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McCann payout deal and apology landmark

PUBLISHED: 11:56 21 March 2008 | UPDATED: 19:57 05 July 2010

"YOU lot just make it up anyway," is a routine taunt journalists face as they try to check facts of a story.

Newspaper "reptiles" - marginally above pavement paparazzi in the public's eyes - are out to falsify, mislead and fabricate in pursuit of a "good story", people think.

"YOU lot just make it up anyway," is a routine taunt journalists face as they try to check facts of a story.

Newspaper "reptiles" - marginally above pavement paparazzi in the public's eyes - are out to falsify, mislead and fabricate in pursuit of a "good story", people think. The stories that sell papers. The stories people read.

Actually, journalists pride themselves on their accuracy and check their facts as responsible and credible recorders of fact. I would say that, wouldn't I? But, on the whole, this is true.

They are also charged with questioning, delving and seeking out the truth like private investigators and exposing wrongdoing.

This week's unprecedented front page grovelling apology by Express Newspapers to the McCanns and agreement to pay £550,000 of damages for their reports about Madeleine is yet another extraordinary turn in an extraordinary story.

But it throws into the spotlight on uncomfortable issues about how our media behave, how individuals are protected and how the law should work.

And how selling newspapers in a fiercely competitive market place can blur judgement.

But more significantly, how having the powerhouse of a PR machine, influence and savvy can net you a front-page apology - the most painful concession for an editor - and £550,000 because you know how to use the law.

The McCanns' story was based on a solitary fact - that a three-year-old girl vanished from her bed without trace in a foreign country. The perfect-looking family had the fascination factor.

Portuguese police and law were veiled in secrecy, facts were hard to find but huge pressure was on to keep the story on the front page. The whole media became swept along in the frenzy of speculation and rumour.

Express Newspapers - let's not forget hardly a major mover and shaker in the Fleet Street posse - obviously went too far to keep the story on the front page with 100 or so dodgy stories and have ended up an expensive example with bashed credibility.

The McCanns were viewed as "fair game" because of the Portuguese law which gave them suspect status.

Suspect turned into suspicious and nameless police "sources" provided foundation for stories in the absence of on-the-record information.

Everyone wanted to read about this perfect-looking middle class family so the press provided them with the stories.

Will the Express be the only paper group to pay? Will newspapers show more restraint from now on, avoiding all speculation and rumour?

Editors might have shuffled uncomfortably in their chairs on Wednesday - there for the grace of God - and there might be a short period of navel gazing about how to work in future. But, again, this was a unique case with a unique result.

What is uncomfortable though is the use of the law. We've just had the Shannon Matthews case. Defamatory remarks were probably made in that case.

Will they lead to an apology?

Highly unlikely. It's only those individuals with the wherewithal, knowledge and contacts to challenge the law - like the McCanns with spokesman Clarence Mitchell - who see results.

The public, hypocrites they are, would have nodded in agreement at the apology - about time too, they would crow. "Terrible people, the press."

But a nation gets the press it deserves. They buy the papers and govern their content.

I USED to think "doggy" people were bonkers. The types who talked to their pups like humans, smelt of wet dog, cut short dates to dash home to their mutts and spent time with their furry friends rather than humans. Sad sociopaths, I thought. Get a life.

Then I became one of them.

Today I apologise wholeheartedly to each and every dog owner I dismissed as barking. I was so wrong.

In my six months as a first-time puppy "mummy", I've met some wonderful dog owners, some of the loveliest, kindest, considerate and helpful people on earth. And the most grounded.

I've also discovered that dogs aren't just "animals"; they can be therapy, educators and the best natural antidote to modern society, stress and anxiety.

Neil Morrissey is fronting the national adopt-a-dog campaign for people to relieve pressure on the dog rescue centres by taking abandoned dogs into their homes.

Any pet - but particularly dogs - offer huge developmental advantages for children. I honestly believe the world would be better place if every child was brought up with a dog, learned the responsibility of care from an early age, had a constant friend and listening ear and the unconditional affection and love.

And the NHS would save a fortune. GPs can prescribe gym membership for exercise - why not urge their obese patients to get a dog and get walking?

Dogs don't walk themselves so little fat lazy lumps who veg out in front of screens stuffing themselves with junk can be dragged out. Usually the only fresh air some get is the walk from the car to the school door.

Playing with a dog pulls them off the sofa and away from the Playstation to get out - I know. It's happened in our house - and walks bring families together to spend time together on walks.

And there's nothing like a daft dog to drag you out of the doldrums. What better therapy for stress, depression and anxiety than laughing at the dog? In cities, people pay a fortune for laughter workshops. A dog does it for free - and is always pleased to see you.

Since Leo joined our family as an eight-week-old bundle of cream fur, I've watched my boys' rise to the challenge of training him, caring for him and getting pleasure having him in the family.

My older son was petrified of him when he first arrived, nipping his ankles and ripping his socks. He used to run out of the room screaming. Now, he's his "best friend" and he regularly gets up first to let him out, feed him and play with him.

I have friends who refuse pets to their children to shield their children from coping with their death. Death is a fact of life. Coming to terms with a pet's death helps can only help deal with grief in later life.

Neil Morrissey and the campaign aim to raise £500,000 by the end of March for dog rescue centres across the UK.

These rescued dogs need new homes. Unlike humans, dogs don't like anyone being lonely, sad or lazy. What else in life can claim that? A dog is the best family therapy I know.

A ROW with your teenager every day is healthy for his or her development and parent-child relationships, according to new research. What about 10 rows a day with an 11-year-old who questions everything I do or say? Does it mean we'll have a super bond later in life and he'll have the most developed reasoning skills of his generation?

If your teenager rows with you it's a mark of respect because they value you enough to express their thoughts, says the research. So that's why his answer, smugly delivered, is always: "I'm just expressing my opinion like you encourage me to." A rod for our own back.

But I suppose he'll never be a yes man or a pushover.

THE words tar with same brush spring to mind at news that badly-behaved children as young as five should be recorded on the national DNA database.

Why not lock them up and throw away the key now and cut out all the misery they might inflict along the way? Children who don't behave at school don't necessarily become criminals. Durr.

But teachers who write off children as disruptive and stupid in primary school are helping them on their way. I've seen enough decent 18-year-olds who were written off at school but finally discovered talent and confidence on college courses with extra support and encouragement to change their lives. Their schoolteachers had a lot to answer for.

Rather than spending money on storing DNA of tiny terrors who don't thrive in our girl-biased one-size fits all system, divert the money to save these boys when they show signs of giving up. Every child matters. Isn't that the Government's mantra?

DRINK-RELATED cases in accident and emergency departments have shot up by 26pc since 24-hour drinking was introduced. How about a pilot scheme to present comatose booze victims with a bill for their stomach pumps when they wake up? It might make them think about how much cash they need to take on their next binge.

BASIL Brush a racist? Has someone been at the magic mushrooms?

Basil - a 70s TV favourite - has somehow been reincarnated as a noughties children's star. How a posh fox glove puppet dressed as a crusty aristocrat has managed to bewitch a technology-savvy streetwise generation of kids is inexplicable.

But old Basil has been accused by gypsies of racism after a sketch involving wooden pegs and heather. It just shows you can take a puppet out of the past but you can't take the past out of the puppet.

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