âges entre quelques mois et 3 ans, on le virtualise et on jette finalement en pâture au public une matrice à laquelle ressemblent une multitude de visages réels.
(16) De quelle autorité les avocats des MC, alors témoins assistés (donc formellement suspects), pouvaient-ils se réclamer lorsqu'ils assuraient les rédactions que rien n'incriminait leurs clients ?
(17) L'argent, certes, ne résoud pas tout, mais il calme !
(18) Quand les médias ont-il montré, outre leur bonne volonté, qu'ils pouvaient contribuer à retrouver un enfant ?