I’ve never really had any opinion on the Madeleine McCann case, beyond of course the simple humanitarian feeling that it was a tragedy for all concerned. Having not been on the scene, known none of the players or had an opportunity to examine the evidence, I don’t really see myself as qualified to pontificate on the likely culprits or the fate of the child in question.
That, of course, didn’t stop many portions of the UK’s press, mainly but by no means exclusively the tabloid titles, speculating wildly, and it now appears, without any basis whatsoever, about the apparently obvious guilt of various parties. This sensational reporting may have shifted a few papers at the time, given a portion of the British public’s rather incomprehensible obsession with the case, but the chickens are now firmly coming home to roost through a series of huge legal payouts.
Worst hit has been Express Newspapers (prop. Mr Richard Desmond), publishers of the Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star and Daily Star Sunday. For the Express in particular, the Madeleine story became its meat and drink for months on end, surplanting even the increasingly ludicrus Diana conspiracies for front page dominance. From 3 August 2007, 82 of the next 100 editions covered the story on at least part of the front page.
First, in March, Express Newspapers settled a libel case with Madeleine’s parents with a payment for the sum of £550,000 and unprecedented front page apologies, following suggestions in the papers that the parents may have had something to do with their daughter’s disappearance.
Second, in July, 11 newspapers settled with Robert Murat, once considered a suspect by the Portuguese police. The total payout to Mr Murat was also £550,000 but we don’t know how this was divided between the newspapers. However, since three of the titles were Express Newspaper publications, we can assume that their share of the payout was substantial. Inferring the guilt of Madeleine’s parents hadn’t stopped the papers from inferring Mr Murat’s guilt simultaneously. Again, apologies were published.
And today, yet another group of Express Newspaper-appointed suspects, the so-called ‘Tapas 7’ have also received a substantial payout – £375,000 – in settlement of their own libel case against the newspapers.
So, if we assume that the Murat payout was divided equally between the 11 papers (unlikely, as some of the titles involved, such as The Scotsman were less implicated in the speculation), the total bill to Express Newspapers from these three payouts is around the £1.075 million mark. This is a not insubstantial amount of money to lose for a newspaper group – particularly with the onset of a major advertising squeeze. So, the question has to be, is Express Newspapers now out of pocket from its irresponsible reporting of the case? The answer is probably yes.
At the time of Madeleine McCann’s abduction, the Express Newspapers stable was generally in decline, with the flagship Daily Express being very badly hit. In April 2007, the month before the abduction, the Daily Express’ circulation was down 8.69% on its position 12 months previously (all circulation figures are from the Guardian’s database of ABC figures). Whilst almost all national newspapers were experiencing a decline at this point, on average they were just 3.74% down on the previous year. By August 2007, with the Express’ coverage of the case in full swing, the 12 month loss was down to 0.24%. In terms of paper sales this accounts for 67,400 extra papers sold per day in August 2007 than in April. And to demonstrate the degree to which this was indeed a ‘Madeleine Bounce’ (which lasted slightly longer than the concurrent ‘Brown Bounce’), the figures for August 2008 show that Daily Express circulation is down 9.53% on August 2007, with the total number of papers sold now nearly 12,000 per day below even the April 2007 figure. Taking the April 2007 figure as a base, the extra copies of the Daily Express sold before sales slipped back below the April level in December 2007 amounted to 5,486,990. The picture for the other Express Newspaper titles is less clear – the Sunday Express saw a slight bounce in the high summer of 2007, but quickly slumped down again. The Daily Star didn’t do particularly well, whilst the Daily Star on Sunday was undergoing a radical reversal of its declining fortunes thought to be based more on an improved editorial team than on any particular story.
So if we assume (rashly and almost certainly incorrectly) that all of those extra copies of the Daily Express sold were due to the McCann case coverage, the newspaper will have had to have raised 20p (OK, 19.59p) from cover price and advertising revenue each extra copy soldfor it to even break even on the story after fines. With a cover price of 40p (little if any of which is profit), the bulk of this would have to be found from additional advertising revenue based on increased sales. Unfortunately there is no way of finding out the advertising revenue received, but it seems highly unlikely that the price that the Daily Express would be able to demand for its advertising space would be responsive enough for the brief and relatively small circulation increase to cover this. Given that circulation is now below the pre-McCann figure, the newspaper has achieved no lasting benefit from its coverage of the story and, as we have seen, may well be out of profit from the whole episode.
That the Express has been so badly hit financially by its treatment of this story should certainly be a cause for celebration: not just for those who, like me think that this particular newspaper is a badly-written, predictable and bigoted piece of trash journalism, but for any human being who doesn’t like the idea of an exploitative media trying to make financial gain through baseless speculation and bandwagon-jumping.