House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
culture, media and sport committee
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Taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee
Mr John Whittingdale, in the Chair
Mr Nigel Evans
Mr Mike Hall
Mr Adrian Sanders
Nick Davies, writer and journalist, and Mr Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism,
Chairman: Good morning. Can I welcome
Nick Davies, writer, journalist and author of Flat Earth News, and Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism at
Q402 Mr Evans: Could I start by asking you about your concept of "churnalism" which you mention in your book (of which you seem to have a copy on the table and if we were being televised you could hold it up and do a little plug)? Could you just tell us a little bit about the concept of churnalism?
Mr Davies: What I am really writing about in the book is the way in which commercialism has invaded our newsrooms and undermined the values of journalism. There are all sorts of aspects to that; the impact is subtle and manifold. The big, obvious structural impact is what is being called churnalism which is essentially that the big corporations have cut their costs by reducing the number of journalists but increased their output because the more pages you print, the more advertising you carry and therefore the more money you can earn. The impact of that is that journalists just do not have enough time to do their job. As a single example of that, I commissioned this piece of research into news stories in our quality newspapers. We took a sample of two weeks' output, more than 2000 stories and said, insofar as each of these stories rests on a central factual statement, is there evidence that that statement has been thoroughly checked? The answer you are bound to get is 100% because that is what we do, we check to discriminate between falsehood and truth. The answer they got was not 100%; it was 12%. These are the quality newspapers. That is the kind of things that happens when you take time away from working journalists which is what the commercialism has done.
Q403 Mr Evans: This is not a new thing though. It has always struck me that stories, for instance, that appear in local newspapers must be scanned and scoured by national journalists who then pick and choose and lift those stories to print them. With the number of free sheets that we have now it does seem that some of the stories you have read before and the detail has not really been altered that much. So it is not a new thing, is it?
Mr Davies: There has never been a time when journalists were simply able to
tell the truth about everything. We have
always been tethered by time problems because we are writing about events as
they occur and traditionally we have tried to put them in the paper the next
day. So there has always been a time
problem. However, that time problem has
certainly got worse in the 32 years that I have been working as a reporter and
we attempted to measure it with this research I commissioned from
Q404 Mr Evans: When did you do that analysis?
Mr Davies: About two years ago.
Q405 Mr Evans: In which case, if your statement was right then, it must have got worse now because the number of journalists - as we have all seen in local and national papers - has dropped. Indeed, the pressure on journalists to even carry camcorders and do things for web pages seems to have increased.
Mr Davies: Definitely. That is really
the reason that the book took off. I am
travelling the world now. I have just
come back from
Q406 Mr Evans: Would you say that compared to the past the quality of journalism is as good as it was in the past, maybe better than it was in the past or is it now worse than it was in the past?
Mr Davies: If we take a baseline of 32 years ago when I started - because I have experience as well as research - the quality of the journalists is probably better; the quality of the journalism is undoubtedly worse because of this professional straightjacket in which we are now compelled to work. When the book came out there were some senior journalists who just hated it; I was being bombarded with hostility and some of the people who came out badly from the book did not like it. What then happened was that I was contacted by journalists from up and down this country and all across the developed world effectively saying the same thing, "Thank God you said that because it is the same in my newsroom". There is a really serious problem here.
Q407 Mr Evans: Do you believe as well that there is simply lifting of stories from other papers which are slightly changed but without the proper investigative journalism with journalists talking to the people they are writing about and finding out whether the story was true originally?
Mr Davies: There is a bit of lifting from other papers. There are two key sources of second hand information: the wire agency (Reuters, AP) and there is the PR industry. Those are the two primary sources of second hand material which flow through the newsrooms and which we churn - recycle - into print without really checking. I think that means that we are structurally likely to fail to tell the truth because the news agencies are too short of staff themselves to know the truth about what is going on on their patch and the PR industry is specifically designed to serve the interests - political or commercial - of those who pay for it, not the interests of truth.
Q408 Mr Evans: So the old line of "It's got to be true, I read it in the newspaper" no longer holds any sway.
Mr Davies: I do not think it ever was entirely true. There has always been a problem with it, but that problem I insist has got significantly worse and continues to deteriorate because of the credit crisis.
Mr Greenslade: Yes, I certainly do recognise it. We are now getting evidence from across the country of courts that are going unreported, of council meetings that are not being properly covered, of local paper journalists who never the office, of local paper journalists who are required to perform a sort of wordage count per day or a number of stories per day. All of this links entirely to what Nick says about churnalism which is really that it becomes a kind of factory of words rather than an industry which is dedicated to telling the truth. Certainly papers come out and certainly papers contain stories, but the stories are different from the truth, as we know. You can get your PR feed and in your PR feed you get a story. You might balance that, if you have a chance, by making one phone call to get the other side, but that is not what journalism is really about. It is not about presenting one side and the other side; it is about trying to get to the truth and you can only do that without time constraints. In his book Nick has avoided making the mistake (of which he has been accused many times) of looking back to a golden age. He agrees with me that there was no golden age; there was no time in which it was absolutely great and perfect. If I look back to my first local paper, as I did recently at Colindale Newspaper Library, I realised that it was not the be all and end all of journalism then either. However, it was packed with stories, packed with material which had involved us journalists - a very small number of us - actually going out, meeting people, making contacts and so on. That does not happen any more. However, I ought to just stress finally that you have to see it from the other side too, and that is that councils have made it much more difficult for journalists to report and so have the police. When I was first a reporter I went to the police station every morning - I happened to live next door to it - and spoke to the duty sergeant who would turn the book round and we would go through what was interesting. No duty sergeant will allow that to happen nowadays because there is a whole PR outfit created to prevent that happening. It is not simply that journalists have become denuded of time and opportunity, it is also that the authorities on which we regularly called have made it that much more difficult to do it. I think we need to see that context.
Q410 Chairman: Both of you have been focussing to some extent on local newspapers. I do not want to pre-empt the Committee's next inquiry which is into the future of local newspapers, but is this not because of the growth of on-line distribution, the migration of advertising away from local traditional news outlets? This is a structural change which really is inevitable. It is not something we can reverse.
Mr Davies: You have actually got three phases of work here. Phase number one: the local newspapers which, on the whole, tend to belong to local families are bought up by big corporations. You will know that there are four corporations which own most of the local newspapers nowadays and they ransacked those local newsrooms for profit, laying off journalists, increasing the output, closing the offices in the middle of towns so they can sell the building for profit and moving it out to some industrial estate where it is cheaper. All that damages the quality of the local news but it makes a lot of money. Phase two: along comes the internet, news is free, advertising starts to drift off to websites where it does not have to pay and/or is more precisely focused on the market it is trying to reach. Phase three: the credit crisis, advertising starts to crash downwards. Whereas previously these corporations were damaging the quality of journalism in order to increase their profits, now they are damaging the quality of journalism in order to try to stay afloat. You have masses and masses of journalists losing their jobs.
Mr Greenslade: We will come back to the nationals probably because that is your central focus, the important thing about corporatised journalism as described by Nick is that that is also evident in national newspapers too. Although not in every group, it is really very clear in, say, Trinity Mirror and the Express group and so on where the idea is that you simply use the kind of mechanisms that I have described in terms of local papers in national papers, that is smaller and smaller staffs required to respond to a prompt by the news desk to follow up what is provided by agencies or stringers rather than actually generating material themselves. That is what I describe as corporatised journalism and reactive journalism. Journalism has to be pro-active and that is the difference. The same structures that we have seen in local newspapers are being repeated to an extent in nationals.
Q411 Chairman: On top of that there appears to have been a steady movement away from hard, investigative journalism towards celebrity sensations.
Mr Greenslade: There is investigative journalism - let us not say there is not - but it is less evident than before. The very phrase "investigative journalism" suggests that there are things which are separate from other kinds of journalism. Really all journalism should be investigative journalism in the sense that, even if it is a relatively small story, it takes that journalist some time to research and investigate it. It is not that the big, set piece investigative journalism is not going on because it is, but it is that kind of regular, subjecting every story to that penetrating analysis which is not happening.
Mr Davies: I slightly disagree with that. I agree that all journalism should be investigative; it should be truth telling; it should involve checking and there has been a serious decline in that, the routine checking of facts. What we might call investigative stuff is where somebody is trying to obstruct you getting access to the information you need - active obstruction - and therefore it is tougher and more time consuming. There is much less of that. I used to be an on-screen reporter at World in Action and there was also TV Eye at Thames television and First Tuesday at Yorkshire television which have all gone and been replaced with that dross Tonight with Trevor McDonald which is a disgrace. That is the picture. That is not done because the government comes forward and says that we should not have real investigations. That is commercialism at work; it is too expensive to do those difficult investigations. If you put Trevor in front of the screen and you do short stories that only last five or ten minutes, something perhaps about celebrities, you get higher ratings but you kill your journalism.
Q412 Rosemary McKenna: Can I just follow up on the point the Chairman made about the celebrity thing. Is it because of the drop in real journalism and the easy way it is to fill newspapers with celebrities? Which came first?
Mr Greenslade: That is wonderfully "chicken and egg". We do live in a celebrity age and quite why that should be the case I am uncertain. Psychologists have written many books about it and I am not certain that they have got it absolutely right. However, in terms of the way it has affected the media, telling stories has become second rate to the easy way of boosting a celebrity. There is no doubt that although Nick's book is brilliant my book on the press is even more brilliant. In my book I went back to 1945 and simply wrote a history of what had happened in newspapers from 1945 onwards. There is no doubt, looking back in those files, that the proportion of celebrity content has expanded by a huge amount, by many hundreds of per cent. That might, as you say, reflect a change in public taste. I do not think so; I think the media as a whole - the totality of the media - reinforce the concept that celebrity news is best. We have also seen a democratisation of celebrities as it were (the Jade Good phenomenon) and that, in itself, means that celebrity has taken over in a way that it should not have done.
Mr Davies: I would add that there is an institutional side to this which is that the growth of celebrity news is occurring as part of the growth of PR input into newspapers. When we researched the news stories published by the quality newspapers in this country, we found that 54% of them were wholly or mainly PR product. Wholly PR product means that the press officer for the corporation or the trade union or the government department writes the press release and we put it in the paper with the reporters' byline on it. We are allowing government departments and corporations to write the news. Wholly or mainly PR means that they have written the press release, we have taken it, made a phone call, tacked a quote on the end and put it in the paper. That is a very frightening thing when that happens. If you want to understand why we got the story on weapons of mass destruction wrong, why we misreported the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20, that is what it is about; we rewrite press releases that interested parties put out serving their interests. Celebrity news is driven by their part of the PR machine, putting out cheap, easy to run "sexy" stories with pictures which fill more space and sell papers.
Mr Greenslade: The other important thing about celebrities is that they have the highest paid, best PRs and therefore they are much more exploitative and they get up to all sorts of things. I was at a conference in Derry a couple of years ago when a PR stood up and said that he was disgusted with the run down of journalism and he often wrote PR handouts that had appeared verbatim in the press. He held up in front of everyone at the conference a page about which he was disgusted when it happened; he said, "They even ran my byline".
Q413 Mr Hall: Could I explore the concept of responsible journalism? It is permissible for the press to run stories that are defamatory as long as they have been well researched, professionally presented and in the public interest. That seems to be the defence. Is that sort of defence still relevant today?
Mr Davies: It is okay for the press to run defamatory stories -----
Q414 Mr Hall: This is the House of Lords ruling in Reynolds, that journalists making statements which were subsequently found to be defamatory or untrue were protected in law if the story had been researched, presented professionally and the subject matter was in the public interest.
Mr Davies: The Reynolds judgment has been updated and we now call it Jameel. That is a bad solution to a very bad problem. The very bad problem is that we have a libel law which does not work for either side. There are masses of people who are factually wronged and damaged by newspapers who cannot use libel law to correct the errors because it is too expensive. Then from the newspapers' point of view, the legal fees that are involved (I am sure you will have been told this by other witnesses) are so terrifying that there is a constant chilling effect, a constant inhibition on us. The libel laws are a mess. Along comes the High Court and they say, "We will try to help you out here". Essentially what they are saying in Reynolds and Jameel is, "If you go through the correct processes so that we reckon you have behaved in a responsible way, even if you have blown it we will let you get away with it". I do not like that because it encourages a kind of "he said/she said" journalism where we do not get to the truth. In fact I think it licenses damaging falsehoods. If somebody comes along to me and says, "Mike Hall is a paedophile" I ring you up and act responsibly and you say, "No I am not" -----
Q415 Mr Hall: Just for the record, I am not.
Mr Davies: No, I understand that but the Reynolds judgment licenses me to run that story as long as it is full of your denials and I have behaved in a responsible way. If Charlie down the road who has told me this is lying, that is a licence to run malicious falsehoods. I say this with some passion because when the book came out there were several attempts to do that to me. I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of really dishonest journalism. I had to really, really fight to stop a grotesque sexual smear about my wife going into the paper. Part of what helped me was that I have never had a wife. It was just bonkers. I finally only stopped that story going into the paper because I tape recorded the conversation with the reporter in which he acknowledged that the fact that I did not have a wife probably meant that the story was not true. At the end of the day the editor said, "I am going to run it anyway with your denial". That is not good enough. I said, "If you run that story I will publish the tapes in which your own reporter admits that the story is not true" and then he backed off. I am not happy with Reynolds and Jameel but a lot of journalists are because it is one way of dealing with the wretched libel law.
Q416 Chairman: Are you willing to tell us which paper it was?
Mr Davies: I do not think I should. The sleeping dog is lying and I will leave it there.
Mr Greenslade: I am sympathetic to what Nick says of course, but I do believe that Reynolds and Jameel do offer a way of getting material into the public domain that needs to be put there. Of course it is a grotesque example that Nick quotes but I think there have been plenty of other examples where that has been valuable, not least in the Jameel case. I think the key to this is the word "responsible". As journalists we wish to exercise the greatest amount of licence and freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility and it is about how we go about our job. Most of what the Reynolds judgment said was that we should do certain things properly and I think that that was important in the case of George Galloway v The Daily Telegraph where the Telegraph had failed to act responsibly and the reason I believe the judgment was made in Galloway's favour was because his counsel were able to show that the paper had behaved irresponsibly. I think that was very important in that case and it is important in other cases too. I attended the Committee to hear Max Mosley speak and although I have differing views from him about prior notification, it is certainly a case that responsible journalism means that you should approach the other party before you go to print when you are about to print something which intrudes so heavily into their privacy for instance, or indeed which may libel. I think it is responsible journalism. I do not think it is a "he said/she said" in those situations; you should give the other side an opportunity to explain themselves. That is there in Reynolds and it is something again that was ignored in the case of The News of the World in carrying out the Mosley investigation.
Hall: We have heard evidence from quite a
number of what you would call reputable newspapers in
Mr Greenslade: You have to show malice.
Q418 Mr Hall: Absolutely. The person or organisation or individual who are put under the spotlight get the opportunity to rebut and because of that the American press seems to take a far more responsible attitude. We have heard that they are only allowed one anonymous source; they have to cross-reference their story with two separate reference points. Only then, if it stacks up, do they publish.
Mr Greenslade: The important thing is about the specificity of culture and this goes across the world. We have highly competitive sets of national newspapers and competition is supposed to be a good thing - many people around this table might think that competition is the be all and end all in life - however, sometimes competition has bad effects too. The bad results of competition in our press, as distinct from the American press, are that it has led to extremely poor behaviour. If I might just indulge a moment of history here, in the 1948 Royal Commission on the press it was suggested that there should be the setting up of a press council and, at the same time, there should be some kind of code from which the press council would operate. It took five years before the Press Council was set up and without any kind of code at all so journalists were simply working as they decided. Out of that freedom that the press enjoyed gradually, over a prolonged period, standards fell and fell and the Press Council fell into a situation in which it was disregarded by the bulk of the press. This led to a kind of Wild West period in the late 1980s which is the very reason why the Press Council was abandoned. We set up the Press Complaints Commission and at last, 50 years later, we created a code of ethics to make journalists abide by. Then of course we created an administration called the Press Complaints Commission that was weak enough to ensure that the code could be ignored.
Q419 Mr Hall: The Americans are very keen of checking the facts of the story before they go to press.
Mr Greenslade: They are, but they have a totally split thing. They have weird and crazy newspapers - the supermarket checkout newspapers - which no-one really believes that much and which even stars occasionally sue for but largely ignore and treat as going with the territory of fame as it were. Then we have newspapers which, for a variety of reasons, have created their own set of ethics and ethical guidelines and they stick very closely to them. In Britain American newspapers are regarded as incredibly dull because they do that. You will undoubtedly hear evidence from some editors who think that dullness is something that must never occur in a newspaper, you must not deal with anything seriously, that we need all the guff, gossip and trivia to ensure that we keep readership up and that way justify the odd bits of serious news that we cover. I see it in a different way; I think that essentially journalism is about doing public good - not entertaining the public but doing public good - and we should use that as our yardstick or our criteria for everything we do in journalism. This may be unrelievedly dull but I think it is very important in terms of our democracy.
Q420 Mr Hall: I think it is paradoxical that the American press have as much freedom as they could possibly have yet they act so responsibly in the way they actually check their stories before they publish them. If we had the same approach here would our press respond in the same way?
Mr Greenslade: I do not want to be too much defending the American press here. I thought the way they behaved over Hilary
Clinton and Whitewater was hardly responsible.
They accept leaks from grand juries and indeed their whole treatment of
Mr Davies: Just to come back to where you started with Reynolds, if you would just look at the two things which have to be balanced here, the serious journalists need to be able to tell the truth about powerful people without being punished in the way that currently we can be by greedy lawyers. On the other hand, ordinary people who are the victims of grossly unfair and inaccurate reporting must have a mechanism by which newspapers are compelled to correct the damage. Neither of those two goals has been secured at the moment because the libel law is wrong and the PCC is not really doing its job either. The question about Reynolds I think goes to that big underlying problem. If you can kick the libel law into touch you would be doing everybody a big service.
Price: There are some Americans who look
over at British newspapers with some admiration; they like the fearlessness,
lack of deference. You mentioned
Mr Greenslade: There are virtues in our more probing side. If you took the analogy of our radio and
television interviewers - John Humphries and Jeremy Paxman - they do not exist
Price: Do you think there is a cultural
difference as well? It is often said
Mr Greenslade: There is a cultural distinction but that is because of the nature
of the growth of the American republic in which journalism, which was very
helpful in forging that republic and winning independence from the awful
colonising power, in so doing it saw journalism as a bulwark of democracy (the
famous Jefferson quote). We did not see
it that way. Ours was in fact a lengthy
struggle against the state to win a freedom to do as we like which was secured
eventually in 1855. We therefore saw
ourselves not as helpful to democracy (because we did not have a democracy back
in 1855 in the way we now recognise it) and therefore we pitched ourselves as
being anti-democratic in a sense by at least being anti-parliamentary,
anti-state. The difference in the
Mr Davies: When I started work most journalists trained by working on local
newspapers. I think you would call that
a trade in a sense; they were learning from other people who did the job by
copying them. Now that has all changed
for various reasons which I need not go into and the intake of journalists
tends to be graduates coming through university courses. In a certain sort of sense it has become more
professional but there is a problem now with the training of journalists in
colleges which is that they measure their success by their ability to get their
students jobs. An awful lot of these
courses are therefore training journalists to be churnalists.
Q423 Adam Price: Do you think the quality of British journalism has risen in proportion to the quantity of alcohol consumed?
Mr Davies: It is a less boozy world.
Q424 Adam Price: That has to have improved the level of professionalism.
Mr Davies: I think we are more sober. A lot of the drinking was actually to do with getting stories so crime reporters were getting drunk with coppers and getting stories out of them. Phil Knightley, who is one of the greatest reporters who has been working in this country since the war, says that to be able to consume huge amounts of alcohol without going under the table is an essential skill for reporting.
Q425 Paul Farrelly: I want to press on the responsible journalism defence. Clearly there are criticisms of it, but one of the criticisms must be that in a democracy such as ours it has been entirely judgmental and it depends on the judge you get as to whether the boundaries can be pushed even further. Do you see that there is a case for some statutory protection for responsible journalism which might involve a trade-off with privacy.
Mr Davies: I am not quite sure what you have in mind in concrete terms.
Q426 Paul Farrelly: Would it be welcome progress if an extended Jameel defence were enshrined in the statutes so there would be a statutory protection in our libel laws for responsible journalism.
Mr Davies: I want to get rid of the libel law.
Q427 Paul Farrelly: The world is not perfect.
Mr Davies: If we are looking for ways to live with the monster in our home, would that help? I suppose it would help, but I come back to the point that basically we have a bad solution to a bad problem. I would rather get rid of the problem.
Mr Greenslade: In all of our criticisms of journalism we should really underline the fact that we have to be free to be wrong too on occasion. I feel that if you created some kind of statute which told us exactly how to carry out our job which was hugely prescriptive then freedom is at an end. That is why, despite my sympathies for Max Mosley, I was worried about prior notification being prescriptive in a sense that sometimes it may not either be possible or reasonable to go to the person in certain circumstances. Sometimes you will and sometimes you will not; in his case I do not think you should.
Mr Davies: You are also not going to be helping the ordinary people who are suffering from media falsehood; they would still have to wade their way through the libel courts which they cannot afford to.
Mr Greenslade: Even if you created a statute that was different or separate or a tack-on, you would still be in the same position. You have the argument about contingency fee arrangements and who would be using them anyway, and you would not be helping most people most of the time.
Paul Farrelly: One case that we have heard about is the Tesco libel case against
the Guardian. In the
Mr Greenslade: That is right.
Q429 Paul Farrelly: Here we have the absurd spectacle of the country's biggest retailer, making over £3 billion of profits going to court to seek to ask a judge to exclude evidence from Private Eye that it was actually doing what was alleged in the broad thrust anyway. That is absolute abuse of the courts.
Mr Greenslade: I obviously declare an interest in that I write for the Guardian but, that said, I am behind the view that corporations should not be able to sue for libel and that corporations anyway should not be in a position, as in Tesco's case, to actually do what they did in that instance.
Mr Davies: I agree with that, but if you come back to this basic point, the corporation which is seriously maligned by a newspaper ought to have some mechanism by which it can compel us to correct it. Its share price may dive, it may lose customers because we have invented some ghastly falsehood about them. I agree they should not be suing us for libel; what Tesco did was an outrageous piece of bullying. If we come back to basics, we have not got the mechanism to do the job for either side.
Farrelly: In terms of responsible
journalism, one further thing we heard in
Mr Greenslade: I am not out of sympathy with that, however I do not know how you could create this statutory protection that you seek. I think that the single yardstick we ought to use is: what is in the greater public interest? As long as we can defend that and defend that whether we are sued on privacy or libel, then I think that we stand or fall by that. However, that is not to say that I would not like to see a complete reform of the libel laws.
Q431 Mr Sanders: The NUJ has campaigned to include a conscience clause in the PCC code to allow journalists to effectively refuse assignments from editors. Do you think there is a need for this?
Mr Greenslade: I noted that particular one. I think that if employers make the PCC code part of the contract of employment - which most of them do - then it is only reasonable that any journalist can refuse to carry out something which would be knowingly in breach of the code.
Q432 Mr Sanders: So could it work in practice if it was not part of a contract of employment?
Mr Greenslade: There would be no muscle at all there but once it is in your contract I think you will be able to defend your position. You might very well in practice get sacked but at least you are going to get compensation because you will be able to show that is part of your contract and you refused to do it.
Mr Davies: It is a tricky business though.
It is not just to do with refusing assignments, it is to do with whether
or not you tell the truth about the assignment that you are on. For example, last year all hacks went down to
Mr Greenslade: Looking back on how reporters were considered to be good reporters by their news desk and therefore by the hierarchy, they were the ones who stood up the stories that the news desk wanted them to stand up and bad reporters were those who rang up and said that this story does not stand up.
Mr Davies: That is true but it is very unhealthy.
Mr Greenslade: It is unhealthy but that is exactly what has happened in the practice of journalism. Reporters who can suddenly, as it were, make the prejudices of the news editor and the editor come to fruition are those who are generally promoted and thought well of and those who say, "There is no story here, this is not true" or whatever find themselves consigned gradually to the edges of the universe in newspaper terms.
Q433 Mr Sanders: That is extremely depressing. We did have an example with the McCanns when they were before us.
Mr Greenslade: The McCanns are a classic case.
I know Nick wants to address you on this so I will just do this very
shortly. The McCanns is a perfect
example where reporters were encouraged to get a story or several stories and
their only source for most of those stories were other journalists in
Mr Davies: It is the PCC point that I wanted to get into but perhaps that is not where you are with your questioning.
Q434 Mr Sanders: How effective do you think the PCC is in upholding standards?
Mr Davies: I would say the PCC's performance is so weak that it threatens the
concept of self-regulation. If the PCC
does not lift its game then the whole notion of self-regulation is going to be
discoloured by them. The McCanns is one
of numerous examples. I was reading
yesterday, in preparation for coming here, the evidence when Christopher Meyer was
being questioned by Mr Farrelly and he was saying, for example, "We could not
contact the McCanns directly when the story broke because we did not know their
phone number". That is pathetic. That is bad faith on Mayer's part. He is in touch with all those editors who
have all their journalists down on the ground there. It really, really is not difficult to use
those editors to ask those journalists, "What is the street address in
Mr Greenslade: I agree but let us specify some areas that are wrong about the PCC. I said that it was founded specifically to overcome the fact that we were going through a bout of particularly bad behaviour in the 1980s from the tabloids, particularly the News of the World and particularly at that time the Sun (which is less true nowadays I ought to say). There have been different phases and periods in the life of the PCC and in my view it has done some things that are pretty good because it has made journalists very conscious of the idea of their being a code. It only came to light in 1991 when the PCC actually began after we drew up the code in 1990; Meyer calls it a "healthy teenager" but it still is only a teenager and it has a way to go to mature. They have done some things well but they are not and never are really proactive enough. They will say that this is due to funding or they will say it is because they do not have phone numbers, but they are not proactive. So it does mean that when there are feeding frenzies - let us admit that the ultimate feeding frenzy was the treatment of the McCanns and, by the way, Robert Murat - they are allowed to go forward because they fail to be proactive. The famous telephone call between Meyer and McCann about whether he advised him to go to law or not has been somewhat obviscated I think. The truth is that at that point Meyer could have said, "Look, you're worried; we're going to take some action. If you want to go to law later that is your view", but instead the PCC attitude is, "If you're going to go to law we are having nothing to do with it". I think that is wrong. I think that self-regulation should mean that they get involved irrespective of whether that person goes to law or not. That is item one. I also think that the way the PCC operates is all about smoke and mirrors. It is all behind the scenes; it is all about resolution and arbitration rather than adjudication so there are only 45 adjudications and 3968 complaints last year. That is far too small a proportion to be credible. Christopher Meyer said in an interview I did with him a few weeks ago, "We would love to adjudicate more; nothing would please us more than to adjudicate, it would be easy to do. We could simply say, no, we are going to adjudicate, but it would bring us into disrepute." It would bring the PCC into disrepute with its funders; it would actually mean that there were clashes between the PCC - as there were with the Press Council - and the industry that set it up and it would not do it any more. That is the fig leaf that goes on at the moment. Then there is the opacity of the PCC. Apart from the smoke and mirrors setting, it is not a public body so we cannot look at it through the Freedom of Information Act as we can other self-regularly bodies. The IPCC is a public body so you can actually check on what people are doing in terms of really, really amazing complaints relating to the police, but you cannot in terms of people who complain to the PCC. Christopher Meyer's argument is that if you did that then fewer people would complain but it has not stopped people complaining to the IPCC. We are not saying that the names of those people and what they write would ever be revealed in the press; what we are saying is that it would test much more clearly about how they are going about their work and what they actually do and whether the resolution is working. To offset that they set up the independent charter commissioner. The independent charter commissioner is appointed from within the chairmen of the PCC. I do not know whether that means independent or not but the next one is going to be former Black Rod Sir Michael Wilcox, himself famously subject to a PCC complaint on one occasion. Again that work is carried out quietly and behind the scenes. So in every way there are questions about its independence. If you look at who appoints who within the industry, apart from the fact that the independent commissioners who form a minority on the commission, everything else is self-selected and self-appointed by the chairman or by the chairman of PressBof which funds it.
Mr Davies: It is that word that
Q435 Chairman: We had an inquiry into Motorman.
Mr Davies: Did you have the e-mails and so on?
Q436 Chairman: We had representatives of News International and so on.
Mr Davies: I thought the whole handling of the Max Mosley thing was really shocking. There is this bloke who suddenly discovers himself one Sunday morning naked, having sex on a newspaper's website. You may think there was an invasion of privacy here. As I understand it, he did go to the PCC at that early stage and they said - as so often they do - "We are not going to handle your complaint". So he sues on breach of privacy and wins the biggest payment ever made on breach of privacy in this country. So what do the PCC do? Surely they will call in the editor of the News of the World for a serious dressing down and surely they will put out clear guidelines in newspapers: you cannot keep behaving this way. They do not. They do nothing. Meyer then appears here and talks about Mosley in the most derogatory terms, giggling about his shaved buttocks and his crevices. Where is the independence from Christopher Meyer? He is not acting as an independent referee; he is there on the side of the newspapers against a man who was grievously wronged by the News of the World.
Q437 Paul Farrelly: You do feel sometimes in those high profile cases that the Press Complaints Commission will not operate because it would not be allowed to operate because the matter is too newsworthy.
Mr Davies: Meyer has really brought discredit to the PCC. I am glad he has gone. If there is to be a chance of self-regulation surviving in this country it will be without the likes of Christopher Meyer. He is a bad man.
Q438 Helen Southworth: How is the PCC structured? There has been a suggestion that it could be enhanced significantly by having professional journalists as part of its body. Do you have an opinion on that or on the structure generally?
Mr Greenslade: I have always regarded editors as professional journalists.
Mr Davies: Do you mean to research cases?
Q439 Helen Southworth: At the moment it has editors and it has lay people but should there be journalists working at other levels?
Mr Greenslade: I do not think that is the case. I think it is reasonable to have editors on it for a start. I think that is perfectly okay. Some people disagree with me; some people think there should be no editors represented at all but I think it is very helpful that they are there.
Q440 Helen Southworth: I was not saying it to the exclusion of.
Mr Greenslade: You want more journalists on there?
Q441 Helen Southworth: I am asking you.
Mr Greenslade: No, I do not think so. I do not know where you would select your journalists from but I think it would lead to the sorting out of what we might call petty, internal squabbles.
Mr Davies: I think there are two potential roles here. If you say: could the PCC do with some professional journalists to go out and investigate what has gone wrong with a particular story? I think there could be some virtue in that, ex-journalists, people who actually know how other hacks behave. As far as I know Tim Toulmin has never written a word in anger. He is not a journalist; he does not understand the tricks we get up to. I think at that kind of investigative level it could be really helpful, but if you look at the Commission I do not think there should be any professional journalists or editors on that Commission. They proudly say that they have a majority or lay people but if you compare that to the position of a jury, if you were told, "Well, here we have the 12 jurors; five of the 12 share commercial, professional interests with the defendant on trial" you would say, "We can't have that, even if seven of them are independent". The entire Commission should be made up of lay people. It should not be weighted with people who produce the same newspapers that are coming up to be judged. That is wrong.
Mr Greenslade: I disagree because I think that the important feature of the Commission is that editors sit in judgment on themselves and when they do adjudicate it does meant that the whole of the industry stands behind it. One of the differences between the adjudications carried out by the PCC and those carried out previously by the Press Council is that there has never been any public demur from those decisions. There are too few of them as I have mentioned, but those that are made are never challenged again in the newspapers which are forced to carry the adjudications. By the way, they have improved slightly on the positioning of those adjudications as well. That is one thing Meyer did improve.
Q442 Helen Southworth: In terms of the structure I think you have both expressed concerns about the independent distance of the PCC. How would you see the structure being improved? Is there a way that the structure could be enhanced?
Mr Greenslade: First of all I think there should be a totally independent appointments commission and they should appoint every position in the PCC. I think the editors could be self-selected from within the industry and they do it on a rota basis anyway; that is fine and I am quite happy about that. I think the appointments commission could even be appointed, dare I say it, by politicians. At least it should be so totally independent from the industry that we can feel that the charter commissioner and the compliance commissioner and all the members of the commission are appointed with absolutely no influence from the industry itself. That would be a major improvement. In terms of the rest of the structure I think it is under-funded and this is something about which I agree totally with Christopher Meyer. It is under-funded and part of that funding should, as Nick suggests, go into investigating cases and being more proactive.
Mr Davies: It is not just a question of who appoints the people who are running it; it is also who defines the rules according to which it runs. Why do they have a rule which says, "If a complaint comes from a third party we are bound to dismiss it"? This happened to me. I wrote a story about a school where the deputy head teacher came out rather badly. Two parents complained to the PCC. It was a real nuisance. I had spent a lot of time preparing a response, and the next thing I heard it was kicked into touch. Why? Because the deputy head teacher himself had not complained. Where is the sense in that? If my story it is wrong we should have to correct it wherever the complaint comes from, but they have written this rule. They have written the rule that if you are suing you cannot come to the PCC. There are thousands and thousands of complaints which they reject on technical grounds. I would say the first thing is to get somebody independent to overhaul the rules on which they are running as well as the appointment of independent people so that you have an organisation which is structurally more likely to be honest with its complainants.
Q443 Chairman: On Thursday our next witness in this inquiry is the chairman of the PCC Code Committee who also happens to be the editor of the Daily Mail, Mr Dacre. It has been said that one of the most serious conflicts of interest is the fact that the editor of a newspaper which has a reputation for occasionally testing the code should also be in charge of the code. Would you agree with that?
Mr Davies: I did an analysis of all the occasions on which adjudications have actually taken place and drew up a sort of league table to see which newspaper had most frequently been found to have breached the PCC code and the Daily Mail are way out ahead of the others.
Q444 Chairman: Is that in your book?
Mr Davies: Yes, in the Daily Mail chapter.
Mr Greenslade: I am altogether more relaxed about Mr Dacre being head of the Code Committee because in fact I do not have that much of a problem with the code. The editor of the Guardian and other responsible journalists are there too. Obviously the code can, as it has been, changed over time. The code is not the problem; it is the application of the code and the administration by the Press Complaints Commission of that code itself. I think the Code Committee is a bit of a red herring.
Mr Davies: I agree with that, but where is the Code Committee saying that you have to stop using private investigators to get illegal access to -----
Mr Greenslade: That is not the Code Committee's job.
Mr Davies: It needs a clause in there to say that this is a disciplinary offence. Paul Dacre, in his speech to the Society of Editors last November, defended this practice and actually cited among the things which they should be able to access are not just your driving licence details but medical records. That surely is private but he is saying that we should be allowed to get access to that. I thought it was particularly alarming, if you read that speech, that he confessed publicly what we had suspected, that the reason that the Data Protection Act was not give a custodial sentence in the Criminal Justice Bill last year was because Paul Dacre, Murdoch MacLennan and Les Hinton went in to see Gordon Brown and stopped him doing it. That is a rather extraordinary situation. It is as if you allow burglars to go in and re-write the legislation on burglary. These are the guys who are breaking the law but they are being allowed to define its penalties.
Q445 Rosemary McKenna: It is interesting that the man who wants access to our medical records is so violently opposed to ID cards.
Mr Davies: Also, when he goes into hospital to have operations on his heart, there is always a message sent round Fleet Street saying, "Mr Dacre's in hospital, please do not report it". Medical records are supposed to be plundered by Harry Hack with beer on his breath and egg on his tie. It is wrong but they are not doing anything about it and that continues despite Motorman. All that has happened is that they have got a little bit more careful about it. I actually got to know that network of private investigators who were exposed in Motorman. Years after that I was in the office of one of them and he was taking phone calls from newspapers while I was there. It has not stopped; it has just got a bit more careful. It had got so casual that every reporter in the newsroom was allowed to ring up and commission illegal access to confidential information, now they have pulled it back so that you have to get the news editor to do it or the news desk's permission. It is still going on and it is against the law.
Q446 Paul Farrelly: Do you think the PCC missed a trick with its own standing reputation in not summoning Mr Coulson?
Mr Greenslade: I wrote at the time and have maintained ever since that the Goodman affair was a very, very black moment in the history of the PCC. This man was jailed for breaking the law. His editor immediately resigned but there were huge questions to ask about the culture of the News of the World newsroom which only the man in charge of that newsroom could answer. When I challenged the PCC about why they had failed to call Mr Coulson they said that he was no longer a member of the press. That seems to me to be a complete abnegation of the responsibilities of the PCC for the public good. In other words, to use a phrase Nick has already used, it was getting off with a technicality.
Mr Davies: If you say to Coulson, "Come and give evidence even though you are no longer an editor" and if he says, "No" then that is an interesting tactical failure on his part. It is not just the editor of the paper; what about the managing editor? Why not call Stuart Kuttner, the managing editor of the News of the World, who has been there for years and who has a special responsibility for contracts and money? Why not call him to give evidence? There was a real will on the part of the PCC to avoid uncovering the truth about phone hacking.
Q447 Chairman: We did do an investigation both into Motorman and into Goodman so I do not want to revisit old ground too much.
Mr Davies: It is what it tells you about the PCC.
Q448 Rosemary McKenna: There is no obligation on journalists to let people know that they are going to be printing stories about them and invading their privacy. I am very concerned about ordinary people. Would it help to have a requirement for a journalist to really check his story or to prior notify the people they were going to be the subject of a story? Would that help and how could it be done?
Mr Davies: It is a problem because the journalist's instinct is to go to go to the other side to check because you do not want to get caught out with some killer fact then your story is wrong. However, if you are doing a story which could be deemed to be confidential or - which is slightly different but similar - private, you are very, very reluctant to go to the other side because they can injunct you and these injunctions can sit there for months, particularly on breach of confidence. There is a problem there. I do not want Neville Thurlbeck from the News of the World in my bedroom filming me making love. I do not want it to happen. It is wrong. They should not have done it to Max Mosley.
Q449 Chairman: Can I just interrupt you on that point? The argument put by Mosley who is very much in favour of this is that no judge will grant an injunction if there is a public interest. So actually if there is a serious story there then an injunction will not be a problem.
Mr Davies: The trouble is that the courts have a history of being hostile to the journalists and we do not trust them. It is particularly difficult because nobody really knows what we mean by public interest. It is fuzzy. There are some cases which are clear but there are an awful lot that are fuzzy in the middle so you cannot be sure what outcome you are going to get. It makes me very nervous going anywhere near somebody who could possibly injunct me in order to check a story. I would rather find another mechanism.
Q450 Rosemary McKenna: Is there a mechanism?
Mr Greenslade: I was surprised - although not that surprised - by Max Mosley's view that he has greater faith in judges because he is a gentleman who came up through the law. The idea that judges would be better at making these decisions than editors is not absolutely proved. I also imagine that if every time you did a story you had to go to court to put it in front of a judge, think of the extra costs involved in that and that would have a gradual chilling effect on journalism itself. I think responsible journalism means that in most cases you would want to put to the victim the other side; you would want to go to them. However, there are occasions - as Nick has mentioned - where you would not. To go back to my dear, late unlamented employer Robert Maxwell, it is definitely the case that people like Robert Maxwell would have tied you up in the courts for ever. He managed to make life extremely difficult for his biographer Tom Bower for that very reason. In most cases I think we should do it but in some cases you should not and indeed it would be counter productive so to do.
Mr Davies: The only other mechanism I can think of and I hesitate to suggest it, is the prospect of some ghastly penalty. So if I publish a story that breaches your privacy and I have not approached you before publication because I do not want you to injunct me, if the law permitted you then to say, "Okay, I'm going to go to court and if the court says that you in fact you did breach my privacy then there is whopping great penalty going to descend on your head or the newspaper's head". In anticipating that I would be much more careful and the News of the World would be much more careful.
Rosemary McKenna: Ordinary people do not have the means to take action and to go to court.
Q451 Chairman: As I understand it that is roughly what Mosley was proposing, that if you fail then it becomes an additional cause in any subsequent damages. Prior notification is a requirement and if you do not -----
Mr Greenslade: He would like to see that enshrined in law
Mr Davies: I would like to see prior notification out because I do think there are problems with that. Maxwell is a very good example of someone who did injunct and suppress the story, but you could put something else out there which would restrain the feral end of Fleet Street. The feral end of Fleet Street is out of control.
Q452 Rosemary McKenna: There is in the way they are operating in terms of every aspect of society from celebrity right through government, right through the police. I do not know whether it is the death throws of the journalism profession because they see that the newspapers are failing so badly. Having spent all my life reading newspapers - that is a long time - I see such a deterioration in standards.
Mr Davies: There is a bullying and an aggression and a constant poisoning of
public debate. There is an irony
here. If you go back to the
Q453 Rosemary McKenna: There are no sanctions.
Mr Davies: No, just the irony of them stepping in and filling the gap made by the trades union they used to attack.
Q454 Paul Farrelly: Max Mosley told us that not only did they not speak to him beforehand - presumably because they got him bang to rights in their view - but they went out of their way to publish a dummy edition. That may have the effect of not allowing him to injunct, but to my mind that is a classic spoiler to stop the opposition -----
Mr Greenslade: He did not understand about the culture of competitive newspapers. He made a slight error; I was sitting back here and I wish I had leant forward to correct him on that. The spoof edition was simple to ensure they kept the story; it had nothing to do with avoiding an injunction.
Q455 Chairman: Do you not think it was both?
Mr Greenslade: No, I do not really. Even if he picked up an edition say at in the evening, the chances of him finding a duty judge to prevent the rest of the run at that stage would have been very minimal indeed. As we know that he did not pick up a copy until the next morning.
Q456 Paul Farrelly: Is there not a problem in enshrining primary legislation in a statute? It adds to the armoury that people like Robert Maxwell try to use to prevent publication.
Mr Davies: Yes, definitely. A few years
ago I did a big thing in the Guardian
about the tax avoidance strategies of the richest man in
Q457 Paul Farrelly: Max Mosley says he would rather trust a judge than anybody else but there is no consistency. If we take the judgment that the video of Mosley can remain on the website but in the case of the Guardian documents that are already in the public domain were injuncted and had to be removed. Linklaters found a judgment in the early hours of the morning which of course ordinary people are not able to do.
Mr Davies: The problems with prior notification actually go beyond this. It is not just privacy and confidentiality, there is the protection of sources. If I have to go to a central figure in a story some reasonable time before publication, there is a real risk of my sources being interfered with. When I was investigating the Daily Mail newsroom I did not go anywhere near Paul Dacre because he is a very aggressive man. It is difficult enough to get him people to talk without him threatening them. There is also the problem where you are writing a story about people who have professional PR advice and there is a real risk if you give them prior notification of your story. Alistair Campbell used to do this a lot, he would put out the story on his own terms with his own angle. There was a big example of that with Charles Kennedy where ITV decided to expose the fact that he had a problem with drinking and they went to him early in the day and said, "What do you want to say about this?" I think they were being a bit greedy actually, they wanted him on screen looking upset. However, as it was, Kennedy's PR people said, "Sod this, we not going to let ITV attack you. We will hold a press conference at in the afternoon, give the story to the opposition and change the angle. It is not 'I have a problem with drink', it is 'I am on top of the problem, it used to cause me trouble'." From a journalist's point of view, if you make it a legal requirement for prior notification you are causing a lot of problems so I think we have to look to another mechanism.
Mr Greenslade: I concur absolutely with that because that is a central problem. Prior notification will lead to spinners getting their opportunity to ruin your exclusive story or ruin your story altogether.
Mr Davies: If you change the angle you end up kind of misleading the public about what the story really is about.
Q458 Paul Farrelly: Unless you have some statutory codification of what could be considered to be in the public interest you are allowing in each of these different areas judges to take them case by case.
Mr Greenslade: You have put your finger on it. No-one has ever drafted a perfect definition of public interest. Nick has rightly pointed to its fuzziness. Even in the editor's code of practice it is a really wide definition that they have and it is impossible I think to encode the public interest which is, by the way, a moving feast.
Q459 Chairman: You have a concern about the spinners getting to it if you have prior notification, but actually the newspapers themselves are frequently guilty of this in that they go to the person and say, "We are going to write this story but actually if you play ball with us we will do it this way". The classic was the women A, B and C who were approached by the News of the World who said, "We are going to name you, we are going to have your picture in the paper unless you cooperate and if you cooperate then mysteriously these things will not need to be mentioned".
Mr Greenslade: It is a long term tactic of tabloids to go to the person when you do not have quite enough information that you need. The classic example is when, many, many years ago - I hate to bring his name into the public domain - the News of the World had some information about Frank Bough but only from a prostitute. They went to him and said, "We have got this information" and foolishly, instead of saying "Get lost" he was advised by a friend - a foolish friend - to do a deal in which he agreed to some of the stuff appearing and some being held back. That was a terrible mistake on his part but it is a classic method of operation in which you use prior notification in a way almost to blackmail.
Q460 Chairman: So it is all right to use prior notification to sort of try and put pressure on the person to help you, not to give him a chance to -----
Mr Greenslade: Exactly.
Mr Davies: Honest journalists need the option of whether to do the prior notification or not because it is a tactical requirement depending on legal or PR threats or threats to witnesses. If you tie us into a law that says we always have to go to the other side you will lose important stories so we need to find another mechanism
Mr Greenslade: The Guardian famously went to Tesco to try and tease out the truth about the tax affairs only for Tesco to be unhelpful and then later sue them which I think is a disgraceful example of the way in which a paper tried to do the right thing and the corporation turned on them.
Q461 Paul Farrelly: I imagine it might be a tactic if I were a tabloid reporter trying to tease them to say that court privacy laws guarantee your anonymity and of course that is absolute nonsense. I am sure that is a tactic that is being used now. Maybe I am just too cynical. You mentioned the chilling effects in relation to Robert Maxwell and that Tom Bower was very brave in treading where others feared to go because Maxwell would always sue. Do you have any other examples of the chilling effect?
Mr Davies: Jimmy Goldsmith harassed the press for years with injunctions and legal actions of one kind or another.
Mr Greenslade: Tiny Roland.
Q462 Chairman: It is suggested to us that some of the East European oligarks have taken an aggressive attitude. Do you have experience of that?
Mr Davies: I personally have not. There
are various wealthy characters from the
Mr Greenslade: I ought to mention that I write about the media and I am constantly under threat from owners, publishers and editors who absolutely loath the libel laws except when they can use them themselves. I have been threatened by the Barclay brothers. One action is on-going so I will not mention that. There are plenty of examples in which journalists are prime users of the libel law they effect to dislike.
Mr Davies: You do not actually have to have some bully throwing their weight around for the chilling effect to occur. While you are writing the story you know you are going to have to put it through the lawyer. Most newspaper lawyers like to play safe and so there is going to be this pressure to take out the key allegations or to soften them, not to tell the truth.
Mr Greenslade: The last person to threat me with libel was the News of the World's lawyer.
Q463 Paul Farrelly: I have received a letter from Carter-Ruck over my declaration of interests. It is the only letter I have received from Carter-Ruck in my life where they have not threatened to hang, draw and quarter me because of privilege. The investigative journalism which you were talking about earlier on is expensive because it is painstaking. With the libel laws on top of that does that make it even more expensive?
Mr Davies: Certainly. The prospect of having to pay huge legal costs in damages is one of the many obstacles in the way of the so-called investigative work; I think broader than that, truth telling journalism generally. Particularly in these commercially pressured newsrooms it is so tempting to go for the same story that everybody else has done it, a little bit of trivial tat keeps the readers happy. That is not what we should be doing; we should be asking difficult questions.
Q464 Paul Farrelly: Then we come to conditional fee arrangements. What has been your professional experience either at the coal face or as commentators?
Mr Greenslade: I have changed my mind about conditional fee arrangements. When they first came in I believed that this would offer a genuine opportunity for ordinary members of the public to get justice but conditional fee arrangements have been largely used by extremely rich people and the well-heeled and they have been used to ramp up to an unacceptable level costs that newspapers may pay. Sometimes one can be somewhat sympathetic to that if the paper has misbehaved, but they are now, I think, a massive chilling effect on journalism. I understand the doubling of the fee and so on, I understand why they do it but it is completely disgraceful. It is so rare to find that an ordinary member of the public has taken advantage of a CFA, to be honest.
Q465 Chairman: We have had plenty of evidence of the ramping up the costs. We have not had evidence specifically saying they are the preserve of rich people rather than poor people. Are you aware of actual analysis that will show that?
Mr Greenslade: No, that is very much an anecdotal view of mine; I do not have evidence to show that. However, I think it would be easy enough to obtain given that there are plenty of organisations - Lovells Solicitors for instance - who keep a record of every libel action and would be able to show who is using it and so on.
Mr Davies: There is a bit of a risk here that because of the greedy exploitation in relation to fees the whole concept of the CFA will be undermined and therefore we will just be left with the bad old libel laws and ordinary people still will not have access. If that is going to happen, if we are going to lose CFAs we have to think further about providing some effective mechanism for correcting the bad story.
Davies: It seems to me that there is no
perfect system and that in effect you are trying to trade off which is the
lesser evil. Is having as free a press
as possible more important than having access to the law for people who have
been maligned? It seems to me it is
where you strike that particular balance.
As Paul mentioned, my chief concern would be if journalists were not
able to expose wrongdoings by people in authority because they were scared of
the potential cost of doing so. You have
both mentioned during the course of this morning that you would want to either
get rid of the libel laws and
Mr Davies: There are two sides to this. The serious journalists need to be able to tell the truth without fear. The media victim needs to be able to have recourse to justice. I would deal with the first problem, the serious journalist being to tell the truth by going to the American model on libel law; that is a good place to start. On the justice for the media victim, if I then take advantage of that American model to write something disgustingly untrue about you then we want the PCC to do its job properly and not as it has been doing with the kind of independent elements built in that we have been talking about. If the only recourse for media victims is through the courts you immediately run into some sort of cost problem. It requires lawyers and who is going to pay for that? In principal the self-regulation model ought to work but it has been in the hands of people working with bad faith and that has to be stopped. I want to give self-regulation another chance despite everything that Christopher Meyer has done.
Q467 Philip Davies: So beef up the PCC.
Mr Davies: Yes, a decent independent PCC that really acts as a referee and not as a defender of the press; it should help people who are media victims.
Mr Greenslade: I agree with that. We have
two presses in
Davies: We heard in
Mr Greenslade: He is president of Formula One.
Q469 Philip Davies: Does that count as a public figure? Is a public figure somebody who lots of people in the public have heard of? It seems to me that that is a difficult one to pin down.
Mr Greenslade: It is difficult and it changes over time. Some people might retreat into what we might
call privacy or wish for a private life.
I think it is always difficult. I
did not regard Max Mosley as a public figure because I do not regard the man
who happens to run Formula One racing - whose name I had only ever heard of
because of his father - as a public figure.
Let me put it this way, it is a grey area. I think all of you elected politicians have
to be regarded as public figures. Most
people who serve in the bureaucracy -
Q470 Chairman: Is Paul Dacre a public figure?
Mr Greenslade: Yes, Paul Dacre is a public figure. I think editors and publishers are.
Mr Davies: It actually comes back to the public interest point. I am thinking that you could have somebody who is not inherently a public figure but becomes a public figure because it is in the public interest that they are. The man who is storing firearms in his house so that he can go out into the street and massacre strangers, it is in the public interest that we should be able to treat him as a public figure and say that without risk of him suing us. He has become public because of what he is doing.
Q471 Chairman: So did Jerry McCann become a public figure?
Mr Davies: In that he should have been exempted from the standard protection against libel. Both of these concepts, public figure and public interest, are fuzzy but I think public interest is probably more helpful to deal with: is it in the public interest for Jerry McCann to be exempted from libel protection? I do not think it is. He does not have power over people, does he? People do not need to know. The man with guns in his house we need to know about; politicians we need to know about; we need to know about editors.
Mr Greenslade: We needed to know about Damien McBride.
Mr Davies: I would say that there is a strong argument saying that the entire Monica Lewinsky story is not in the public interest. What does it matter who the president has sex with? That is the more fruitful way, asking about public interest rather than public figure.
Mr Greenslade: I think you would have to apply that test on each occasion, story by story and context by context which again is a first class example of why you cannot really enshrine this in a statute.
Q472 Paul Farrelly: Paul Dacre?
Mr Greenslade: Paul Dacre is not a public figure the instant he is no longer in power of the newspapers but he is now a public figure.
Q473 Paul Farrelly: I want to go back to CFAs and the potential reform of CFAs. Before CFAs would you say that it would be a fair comment that the costs of taking out libel actions were in some way responsible for the culture of tabloid journalism we have now because tabloids would say, "They can't afford to sue us and if they cannot sue us we have nothing to be afraid of and if they don't sue us it must be true"?
Mr Davies: It is not just the tabloids I am afraid. The Guardian is the most sophisticated and honest newspaper in this country but it is common for lawyers there to say, "Has this chap got money?" Any reasonable lawyer will anticipate that because if they are poor they cannot afford to sue us whoever we work for.
Mr Greenslade: Journalists have always made that judgment in my experience. You take greater risk with those unlikely to sue.
Mr Davies: There was a perfectly good line of logic to say that we should introduce these CFAs so that ordinary people are no longer cut out of this legal redress. It is the doubling of the fees that has really caused the problem.
Q474 Paul Farrelly: There are a lot of interesting proposals for a reform of the system in the Ministry of Justice document that has been issued on cost capping through a process that hopefully this Committee will be able to feed into in its reports. It would be very interesting to get from Lovell White Durrant the record of libel actions from the past.
Mr Greenslade: It is a key bit of information that the Committee should have which shows exactly how they are operating or not operating. The truth is that ordinary members of the public - I hate using that phrase, but people out of the public eye - rarely sue at all. That is the truth. Papers count on that fact as well, of course.
Q475 Paul Farrelly: The highest profile case of ordinary people using the CFA was the McCann case. They could not have done it otherwise.
Mr Greenslade: They have been transformed, as we have described, into public figures.
Mr Davies: They would not have been able to sue unless the CFA was there for them. They could not have afforded the lawyers.
Mr Greenslade: No, I do not think they would have done.
Q476 Paul Farrelly: Do you think there is a danger then from using one case and saying that CFAs across the board are a good thing.
Mr Davies: There are two different elements. The CFA allows people who do not have money to hire lawyers to go in for free and then pay the lawyer. That is a good thing. It is the lawyers who appear not to be willing to accept that unless they have this secondary factor that they can ratchet up their fees if they win.
Mr Greenslade: Worse, of course, are the examples of people from abroad using CFAs
which opens another can of worms about libel tourism and is an example of how
you can have a chilling effect on publications that perhaps only circulate a
relatively small number of publications - books or magazines or even websites -
which are only seen by a minority of people.
We have been there and I think that is another example of the way in
which our libel laws, compared to anywhere else in the world except perhaps
Q477 Paul Farrelly: Are you aware of any examples of foreigners using CFAs or being offered CFAs?
Mr Greenslade: No.
Q478 Alan Keen: It has been mentioned to me by more than one Member of Parliament that people who set themselves up as investigators should be subject to FOI because sometimes they have a special interest in why they are doing it. Do you think there is a case for that?
Mr Greenslade: I think that journalism is about disclosure and disclosure usually means that you are going to have sources who wish to remain confidential and applying an FOI to journalists in those circumstances would be an even greater chilling effect on proper journalism.
Mr Davies: I think I would find it very difficult to persuade people to talk to me off the record if they thought there was as a risk that the Freedom of Information Act could be used to disclose it because it would be beyond my capacity to control it.
Q479 Alan Keen: There are cases of morality where if you want to disclose stuff about somebody else you should honestly say, "Here I am, I am doing it". I am not talking about disclosing those people but you were saying it would lead to that. I think the MPs who have raised this with me are talking more about the people who have lobby passes here, should they have to disclose commercial interests?
Mr Greenslade: I think everyone who works either in elected office or for elected people should be completely transparent about all their interests.
Mr Davies: If a journalist is writing a story on a subject in which he has some kind of commercial personal vested interest then that needs to be on the table. If that is not declared then that is a problem. Is that what you are saying?
Q480 Alan Keen: Yes. I am saying also that it should be transparent, they should have to declare what their interests are before they start.
Mr Davies: You deal with that with code of conduct stuff rather than by introducing Freedom of Information legislation. I think that is right. If I am writing a story about a company and I own shares in the company then I should declare it. Actually, I should not be writing the story, they should give it to another journalist.
Q481 Alan Keen: I understand that. I was asking about lobby journalists.
Mr Greenslade: Should lobby journalists have a declaration of interests similar to that which MPs have?
Q482 Alan Keen: Yes.
Mr Greenslade: That is interesting. I have never really thought about that but it does not sound to me to be a bad idea. You mean shareholdings et cetera?
Q483 Alan Keen: Yes.
Mr Greenslade: I am a bit of a purist; I do not think journalists should have shares.
Q484 Alan Keen: There is a woman who has frequently been on television and in the press who appears to me to be a campaigner for freedom of information, an American I think.
Mr Davies: Heather Brooke?
Q485 Alan Keen: Yes. Does she earn a living from this?
Mr Davies: She is a journalist. She is a specialist in freedom of information. I think she is actually British and she worked in America and used their Freedom of Information Act, came back to this country just as ours was about to come into force so wrote a book which is a guide.
Q486 Alan Keen: I have seen her being interviewed.
Mr Davies: You are wondering whether she has some vested interest.
Q487 Alan Keen: Yes, because I have seen her on television being interviewed.
Mr Greenslade: I know her quite well. She teaches the students at City. She is a single interest journalist in the old tradition of having one niche interest and following it to its logical conclusion. She lives, in monetary terms, on the margins.
Price: You seem to be moving towards a kind
of reformed and enhanced self-regulatory system. You talked about the inherent fuzziness of
the concept of public interest and the nub of the problem. Is that not an argument actually for
statutory definition? It seems to me
that the press's definition of the public interest is what the public is
interested in. You mention as well the
issue of the two presses within the
Mr Davies: That would still require case by case interpretation. At the moment, where the code of conduct is concerned, it is being interpreted by a body which is not functioning in an independent, fair-minded, even-handed way. By all means let us try to clarify what we mean by public interest but the most important thing is to accumulate all these changes we have talked about with the Press Complaints Commission and let us expose them to the Freedom of Information Act. I would be particularly interested to know the grounds on which they reject these particular complaints. Let us have some independent investigators in there who may be professional journalists. That requires a bit more funding. I would say, let us get the editors off the Commission so that it functions more like a jury that has not already got a bunch of people with a vested interest, and let us review all the rules within which they operate (the third party the rule; the "you cannot complain if you are suing" rule). Then we might have some chance of taking these difficult concepts and making sense of them, applying them independently and fair-mindedly.
Mr Greenslade: Let me come at this from a different angle. It would be said by anyone defending the idea of a statutory control that judges themselves would take everything on a case by case interest. Indeed, that is what Mr Justice Eady - much maligned - does on every occasion; he treats everything on a case by case basis and so that would seem to fall in line. However, think of the consistent cost to publications (many of which, by the way - Guardian, Times, Independent - lose money already, that is without the extra costs that would be involved) if every single story was challengeable in the courts because of the statute you would find that an immensely chilling effect. Even though I follow the logic of your argument, in the end the case by case can be dealt with through bolstered self-regulation whether or not you agree with Nick and I about the composure of the Commission. That is a far better way of offering greater opportunities for everyone to take part because you would still be in the situation, if you created the statute, that up and down the length and breadth of this country people who complain about local papers would find they needed to go to court which would be impossible for them to contemplate and we would have more dramas about CFAs and so on. In the end their best chance of justice, if you call it that, would still be through self-regulation.
Price: The closest comparator maybe to
Mr Greenslade: The Irish are very late into the concept of self-regulation. The creation of the ombudsman and so on is
fairly modern. The setting up of that
was a trade-off and the trade-off was that they would reform the libel
laws. However, the imposition of a
privacy in law I think will inhibit the press in
Q490 Chairman: Can I just come back to the McCann case because that was one of the main reasons for our inquiry. That is probably the most serious libel committed by a large number of papers although only one finally reached the court in recent times and has caused deep concern. First of all, do you think it was a one-off, that it was such an extraordinary case, that that kind of thing could not have happened elsewhere? Secondly, given what has been revealed by the extent to which papers were just making up stories do you think that they actually learned lessons? Did they sit and take a long hard look at themselves and say, "We must never allow this to happen again?"
Mr Greenslade: I do not think so. I do not
think the lessons are easily learned in that matter and indeed many newspapers
have got away with things because they were not sued. They just chose to go for the most obvious
examples in the Express
newspapers. By the way, when you talk
about the McCanns you must include Mr Murat as well who was severely libelled
throughout. I think it was an
extraordinary case but which brought to light what goes on at a lower level day
after day after day, which is irresponsible behaviour and the publishing of
stories which are inaccurate. In that
sense, although it was an extraordinary story and an extraordinary episode in
the life of the press, it was not one which in some ways was an aberration and
will never happen again and that was an aberration that had never happened
before. It is in fact part of the
on-going culture of popular journalism in
Mr Davies: I would agree. You have to
look at the underlying drivers here.
There was a similar case with that guy who was killed in the bush in
Farrelly: The tabloid press has said that
the McCann case was a one-off so that is a refreshing counter-argument. There are inaccuracies that may not affect
people's whole lives; with the McCanns of course it did affect their
lives. There is also the question of
whether it is accurate or is irresponsible and I just wanted to read into the
record another case recently, the way the British tabloids treated the
daughter, Elizabeth Fritzl, and the Sun
in pursuing her to her new home, published a pixellated face. Then on 11 March the Daily Mail actually felt the need to publish the name of the
village where she lives. The Austrian
press referred to our press as "Satan's reporters". Florian Klenk of the Falter newspaper in
Mr Greenslade: That is a very good example of Mr Whittingdale asking whether they had learned any lessons. That would suggest that no lessons at all have been learned. By the way, just to add to your record is the fact that the chequebook came out and there were offers to Mr Fritzl for his story which completely runs against the spirit and letter of the code of conduct.
Mr Davies: As a secondary point, the Mail disclosed the name of the village on 11 March; two days later the Express did the same and the Independent followed by Scotland on Sunday. So it is not as if it was just the freakish Mail; they led the way but others were perfectly happy to follow.
Mr Greenslade: This is a really good example of how feeding frenzies take off in that one paper does something and the others feel they have to catch up or at least feel that this is in the public domain therefore we are justified in doing it. In no time that creates a vicious circle. In many ways the McCanns - the case which was an extraordinary example - is merely the tip of an iceberg in the sense that this is fairly common stuff. I have great respect for the Independent and I know that Nick does, but is it not disgraceful that a newspaper of that sort would feel able to do it and it felt able to do it because it would use the defence that it was already out there. That is not responsible. It should actually have been critical of the Mail for having done it in the first place.
Chairman: We have reached the end of the questions, but Mike Hall just wants to raise one issue.
Q492 Mr Hall: Nick, in answer to my questions at the start of the session you made a rather unfortunate remark about me. That is an example of how a story could actually run and get out of hand. I would like you to put on record that what you actually said was without any foundation whatsoever.
Mr Davies: Are you serious?
Q493 Mr Hall: Yes.
Mr Davies: Then of course I would. We were talking purely hypothetically. I would be just as happy to say, "Let us just imagine a newspaper wants to run a story saying that Nick Davies is a paedophile"; we are talking hypothetically.
Q494 Mr Hall: To have it reported would be very, very damaging.
Mr Davies: The trouble is, once information falls into the hands of organisations who do not put honesty as a priority all of us are at risk and anything could be taken out of context and misreported. It really is worrying. I hope I have put on the record what needs to be put on the record.
Mr Greenslade: Can I just say one thing? I just want to read you about what Mr Dacre said at the Society of Editors Conference in November last year: "If the News of the World cannot carry such stories as the Mosley orgy then it and its political reportage and analysis will eventually probably die". That is an extraordinary statement when you actually think about it. What he is saying is that papers like the News of the World should have the right to break the law, to intrude into personal privacy in order that their political reportage will go on and that they will continue to exist. In other words, newspapers should be allowed to be law breakers and be famous simply so that they can exist for the general public good with the odd bit of political reportage. I just waned to put on the record that that is a disgusting idea.
Q495 Chairman: We are hearing from Mr Dacre on Thursday.
Mr Greenslade: I hope I will be here.
Chairman: Thank you both very much.