12/01/2012 10:53 GMT | Updated 12/01/2012 11:16 GMT

Peter Hill, Former Express Editor, Tells Inquiry Why Newspaper Implicated McCann Parents

The Daily Express ran stories suggesting Madeleine McCann's parents could be responsible for her death because at the time "there was reason to believe" they might be true, the paper's former editor said today.

Peter Hill told the Leveson Inquiry that the disappearance of the little girl in Portugal in May 2007 was an "unprecedented story" that provoked "strong opinions" among the British public.

He said the Daily Express published many articles about the case, some of them "deeply sympathetic" to Madeleine's parents Kate and Gerry and others not.

But he denied a suggestion made to the inquiry in December by former Daily Express reporter Nick Fagge that the story became an "obsession" for him.

The McCanns took legal action over Express Newspapers' reporting and in March 2008 received £550,000 in damages paid to their fund to find their daughter and front-page apologies in the Star and Express titles.

Explaining why his paper published negative stories about the couple, Hill told the inquiry: "I did not accuse them of killing their child. The stories that we ran were from those who did accuse them, and they were the Portuguese police."

He added: "I felt that the stories should be published because there was reason to believe that they might possibly be true."

Hill, who edited the Daily Express from December 2003 until last February, confirmed that the paper's circulation went up when it published articles about Madeleine's disappearance and that this was a factor in persisting with the story.

"The entire country had an opinion about that story," he said.

"Wherever you went, whether you went to a social gathering or as somebody said to the supermarket, people were talking about it and they all had an opinion about it. And these were strong opinions."

He added: "There was an enormous body of opinion on both sides of this story, and you couldn't stop that. There was no stopping it."

Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked him: "Those very circumstances, that you were dealing with leaks to the Portuguese press, together with the fact that you knew at the time that it was going to be next to impossible to verify the truth of the leaks, meant that you were running a very high risk by running these stories at all, weren't you?"

Hill agreed, adding: "This was an unprecedented story that in my 50 years of experience I cannot remember the like.

"There was an enormous clamour for information and there was an enormous push for information.

"It was an international story on an enormous scale, and there had not been a story involving individuals as opposed to huge events like that in my experience.

"It was not a story that you could ignore, and we simply had to try to cover it as best we could."

Jay asked him: "What did you do to check on the validity of those stories?"

Hill replied: "We did the best that we could do, which was not very much."

The former editor said he did not face criticism from his company's board over the costly settlement of the McCanns' defamation action.

"There have been hundreds of libel cases in newspapers, and newspaper administrations have got to live with them," he told the hearing.

At one point Hill protested about what he felt was a hostile line of questioning from Jay.

He said: "The fact of the matter is that this is a public inquiry, and I do not believe that I am on trial... I think you are putting me on trial."

Inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson assured him: "You are not on trial, Mr Hill. What we are looking at is the culture, practices and ethics of the press."

Earlier the inquiry heard how Express Newspapers continued using a private detective for more than five years after he was convicted of illegally accessing personal data.