1.Everyone shall possess the right to freely express and publicise his thoughts in words, images or by any other means, as well as the right to inform others, inform himself and be informed without hindrance or discrimination 2.Exercise of the said rights shall not be hindered or limited by any type or form of censorship Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, Article 37.º

Murat's £800,000 - a minor marketing expense

The 2007 marketing budget for the Sun was estimated at £16m, that for the News of the World at £5m - and the figures are likely to be higher this year. The budget for the Daily Mail may be close to £20m. When you look at those figures, £72,727 seems like small change. But that is the figure you reach if you divide the collective damages of £800,000 paid to Robert Murat and two others falsely linked to the Madeleine McCann abduction, between the 11 offending newspapers, including the Sun, News of the World and the Mail.

...they and their journalists knew full well what they were doing but, for several reasons, clearly thought the risks worth running...

Legal fees will probably boost the cost to each paper well beyond £100,000 - but, if you regard smear stories as a circulation booster, you might reasonably treat the overall costs as a minor charge on the marketing budget.

Sky News Ian Woods speaks to a British journalist(Lori Campbell) in the Algarve who contacted police with suspicions about Robert Murat. Lori Campbell of the Sunday Mirror describes Murat as a 'vague character', claiming he lied to her about his role in the inquiry

Certainly, it is unlikely any editors will pay with their jobs. They and their journalists knew full well what they were doing but, for several reasons, clearly thought the risks worth running.

First, newspapers now live in an intensely competitive environment - TV, radio and the internet surround every story with comment and speculation and, as newspaper websites show (and still showed last week), the level of interest in the McCanns and everything connected with them was unprecedented. Yet facts about the case were sparse, partly because the Portuguese police do not brief journalists as assiduously as their British counterparts. Once flown out to Praia da Luz, reporters could hardly keep emailing their newsdesks declaring, like the BBC announcer of the 1920s, that "there is no news tonight".

Second, the press increasingly assumes that any suspect in a major crime case is fair game. I have written several times in this column about how newspapers push at the laws of contempt, publishing any gossip they can get, not only during police investigations (which is permissible) but also after arrest, and increasingly even after charge. Such coverage risks prejudicing a subsequent trial, yet the attorney general and the judges repeatedly fail to act, except in the most blatant cases. Equally important, the coverage potentially libels anyone who is subsequently released without charge or found innocent. That is particularly the case for Muslims questioned about terror "plots", where it is not even certain a crime has been committed.

Why do more victims of such coverage not sue? The answer is they are usually too poor to afford legal costs and too frightened to draw further attention to themselves. Moreover, libel laws, while notoriously putting the onus on publishers to prove the truth of allegations, also require litigants to show damage to their reputations or, better still, their livelihoods. The most expensive libel case that crossed my desk as an editor concerned a full-time author of popular romances who was falsely accused of plagiarism and whose ongoing publishing contract stated that she would be dropped if she was ever suspected of such a thing. Crime suspects, however, are rarely respectable pillars of society, which is partly why the police pick them up in the first place. They don't have much of a reputation to damage.

Murat, a British expatriate property consultant, and his two friends, an ex-business partner and an IT consultant, were different in several respects. They did not have criminal records. Murat was declared an arguido (a status for which there is no equivalent in English law and which is nearly, but not quite, conveyed by the word "suspect"), but he was never arrested because the police had no evidence against him. Indeed, he became an arguido only because a British redtop journalist expressed concerns about him. The libels, which included false allegations of paedophiliac tendencies and, in the Daily Express's case, comparisons to Ian Huntley, were as gross as can be imagined.

Murat's means were modest, but lawyers were willing to act for him on a "no win, no fee" basis. It is often argued that such conditional fees, introduced in 1998, put the poor on an equal footing with the rich. But lawyers accept these cases only when they are reasonably certain of victory. Even then, the pressure to settle out of court is strong. Conditional fee agreements do not include court costs, notably witnesses' expenses. If the case had been lost, Murat might have been liable for the newspapers' costs as well, though he probably took out insurance. All this helps explain why he didn't get - from 11 newspapers and nearly 100 separate stories - much more than half the £1m Elton John received more than 20 years ago for just one story in the Sun, and why the apologies to him and his friends could be buried on inside pages.

The Guardian columnist George Monbiot last week described Britain's libel laws as "a national disgrace" and argued that they are too heavily biased against defendants. He is right, where litigants are rich and powerful; and even more right, where defendants, such as small magazines or websites, lack the resources of the big press groups. If small publishers lose, they can be stung for enormous "success fees" from the litigants' lawyers, who may double their normal rates to cover the risks of coming away with nothing.

Conditional fee agreements are increasingly used by wealthy litigants, such as Naomi Campbell in her protracted case against the Mirror. As often happens, changes intended to benefit the less well-off have been eagerly exploited by the rich. For the poor and powerless, against whom the mass circulation press commits its most pernicious libels, the law still provides inadequate protection.

Source: Guardian by Peter Wilby

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