House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
CULTURE, MEDIA AND SPORT COMMITTEE
Tuesday 24 March 2009
MR JEFF EDWARDS, MR SEAN O'NEILL and MR BEN GOLDACRE
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee
on Wednesday 25 March 2009
Mr John Whittingdale, in the Chair
Mr Mike Hall
Witnesses: Mr Jeff Edwards, Chairman, Crime Reporters Association, Mr Sean O'Neill, Crime and Security Editor, The Times, and Mr Ben Goldacre, the Guardian, gave evidence.
Q303 Chairman: Good morning. This is the fifth session taking evidence into our inquiry on press standards, privacy and libel. In the first part of this morning's hearing we are taking evidence from what we have termed "working journalists". I would like to welcome Jeff Edwards, Chairman of the Crime Reporters Association, and I think recently retired Chief Crime Correspondent for the Daily Mirror.
Mr Edwards: Yes, not working any more.
Chairman: Sean O'Neill, the Crime and Security Editor of the Times, and Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science column on the Guardian. Adam Price is going to start the questions.
Q304 Adam Price: One of the themes that has emerged in the inquiry so far is the huge pressures that modern journalists are having to work under. We are familiar with the term "churnalism" that Nick Davies has added to the lexicon. In the study by Cardiff University that underpinned some of his work, a survey showed that, for example, facts were only checked in 12% of stories, and they claimed that journalists in national newspapers were having to produce three times as much copy compared with 20 years ago. Is this an accurate picture in your experience of the pressure that journalists are working under now, compared to, say, a generation ago?
Mr Edwards: Yes. I think everybody in a newspaper office has to do more for less now. I can only speak about the organisation I was with for the last 20 years, which was the Daily Mirror, but during that period I have seen the staff shrink year on year, and when I left in December it was probably about 50% of the strength it was when I joined in the late 1980s. Inevitably it depends on what is happening on the day. As a specialist correspondent, I might start the day with nothing on the agenda or with five or six projects in the air at any one time and having to dip in and dip out of things. Pressure to produce is not a new phenomenon. That has been ever-present, in my experience. It is slightly different if you are a very experienced journalist - as I am, as Sean is, and my colleague here, I am sure, is as well. Obviously it is a matter of professionalism that you check your own facts as closely as you possibly can all the time but it is true that at certain times you might be dealing with, essentially, an overload of information. I think that is just changing times in the newspaper business. Its back is to the wall at the moment. We have seen shocking cuts and economies being made wholesale. Especially in the tributary system through the regional and local paper system, we have seen huge job losses. I think that, inevitably, the overall effect will be a poorer standard of journalism.
Q305 Adam Price: Some of the more colourful passages in Nick Davies' book refer to the use of industrial language, I suppose, by certain leading figures in the newspaper industry: "Journalist reduced to tears under pressure to produce," but was it not ever thus? Or is this a new phenomenon?
Mr O'Neill: I do not think there is anything new about that. It is a fairly robust work environment, where every day there is an absolute deadline otherwise the paper does not get out. You have to produce. I agree with Jeff: there is a new pressure to update internet sites and websites continually, but from my own experience when I was at The Times, if I am on a particular story and the web are saying, "We need copy for this," I can very easily say to the guy who is running the website, "I have to research this for the paper and I haven't got time to do it," I talk to one of his online reporters - he has a dedicated team of online reporters - have a chat with him on the phone, and that can be my input for the web for that particular story. Other times, if I feel I have time, then I will certainly follow up for the internet as well. I think the pressures have always been there. I have been on the staff of national newspapers, the Telegraph and then The Times, for 17 years now and we have always had a pressure. The Telegraph back then was a much bigger paper. It carried an awful lot of stories. You would be writing two or three stories for the paper every day. You might do less stories now but you might do one for the paper and one for the web - one version for each.
Q306 Adam Price: To a certain extent you are all specialists. In the news environment, are you give the time and the space to develop the specialist expertise, the contacts and the depth of knowledge that you need really to be a specialist?
Mr O'Neill: Where Jeff and I are, we cannot do our jobs in the crime field without spending a lot of time developing contacts. You just have to look at some of the agendas over the last year to see journalism of the last year to see that people do have the time to get out there and still dig into a story. If you look at my own paper's coverage of the Eddie Gilfoyle alleged miscarriage of justice case, one of our reporters spent months and months on that. He has had plenty of time to work on that. Ian Cobain at the Guardian, in the work he has done on alleged British complicity in Georgia, took months and months to pursue one topic. I myself have a 3,000 word piece in The Times today which has taken weeks and weeks to do. There is time. Absolutely. If you have the right story, you will get time to do it.
Mr Edwards: But quality journalism is expensive, frankly. It is expensive in terms of staff power. It is expensive in the literal sense: if you want to investigate something properly you have to go out and travel, you have to stay in hotels, costs mount up. There is an element in certain papers now of "pile it high and sell it cheap". Without a doubt. There is a huge budget squeeze. A ratcheting effect has gone on. This is not entirely new. It has gone on over at least a decade, I would say. I think the end product is a lower standard of product. It is interesting to note that the consistently successful newspapers, the ones which either maintain their circulation or at least manage to have a slower rate of decline than the others are those that invest heavily in journalism. There are commercial benefits to be gained from proper investigative journalism, but I am afraid that for many newspaper groups that is not an option any more. They have missed that boat or the boat sailed without them noticing. The Express Newspaper Group is a very good example, I suppose - although I do not really want to single anybody out. The truth is that is merely a shell of the organisation it once was. Newspapers are run by accountants now, not by journalists.
Q307 Adam Price: Clarence Mitchell, who is the media adviser to Gerry McCann, painted a pretty appalling picture of almost frenzied pressure on the journalists working on that particular story to produce. One of the discussions is whether that was a one-off because of the particular circumstances, but in the last few days we have had another crime story in an overseas jurisdiction, the Fritzl case. The Sun was the first newspaper in the world, I think, to publish a photograph of the daughter. The Daily Mail then followed up by publishing the name of the village where she was living now with her family, and she has had had to move back into a psychiatric institute because the cover has been blown. It hardly makes you proud to be British. Does it make you proud to be a journalist?
Mr Edwards: No. It is a vast topic this. When you look at the amount of trade and traffic that a newspaper like The Times or the Daily Mirror generates every day - millions of words, thousands of different topics over a period of a year, and things happen. There have always been things that have happened that I certainly did not approve of and no doubt a number of my colleagues would not have approved of. With the McCann case, which I was not directly involved in, I did not travel to Portugal - I did a little bit of work at this end, but I was only peripherally involved - I know from talking to colleagues, not just colleagues at the Daily Mirror but colleagues across the business who were out there, that there was intolerable pressure brought to bear on some of them to produce results at any cost. One of the interesting developments or one of the interesting aspects of how technology can take over is that all newspapers have websites now, and editors were coming in each morning and looking at the number of "hits" per story on the websites, and certainly the ones which were getting the greatest amount of attention were the ones they then wanted to repeat the process with again the next day. With the McCann case I know that most newspapers were in this situation. Editors were coming in the morning, having a look and saying, "There've been 10,000 hits." I have no doubt the same thing would have applied to the demise of Jade Goody over the last few days. They would come in, have a look and say, "This story is getting twice as many hits. People are twice as interested in this as anything else, thus we must have more on this story. So the editor tells one of his line managers, "We must develop more on this story," the line manager leans heavily on the reporter in Portugal and says, "We must have more on this story," and the reporter says, "There is no more. We have squeezed this dry." The line manager - and I am not talking about any particular newspaper: I am sure this is happening across the business - will be saying, "I don't care what we do, just get something" - you know: "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions." I have heard that expression many, many times in these sorts of circumstances. Essentially reporters, I know, will have been congregating in Portugal over breakfast, and saying, "What the hell are we going to do today to resolve the situation?" Thus a huge amount of recycling of information, and I have no doubt that some of what went on strayed beyond the boundaries of what was acceptable and some newspapers paid the price for that.
Q308 Adam Price: Sometimes, of course, the problem lies not with the body of the text of a story but with the headline. To what extent, if your buyer pays for the story, do you, as journalists, get consulted in relation to the headline?
Mr Edwards: No.
Mr Goldacre: You do not.
Mr O'Neill: I have had cases where we have had legal problems which have emanated from headlines and captions rather than from the body of the text. But I think it is part of the job of the reporter to be sensitive to the nature of the story. If you think there are legal issues there, you must say to the in-house lawyers and to the sub-editors who write the headlines, "Be very careful about the headline. Don't put the word 'terrorist' in there" and make sure the lawyer sees the headline before the page goes to print. There are ways of avoiding it but you have to have your antennae out at all times. The other thing is that sometimes people insert mistakes into your copy while in the business of correcting your grammar or something.
Q309 Adam Price: This must be one of the problems with some of the health scare stories that certain papers seem to major on. People will read the headline which will give an impression of whatever problems with MMR, et cetera. Maybe the body of the text is more balanced but they will just have read the headline and that is it.
Mr Goldacre: I think that is sometimes true. "Facebook Causes Cancer" was a good example of that in the Daily Mail. I think there are a lot of problems that are possibly specific to health and science coverage. I am slightly worried about the extent to which people are keen to use overwork as an excuse in bad journalism. One of the stories I have covered, for example, the media's MMR hoax - as I believe it will come to be known, effectively - is not an example of people being hurried. It is also quite a good example of how, even though there are people in newspapers who are well trained (for example, specialist health and science correspondents who are often very good at what they do), commonly when a story becomes a big political hot potato, it is taken out of the hands of the specialists and put into the hands of journalists. In the case of MMR that was very clear. There is study from the Cardiff University School of Journalism from 2003 which shows that of all the science stories in 2002, which is when the coverage of MMR peaked, the stories about MMR were half as likely to be written about by science and health correspondents as stories about GM or cloning. I think that is very problematic because, suddenly, the people who normally would be writing about a funny thing that happened to the au pair on the way to a diner party were giving people advice about epidemiology and immunology, which is plainly never going to work. That happens time and again with stories of the kind that I cover, where you see a scare story, or a story about the supposed benefits of one particular vegetable, written not by a health or science correspondent but by a journalist who has picked up a press release.
Q310 Adam Price: Nick Davies' speeches about churnalism are borne out, and it is driven by sales in this country, because a paper believes that there is a public interest in these kinds of stories and therefore they want them to go on the front page of the papers.
Mr Goldacre: I recognise that you have to be realistic and that there is a difference between the work of a public health physician trying to convey good, clean, clear information to the public about the risks of different health behaviours and the desires of the newspaper to sell copies or to sell readers to advertisers, but I think the drive to sensationalism has gone to the point where people create stories that really have basically no factual content at all in the area of health.
Q311 Alan Keen: It is coming through clearly - and people knew before we started the inquiry, but every time we have asked anybody during this inquiry, whether it is lawyers or Gerry McCann or Max Mosley, and you have said it again this morning - the standards have changed, have deteriorated, because of people getting desperate. What can we do about it? We are talking about a privacy law or not a privacy law. Are the press intruding too much or are they not? You are insiders. What would you say we should do?
Mr Edwards: I do not have any answers. I could take you back through my career and I could sort of chart the demise of journalism. When I started my career in the late 1960s, working on very well-produced newspapers in East London, advertising was the packaging that went around the editorial content. They were editorially driven and had a large editorial staff. If you look at those same papers today - if they are not free sheets - they have almost no editorial staff whatsoever, and what editorial content there is, it is the packaging that goes around the advertising. I like to compare regional journalism, say, in this country - and this is a bit whimsical, but I am an angler - to the tributaries that feed into the main rivers. Those regional and local newspaper offices and so forth - as with radio and television, I am sure, as well - are the spawning beds of the industry. If you destroy those spawning beds, do not be surprised if the number of salmon coming through over the next few years is reduced. Ben made a good point. We laugh about it sometimes, ironically, at work. I have seen extraordinary schoolboy howlers creeping into papers I have worked for over the last few years, simply caused by just a lack of knowledge or a lack of training or a lack of experience by people on the production side. Sometimes you hear conversations that make your hair stand on end. I walked behind two sub-editors at the Daily Mirror just before I left - these are people in their thirties, you would have thought they would probably have had a good education - and one was saying to the other, "Do you know, I didn't know Japan was in the Second World War." I am serious. And I thought, "Then you shouldn't be working here." I do not really want to bring levity into this, because it is a serious matter, but the Guardian was honest enough to be the first newspaper that started a purpose-designed corrections column, and the Daily Mirror does the same thing now, and it is one of the things that you first look at in the morning to cheer you up. Things happen in there that you find completely unbelievable. But it is symptomatic of a much more serious problem.
Mr O'Neill: I would take a slightly different perspective from Jeff in that. I have spent quite a few days recently in the Newspaper Library at Colindale, which is a fascinating place. It is not that long since newspapers had advertising all over the front page. They did not have news; advertising was very much to the fore. Also, I do not necessarily recognise "churnalism". I do not have a lot of time for Nick Davies' thesis at all. The old Telegraph in the 1950s and 1960s had about 40 or 50 stories on a page and somebody was churning that out. I am a very passionate, heated believer in the power of journalism to shine a light in dark corners and to get where people do not want stories to be told and things to be found out, and journalism today is a damn sight more professional than when I started 30 years ago, and, I think, a cleaner and more conscientious business than it was. We were chatting outside about the old days but I think people are a lot more conscientious now about how they go about it. It is just a more professional business. Frankly, we spend a lot less time in the pub than we used to.
Q312 Paul Farrelly: I became an MP in 2001, and I was City Editor of the Observer and an investigative journalist beforehand. My coming here coincided just at the time when these collaterised debt obligations and all this fancy stuff was taking off. I had never heard of it until recent times. I cannot help thinking that the number of old hands from financial investigative journalism that I still know in the trade I could probably count on the fingers of one or maybe two hands, whereas there used to be a lot of them. I just wonder, coupled always with the implicit threat of libel, always with the implicit threat of spoiling the sources if you are in the City, whether, even ten years ago, the press would have done a far better job of investigating the causes of the current troubles than it does now in terms of the amount of resources it is willing to put into investigative journalism.
Mr Edwards: I agree, in a way, with what Sean just said. I think we have been "professionalised" in one sense, but it has not necessarily made us better journalists, if you see what I mean. Newspapers cannot afford, never more so than at the moment, to be cavalier about what they do. Lawyers in big newspaper groups are more active than they have ever been. The biggest struggles that I know go on in a newsroom on almost any given day are those between journalists and our in-house legal departments, because, in an ideal world, they would put a blue pencil through everything they possibly can because they are also judged on their results. If things get through the net, they are culpable. In the end, the buck stops with them. They are the people who carry the responsibility for keeping us out of the courts. Journalists are passionate in their views, or should be, about their profession, and of course they are always looking in a certain sense, with responsibility I hope, to push the envelope, to push the boundaries. Once again, it comes back to investment in the product. It strikes me the Sunday Times is not feared by the establishment in the way it used to be, for instance. You could almost rely on it, week by week, 20 years ago, to produce stories that really grabbed attention, that really brought about change, that brought important matters under public scrutiny - and not just the Sunday Times but many others. The Daily Mirror, where I worked until very recently very proudly, had a fantastic tradition for really great journalism. It had many, many extremely creditable people working for it: people like Paul Foot, John Pilger - great names - journalists who built a reputation on righting wrongs, on fighting injustice and so forth. As I said to you before, that element is no longer considered, even in a paper like the Daily Mirror, to be a commercially viable or a commercially interesting asset.
Mr O'Neill: Your generation of financial journalists were probably the generation that did not see Maxwell coming. Maxwell got away with robbing the Mirror pensions blind.
Q313 Paul Farrelly: Read the last transcript.
Mr O'Neill: When they went for Maxwell, he went to the courts and he obtained injunctions against everybody. That is the situation we are in with a lot of investigative stories now . You probably see less of it because a lot more of it is being stopped in the courts by injunctions and by threats from Carter Ruck. People run to Carter Ruck as soon as you ask the question and stories get stopped.
Q314 Chairman: That leads neatly on to this issue. We have been told that there has been a gradual shift in the balance between freedom of expression and privacy, but that in the area into which I think all three of you fall - which is exposing genuine matters of real public interest, not sensationalism - all three of you are dealing with either crime or health matters which obviously are in the public interest, there is the defence for journalists of public interest, which has been set out specifically in the Reynolds case, where there are various tests which, if you meet them, provide you with a defence. Are you satisfied that you are still able to devote the time and the resources in order that you have that defence and that it is not preventing you from righting wrongs as you do it?
Mr O'Neill: I personally think we still get the stories and we still do the work. Where the obstacles come in - and this is particularly just in the last two or three years - is in the rise of this kind of unwritten, judge-made privacy law, and the rise of - I am sure you have heard of it - what I call "no win, no fee" but which I think is called CFA libel.
Q315 Chairman: Indeed.
Mr O'Neill: That scares the living daylights out of newspaper lawyers. As soon as they see Carter Ruck coming waving CFA at them, they know that by the end of the week the costs are going to be tens of thousands of pounds and going up from that in a spiral and they settle cases and run away from cases rather than fight them. I have been involved in a number of stories where, frankly, I think we could have fought cases and won them, but it would have been so expensive. Might the guy at the other end have had the money to pay our costs? Probably not. The judgment is made that we will wait for a bigger one, but we have to stand our ground at some point. It is difficult to give examples of this but I have been involved in a couple of cases involving terrorism stories, where people have gone to Carter Ruck and sued. I hope I am privileged in here, but ....
Q316 Chairman: You are.
Mr O'Neill: Jolly good. I am fairly sure that in two cases that I am aware of some of the money that was paid in damages to one individual was then later used for bail surety for a man on a very serious terrorist charge, and I am pretty damn sure that money was used to bribe officials in Pakistan to set free a very serious terrorist prisoner. On the other business of privacy law, I can give you an example of a story I was working on with a couple of colleagues a couple of years ago. A fairly senior lawyer, who back in the 1980s was a student animal rights extremist, now works for, advises and represents the Metropolitan Police and police forces up and down the country. His previous animal rights activity is well-documented back in the early 1980s. We were going to do "Look where he's gone now" as a matter of public interest but as soon as we put the questions to him, we called him up and informed him of what we were doing and here are the questions, he gave answers - he basically admitted everything - within an hour we had Carter Ruck on the phone threatening, "This is breaching his privacy. We'll get an injunction" blah, blah, blah, and we ended up having to pull back and look at that another day. We run into that sort of thing all the time.
Q317 Chairman: But you believed that that story was in the public interest and that is a defence against any attempt to obtain an injunction.
Mr O'Neill: I believed it was in the public interest. If I am right in remembering, I think my lawyer said, "We think we would win on public interest, but this privacy law is so uncertain, we don't know where we are going, and is this the one on which we want to make our stand?"
Mr Goldacre: I think one problem is the time and money required to deal with the problems you could pick off is so enormous that it is a very big risk. I get the sense that people often exploit the fact that they know it will be a lot of time and money for you in order to make quite trivial objections to your own stories.
Mr O'Neill: It is blackmail.
Mr Goldacre: Yes, but it is a test really of how much you want to cover a story. In some cases it can make you more dogged, because you think, "Right, there's obviously something worth covering here" and, also, just out of bloody mindedness, "I'm going to pursue this because I feel offended that you are trying to bully me." But I think in a lot of cases, if it is a 50:50 thing and you are not that bothered, then people will often drop things just because the nominal cost is too much.
Mr O'Neill: We had a similar one at The Times recently, with Mohamed Ali Harrath, a Tunisian who is on an Interpol red notice. He is a wanted man in Tunisia but not anywhere else and he is an adviser to the Metropolitan Police on Islamic affairs in this country. When we first approached him it was as a side issue on another story, and, once again, we got Carter Ruck down like a ton of bricks "How dare you harass our client." He abused the reporter and he called him "a Zionist, an Islamaphobe." He was more abusive and we were terribly polite, as always. In the end, I thought, "This is just not worth it." But we had a young Australian reporter who came in recently, and he spent three months nailing that one down and got it into the paper. But it took a hell of a long time and an awful long time spent with the lawyers, and basically not to deviate very far from the point at which we started.
Q318 Mr Hall: I want to explore with you the relationship between journalists and the PCC. Before I do that, you said that we have unwritten, judge-made privacy laws. Would you like the Government to clarify the position on privacy laws in primary legislation?
Mr O'Neill: I think that once we start getting ministers and judges and lawyers editing newspapers, we are heading towards Portugal.
Q319 Mr Hall: I take that as a no, then.
Mr O'Neill: Absolutely.
Q320 Mr Hall: You are quite happy to put up with the situation as it is.
Mr O'Neill: In my situation the PCC code is part of my contract of employment. It is a very serious matter for me. I cannot mess about with that. I cannot say, "I'm not going to stick by that." It is in my contract. If I breach that, I can lose my job. I think we are all pretty aware these days, especially on crime stories, that you are dealing with very sensitive areas. You are approaching people who have been bereaved; you are dealing with ongoing criminal investigations. You have to be very careful. I personally take that code very seriously.
Q321 Mr Hall: The National Union of Journalists has campaigned for a "conscience" clause in the PCC code to allow journalists to say to their editors, "I'm sorry, I don't like this story, I don't want to cover it." Do you think that should be in the code?
Mr Edwards: It is very difficult to apply. In my situation I had sufficient seniority - and I have used this many times over the years - to go to the editor, if I knew in advance what we were doing, and say, "I think we're wrong to do this. I think we are barking up the wrong tree. I think this is dangerous." I have worked for 26 different editors in a 25-year career on national newspapers. The turnover was very rapid. Different editors. Different personalities. Some were good listeners and would take good advice; others did not want to know at all. I think senior journalists do have that facility. I have no doubt that senior political journalists regularly brief their editors and say "I think we should be doing this" - or "I think we should not be doing this" is just as important. But, of course, the majority of the staff of any newspaper are not in that privileged position. It would be deemed to be quite impertinent for most of the people I can think of to go the editor of the paper and say, "I'm not doing this, boss, because I simply do not agree with it" on moral or ethical grounds or whatever. You would probably be quietly eased out of the organisation, is the effect. It would be impossible, I think, to police it.
Q322 Mr Hall: We have heard reference to the MMR story, which you are calling the "media hoax". A journalist goes along to his editor and says, "This is completely wrong. We are going to end up in seven years time with an endemic of measles, the research side of this story is complete garbage and we should not be doing it." Would that work?
Mr Goldacre: I think that did happen in a lot of newspapers. There were a lot of people who spoke sense to power but were ignored. I think there is a problem in that health and science coverage have unique problems, in that people at the top of news organisations tend to be humanities graduates who do not understand the basics of evidence-based practice but, also, there is a desire for certainty about either risks or benefits that medical research simply cannot offer. Certainly in relation to MMR I have been told a lot of stories about this stuff. Also with the silly science stories. There was one where the headline in the Sun was "All men will have big willies". It was a classic example of churnalism. It was a promotional piece for a TV channel but it was presented as if it was an important breakthrough within the science of our understanding of evolution. This was reported as a serious story in all national newspapers. I have been told by people who were in newsrooms on that day that they said, "Look, please do not make me write this story, it's ridiculous." News editors and other senior people in the paper made it very clear that this would be bad for their career. That is a trivial example, but I think it speaks to a larger problem. Journalists often talk about "writing for the spike," which is where you are forced to write a story, and so you do write it, but you write it with as many caveats as possible so that it is effectively unpublishable. I suppose it is that dirty protest that is the closest you can get realistically.
Q323 Mr Hall: How effective is the PCC's code of practice, if you are not going to sign up for a conscience clause? Sean, you have already answered this question. What is your view, Jeff?
Mr Edwards: I think the PCC is taken very seriously. I know from the last few years working at the Daily Mirror that I frequently heard and was part of debates where the question of whether we would we be leaving ourselves vulnerable to that kind of complaint was taken. I was quite pleased, in the sense that I think it was necessary to form a body like the PCC. And of course initially people said, "It does not have a great deal of bite" but I suspect that the longer it has gone on the more seriously it has been taken. I really think that is probably about as good as it can get.
Q324 Mr Hall: What is your experience of the complaints procedure? You might want to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Mr Edwards: Not at all.
Q325 Mr Hall You have been very candid with us.
Mr Edwards: I will be honest with you, in my entire career I have never been the subject of a PCC complaint. I have only been the subject of one libel, which was on my first week on the News of the World, and, interestingly, bearing in mind something else we were just debating, it was not about the text of the story. My copy was not libellous but the headline was. We lost that, I think. Again I make this delineation: amongst senior journalists who are given responsibility and expected to show responsibility and expected to understand their profession fully there is a great deal of discretion and a lot of integrity and a lot of commonsense application. Your knowledge of the rules should keep you out of trouble anyway. Instinctively, your experience, your knowledge, your learning and a number of factors should be able to tell you: "If I write that we are likely to run aground. We are going into tricky conditions here." In my particular field, many, many times, I have adjusted my approach to a story out of deference to victims of a crime or to recognise that you need to show some sensitivity. I have sometimes been critical of colleagues who have written things. We have had debates afterwards and I have said, "If I had been writing that story, I would not have pitched it that way. I would not have said that. You could cause a lot of damage unnecessarily. How does it enhance the story? What would we lose by it if we had not included that?" No saint am I, but I have accrued a lot of experience and I think that is invaluable in keeping you out of trouble.
Mr O'Neill: I have two outstanding PCC complaints at the moment. They are both being taken very seriously by our Readers' Editor. One is from Terry Adams and the other is from Kenny Noy(?) both with links to organised drug-running businesses, and I have to answer those in full when they come in. On the conscience clause, I think a conscience clause would turn into a bit of a Shergar's challenge. I was born and bred in Northern Ireland and I spent a lot of time reporting on the troubles. It is my job in something like that, no matter what I think and feel personally about a matter, to report that impartially. There is a paper in Northern Ireland called the Impartial Reporter. I think a reporter has to be impartial. You report what you see in front of your eyes. It is not about what you think when you are a reporter; it is about what you see and what you hear and what occurs. You have to report that fairly and frankly and openly. I think if you have a problem with an issue, if you have a problem with a news editor suggesting you go and do something, I think Jeff is right this is where experience comes in. If you are an experienced reporter, you can tell your news editors to hang back a little: "We do not want to do that. It is a bad idea."
Q326 Helen Southworth: You have been very clear about the importance and significance of the PCC code of practice, all three of you. How universal is that? Is it automatic for any journalist that the code of practice would be part of a contract, for example?
Mr O'Neill: I do not know if it is universal across the industry. I think it is in News International. When we had the previous body, the Press Complaints Council, before the current Commission, I think it was taken less seriously. I think that for the last five, six, seven years it has been regarded much more seriously, because all newspapers, like Jeff says, want to stay out of the courts. Nobody wants to get to the courts. If there is a system of self-regulation and it can be seen to be working, then everybody in the industry takes it seriously. We have to. I think that has become much more the norm and much more the standard.
Mr Edwards: Certainly in the last eight or nine years at the Mirror, however long the PCC has been running, it was made very clear that we were going to comply, we were going to clean up our act. I think that may well have been said in other newspaper offices as well. Unfortunately what happens is that sometimes a set of circumstances may be so irresistible that people conveniently push aside that commitment. They become overexcited. I suspect that if you look at the McCann saga it is probably a good example of that, whereby if you had shown various editors the year before a play written around those circumstances, they would have all read it and said this is jolly interesting but we would never allow it to happen. It is a peculiar psychology. I do not know what gets into people but that is an ideal example of it. It is a paradox. On the one side I know I have had many, many conversations, as I have said, where we have talked about the risks, about the morality of a particular story or whatever, and said, "Listen, we want to stay the right side of the line. We have a commitment to abide by the rules." Then you will see a certain set of circumstances where it is almost as if, I do not know, people suddenly act out of themselves for a limited period over a particular story. I do not know - you know, in a world that is driven by extreme competition never so more now than it is - what you do about that.
Q327 Helen Southworth: I want to follow up about the drivers and whether these drivers have changed. We have been touching on it in your answer, Jeff. The mass media communication world has changed so rapidly in the last ten years. You do not have to travel across the world to find out what parts of the world are saying. Some of those media are completely outwith the journalists' body of experience and knowledge and skills in print media and broadcasting previously. What kind of impact do you think that is having currently? Is that something that the PCC needs to give a focus on, putting something into the public domain, for example? It has shifted really radically in the last ten years.
Mr O'Neill: In a way we are the responsible end of the business. What they call "citizen journalism," out there on the blogosphere and forums and rumour sites, nobody is controlling any of that. The stories are still out there about the McCann family and that case. It is circulating madly. The internet feeding frenzy that goes on is completely beyond regulation. Nobody has any control over any of that. I think that is really quote worrying. I am not saying you people, but if you look at the courts, judges make contempt of orders: "You must not report this" and "Nobody must know anything about this" and when jurors get home they Google the name of the defendant and find out everything they need to know. Not necessarily from responsible media but from all kinds of sites. It is getting to a world where you can regulate the press and you can talk about privacy laws and libel and all the rest of it. Who is going to sue truecrimeblogger.com while he peddles loads of nonsense that cannot be checked or verified and all the rest of it?
Mr Edwards: Sean is right in that respect. I have said that mainstream newspapers are almost being pushed to the fringe of the media world and, as you say, we can only self-police ourselves internally as the world pertains to us. There is an incredible mass media world and, as Sean said, there is citizen journalism now; it seems that the internet is entirely unrestrained, there are no legal restraints on it and you can write what you like almost about anyone providing that you are shielded in some way - outside the UK jurisdiction or whatever. I do not know what you do about that. I was fascinated, I watched an episode of a police series called Traffic Cops the other night and the police officers had to arrest two very violent men inside a supermarket. By the time they got them under control the camera was facing towards the front glass of the supermarket and you could see about ten people with mobile phones videoing this arrest. I thought it was quite interesting that after the prisoners were put into a van and taken away to the police station the reporter said to the PC "That was a difficult bit of business" and he said "Yes, because we had to behave extremely well in these circumstances because you saw all those people who were videoing what was going on. That won't be the first time that our relief has been on YouTube." There is good and bad in that; it actually acts as a restraining factor and also acts as a restraining factor on journalists sometimes, in some circumstances, you never know, because we are all subject to more scrutiny in more circumstances which you might not expect because there is so much more media out there.
Mr Goldacre: I actually disagree. There is certainly a lot of idle tittle-tattle on the web which is much like conversations in pubs, and that could be policed very simply if our libel system was not so all or nothing; if there was the equivalent of a small claims court then it would be fairly straightforward. More importantly, there are many, many stories in the area of health and science where the coverage on the internet is infinitely better, more accurate and more relevant than the coverage in national newspapers; that is something to be very optimistic about and something to actively encourage. It is not just blogs, it is not just of random people, it is academics who write about their own work, who write about their colleagues' work, it is medical research charities, it is the NHS evidence site which gets through many visitors a week, and actually as the quality of newspaper coverage deteriorates alternative sources are improving in quality and it has a two-sided effect. On the one hand they are producing better coverage and on the other hand, as you say, they are pointing out the flaws in mainstream media coverage. That is very powerful and something to be very enthusiastic about.
Q328 Paul Farrelly: I tend to agree that a conscience clause would be unworkable, and I can imagine the conversation afterwards with most editors, that if you want to continue working for this paper, son, before you get up tomorrow and leave the house you had better leave your morals at home.
Mr Edwards: Absolutely.
Q329 Paul Farrelly: I was interested to hear what you say about the seriousness with which the PCC is allegedly taken because I know the sort of people who comment in the press, but actually if somebody threatens to take you to the PCC over a controversial story there is almost a palpable sigh of relief because people have not got the confidence or the wherewithal or the bottle to sue, and unless you threaten to sue it will not change a newspaper's behaviour or they will not take it seriously, you are not a threat. Therefore the PCC in many respects is laughed off as a bit of a ---
Mr O'Neill: I can only speak from personal experience. If I get a PCC complaint then in no uncertain terms I have got to go through the anatomy of the story: where it started, what I did, who I speak to and where the information came from. With some stories it is quite difficult to reveal or hint at where the source of information about a particular person came from. That is increasingly the case so I disagree with you Paul.
Mr Goldacre: I have had several PCC complaints and I have taken them extremely seriously. Often they have been on things which I have regarded as quite trivial and I am very happy to spend the time. The fact that it costs you a lot of the time is one of the main reasons for people going to the PCC because they know it is a way of effectively punishing you for writing about them.
Mr Edwards: I would agree with my colleagues here. As I stated before, I was pleased, certainly in the last few years at the Mirror that the presence of the PCC was taken seriously. Earlier I said that I have never been subject to a complaint; Sean has just reminded me and funnily enough I think the only complaint I recently received was from a multiple rapist who said that I had said that he was the worst rapist in the prison system; it turned out that there was somebody else with one more conviction so it was not true. He received a letter back from our Legal Department wishing him a nice day in prison and to stop bothering us. It is quite interesting actually; a lot of complaints that go into that body are actually from people who do it in anger, they often do not understand what is right and what is wrong. Lots of people who find themselves on the wrong end of publicity, quite justifiably, immediately lash out. People are always talking about suing newspapers but they go and see solicitors and it is not a question of the expense when they are told in no uncertain terms that actually the newspaper story appears to be fair and accurate. It is the same thing with the Press Complaints Commission, that people tend to make threats or make a lot of fuss and write letters to the PCC when in fact there is no case to answer. Certainly it was instilled in everyone - I have never worked for any newspaper at all where wilful inaccuracy, wilful going out to get somebody, was encouraged or tolerated or ever wanted. Quite often complaints go to the Press Complaints Commission because it is a mistake rather than a deliberate piece of mischief that brings about that situation. As I said before, when you look at the enormous amount of traffic that one copy of the Guardian generates - I do not know how many words go into one issue of the Guardian or one issue of The Times every day but the accuracy rate contained therein is astonishingly high when you consider all those words. It is a good thing also that you will hear a lot of people talk about being maligned in the papers and what they actually mean is it is a difference of opinion about something rather than a difference of facts. I spend a lot of time with police officers and we hear regularly of miscarriages of justice - we saw one last week where a man convicted of murder was released after 27 years when his conviction was believed to be unsafe. I do not know any police officers who take pleasure in convicting and putting in prison the wrong person for a crime, and I do not know any journalists who take any pleasure in deliberately distorting facts or maligning people who do not deserve to be in that situation.
Mr O'Neill: If I can come back on that, you are right that the PCC is maybe not taken as seriously as being sued in the libel courts and I am sure that in a case where somebody thinks they have a strong case for libel they will go to the libel courts. What is happening now though with CFAs is that you are being threatened with libel actions over things that really at the end you just know actually I am right here, but the lawyers are saying "We have got to settle this one, we cannot afford to fight this one". That is distorting journalism and it is a distortion of justice.
Q330 Philip Davies: I am interested about this sort of chilling effect that seems to be taking place. Has the balance shifted? It seems to me as a layman that perhaps 15 years ago the common view would have been do not bother taking on the News of the World or The Sunday Times because they have got such deep pockets you may be asking for a bankruptcy, just do not bother. It seems that that has now changed and it is now the newspapers who are saying we cannot afford to risk taking this to court and the balance of power has shifted; is that right?
Mr O'Neill: The cases would go to court if the fee structure was in any way fair. I am no lawyer and I do not really understand it, I just have lawyers saying "Look, we cannot afford this" and because of this CFA thing the costs start like that and then they go like that.
Q331 Philip Davies: Is it simply CFA?
Mr O'Neill: It is also predatory lawyers. Carter Ruck, if you see their newsletter, they boast about running around the country, reading through the newspapers, picking people and approaching them and saying "We can get you some money here". It is ambulance-chasing and that is really going on extraordinarily in some areas, especially if you write anything to do with Islamic extremism or suggesting someone is an extremist or a fundamentalist or anything like that. You can bet your bottom dollar Carter Ruck will be on it within days. Because of that it is a chilling effect, absolutely, but we do go around and we cross the I's and we dot the T's and we check again and again and again.
Q332 Philip Davies: My starting point is that a free press is essential in a democracy and that we rely on the press and the media to expose and challenge wrongdoing in authority; I would hate to see a privacy law because it is an essential part of our democracy. If this is happening, from your perspective what is the solution that would allow you to expose this wrongdoing without worrying about being sued or being prevented from publishing wrongdoing? Is it simply abolishing CFAs or does it need something more than that?
Mr O'Neill: Ben just talked about this idea of more of a small claims court for libel so that libel does not become this extraordinary, hugely expensive thing.
Mr Goldacre: I was recently sued by a vitamin consultant who was selling vitamin pills in South Africa - taking out full page adverts in national newspapers saying anti-AIDS drugs will kill you, it is a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry, vitamin pills are the answer to the AIDS problem. This was obviously very irresponsible and it was fairly cut-and-dried to my mind where the evidence stood on whether vitamin pills or anti-AIDS drugs were better for treating AIDS, but this was such an enormously long drawn-out process that eventually by the time he pulled out our costs were half a million pounds. I had watched the process accumulate with unending meetings with huge numbers of very professional and very highly-paid people and I found myself amazed at the huge amount of time and effort that was being expended on looking at what seemed to be something that could be resolved in an afternoon.
Q333 Philip Davies: Are there individuals that you would shy away from, that because you know that they will threaten legal action through Carter Ruck or whoever it might be, have we got to a situation where there are now individuals whom you consider to be untouchable because you know you cannot take them on or your newspaper would not be prepared to take them on?
Mr O'Neill: I am not sure there are any number of Maxwells, that was the classic case.
Mr Edwards: We are in a position of privilege here, that is understood. Certainly the Daily Mirror fought shy of anything that might be perceived to be critical of Roman Abramovich recently. I actually had a story myself which was not critical, it would not have been in any way libellous, it simply talked about some security arrangements, some extravagant and interesting security arrangements that he was making concerning his fleet of luxury yachts, and we did not run the story at the time because the edict was can we absolutely back this story up? I know what it was - I knew it was absolutely true but his organisation denied it, because he is a very private person and he considered it apparently to be some commentary about some aspect of his private life. The message came back we do not mess with Abramovich, he is too powerful, he is too litigious, if in doubt - there was no doubt in my mind, I said "Orders have been placed for this equipment, I can tell you with which organisation" but they ran away from the story and I accepted that that is the world we live in now, sometimes you cannot do anything about that.
Q334 Philip Davies: It is quite serious if people for whom it is important to have scrutiny and be challenged, simply because of the legal ---
Mr O'Neill: It has always been that way, it has always been the rich and powerful who have been able to go to the libel courts and silence the newspapers.
Q335 Philip Davies: When Max Moseley gave evidence to the Committee I actually was not here but one of the most convincing things that he was complaining about was the issue of prior notification. He felt it was absolutely right that if a newspaper was going to print something about them the following day they should be notified prior to that. In his particular case that did not happen, presumably because the paper concerned would be pretty sure that an injunction would be taken out and that they may not be able to run the story, so presumably prior notification was not given in that case in order to prevent an injunction. Would you support a system where you had to give prior notification to somebody if you were going to print an unflattering story about them?
Mr O'Neill: No. The normal course of action when you are doing a story with most people is that you will ring them - it is not really prior notification, you are saying this is the allegation we are about to make or the story we are about to tell, we know it is true, what is your response, what is your comment, what have you got to say? There are other stories where, again, like the Maxwell situation, people will injunct you, where you have High Court judges basically censoring stories. Maxwell was protected for years by the courts and the people who lost out were the Mirror pensioners whom he robbed blind for years because he was not properly exposed. The other situation, slightly hypothetical, is imagine you were writing a story about someone who has committed a criminal act or is a fraudster or something, you are one step ahead of the police - which sometimes happens. You do not want to flag that up to that person to allow them either to start shredding documents or escape the country or something like that, you want them to get the story out, you want to get the authorities informed but you do not want to have to give the game away.
Q336 Philip Davies: But I think the argument would go that surely it is better in terms of an injunction that an independent judge decides whether or not something is in the public interest rather than the editor of the newspaper making that decision that it is in the public interest and I do not know care what anyone else thinks. That is how the argument goes but what would you say to that?
Mr Edwards: First of all, how do you apply prior notification because especially in the case of very wealthy, very important people, they can avoid prior notification if you like because very frequently if I wanted to speak to Roman Abramovich I could not, it would be easier probably to get an audience with the Pope, as they say, than speaking to somebody like that because they are constantly on the move, they are shielded by layer upon layer of security and public relations and all sorts of people - echelon strength. If you are the editor of the News of the World, it is Friday evening and you say "Right, now it is time to tell Roman Abramovich what we are about to do", you speak to your first line of contact which is maybe a public relations agency or whatever working on his behalf and they say, "Sorry, we cannot get hold of Mr Abramovich, we have no idea where he is in the world; he has 16 homes, eight aeroplanes and nine yachts and we do not know where he is." Have you fulfilled your obligation to try and contact him or have you not, and do you then say we cannot publish the story until we can speak to him directly, because that situation could run on endlessly? What criteria do you apply that says we have actually attempted to do our best to contact this individual to give him prior notification? Important people, as we said, will always find ways to make themselves unavailable, so that is a difficulty that I can see straightaway.
Chairman: We are going to have to stop very, very shortly. Paul.
Q337 Paul Farrelly: Just on the chilling thing I am sure the News of the World might argue that actually we published a dummy edition in time-honoured fashion, not because of the threats of injunctions, to be sure of our story, but because we did not want the Sunday Mirror getting in on the story.
Mr O'Neill: Quite right.
Q338 Paul Farrelly: We have recently just had an example where a newspaper was very sure of its story because it verified the documents - the Guardian - where Barclays found a judge at two o'clock in the morning who could not order the paper to be pulped because it had gone out at that stage but ordered the removal of the documents from its website for breach of confidentiality. Ben, very briefly in the time that the Chairman has allowed us, could you just explain, when you are running health stories how do the people who are peddling these wares approach you and the Guardian to try and stop you writing what they consider to be bad things about their reputations? How do they tie you down?
Mr Goldacre: Legal threats generally; obfuscation, so unsatisfactory defences which take a lot of time and effort to unravel but more commonly legal threats which have never come to anything - well, they have come to 15 months of weekly meetings and harassment but nothing more than that.
Q339 Paul Farrelly: Finally, do you find that in these circumstances it is not really about the money they want, it is about the chilling effect and also causing you and the newspaper so much aggro that you are more likely to give up and leave it alone?
Mr Goldacre: Yes, because the motivation is to bully you and that can have very different effects. With me in a lot of cases it has made me much dogged about pursuing a story but on a much bigger scale there are points where it goes beyond what a newspaper can actually administratively handle, and at that point people become untouchable.
Chairman: We need to move on to our next session. Can I thank all three of you very much.
Memoranda submitted by Press Complaints Commission
and Press Standards Board of Finance
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Sir Christopher Meyer, Chairman, Press Complaints Commission, Mr Tim Toulmin, Director, Press Complaints Commission, and Mr Tim Bowdler, Chairman, Press Standards Board of Finance, gave evidence.
Chairman: Good morning, for the second part of this morning's session could I welcome the Chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance Tim Bowdler; the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission Sir Christopher Meyer; and the Director Tim Toulmin. Janet Anderson.
Q340 Janet Anderson: Thank you Chairman. Welcome, gentlemen. The Press Complaints Commission of course was set up in 1991 following a report by Sir David Calcutt into press regulation and it was his recommendation that there be a non-statutory body to regulate the press but that if it was not effective then there ought to be statutory regulation, and in fact in 1993 he went on to recommend that. Could you perhaps tell us what you do to make sure that self-regulation guarantees the freedom of the press and to make sure that the PCC retains credibility in what it does?
Sir Christopher Meyer: The essential thing, if the question is addressed to me, is that we should exist in a state of permanent evolution, that is to say never to be satisfied with the experience that we deliver and always seek to improve it. I am coming towards the end of my time now, I will be gone a week today, and I look back to 2003 when I first became chairman and we put in a set of reforms that covered a very wide area of PCC activity. You could say that the last six years have been a story of embedding and improving those changes, which in turn have led to other changes. The most important thing that we have to have in mind is that above all else we provide a public service and that this public service must be consistently and continuously improved by enhancing the independence of the PCC, by enhancing its proactivity, by enhancing the speed and good judgment and the way in which we react to complaints, by enhancing our pre-publication activities, which has been a growth area over the last few years, by ensuring that when we do negotiate remedies for people, apologies, corrections and so forth they really do appear in newspapers and magazines with due prominence and by ensuring that the Code of Practice is revised as frequently as is necessary. One of the improvements we introduced five years ago was to ensure that the Code Committee met regularly every year to consider changes instead of meeting ad hoc, and to also be certain - maybe not ahead of the curve but at least on the crest of the wave - of the huge technological changes that were taking place in the industry, which now means stuff which is online. As we have just announced, last year as in 2007, which was the first such time, we are now taking more complaints about online editions of newspapers and magazines than we are print. To sum it up, this is like painting the Forth Bridge; you cannot rest at any time. You are satisfied that you have achieved this or you have achieved that but it is simply a staging post to doing better. I believe today as firmly as I believed in 2003 that where newspapers and magazines are concerned, be they in print or online, self-regulation is the only way by which one can satisfactorily reconcile freedom of expression, freedom of the press on the one hand, with responsibility and respect towards readers and viewers on the other now at the beginning of the 21st century. That is where I am coming from.
Q341 Janet Anderson: Thank you. If that is the case and you think the PCC is doing a good job and a credible job and everyone recognises that, why is it that as the journalists from whom we have just taken evidence have told us people increasingly resort to the courts instead?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I believe that is false and it is revealed by the statistics which we have just announced in our annual review of 2008. Leave aside the fact that we hit an all-time record in people who came to us for help, for remedy, on matters of privacy where the courts issue focuses. On matters of privacy we increased by an astonishing 35% the number of rulings we issued. Now it is absolutely the case that more privacy or confidence issues are coming to the courts because the judges are applying the Human Rights Act - you would expect that to happen - but if you look in comparison at the number of cases that come to the courts with the vast number of cases that come to us, in their hundreds, it is impossible to argue as some people do (I do not know why) that people are bypassing the PCC for the courts. There is always going to be a time for the courts and a time for the PCC and as sure as hell it is a time for the PCC where privacy is concerned, and the proof of the pudding is in the statistics.
Q342 Janet Anderson: But at the end of the day surely all you can do is try and get an apology where you think an apology is appropriate. Do you think that is sufficient deterrent to prevent newspapers publishing inaccurate information?
Sir Christopher Meyer: You are never going to get perfection in the world of journalism any more than you will in any other area of activity in society, but I am quite convinced that the range of remedies and penalties that we have at our disposal are sufficient to maintain generally high standards in the industry. We are never going to stop excess, we are never going to stop mistakes, we are never going to stop journalists who do something stupid or even malevolent, but what we can do is provide a regime that curbs all the worst excesses and really serves as a deterrent to editors and really provides a panoply of remedies to people who come to us for help. It is not just a question of apologies and corrections and things like that, it is the tagging of archives so that the story does not get repeated again five years hence, it is the ability within 24 hours - or less even - where if something goes wrong online they have it taken down, taken off the web archive - this is increasingly a growth area which this Committee recognised in its report in 2007 - and our ability to intervene and, I have to say actually, our ambition to intervene before something becomes a problem; there is a lot of stuff that we have stopped from happening, and by definition it is quite hard for us to publicise that but it is a growth area in our work. I am satisfied (a) with the range of remedies and (b) with the range of deterrents that we have at our disposal. If we were, say, as a lot of our critics argue, to go to a regime of fines, some kind of fining system for editors who step out of line, I genuinely believe and I could elaborate on this that that would serve as no greater deterrent to bad behaviour and actually would impede seriously the effective and speedy operation of the self-regulatory system.
Q343 Janet Anderson: We have taken quite a lot of evidence about the case of the McCanns, including from Madeleine's father Gerry McCann. In its submission to this inquiry the National Union of Journalists actually said: "It is likely that the PCC would not have upheld complaints from the McCanns since it is arguable whether there is direct evidence that the articles concerned breached the PCC Code of Practice, which does not prevent speculation." We understand that the McCanns were actually advised by their legal advisers that to go down the PCC route was not the most effective, although they did eventually successfully sue the Express.
Sir Christopher Meyer: The lawyers would say that, would they not? Having read Mr Tudor's evidence to you - I think he was there with Gerry McCann - it was a classic kind of Carter Ruck operation, a sort of tendentious onslaught on the PCC, because one has to say there are a number of law firms in London who specialise in media matters who regard us as their sworn enemies, probably because we do the job as well as they do but we do it for free and we can provide a degree of discretion which protects the complainant in a way that open exposure in court does not. Here I would mention the case of Max Moseley which maybe you will want to discuss. In the matter of the McCanns - I am not aware of this NUJ submission and I do not really understand what it is driving at there - one has to say this in brief, and I come back to my first point: there is a time for the courts and there is a time for the PCC; the notion that the courts and the PCC are in a competition as some kind of zero sum game is absolutely ludicrous. The PCC is never going to eliminate the courts and I sure as hell hope that the judges do not ever eliminate the PCC; we act in a complementary way. What I said to Gerry McCann when I first him was this is what the PCC can do for you, this is how we can help. If you want damages, if it comes to that, we do not do money, the courts do money, so you are going to have to make a choice. It seems to me perfectly normal that if you feel that you are defamed or libelled and you want damages for that, punitive damages for that, you obviously go to court, but there is a whole range of other things that we could have done and could do for the McCanns which are of a quite different nature. The McCanns are an interesting case of people who chose both ways; they went to the courts on the matter of defamation and they came to us for the protection of their children and their family from the media scrums when they returned to the United Kingdom. It seems to me a perfectly normal way of proceeding.
Q344 Philip Davies: Just on the issue of credibility, I understand the point you make is a good one, that if people want damages then they are going to have to go through the court system, but in terms of the credibility it seems that Gerry McCann said that his beef with the PCC was that the "editor of a paper which had so flagrantly libelled us with the most devastating stories could hold a position on the board of the PCC." That was his beef. Max Moseley's beef was that "they have no power" and that it was "very much a creature of the press". In terms of credibility would you accept that those kinds of feelings about the PCC are quite widespread, although nothing to do with whether somebody wants damages or not, they are actually just questioning how effective the PCC is in any event?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I must say it would be a desperate man who measured the quality of the PCC's service by something that Max Mosley may have said. Where the McCanns are concerned the editor of the Daily Express, after the settlement was announced on 19 March last year, played no further part in the proceedings of the PCC and it was in May that he was replaced by Peter Wright. Max Mosley - I read what he had to say. It was absolutely predictable stuff, probably ventroloquised by Carter Ruck, all the usual tired, pitiful stuff about limp wrists and - what was his stupid thing, arranging a piss-up in a brewery, some worn-out metaphor that he used. I really have no regard to what he had to say about the PCC.
Q345 Philip Davies: In terms of credibility we just heard how the Daily Mirror shy away from taking on Roman Abramovich, even it if does not seem to be libellous, because he threatens litigation and they shy away from it. It is inconceivable that the Daily Mirror would shy away if Roman Abramovich threatened to go to the PCC, is it not? I mean, "If you print this I am going to go to the PCC" is hardly likely to stop a paper launching in with both barrels, is it?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I know a lot of papers that have precisely done that. Roman Abramovich is probably not typical of most citizens in the United Kingdom so it is not an ideal benchmark for discussing this issue. If you are talking about very rich people going to court on the basis of contingency fee arrangements, for example, we are into a wholly different area of debate - you have probably had this already with various journalists who have been on the stand. I can tell you that when an editor be he (or she) national or regional or local knows that there is a possibility first of all of a PCC investigation, secondly of a negative adjudication - which in fact means naming and shaming - in his or her own newspaper in terms over which they have no control whatsoever you can hear the screams from one end of the United Kingdom to the other. Believe you me, it works.
Q346 Philip Davies: One final question: is there a possibility that the PCC could be or has been used as a sort of stalking horse for legal action so that somebody makes a complaint to the PCC to try and test out how good a case they have got, and if it seems that the PCC are very sympathetic to what they are saying they then move on to legal action. If so, might that threaten the newspapers from fully co-operating because they fear the wider consequences of admitting that they have made a mistake?
Sir Christopher Meyer: As a general statement I would say that I have had very little evidence over the last six years of any newspaper or magazine not co-operating with us. I remember when I became chairman in 2003 there was a great anxiety then - and I cannot remember why it was particularly acute at the time - that people, particularly those who use solicitors to come to the PCC which, as you know, is not necessary, you do not need to pay a penny to come to the PCC, would use judgments made by the PCC as a springboard for legal action. That fear subsided after that because we did not really see very many if any examples of it. There must have been one or two over the last few years and it is a fear that is there, but it is not rampant - I think I am right in saying that.
Mr Toulmin: It certainly is in the back of some newspapers' minds that because the law, particularly on privacy, is developing and is covering similar areas to our Code of Practice, it is a theoretical possibility. What is interesting though is that most people choose to come to the PCC on privacy and that is the end of the matter, so we probably deal with 100 times more privacy cases than the courts. Of course the courts get the attention because it is a huge adversarial punch-up in the High Court which everyone loves the drama of - look at Max Mosley, but that is all you can look at, Max Mosley, for the whole of last year whilst we were dealing with perhaps nearly 400 privacy cases discreetly, and I do not think any of those went on to sue on the back of it and if they did then they were very few and far between.
Sir Christopher Meyer: What Tim has just said has set off a train of thought; could I just add one thing and it is, Mr Davies, partly an answer to your question. The great deterrent on a privacy case from springboarding, say, out of the PCC into the courts is because if you are concerned that some intimate detail of your private life has been exposed in the newspaper and the PCC finds in your favour, so you think "Right, I am going to go to court now and try and get damages" the very sin of which you were complaining, and for which you may have got a remedy at the PCC discreetly, is then thrown into open court where every nook and cranny and crevice - almost literally in Mr Mosley's case - is then exposed to the public gaze over and over as prosecution and defence throw the shaved buttocks backwards and forwards across the courtroom. That is a great deterrent on a matter of privacy or confidentiality against going out of the PCC and into the courts. Long may that be the case.
Q347 Alan Keen: We are getting into danger, because there have been attacks on the PCC for not being effective, of thinking that the PCC is not useful. This is the third inquiry I have been involved with on this Committee and I have been extremely impressed by all the staff at the PCC. It might be worth it if we gave Tim a couple of minutes to explain how the PCC works and where they do a lot of good which solicitors and legal people could not do, because we do not want to end up with this inquiry saying the PCC should be shoved to one side. You have a role and you do it very, very well; what is the best part of that role?
Mr Toulmin: Building on my remarks earlier the best bit is the bit that does not get publicity and if you are trying to help people with their problems with privacy, with harassment from photographers and journalists, or with something that is intrusive or inaccurate online, all these people want is a very quick remedy that is going to stop the problem or prevent it from arising in the first place. When you came in to see us we gave you some examples of how that actually works in practice. We cannot take those out there and use them publicly because we are set up to protect people's privacy and so we do suffer from a comparison with what looks like a very robust court view of press standards. People come to us precisely because they know we are more discreet, so this is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and although it is a small team of people they are always on call, they have always got the contacts of the newspapers, the newspapers and their online publications take it seriously, we can always get through and get stuff changed, get stuff stopped the whole time. Your Committee shining a light on that work has been incredibly helpful for us in the past and you have obviously recognised it. That is not to say that corrections, apologies, tagging, preventing stuff from happening in the future and the naming and shaming element is not important as well of course.
Q348 Alan Keen: Having said that, Sir Christopher said that the PCC is forever evolving, changing and improving. Somebody has already mentioned the fact that the editor of one of the papers who was in dispute was on the PCC, so looking at it from the eyes of the public outside it does seem wrong that editors are judging when really some of them are guilty, if not the week we are talking about then next week or the week before. That may be one issue, but what other issues, Sir Christopher, do you feel need to change at the PCC? How could you improve on what has been happening - you have had five years at it.
Sir Christopher Meyer: A lot of it is an evolutionary answer because I do not believe that there needs to be any kind of radical departure in the way that the PCC operates. I really would like to take this opportunity publicly to pay tribute to Tim Toulmin who has been director of the PCC almost all the time that I have been chairman; he has been absolutely exemplary in leading a very small and highly motivated team to do an absolutely enormous amount of work, both preventative and in reaction to complaints. What I would like to see particularly - and this is quite a beef of mine - is I would like to see the industry itself give more publicity to the fact of our existence. It is much better now than it used to be six years ago; you can go online and you will see links to the PCC which people have put on their websites, sometimes on the home page and sometimes somewhere else. You will see in many print editions references to the PCC so that the reader knows that he or she, if they need a remedy, has got somewhere to go if they cannot get satisfaction from the editor or the publication itself. I would like to see much more of that because although the numbers we are handling at the moment are almost double what they were in 2003 we still, when we go round the country - and that is one of the things we have changed, we do not stay in London all the time, we are constantly on the road going around the country - we still find too many people who do not know about the services that we have to offer, how we can help. That is always going to be the case, I suppose, you cannot have perfect cover, but I think the industry could do more to advertise the services that we provide. After all, it is in their own interest.
Q349 Alan Keen: Could I ask Tim Bowdler, you look at it from the outside; what do you think could be done to make the PCC service better?
Mr Bowdler: I would agree with what Sir Christopher has just said. The industry does publicise the PCC and adjudications and so on, but it could be given more prominence and indeed Pressbof as the industry body or the funder of the PCC does encourage newspapers to take the PCC seriously and to give it the sort of prominence that would be helpful to it. In the end it is the individual publishers who will decide but certainly from my own point of view, having been chief executive of a company which owned more than 300 newspapers, we certainly took the PCC very seriously and I got to know of every complaint to the PCC and I certainly encouraged our editors to make sure that it was given the right prominence.
Alan Keen: Tim, could I ask you another question? We have just had three very decent journalists in front of us, one who has just retired so years of experience, and the other two were very experienced also, and each of them said that the industry, the journalists and the quality and standards have deteriorated because of the pressures of finance. It is very, very sad. I do not buy Sunday newspapers any more because I do not believe a word of what is said on the front pages, for instance - people have known that for a long time, that I do not do Sunday papers, the big ones, "Source at Number 10", "Prominent Opposition spokesperson says ..." - we know they are made up so I do not even buy them. But we are not talking about that ---
Adam Price: The PCC will be there.
Q350 Alan Keen: These journalists are under pressure because of the bad finance that the press and competition have got all over the place. Are you concerned about the pressures on decent journalists by people who are desperate because of finance, and what can be done about that, or are we just saying goodbye to print newspapers?
Mr Bowdler: I would not take such a gloomy view of it. Certainly the pressures on the industry are intense. We have over the course of two years seen advertising - which in the case of a company like Johnston Press accounts for more than three-quarters of our revenue - go down by something in the region of 40% to 45% in the first eight weeks of this year alone and it was down by 36% year on year, so there is huge financial pressure, it extends across the industry and of course you have to couple that with the fact that we are selling fewer newspapers - copy sales are down so cover price revenues suffer in addition. We have seen across the industry now a fair amount of restructuring going on to take costs out of the business; the bulk of that is really to address the backroom efficiencies, whether it be in printing or pre-press production. I can speak directly of Johnston Press: we have been absolutely committed to the continued investment in content to ensure that it does not diminish in terms of the quality or quantity of the material which we publish. Inevitably there is always a compromise, or there are difficult choices to make and they get more difficult as the pressure increases, but I would not subscribe to the view that there has been a general downward trend in the quality and in fact the assessment of that is clearly subjective. I would suggest that actually the PCC through the Code of Practice has been instrumental in fact in many areas in improving the quality of journalism. I do not think it is enough to take one or two editorial views, you have to take a broader look at the entire output of the industry and not just a particular national newspaper or newspapers. You know, we are talking about an industry which publishes something like 1400 different newspapers.
Q351 Adam Price: Sir Christopher, the Max Mosley quote that you were grasping after a moment ago was "Mafia in charge of the local police station".
Sir Christopher Meyer: That was it.
Q352 Adam Price: But as you said, the thought of Max Mosley cracking the whip in any context has unfortunate connotations. You mentioned the public humiliation or professional humiliation that arises really from an adjudicated complaint from the PCC. We know lots of examples of journalists and newspaper editors even who have lost their jobs effectively as a result of successful litigation against the newspaper; are there examples of journalists who have been demoted or sacked as a result of a PCC complaint?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I cannot tell you that - although Tim may have some knowledge there - but I would be surprised if there have not been repercussions for the kind of sloppy or bad journalism that we have exposed and condemned.
Mr Bowdler: Perhaps I could add to that because within Johnston Press I certainly have a number of examples where precisely what you describe has happened, both to the extent of disciplining a journalist and there are cases where we have dismissed a journalist through the results of the PCC inquiry.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Mr Price, do not forget that one of our campaigns has been to have respect for the Code of Practice written into journalists' contracts, including editors as well, so if you breach the Code of Practice you are in fact breaching your own contract of employment. That is quite a salutary thing.
Q353 Adam Price: You would accept that a PCC complaint surely does not cause the same level of trepidation that, say, a major libel case could in the case of defamation, it does not have the same effect of concentrating editors' minds, journalists' minds?
Sir Christopher Meyer: This is oranges and apples or is it pears and oranges - I cannot remember what it is. Defamation and libel are a wholly different beast. You do not have the choice of coming to us for defamation and libel; it is a legal process, so it is a little unfair to compare that which is unique to the law with the kinds of things that we can do to act as regulator, punisher and deterrent. If I were an editor and I was faced with a defamation action, with contingency fee arrangements as they are currently constructed, I would be very worried, I would be very worried for my bottom line. If I was about to get whacked by a PCC adjudication which censured me in harsh terms, I would be worried about my professional reputation, so they are different things, but equally powerful? Certainly powerful.
Mr Toulmin: May I just add to that? Actually I do speak to editors all the time and they absolutely hate it, they hate the thought that they are about to lose an adjudication and when they have lost it they really intensely dislike the public criticism that they have no control over. It is entirely down to the PCC what we say about them; they have signed up to this system, they put it in. If you compare and contrast the News of the World's treatment of the ruling against it in the Max Mosley case where they criticised the judge, they disagreed with it, the editor believed and continues to believe I think that the story was in the public interest, they have not accepted that. Shortly after that we handed down a ruling against that paper from Paul Burrell which the paper again did not like, but they accepted it. They printed our ruling in full, very prominently, they did not criticise the complainant as they had done with Max Mosley, they did not criticise the PCC. The system actually illustrates that newspapers do take the PCC seriously and they do not try and undermine it, which you cannot say for their attitude to the courts, and that works in the complainant's interest and the public's interest.
Q354 Adam Price: On the issue of credibility of your processes has a newspaper proprietor or editor ever misled you knowingly or inadvertently as to the facts of a case that you were interested in?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Tim, you are in the belly of the beast more than I am.
Mr Toulmin: The only time that has ever arisen in my experience, which is lengthy - at the PCC now it goes back to 1996 - and has been established in the public domain now involved the Mirror Group submission to us at the time of the initial inquiry into Piers Morgan's share dealings. We then reopened the matter and went to them for more information because it came out during the court case that there was a very particular reason why they did not let us know that in fact the total amount of shares in a particular case was higher than they had let us know about. That aside, which had very specific reasons behind it, they do not mislead us and if they did mislead us then there would be grounds, obviously, for serious disciplinary action I would have thought.
Q355 Adam Price: Presumably you reprimanded them for allowing you to believe something that was not true.
Mr Toulmin: Yes, we did, absolutely, and that is on our website. We said it was regrettable that there were reasons, they were flawed reasons, they did not do it to try and keep out of trouble because they did not manage to avoid being in trouble. They then sacked the journalist involved - which is an example of breaches of the Code leading to dismissal incidentally. We said that they had made the wrong decision, we did reprimand them and that is on our website.
Q356 Chairman: You will be aware that there are still people, however, who believe that the PCC is basically a cosy arrangement run by the press for the press, and most recently of course we have had the Media Standards Trust, with whom you have crossed swords on their report. Do you accept that there is still a serious credibility problem in some sections for the PCC?
Sir Christopher Meyer: It is much better than it used to be and we test this all the time; we test this with our own public opinion polls, we test this by using Ipsos MORI, we test this anecdotally when we go around the country, and I have to say that the kinds of things that used to be said back at the beginning of the decade are said with far less frequency nowadays. There is a constituency out there, largely to be found in London, to a degree to be found in the academic world - the way I would put it is there are none so deaf as those who do not want to hear - who simply are ideologically hostile to the PCC. Sometimes of course it is because editors are sitting on the Commission, albeit that they are the minority, some people do not like it because it is funded by the newspaper and magazine industry of the UK, some people do not like it simply because it is self-regulatory and they believe in some form of statutory regulation. There is, if you like, a hard core out there who will go on attacking the PCC, but we just have to live with it. They can be among the more articulate members of British society and they get a lot of space in the media in some of the newspapers and among the broadcasters - the broadcasters in particular are particularly snooty about the PCC - and then no one actually has the courage to say it out in public but there is a kind of suggestion that I am corrupt sitting one part of the week in Paul Dacre's pocket and the other part of the week in James Murdoch's pocket, so taking gold from them in order to run the thing in a corrupt way, which of course is absolutely grotesque and ludicrous. We just have to deal with it; it is out there, it is less than it used to be and part of our permanent campaign - it is why we go around the country - is to convince people that we are a credible organisation. The more we are used the more our reputation rises, and there is a necessary correlation in my view in the fact that we are seen more credibly and the fact that more people come to us. I do not think that this increase in numbers, to echo something that Tim has just said, is a reflection of declining standards. There are certain areas of worry, particularly online, but above all it is the impact of visibility and credibility. I have to say to you, Chairman, that pro rata today it looks like we will have a figure of near to 6000 by the end of this year, people who have come to us for help, and last year's figure of over 4500 was itself an historic record. There is a credibility case launched against us; it is without merit and without foundation.
Mr Bowdler: If I may, Chairman, just add to that. I really do believe this is a false perception. In my role as chairman of Pressbof in a sense I represent the industry in its link to the PCC and I can say categorically at no time do I expect to be able to tell Christopher or the PCC what they should be doing. There is no sense of any sort of pressure exerted through Pressbof on the PCC. I go and meet the board of the PCC once a year, I go to listen to their views about the industry and the way it is funded, to issues as they see them in the wider domain of the press, but there is no sense of the PCC being subject to industry direction, it simply does not hold water.
Q357 Chairman: Let me just explore that. The Code Committee which sets the rules used to be chaired by Les Hinton; when Les Hinton retired and moved overseas he was replaced by the editor of a newspaper which some might say is adept at testing the boundaries of the Code, and the Code Committee consists entirely of industry representatives. Do you not think that in order to improve the credibility the Code Committee ought to have lay representation and perhaps it should not have a practising editor as its chairman?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I think it works perfectly well. It was the original inspiration of Calcutt and the Calcutt inquiry that if a self-regulatory system was going to work the editors themselves, to use the jargon, should have ownership of the Code but an independent body should apply it and build up its jurisprudence. That is in effect what we have. If you have not seen it I really do commend the second edition of the Editor's Codebook which shows how independently the constitution is applied. In fact, it is not strictly true that only editors sit on the committee, and I must say they are a mixture of editors from all kinds of different publications but ex officio Tim and I sit on it. One of the innovations that has been introduced is that first of all there is now a public website for the Code Committee; secondly, members of the public can themselves put forward in the annual meetings to review the Code proposals for changes to the Code and we ourselves, Tim and I, bring to the Code Committee recommendations made by the Commission itself for changes to the Code. We played a very significant role in getting, in 2006, the Code amended to be more precise and detailed on the tricky question of reporting suicide. If it ain't broke don't try and fix it - I do not think it is broke, the system works well. There is a multiplicity of views that come into the Code Committee - the editor of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger sits on it, whom you might consider to be not exactly in the same camp as the current chairman ---
Q358 Chairman: We are going to hear from both of them in due course so we will discover.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Exactly, you can ask them yourself. It is okay, it works well, and again the proof of the pudding is in this.
Q359 Chairman: But you did recognise a few years ago that the credibility of the PCC board would be increased if you had more lay membership.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Absolutely right.
Q360 Chairman: Is there not a case therefore that the same case could be put for the Code Committee?
Sir Christopher Meyer: You can make the case, it is not a disreputable argument or anything like that. I certainly thought it necessary to increase the credibility and the independence, perceived and real, of the Press Complaints Commission, but I thought the most important thing to do was in the Commission itself, on the board of commissioners itself, which is why we increased the lay majority and we now publicly advertise for lay members. That has been a great success. It is also the reason why we created the job of a charter commissioner and the charter compliance panel; their reports are produced every year and you have probably seen them. Tim and I have absolutely no influence over the way in which they are drafted and published. If you take the balance we have got to have an editorial voice in the system, but what you must not have is editors ruling on editors, journalists ruling on journalists. We do not have that because we have a lay majority where it matters, which is where the decisions are taken.
Q361 Chairman: Can I just put to you one other criticism which I think you are familiar with. When you were first appointed and you appeared before the predecessor committee to this one you were asked about corrections and adjudications and you said that they should be at least as prominent as the original otherwise it would be ridiculous. I do not think anybody would say that corrections and adjudications are being given equal prominence to the original stories; do you not feel that that is something which could be improved?
Sir Christopher Meyer: It should have been improved and it has been improved. I am pleased to report to this Committee that last year - and Tim will correct me if I get this wrong - 85% of all apologies and corrections either appeared on the same page as the original sin or on a page ahead of the original sin. In 2004 the figure was somewhere around 60% so there has been significant improvement. Room for more improvement: always, yes. We have to be a little bit careful about making a precise arithmetic or geometric connection between something that has gone wrong and the necessary correction. You have to make a judgment on how much of the article was wrong, was it one sentence in a long piece, was it the whole thing, what was the burden of the inaccuracy or the fact for which there needed to be an apology? The real phrase is due prominence.
Q362 Chairman: To what extent do you as the PCC, once you have reached an adjudication, have any ability to influence the decision of the newspaper as to the size in which that is given or the position in the paper in which it is printed?
Sir Christopher Meyer: We do, and that is another thing that has changed. We were quite passive on that before but now we take a violent objection to adjudications or apologies which, without reference to us, suddenly pop up on page 33. In fact we have had two cases recently where we have gone back to the publications and said you have not published this in the proper way, including sufficiently prominently, and we censure you again; this time make damn sure you publish this in the right place. We have done this recently with a regional newspaper and with a magazine.
Q363 Paul Farrelly: Sir Christopher, could you tell the Committee why the editor of the Daily Express Peter Hill left the PCC board?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I said in an interview with journalists at the time of the publication of our 2007 report that there was a combination of reasons. There was the fact that Mr Desmond, because he was not paying his fee to the MPA was not paying his fee to the self-regulatory system, then there was the affair of the McCanns and then there was the fact that Peter Hill had been on the Commission since 2003 and was due to go. There was a mixture of things there.
Q364 Paul Farrelly: My understanding from within the industry is that during the McCann coverage many editors felt the position of Mr Hill on the board was untenable and in effect revolted. Peter Hill offered his resignation but Richard Desmond refused in the circumstances to allow him to carry it out, is that correct?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I would not know; you need to ask Mr Desmond that. I do not know if you are inviting him to appear before you or even Peter Hill, if you are inviting him to appear before you. Mr Farrelly, you will have to ask them.
Q365 Paul Farrelly: Is it correct that he offered to resign but then rescinded that offer?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I was under the impression that he did realise that he needed to resign after the announcement on 19 March of the judgment, and I certainly had the impression that he was going to do that, but that was an impression that was not confirmed by life.
Q366 Paul Farrelly: Events. The answer is yes.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Probably, yes. I think he was going to resign.
Q367 Paul Farrelly: Yes definitely or yes probably.
Sir Christopher Meyer: It has to be yes probably because I am not inside his brain. I was certainly under the impression immediately after 19 March that he was going to resign from the Commission, but he did not.
Q368 Paul Farrelly: I just want to explore the position of the Express further but first of all, in retrospect, you are about to leave the PCC after long and distinguished service. On reflection do you think that the PCC could or should have acted in the McCann case better to restrain the press?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not see how we could and the people out there who say that the McCann case is a failure of self-regulation, I believe this to be absolutely false and without substance, and I will tell you why. As soon as we heard about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann - and I am sure you have got all this in your papers but I will repeat it for the record - we got on to the British Embassy in Lisbon and said "Will you please tell the McCanns and their representatives that we stand ready to help in any way we can, this is what we can do." We maintained contact with their press representatives ---
Q369 Paul Farrelly: You will be aware that Mr McCann told us that that message was not received.
Sir Christopher Meyer: He told me it was not received as well, because I then saw him on 13 July 2007 - he happened to come round to my house to see my wife who runs a charity that specialises in missing and abducted children - and I took the opportunity to say to Gerry McCann, "Look, this is what we can do, here is the brochure that explains in detail how you can complain and the different ways in which you can make a complaint." At that time he told me he had never got the message from the embassy. Whether that means the message was never conveyed to the McCann party, if you like, or whether he, Gerry, did not know that their press person at the time had got the message, I do not know and I have never been able to establish. We continued to keep in touch. At the time his press representative was a woman called Justine McGuiness and we kept in touch with her, then his press arrangements changed and I saw him again on 29 February last year. By that time he had taken the decision to sue Express Newspapers and I said to him, "If it is damages you are after, that is what you should do, but we remain ready to help", and we have been able as you know to help on the separate issue of protecting his children and family, as I said. With the benefit of hindsight what we would have needed to have acted earlier is for the McCanns to have come to us and said this or that or whatever is wrong, but we cannot be more royalist than the king, we cannot take action unless in those particular circumstances the first parties come to us and say something is going wrong. The most we can do in those circumstances is to say "We are here; this is what we can do" and we can explain it several times over. But if the first parties themselves do not want to take action with us then there is not a lot we can do because in the end what it boiled down to - and I take my cue here from the court case - was, was what the British press was reporting accurate or inaccurate, was it right or was it wrong? Sitting in London I had no way of judging whether what was coming out from the Portuguese authorities, going into the Portuguese press, being regurgitated by the British press was right or wrong. Unless the first party comes to you and says we have grounds for complaint there is no way in which we can intervene.
Q370 Paul Farrelly: In your evidence you said to us it would have been impertinence by the PCC to have got involved sooner and contacted the McCanns directly. We put that to Gerry McCann and he told us he would not have felt that an impertinence, yet you contacted the embassy but you did not contact them directly.
Sir Christopher Meyer: You start off by contacting the embassy because you do not know how to get through to them. In the very beginning, in the first two days, yes, that was what we did. For example, if you had a similar case in the UK, say a horrible crime where the victim's family find themselves the attention of a media scrum, one of the first things we would do is get on to the family liaison officers at the local police force who already ought to know the drill and say "The family does not want to talk to the press, they want to keep them away." The family liaison officer will then act on our behalf, that is one way in which we do it. We did not have any phone numbers in Praia da Luz but we knew that the British Embassy had sent somebody down there from the consular section of the embassy to keep an eye on the McCanns, so you ring the embassy and say "While you are down there make sure that they know that this service is available." In due course we made direct contact with Justine McGuiness and I personally had a meeting with Gerry McCann as I said on 13 July. In all honesty, Mr Farrelly, I do not see what else in those circumstances we could do. The truth or otherwise of what was written by the press at the time, or at least by the Express at the time, in the end had to be tested in the courts because the advice that Gerry McCann got was that this is defamation, this is libel. By definition the Press Complaints Commission does not do defamation, does not do libel.
Q371 Paul Farrelly: A lot of people reading the evidence that you have given might find that rather weak, Sir Christopher.
Sir Christopher Meyer: I am sorry, I must come back at you. Why weak? We do not apply the law Mr Farrelly.
Q372 Paul Farrelly: Let me just move on.
Sir Christopher Meyer: No, you just said something very significant.
Q373 Paul Farrelly: What is your view then on the suggestions that actually the PCC's operations might be improved if it were more proactive and also acted on references from third parties?
Sir Christopher Meyer: We are extraordinarily proactive, it is one of the great growth areas over the last few years. We have just of our own volition, to give you the latest example - you may remember the case of Alfie Catton, a 13-year old boy living down in Sussex who may or may not have fathered a child with a 15 or 16-year old girl. We have not received any complaint about those stories but we are now investigating the matter and at the next meeting of the Commission the Commission will take a view on whether there has been a breach of the Code or not. We do this all the time but we must have grounds for so doing. Where a lot of our critics go wrong is that they expect us to apply the law, they expect us to be either instruments of the state or to have legal powers in areas which are reserved for the courts and for the judges. Proactive - what does it actually mean in the case of the McCanns, what does it mean in real terms beyond making sure they know what their rights are under the Code of Practice.
Q374 Paul Farrelly: Can you just clarify how the PCC acted in the instance of the story about Prince Philip in the Standard; did the PCC act after receiving a formal complaint from the palace?
Mr Toulmin: Yes, through his lawyer Gerard Tyrrell.
Q375 Paul Farrelly: The PCC did not proactively offer its services before that.
Mr Toulmin: No. It is well-known that the Royal Family knows how to use the PCC; Prince Philip instructed Harbottle and Lewis and they complained on his behalf.
Q376 Paul Farrelly: In the McCann case has the PCC censured the Express?
Mr Toulmin: We did not have a complaint about the Express.
Sir Christopher Meyer: There are two different jurisdictions here. We cannot censure them unless there is a case before us; there was not a case before us. The McCanns took a deliberate decision not to come to us except on the question of protecting their children, because they had been persuaded by lawyers - I am not going to quarrel with their decision - that they had been defamed and they had a case at law. They chose to go down that path.
Q377 Paul Farrelly: On what complaint was any censure made in the McCann case? Has the PCC issued any censure at all?
Mr Toulmin: The extent to which the PCC was used by the McCanns related to pre-publication work, harassment and so on where the remedy if you like was the minimising or indeed the cessation of the physical activity. That was the bit that they came to us over. No investigation was necessary because it was about the whole pre-publication area. They did not complain to us about the subject-matter of the articles and they went to court instead, as do some people every year. We do not ambulance-chase libel cases and then go after them.
Q378 Paul Farrelly: In conclusion, as an industry self-regulator after months of false coverage the PCC has issued no comment on the standards employed by the press in the McCann case.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Wrong Mr Farrelly.
Q379 Paul Farrelly: It is a question, has it?
Sir Christopher Meyer: First of all you are looking at this with 20:20 hindsight, forgive me for saying it, but what is obvious now was not obvious at the time. On 19 March when the judgment became public I rose from my sickbed, stuffed myself with paracetamol, staggered out to a radio car and on the PM programme castigated Peter Hill and Richard Desmond for a bad day for British journalism. Contrast and compare - I say this myself - with some of the reactions of the BBC Trust in recent cases. There was no question of us remaining silent; I said it was a bad day for British journalism, that Peter Hill should consider his position and that Mr Desmond should make a greater effort to ensure higher journalistic standards across all his publications.
Q380 Paul Farrelly: What position does Peter Hill occupy at the moment?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I have not a clue - he is still the editor of the Express. If you think, Mr Farrelly, that I should march around to the offices of the Daily Express and put my heavy hand on his collar and say "You are fired" - when you have Desmond and Hill before you, you can ask them these questions. I am not going to sack an editor but I can sure as hell express my view on the standards of journalism. There was never a question of a formal adjudication against Peter Hill because there was no formal matter that could come before us under the Code of Practice. I made my views pellucidly plain and some people in the industry did not like me saying that.
Q381 Paul Farrelly: One of my colleagues earlier asked how the PCC might be strengthened and there was not much beyond advertising the PCC's services. Sir Christopher, from your diplomatic career are you familiar with the expression "going native"?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I know which way you are going, Mr Farrelly, and let me tell you this. After serving in the Soviet Union between 1968 and 1970 I have been permanently inoculated against nativeness and it is as strong now as it has ever been. If your suggestion is - and let us call a spade a spade because that is what you were asking me to do 20 minutes ago - that I have corruptly performed my job as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission by showing unseemly favouritism towards the industry, then I repudiate that utterly. I will not say any more because I am getting angry.
Q382 Paul Farrelly: That was not an allegation I made, for the record.
Sir Christopher Meyer: I hope you did not, but there is no question of going native.
Q383 Paul Farrelly: Is there no way the PCC could be strengthened?
Mr Toulmin: In terms of where we are in the media at the moment - and it is changing so quickly, we have obviously a digitalised and globalised media now - that has happened actually comparatively rapidly and, clearly, we have a job to do to adapt to that, and the penetration of the PCC will intensify online. It is only in the last week that the Sun has announced they are effectively launching a radio station online which the PCC Code will cover; we will be talking to them about that, how it will work in practice. These are all going to be big challenges for us and growth areas as well. This will obviously require that we are properly resourced in the future and the industry remains committed to that and so on. Asking about how the PCC can improve, it is clearly going to be in that area where our lack of statutory basis is a huge advantage because we can move quickly. There are a lot of conversations that we have with other regulators, of course - Ofcom - and with the industry itself.
Q384 Paul Farrelly: Just going back to the finance and the position of the PCC does the absence of the Express Group at the moment undermine the principle of self-regulation and what steps have you taken to get them back on board?
Sir Christopher Meyer: We have taken a very clear policy decision on this that we operate a public service and it is our responsibility to the readers and viewers of the Express newspapers to continue to take complaints from them as and when they come in. As far as we are concerned so long as the editors of this publishing group continue to accept our competence and publish our adjudications or whatever then we will continue that service. That is the situation right now. There are of course implications for the industry, to which Tim is much better equipped to speak than me.
Mr Toulmin: Can I just say that this is quite a curious dispute in that they have not walked out on the PCC - because you asked about the issue of principle here. The editors are buying into this system still, they are co-operating, they are publishing corrections and apologies and there are adjudications against their titles. As Mr Bowdler will explain this has its roots in an industry dispute about the financing of the Newspaper Publishers Association. It is not actually an Express versus PCC issue, we are victims of it really.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Collateral damage is the right expression for this.
Q385 Paul Farrelly: Just one final question, Chairman. On reflection, Sir Christopher, in the Motorman case the editor of the News of the World escaped the jurisdiction of the PCC by resigning beforehand.
Sir Christopher Meyer: You do not mean Motorman, you mean Mulcaire and Goodman. There is a big difference. There is a huge difference.
Chairman: Yes, there is a difference.
Q386 Paul Farrelly: Sorry, Chairman, we were covering both at the same time. In that instance - and thank you for the correction - do you think the PCC on reflection missed a trick by not summoning him anyway and letting him refuse?
Sir Christopher Meyer: You have slightly got the wrong end of the stick here. Indeed, Mr Coulson fell on his sword and this was after or during a police investigation conducted not even under the Data Protection Act but under the Regulation of Investigatory Practices Act. It was for a violation of that Act that Messrs Goodman and Mulcaire went to jail. We conducted afterwards a very thorough investigation, both of the News of the World and of the entire newspaper and magazine industry of the United Kingdom and came out with a report which set out some very clear principles of good practice for the industry as a whole, and no lesser authority than Professor Roy Greenslade, who is not always the best friend of the PCC, wrote that he was surprised by our rigour and thoroughness - if those are the words that were used. We did this by going very deeply and very forensically, among other things, into the News of the World, into the new editor then Colin Myler, to find out exactly what had happened. I could see no purpose in summoning - I could not summon him, I had no authority - an ex-editor, and I really wonder what you think we would have got from Mr Coulson that the police had not already succeeded in getting. Are you saying to me that Andy Coulson would have come stumbling into my office, weeping, saying "Christopher, I have got to tell you I have sinned, no I did not tell all the truth to the authorities"? I could see no useful purpose in talking to him about it. I had an exchange of correspondence with him before he resigned and I also spoke to the then chairman and chief executive of News International, Mr Les Hinton, about this; so it is not that there was no contact between the PCC and the News of the World and News International before Coulson resigned and before the courts rendered their judgment, there was, but once that had happened our view was, yes, there needed to be a really thorough investigation - which we did - but it would be pointless at that precise moment, even if we had the authority, to call an ex-editor. That was the reason.
Q387 Chairman: I want to come back to the Express in particular and the general question. You will be aware that the PCC's genesis was at least in part in order to stave off statutory regulation. Surely a self-regulatory system will only ever work if everybody buys into it. If you have a part of your industry that is not fully co-operating with the self-regulatory system that must pose a real threat to the whole survival of self-regulation.
Sir Christopher Meyer: My answer to that would be this is a problem and it needs to be fixed and it is for the industry to fix it, and Tim Bowdler I am sure will want to say something in a minute. We have been here before, the Mirror Group fell out a couple of times, I believe, and then were brought back in again, so we have had this problem before; it is not as if it is unprecedented but it does need to be dealt with.
Mr Bowdler: In answering you I would like first to just go back to Mr Farrelly's question about funding and the implications of the Express Group not paying their fees and what impact it has had on the PCC. The answer to that is currently none because the industry takes a very responsible view of our commitment to self-regulation, so the industry is funding the shortfall. We are doing so at the moment by dipping into our reserves which obviously is not something we can do indefinitely. The commitment the industry has made to date is to say that despite the fact that income is not available from the Express we will continue to fund the PCC in the way that it requires, and the relationship between Pressbof and the PCC is a very open one in the sense that the PCC prepares its budget, it decides what resources it requires to conduct its operations, of course that budget is discussed with Pressbof but as a matter of telling us where they have reached in terms of the funding requirements. Naturally we might comment on it, but we have supported those needs and continue to do so. Coming to the whole issue of the Express and funding more generally, if you take the position prior to the Express withdrawing we achieved a 98.5% return from the newspaper industry; in other words there was 1.5% which did not pay, so the first thing to say is it has never been absolutely universal. There have been some publications, relatively small of course, which have remained outside. If you extend that to magazines the return is rather less, something in the region of 80%, which means quite a few of the smaller magazines also choose to be outside the system. That has not in any way undermined the validity of self-regulation, it has continued to work very effectively; however, it has meant that it is not 100%. In the case of the Express when we were told - we being the Press Board of Finance - in early 2008 that the Express through a separate dispute with the industry, the national newspaper publishers, would not therefore be paying their fees to Pressbof we entered a dialogue. That dialogue has continued, I have mad meetings with the Express Newspapers' management, with Mr Desmond, we have had a continuing dialogue by email and conversation during that period. I have not given up, I still think it is possible that they will recognise that it would be advantageous for them to return, but in the end they have to understand what the implications will be if they do not do so. In practice, at some point in time, Pressbof might say to Christopher or his successor, Baroness Buscombe, that the PCC should not continue to adjudicate indefinitely in a way that Christopher has described, and on the board of the PCC that continues to be a difficult issue for you to grapple with. If they were not covered then they would face additional costs, increased litigation because complaints could only go through the legal route supported by CFAs. In the end it will be a variety of pressures that hopefully will bring them back in, but it would be a terrible mistake to suggest that the system itself is undermined irreparably by the fact that there is one rogue publisher who does not subscribe to it.
Q388 Chairman: Would you like to see more ability to exert influence on him to come back into the fold?
Mr Bowdler: Yes, in a word. Self-regulation is not helped by their exclusion at their own behest and in the end if they are disadvantaged by that decision that would be a helpful outcome.
Q389 Chairman: But the solution that you are suggesting, which is that at the moment it appears the Daily Express are willing still to bide by PCC rulings even though their proprietor is not paying for the PCC, if you were to withdraw that in a sense that is going to undermine the system still further because you then have a major national newspaper which is not accepting PCC rulings.
Mr Bowdler: Clearly it makes life more difficult in relation to complainants against Express Newspapers if that were to happen, but I do not see that that undermines the system because the vast majority of publications, the overwhelming majority, remain part of the system. Simply because there is a rogue publisher ---
Q390 Chairman: We are not talking about the Gardening Times we are talking about the Daily Express, it is one of the big national newspapers that is outside.
Mr Bowdler: The decision as to whether they would be outside the system in terms of adjudications is a PCC matter and Christopher has expressed his view. To suggest that even if they were that the whole system was failing would be a huge assumption to make. The vast majority of newspapers observe, support, fund self-regulation.
Q391 Chairman: But you are still hopeful that Mr Desmond will change his position.
Mr Bowdler: We continue to have a dialogue.
Q392 Chairman: That is not the same thing.
Mr Bowdler: I am not in a position today where I could say I am hopeful though we do continue to discuss their return.
Q393 Chairman: Can I just turn to one other issue? The Committee last week heard evidence in private from some of those affected by the suicides in Bridgend, and one thing came across very clearly from a family member. This was somebody who was an ordinary person, they had no experience of dealing with the press, with loads of national newspapers, and he discovered that his child had died and was then told that within a relatively short period of time this information would become public and he would be subjected to the full glare and pressure of the media, which obviously was something he had no experience of and did not really know how to deal with. Is there not a role for the PCC here? I know you take a proactive role but could not more be done, perhaps through the police, so that anybody who suddenly finds themselves in a position where they are like to be subject to huge media exposure could be told "This is going to happen to you but there is a remedy or at least there is advice on hand, the PCC"?
Sir Christopher Meyer: When we went down to Bridgend in May of last year - and we had done a great deal before then to alert people in South Wales to the fact of our existence, not only remind the police of their responsibilities but also getting in touch with local schools and community organisations, and we were doing that from February of last year onwards - one of the things we discovered when we got down to Bridgend was that to some extent anyway, particularly when we had a closed session with about a dozen families who had lost children through suicide, and the police were there, was that the family liaison officer system that the police operate for families in distress, so far as conveying to them the fact of our existence had broken down. It had not happened. One of our painting the Forth Bridge tasks is constantly to remind police forces around the country that they really must, in situations of suicide or murder or whatever, tell families how to deal with the press. Some people find it cathartic to talk to journalists, others hate it, and we saw that variety of opinion when we went to see the families in Bridgend. The key thing - and this is where we are dependent on others - is to get it over to police forces and also into coroners' courts, into the rooms. The coroners themselves make all these people aware that they are dealing with individuals who have no experience of dealing with the press, so we keep on plugging away and when we go on our missions outside London we always invite to the events or to a lunch or whatever the local coroner or the local coroners, depending on how many there are, as well as the local judges. A number of times we have found that the system has not worked properly and a coroner has said "I did not know about that", so we send them all the stuff and say "Please make sure that you and your staff know about this". It is a permanent struggle to be perfectly frank.
Q394 Adam Price: One of the issues raised by Mr Farrelly was the question of third party complaints.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Sorry, I failed to answer that.
Q395 Adam Price: The public may be a little bit confused because there is Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Authority, the BBC Trust who accept third party complaints whereas as a rule the Press Complaints Commission does not. In the case of another Northern shareholder publication, OK magazine in the last few days, there was the so-called tribute to Jade Goody, which was effectively an obituary, black-edged cover et cetera, published in advance of her death. That has elicited a large number of complaints from the public and you are considering, it has been reported, whether to launch an inquiry. Is that true and how do you assess, therefore, when a third party complaint is legitimate and should result in an inquiry?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I will let Tim say something about this as well. Let me be clear, we do entertain third party complaints but not all that often, and the reason for that is because we cannot find ourselves in a situation where the third party trumps the interests of the first party. Sometimes something will happen, people will be affected, they choose not to use our services but sometimes an indignant third party sees something reported and will complain to us, but if the family, say, of a dead footballer who was photographed dead on a pitch, as happened several years ago, does not want to pursue the matter, we are not going to pursue it with a third party. That is the basic position of principle. The Jade Goody thing is complicated because on the one hand the family - and we have been in touch with them through their representatives - do not want to pursue any kind of complaint. The issue then arises whether the third parties - and we have received a lot of complaints - have a justification nonetheless for coming to us and having the case examined because they have been misled by the front page. Also, are we talking about something that is taste and decency and does not fall under the Code - there are a number of issues here that need to be considered and Tim and his team have already put out a statement for the time being. I think what is going to happen is that commissioners will have to be consulted on this. The next formal meeting of the Commission takes place after I have gone, under Peta Buscombe, and commissioners will want to take a view. I do not know what that will be.
Mr Toulmin: Might I add on a general point that actually on a like for like basis we are exactly the same as Ofcom; they will on privacy issues, where there is a first party for instance, take a complaint only from the first party. Where confusion arises is because the BBC Trust and Ofcom deal with other issues about the impact of broadcasting on the viewer, such as taste and decency, so anyone can complain about that because anyone can be outraged, but on a like for like comparison it is exactly the same. What we do also, as Christopher has suggested in the Jade Goody case, is if we get third party complaints then we will alert the first party. It always has to be up to the first party to want to complain and there may be all sorts of reasons why they do not want to complain. In this instance the family of Jade Goody and her representatives do not want to complain about that, and that has to be a matter for them. As Christopher said, at a later stage the Commission will make an assessment as to whether the members of the public who have complained also have a right to complain about this but that has not yet been decided.
Q396 Paul Farrelly: Sir Christopher, after your long tenure at the PCC I have no feeling at all from this session that you think in any way that the PCC either could or should be more proactive in monitoring compliance with the Code of Practice as other regulators - from the Takeover Panel to Ofsted for example - do. We have discussed the McCann case where the McCanns were complaining of irresponsible journalism and people like Sir Max Hastings were, at an early stage, professing to hang their head in shame at the way the press were behaving, and yet you did not step in.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Sorry, how would we have stepped in?
Q397 Paul Farrelly: Can I give you another example of where the public might well feel that the PCC should be more proactive in monitoring the Code of Compliance. In this day and age it is the practice now - and Mr Bowdler you would know very well from your group - for newspapers to invite comments on stories. On New Year's Eve a close friend of mine lost his 16-year old son tragically in an accident and that was covered in the local newspaper in Sussex, and some of the comments that were written by people on that news were just sick really. I would suggest that one way we might proactively look at compliance with the Code is to take a snapshot of websites at any point in time and just monitor whether newspapers are complying with the Code. I do not know whether that is the sort of action you would ever consider at the PCC.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Of course we do. We do our very best to monitor the press and, okay, the one charge that cannot be levelled against us in 2009 is that we are not proactive, but there are limits to what you can do. There are thousands of publications in the United Kingdom with an equal number of websites; there is a limit to what you can monitor. We have already had our discussion about the McCanns and the Express and I suspect that you and I are never going to agree on this, but that is another matter. As for the newspaper and magazine industry of the United Kingdom as a whole of course we do our best to monitor what is going on, but short of employing another 25000 people to add to the 14 or 15 we have already I do not see how we can do this universally.
Q398 Paul Farrelly: Take a snapshot.
Sir Christopher Meyer: That is what we do, we do take a snapshot. We see a summary of stories every day but by definition it is not universal and it never will be universal.
Mr Toulmin: Your point actually illustrates a general advantage of the PCC in terms of its flexibility because this reveals the way in which new technology is being used. We have seen some appalling examples of comments on news stories, and after our intervention, newspapers have changed their practice. People can complain about them if the editor is editorially responsible for them and the PCC moves very, very quickly to sort that out. The example you raise is an absolute classic case where we could have helped very quickly actually.
Q399 Paul Farrelly: If you see an instance like that - and it is replicated across many websites - and you think it is sick, and you think it is in clear breach of responsibilities in the Code, would you act without a third party complaint?
Mr Toulmin: We would; certainly if a third party brought it to our attention we would absolutely be in touch with the first party. What we would not do, as Christopher said earlier, is unilaterally launch an inquiry because the interests of the first party are actually the whole basis of the PCC, it is there as a form of redress for people who have a problem with newspapers and magazines. Absolutely, if that was brought to our attention there is no question about that, and in fact I think we have done that.
Sir Christopher Meyer: I know you want to end but a tiny codicil?
Q400 Chairman: A very, very short codicil.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Just to illustrate to Mr Farrelly that despite all the technological development we still hold to the principle that the buck stops with the editor in the sense that the editorial decision on content, be it online or in print, be it static or audiovisual, the responsibility still in the end falls to the editor, because unless you have that as a cornerstone of this system you start to get in terrible trouble about who is responsible for what. It may be difficult for an editor now to control everything that goes on in the empire, but the principle has not changed.
Q401 Adam Price: Finally, looking ten years down the line, we are in the internet age but we are actually moving towards convergence. If you go to most national newspapers these days they look half like a television studio or a radio studio. Jon Gaunt gets sacked on TalkSport and now is going to be fronting up the Sun's Sun Talk live morning show where he will probably be reproducing much of the same stuff. If he calls somebody, as he did, a Nazi or an ignorant pig you will be able to intervene, but if he offends taste or decency - if he had been on radio of course there would have been an inquiry - you are not going to intervene. Is that not a contradiction?
Sir Christopher Meyer: There is a big structural question in what you have just said and also there is an immediate question. I can tell you - and the Sun will confirm this - that the Jon Gaunt radio show will be under our jurisdiction. We have managed so far to handle the visual side of audiovisual perfectly well and now we are getting the audio side of audiovisual and I have every confidence we will handle that equally well. Down the line, ten years from now - and I have said this before - I would be most surprised if the regulatory architecture were the same as it is today for precisely convergence reasons. I had this dream - which may be no more than a fantasy - that actually in the end Ofcom will get out of content, will get out of television broadcasting content, because the only way to go in the digital age is self-regulatory. Only self-regulation has the flexibility and the buy-in from the industry to create clearings of order in the jungle of the internet.
Adam Price: There is a thought.
Chairman: I am not sure that at 12 minutes past one we can reopen the entire Communications Act; that is for another day perhaps. Can I thank all three of you very much.