Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 460-469)



  460. That is not what we have heard from others and I have heard following the debate I had last week about coroners' courts and inquests, because people do not know the system and do not know how to get you to desist, and often it is not going to be the apocalypse that you have suggested, the five BBC cameras, all the others and every national newspaper, but there will be six or seven newspapers and six or seven photographers. Do you think this is enough publicity so that people know how to get that to stop?
  (Ms Wade) Yes. In fact, I suppose Michael Fabricant was asking the same question, and it seems we are not doing enough to publicise the PCC because self-regulation is working, so perhaps we are not getting that message across because certainly you were saying that of the people who come to you that message is completely different. We do publish adverts in our newspapers telling people how to complain—the PCC has a 24-hour hotline and it has a website—and I think what is interesting, when a PCC adjudication is made and upheld, is the publicity attracted with every other single newspaper covering it because it is such a humiliation. It is such a terrible thing to happen and as Andy Coulson said we are competitive newspapers, so I do think people know the PCC is there.

  461. But that can be a problem itself for an individual because they do not want any more publicity which is why they often will not present with a problem because they know they are going to keep the story running. So I say very generally to you that for ordinary people there is a bigger problem out there than you or Piers Morgan know is happening.
  (Ms Wade) To be fair, on ordinary people, I have 10 million readers every single day so I think I know better than you ordinary people's perception of my newspaper, and I mean that with respect but, as I explained earlier, I have a constant interaction with my readers and if someone rings up the newsdesk or comes through to the editor and says, "Quite frankly, there is a reporter on my doorstep, I do not want to talk to you, will you go away?", then we do. That is why I am trying to explain to you how it is. If you have an individual case of someone whose newspaper was on the doorstep and refused to move after being asked to—

  462. But on this issue about pursuing the photo, and I am not so naive as to assume that you could all sit down and decide, "We only need one photo for all the newspapers of this child"—
  (Ms Wade) That often happens, by the way.

  463. Tell us about that.
  (Ms Wade) Well, for example, at any high profile funeral the last thing the relatives want is every single newspaper turning up. In the recent case of Millie Dowler we were asked not to be there so one photographer went and took the picture, and one reporter went for the words and that was it. So unless you can tell me an individual incident, I cannot reply to it. It is very difficult.

  Chris Bryant: Yes, this is difficult, because if I give you a story then it perpetuates the publicity for the family concerned but on a different question—


  464. Before we go on, on the line you have been taking, do you believe that within the PCC it could be useful if you had an effective system of prior restraint? I realise that when a newspaper is hurrying to get out an edition there are problems when somebody gets in touch on the helpline or to the newspaper itself and says, "You have been in touch with me, you are completely barking up the wrong tree, would it not be a good idea for you to stop now rather than publish it, and apologise?" It was not to do with privacy and media intrusion but I was involved in a situation with Amanda Platell when she had the Sunday Express in which I was warned that she was going to splash across her front page a grotesque lie about accusations I made about the then Prime Minister of Israel. I spoke to her; she insisted on doing it; and then her newspaper had to apologise because the PCC said she was wrong. Now, if prior restraint does not work in the sense of a member of Parliament talking directly to an editor, what hope has an ordinary person who does not want her or his name plastered across the press with a false acquisition, and trying to get it right in the haste of a newspaper going to press?
  (Ms Wade) That is difficult to answer because of the way you put it but, just to clarify, what you are saying is that you encountered a "publish and be damned" kind of attitude from an editor when you went yourself, and yet you got your redress from the PCC and they had to apologise. I cannot think of one occasion when you would publish and be dammed. The story is either accurate or not. Clause 1 of the PCC is accuracy; it is the most important. I know we are here to talk about privacy but the story is either true or not, and that is the first base in the criteria I was talking about. Once accuracy has been established, you then move on to all the other clauses in the code to see if they satisfy every single criterion obviously with the public interest defence being used where appropriate. It is difficult for me to answer, therefore, because you are saying that prior restraint does not work. Well, if someone rang me and said to me, "I have heard you are running a story that I am a cross dresser and it is not true", I would say, "Well, actually, I have a photograph in front of me of you dressed up in a frock so it is true", or I would say, "Really? Well, they are investigating it but we are not ready to publish". It is very difficult to answer that question.
  (Mr Kuttner) May I make a point? It is a specific and I will not use a name but five or six weeks ago the News of the World was "reliably alerted" to the allegation that a very high profile member of Parliament was on the list of the police paedophile investigation. The newspaper made legitimate inquiries and gathered some quite persuasive evidence and on the Saturday evening, the evening of pre publication, I received a telephone call from the individual member of Parliament who discussed with me in a very open, frank, straightforward and persuasive way the information that we had and explained why it could not be true and why he was absolutely not involved—entirely innocent—and we welcomed that, if you like, correction or, correction by prior restraint and nothing whatsoever was published. So you say, Mr Chairman, that if an MP cannot stop it then who can: well, this MP rightly stopped it, but I would like to add that, in my experience, we have had many such telephone calls—whether from the individuals concerned, from lawyers or from the PCC—to say, "Look, we have been contacted by X; X is very unhappy that you may be about to publish Y; Y is not true" and, as Rebekah Wade said, short of firm evidence like the photograph of the individual in the frock that material does not appear, but the flipside to that is that newspapers also receive plenty of calls from people who deny things which are (a) in the public interest, (b) which we absolutely know to be true and (c) about which we hold the firmest evidence, so it is always a cautious and careful judgment call.
  (Mr Coulson) I might add, particularly on Sunday papers, that what might seem to be an intrusive or problematic story at the first stage invariably turns out to have a clear public interest—the kind of crime stories we publish on a regular basis, the investigations which quite often involve ordinary people and where that ordinary person may well take exception—and over the course of the three or four weeks that follow our story we may run a follow-up and that person may well end up in court and we are very proud of that. One reporter alone, Mazhe Mahmood, has 119 convictions, and I suspect that some of those people who have been gaoled as a result of our stories may well have tried to make use of that proactive preventative measure at an early stage.
  (Ms Wade) If we look at the case of Ron Davies he denied it emphatically to The Sun, so you are talking about prior restraint. He did call up and deny it and I did have the photographs, and he then denied it and denied it and then said he was "spotting badgers" and, unless that is a new term I have not heard, he genuinely meant he was spotting badgers which was ludicrous so that kind of prior restraint that wouldn't have worked in that case, although I know we are talking about ordinary people and Ron Davies certainly is not ordinary.

Mr Bryant

  465. I am not going to go down that route!
  (Ms Wade) The badger route? I am very glad!

  466. The issue of how you set about getting information is also, of course, a matter of importance. There have been a series of stories over the last couple of years suggesting that The Sun, The Mirror, The Express, the News of the World, use private detectives, pay people to provide them with information which they should not legally have, pay the police to make sure they know things before they are rightfully public. In the case of Sarah Payne, The Sun, The Mirror and The Express all paid £5,000 to somebody to steal sensitive documents and sell them in their newspaper. Do either of your newspapers ever use private detectives, ever bug or pay the police?
  (Ms Wade) On the first question what you are talking about is public interest, and especially when I was editor of the News of the World, and obviously I have only been editor of The Sun for a short time but I am sure it will come up, emotive words like "subterfuge" and "entrapment" are used in the case especially of News of the World investigations. All those things you have mentioned like private detectives and listening devices and so on come under those two umbrellas. If I give you one example, and we are talking about ordinary people here and I will keep it to that in the context of the Committee, on a council estate in Birmingham there was a woman that had four daughters all under the age of 16, and we were told she was selling her daughters to local, if you like, paedophiles, because they were well under the age of 16, as I explained, so we were called to look at this story and we did not know whether it was true or not. If you can imagine how many stories come to the News of the World day in day out, every single one has to be true, so to prove that story we used a listening device. We sent somebody in who had a listening device on them, and the woman who was selling her daughters did not know that. The reporter came out, rang me and said, "This story is true. It is absolutely horrendous and I have not seen anything like it". It was a Tuesday afternoon; we immediately called the police; we got her arrested; we got the children protected; all the agencies were called in; and the thought of even publishing that story did not come into our heads—this was a Tuesday, and it was the News of the World. The fact is that subterfuge was used, the man got in contact with the woman on the estate and said he had been put in touch by a local paedophile and he heard that he had his daughters too—that was subterfuge. He is a reporter but he did not declare he was a reporter. He needed to get into the house and the listening device was then used, and sometimes that is necessary. So to answer your question, yes, but if you want me to sit here and go through all of the situations where that happens, it would be ridiculous. The most important thing is that it is only ever used in the public interest in the sense of what that means.

  467. And on the element of whether you ever pay the police for information?
  (Ms Wade) We have paid the police for information in the past.

  468. And will you do it in the future?
  (Ms Wade) It depends—
  (Mr Coulson) We operate within the code and within the law and if there is a clear public interest then we will. The same holds for private detectives, subterfuge, a video bag—whatever you want to talk about.

  469. It is illegal for police officers to receive payments.
  (Mr Coulson) No. I just said, within the law.

  Chairman: Chris, you have your answer. Thank you very much. We are grateful for your evidence and the courtesy with which you have given your responses.

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