Viscount Rothermere

Viscount Rothermere makes a rare appearance and tells MPs and peers that the 'no mud slinging' deal 'did not last'

Viscount Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail & General Trust, has confirmed that there was pact with owner of Express Newspapers Richard Desmond that there would be "no mud slinging" between the two newspaper proprietors.

Asked by the joint committee on privacy and injunctions if it was not "a monstrous example of ownership's interference" and if he was "not a hypocrite" for influencing editorial, Viscount Rothermere denied this saying he did not given direction or judgement to editors of the group's titles, which include the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

In a rare appearance, Viscount Rothermere told the committee of MPs and peers that former managing director of Associated Newspapers Murdoch MacLennan "felt it was the wrong thing for the newspaper" to publish negative stories about Desmond.

"MacLennan had lunch with Desmond and agreed that it was not in the interest of our newspapers to use them for mud slinging."

Viscount Rothermere confirmed that a conversation had taken place proposing that the DGMT publications would not publish stories referring to Desmond as a "pornographer" if the competitor's titles did not refer to the Rothermere family's "war-time history".

"There was a lunch - not an agreement", demonstrated by the fact the deal "did not last", Viscount Rothermere told the committee. who explained how his picture subsequently appeared on the front page of the Express.

"The editor-in-chief and all editors have complete editorial independence, which we fiercely protect", Kevin Beatty, chief executive of A&N Media, part of DGMT, added.

Challenged as to whether there are ever discussions with editors where the proprietor gives direction or exercises any judgement, Viscount Rothermere replied that there are not.

In subsequent evidence Peter Wright, editor of the Mail on Sunday, confirmed he was aware of the lunch meeting but said that he was on no occasion influenced in his editorial decisions.

"I heard that a meeting had taken place between Mr MacLennan and Mr Desmond.

Asked then if there was ever "anything off list as it might upset the proprietor", Wright replied that there was not.

In referring to a comment the chairman of the DGMT made in 2008 that the "PCC was strong", the committee asked Viscount Rothermere if he still stood by that statement.

"I think that the PCC has done a good job. It's the opinion of [editor of the Daily Mail] Paul Dacre and my organisation. I also believe that as the PCC considers it, and we agree, that there are areas for improvement.

"I think in the same way the BMA has doctors on its council, the PCC should have editorial representation at that high level."

On the topic of "the grey area" of privacy, Viscount Rothermere was asked whether the courts have the correct balance between privacy and the public interest.

"I do not have the day-to-day experience with having to deal with this. There is a view that the pendulum may have swung too far in the one direction ... and become too restrictive."

Liz Hartley, legal head of Associated Newspapers, part of the DGMT, told the committee that Associated has paid out on "10 matters" of privacy in two years, with some payments for court costs only and "by in large the damages have been less that £10,000".

Asked if he was "upset" by the "money coming out your organisation" Viscount Rothermere replied: "It's difficult to get a perfect record. One has to accept that from time to time that editors will make mistakes. As long as they can show they were honestly made and it was not a flagrant [error], we have to accept that and that they are going to do a better job in future. We'd be happier with perfection."

Referring to the reporting of Chris Jefferies, the landlord of murdered landscape architect Joanna Yeates, who won "substantial" libel damages from several newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Hartley said that Paul Dacre took legal advice and "they got it wrong".

"The Jefferies article was legalled. We accepted we were wrong and defamatory."

Member of the committee Paul Farrelly MP compared Hartley with News of the World legal head Tom Crone and Viscount Rothermere to James Murdoch.

"I do care about standards and I think your comparison with News International is unfair," Viscount Rothermere replied.

Asked if he had not had concerns about how the Daily Mail intruded into the lives of the parents of Madeleine McCann, Rothermere said he did have concerns but denied ever bringing it up with the editor of the Daily Mail.

"I did not bring it up with him. Editors should be allowed to do the job they have been hired to do. I think it is our job to stand back and protect their independence."

Asked if he felt it was wrong to intrude into private grief, he answered: "I haven't got a qualified opinion on that."

Pressed on the point and with assistance from Hartley he said intruding into grief is "an infringement on the PCC code and that is what we adhere to".

He also spoke of the need for a commercially successful press.

"The newspaper industry does a lot of good: it fights a lot of causes, raises a lot of money for charity and it seeks out and exposes corruption.

"It makes it fair if it is financially viable."

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