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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 143-iii
House of commons
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Culture, Media and Sport Committee
Regulation of the Press
Tuesday 18 June 2013
Lionel Barber and Chris Blackhurst
Evidence heard in Public Questions 697 - 767
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee
on Tuesday 18 June 2013
John Whittingdale (Chair)
Mr Ben Bradshaw
Mr John Leech
Mr Gerry Sutcliffe
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Lionel Barber, Editor, Financial Times, and Chris Blackhurst, Editor, The Independent, gave evidence.
Q697 Chair: Good morning. This is a further session of the Committee’s inquiry into the regulation of the press following publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, and I would like to welcome this morning Lionel Barber, the Editor of the Financial Times, and Chris Blackhurst, the Editor of The Independent. Before we get down into the detail, can you just give us a rough summation of where you think you are in terms of the development of a system of regulation?
Lionel Barber: Thank you, Mr Chairman. It is a pleasure to be here this morning. Before I answer that question directly I would just like to make clear to the Committee that I am speaking as the Editor of the Financial Times representing a body of editorial opinion in the Financial Times. I am not speaking for Pearson, the owner of the Financial Times since 1957. The reason is because while I enjoy complete editorial independence from Pearson, the same applies to Pearson’s view of regulation and I do not interfere in that view, and I am not going to speak for their view of Leveson, its implications and where we are.
Q698 Chair: Just on that, is that a statement of principle, or is that because you know that your view is different from that of Pearson’s?
Lionel Barber: It is a statement of both principle and fact.
Mr Bradshaw: Have Pearson’s expressed a view?
Lionel Barber: Not that I am aware of.
Q699 Chair: So, you do not know what they think?
Lionel Barber: I do not know what Pearson’s view is. I have not sought to find out; I just run the Financial Times.
Q700 Chair: Okay; thank you. Chris, your proprietor has expressed some quite strong views on this area?
Chris Blackhurst: He has. I think he has been cited in one or two places as supporting Hacked Off. I am not sure that is entirely correct. He is sympathetic to some of their views. Again, like Lionel, I do not speak for him. I know what he thinks of several things, but I speak really for The Independent.
Q701 Chair: Okay. Perhaps now you would like to give us a general view of where we are?
Chris Blackhurst: Do you want to go first?
Lionel Barber: We are in no-man’s land, Mr Chairman. That is where we are, and I am not sure whether we have a compass.
Our position at the Financial Times is that we see some merit in the Independent Charter and we see certainly merit in the alternative; some merits. There are some flaws. My general impression at the moment is that it is a sad reflection both on the industry, the political class and others that we have spent an awful lot of money and time, millions of pounds on a public inquiry. We are here today and we, I believe, have made more progress than perhaps some people recognise. We are not that far short of the line, but there is a lot of mutual suspicion around and therefore we have reached an impasse. I am not sure whether the public feels good about that or whether the public should feel good about that. We should act.
Chris Blackhurst: I would certainly echo what Lionel says. We have had about six months since Leveson reported. We have two charters. Where we are exactly and which charter comes out at the end, I don’t know. As Lionel said, there are some things we like and some things we don’t like. By and large we can accept them both. It is just going on and on and on, and it is extremely frustrating, and the losers have to be the public, because they are not getting the press regulation that Leveson and others have thought they ought to have.
Q702 Jim Sheridan: Can I ask you what the definition is of the political class?
Lionel Barber: The elected representatives of the people.
Q703 Chair: I think the entire Committee would probably share the frustration that you both express but, Mr Barber, when you say, "We should act", what precisely do you have in mind that we should do?
Lionel Barber: We need to resolve the outstanding questions and the outstanding areas of difference between the two alternative charters. There are some problems obviously in the individual charters. I can refer to them. We also know that the industry itself has moved substantially in terms of moving beyond the Press Complaints Commission. It is recognised that it needs to have something that is a body of regulation that has enforcement powers to correct abusive behaviour or to correct areas where the press has got things wrong. It does have the ability to exercise fines, and I think the industry has also recognised that it needs to have a body that is demonstrably more independent, not a creature of the industry itself or various newspaper groups. That is recognised.
Chris Blackhurst: If we go back to the immediate aftermath of publication of Leveson, when all the editors met at the Delaunay Restaurant for that famous breakfast meeting-Lionel was there, and I was there; all the editors were there-I think there were 24 recommendations in Leveson, and around that table, of the 24, 21 were accepted, or even 22, there and then. I left that meeting pretty confident that we were going to move very quickly to a new system of regulation. There did not seem to be much of a hold-up.
Some errors have been made along the way. The local press were not invited into Downing Street when they should have been. They feel very strongly about arbitration. They perhaps were not consulted enough. That is one issue. There have been others. We just seem to have hit this impasse. I don’t know what went wrong or what happened after Delaunay when there was almost a state of euphoria that we had a reached an agreement and that we had got somewhere. There were one or two sticking points. They were not huge. Yet here we are six months later, and I can’t even say we are any nearer.
Chair: Following exactly that sort of analysis, can I bring in Paul Farrelly.
Q704 Paul Farrelly: That is very handy, Chris. I should declare now that I worked for The Independent on Sunday in the mid-1990s when Chris Blackhurst was the deputy editor, just in case anyone feels that I am in the pocket of anyone on the panel.
Chris, just going back to Delaunay, because it is a useful starting point, you said that 21 of 24 were accepted. Which were the three that you recall were sticking points? And which was the biggest sticking point, for the editor of the Daily Mail for instance?
Chris Blackhurst: Well, you would have to ask the editor of the Daily Mail. I am not Paul Dacre.
Q705 Paul Farrelly: Your memory is failing you, is it?
Chris Blackhurst: I think I can say, I was there, and Paul Dacre’s sticking point-not just Paul Dacre’s, but the main sticking point for I think most of the editors in the room-was that we ought to have the right as journalists to write our code of practice. We thought that was fair. We think that applies in other industries; we are the people who know our industry best. That was an issue. I seem to recall that was described around the table as the red line that we would have there.
After that there were not that many. There really were not. There certainly were not things that could not be negotiated.
I don’t know what your memory of that meeting was.
Lionel Barber: I have a slightly different recollection. I certainly do not recognise a mood of euphoria, Chris. But I do think that Chris is absolutely right in describing a mood where we felt we had to move-the Prime Minister had given clear direction-and that we needed to move swiftly and efficaciously on a number of issues.
The outstanding issues, as I recall, were the editorial editors’ code of practice. We could talk about that.
Appointments: that was definitely an area of concern. I should state very clearly that the Financial Times believes that both on the appointments and representation you need to have demonstrable independence. That does not mean to say that the industry should be completely excluded, but there should be no vetos. There needs to be a significant change. That was an area of concern.
As I recall, the third area of concern was group complaints. There was a worry that we could be inundated with interest groups that would be tying us up in knots and then, to a degree, the placement of apologies, and you got into detail about whether this would appear online or whereabouts in the paper, and at that point I think the meeting broke up. We thought we could move on to higher things.
Chris Blackhurst: Perhaps I should cancel the word "euphoria" and qualify it and say it was more one of pleasant surprise that 21 or 22 editors in the room were able to agree on anything and that was my feeling after the meeting.
Q706 Paul Farrelly: It is a great shame-these things fade in the memory-that we have not seen James Harding’s note of that meeting, or his draft and his final notes. That would be quite useful to follow up. Because James Harding then, very quickly, disappeared as an editor.
What happened after that in terms of your newspapers’ inclusion in the talks with Government?
Lionel Barber: Can I just correct you? I don’t remember that James Harding did take notes. He did work at the FT. Phil Webster was taking notes; just for accuracy, Mr Farrelly.
In terms of the evolution of the talks, as you know, a number of editors were called to see the Culture Secretary and also particularly Oliver Letwin, who was co-ordinating. I am not sure, Mr Chairman, whether you feel that this is profitable, given that I think we also need to look forward, but given that you want to know the history about it I would say it was always a little confusing that one felt one was negotiating with a party or a party representative as well as a member of the Government. We were also very conscious-and I think this is really important to understand why we have reached this impasse-that we were not negotiating or discussing with the Liberal Democrats and also there was no engagement with outside parties.
Q707 Paul Farrelly: The nub of the question, what we want to know from you, is what involvement you had in the ongoing discussions and, indeed, in the formulation of this PressBoF Charter.
Lionel Barber: We were regularly informed before the PressBoF Charter, before if you like the 2 am summit in Downing Street, if one could call it that. All of us were heavily involved. Peter Wright and Paul Vickers kept us in email touch. There was a lot of consultation. I think Chris and I and one or two others were trying to find ways of bridging differences and I felt very comfortable with the level of consultation. I think when things broke up at that point there was a smaller group that did intensive work on the alternative charter. I was not involved in that. Just for the record, because there was a misleading or inaccurate report on the BBC, it was not true to say that the Financial Times editorial or Pearson had supported that alternative charter. That is not correct.
Q708 Paul Farrelly: Chris, how intimately were you involved in the drafting of the PressBoF Charter?
Chris Blackhurst: In terms of the drafting of the PressBoF Charter, not at all; the first I heard of it was when it was announced that morning.
In terms of the Royal Charter, we were kept up to speed pretty thoroughly all the way through. Probably after that, once there was the row about Hacked Off being in the room at 2 am-we are all familiar with that story-my recollection, and I can only speak for myself, was one of silence. Ie did not really know what was happening. I certainly did not know anything about the terms of the PressBoF Charter and the triple lock. I did not know anything about that until the day that was announced.
Q709 Paul Farrelly: Both of your newspapers are respected for balanced reporting. When you look at the reporting by some of the other newspapers of the pros and cons of this charter or that charter, or the state of the argument and its effect on the industry, do you feel that all of the reporting has been balanced in other parts of the press?
Lionel Barber: Well, I try to keep up with the reporting of Leveson. There are one or two other issues going on in the world that are of greater interest in the Financial Times, not least the world economy.
It has not been perfect. Unfortunately the debate in this country has become intensely polarised on both sides, and there has been some mild hysteria in some quarters. But I would stress that the alternative charter does have some important principles that I support, notably the importance of editorial control of the Code Committee. I think it is wrong if the editors were put in a minority or they were having their own code written for them. The industry should be represented, but it should not have a veto. The industry has made an important concession on the recognition panel and the appointments panel to say that you need a consensus but that is not the same as a veto. A veto would be wrong, so the industry had to move on that particular matter.
Having said that, there are other areas where I think there is definitely room for improvement in the alternative. You call it the PressBoF Charter. On that I would say that there is no reason that we should not support Leveson’s principle of a lack of political interference and that politicians should not represent. You need to move beyond the old system.
Q710 Paul Farrelly: Lionel, just before we come to Chris and I allow other members of the Committee in, I just have a couple more questions for you. Firstly, in which quarters do you think the hysteria has been mild?
Lionel Barber: I think in all quarters; all four of them.
Q711 Paul Farrelly: Can I ask you: what did you think of the treatment that was meted out to Sir David Bell, former very-respected figure of the Financial Times?
Lionel Barber: Well, I would have to declare an interest because David Bell has been a friend of mine for more than 25 years, when I joined the Financial Times in 1985. I think I would confine my remarks to say that I was mildly surprised that he attracted 10 pages of coverage in the Daily Mail.
Paul Farrelly: Mildly surprised?
Lionel Barber: Yes.
Paul Farrelly: Stephen Wright defended it last week; he said it was all true.
Lionel Barber: Like Chris Blackhurst, I do not edit the Daily Mail. I have plenty on my hands editing the Financial Times. So I think one should leave those matters to the editor of the Daily Mail and Associated Newspapers.
Q712 Paul Farrelly: Would you not step up more strongly in defence of David Bell, a friend of many years and a respected former figure at the Financial Times?
Lionel Barber: My dealings with David Bell have been such that I know that he has been a great mentor and he is a man of integrity. I would also say that, contrary to some impressions or some reports, he cares about the press, all the press, not just the main broadsheet press but the tabloid press. He cares a lot about the reputation of the press. He, like me, is well aware that we have a lot to be proud of in Britain, in all aspects of our journalism, and he, like me, would also point to the fact that we have turned it into a rather successful export industry with senior figures from ITN, the BBC, now going to the United States to take up senior editorial positions.
Q713 Mr Leech: Just very briefly, in relation to the treatment meted out to David Bell in the Daily Mail, in your opinion would the Royal Charter or the PressBoF Charter have resulted in all those 10 pages not being printed by the Daily Mail?
Lionel Barber: No, nor should they have that kind of control. That is a matter of editorial discretion, sir.
Q714 Mr Leech: But it would not have stopped the Daily Mail from being able to-
Lionel Barber: Nor should it. Nor should it.
The Daily Mail has every right to make that editorial choice and the fact that no legal action has been taken-you can dispute, you can have a difference, but I would defend the Daily Mail’s right to publish.
Mr Leech: Would you agree with Mr Barber?
Chris Blackhurst: Yes, absolutely; I would. If I can back to something that Paul Farrelly was asking, I think with hindsight it is extremely unfortunate that Hacked Off were involved in those discussions late at night. I do not really know what was in the minds of Government Ministers and officials allowing that to happen. To have a single-interest group essentially part of negotiations or certainly present is just giving ammunition to enemies. I think if they had not been there, we would not have seen that level of hysteria, to use Lionel’s words-
Lionel Barber: Mild hysteria.
Chris Blackhurst: -mild hysteria, that we saw after. It just gave ammunition to enemies, and we would not have seen that level of mild hysteria and might now be in a far better place. I do not know what was in the minds of those involved on the Government side in allowing that to happen. It should not have happened.
Q715 Mr Bradshaw: I do not know whether you have had a look at Oliver Letwin’s evidence that he gave us. We went through the events of those few days in great detail with him. I think he would put a very strong counter-argument to that-he is not my party-and an alternative interpretation is there were people who were looking for an excuse not to sign up to it anyway.
Chris Blackhurst: That may be so, but they found an excuse.
Q716 Mr Bradshaw: Have a look at Oliver Letwin’s evidence on the record here.
Can I just ask you this? You said a moment ago or two ago, Mr Blackhurst, and I quote, "We can accept them both", in reference to the two charters. Is that your position as well, Mr Barber? Could you accept them both?
Lionel Barber: We have not taken a position. We do not think that this is the last word and nor should it be because we believe, as I said at the beginning, that we are not so far from the finishing line, even if we are also-if I can mix my metaphors-in no-man’s land because we should come together and resolve these outstanding differences. I do not think they are as big as some people like to make out.
Q717 Mr Bradshaw: You have mentioned one or two of the areas where you think there are strengths and weaknesses in the alternative charters. It may be helpful given the time constraints if you could put those on the record to us in writing. It would be helpful for the Committee if you went through, each of you-perhaps Mr Barber more because you were more specific about the areas.
Other colleagues may want to pursue this in more detail, but I wanted to ask you a general point because you also said, Mr Barber, in your first couple of sentences that we should act. Why don’t you just go ahead-you, The Independent, The Guardian, the kind of good guys-and set something up that is Leveson-compliant?
Lionel Barber: I am flattered that you put me in the camp of the good guys. I am not sure that I would divide the press into good guys and bad guys. If I may say so, sir, I think that is one of the problems and you are not going to get agreement if you try to insert a wedge between various sections of the press. What we need to do is come together where there are strong areas of agreement. There is a problem; we should mention that on the record: I have a serious problem with the free arbitration service. That is potentially very damaging in terms of cost to the press, particularly the regional press. I see no reason why we cannot have a trial for a year and see how it works out or to pay a small amount of money; £25. Otherwise there is a real risk of claims-farming.
In terms of the placement of apologies, in terms of the group complaints; these are things that can be finessed, frankly. Again, on appointments: we should be able to come together to recognise the industry can have a seat that is not in the majority; it can have a seat at the table. You do need to have some people who have some understanding of how the press works otherwise it will be unworkable and nobody will wish to sign up to it. That is not in the interests of anyone in this country. We should also be very aware that many countries are looking at what is happening right now in Britain, countries like South Africa, like Hungary; that if we get this wrong, they will use it as an excuse to pass their own much more intrusive, much heavier press laws.
Q718 Mr Bradshaw: I am sorry you do not like my use of the term "good", but I am trying to make the distinction that we were exploring earlier between the people who are signed up, who are the PressBoF group, and the non-PressBoF.
Chris Blackhurst: I will try to answer that as well. First of all, when I said that I can accept both charters, I do have reservations about them both. My main one is the arbitration, although the second charter I think allows for a pilot. I would certainly endorse that.
Why have we not gone out on our own? We have certainly thought about it; talked about it. At The Independent we have talked about it.
In a sense you have almost answered the question by saying we are the good guys. We are not the problem but also we are not the problem in the sense that, if I take my own paper, its circulation is small and we are talking about organisations with much bigger circulations. I am not sure what it would achieve by us setting out to have our own regulator. What the public want is one universal regulator. They do not want a regulator for those papers and other papers to sneer and say, "Well, we are not part of their regulator; we are going to have our own regulator". Then we end up almost like professional boxing with different associations and highly confusing. We want one regulator. We should all be aiming for that and that is what the public wants.
Q719 Mr Bradshaw: But if in the end, or in the next few weeks, the Government decides to proceed with Parliament’s charter, would you sign up to it?
Lionel Barber: It is not my decision; it is Pearson’s.
Chris Blackhurst: Yes, the same for me. It is not my decision; it would be the Lebedevs’ decision. They would probably ask me what I thought. I would wait to see how it had changed; if there had been any changes. I do have reservations about it, particularly on arbitration, how that would work and what it would cost us, not just the local press. I do not know what they would do.
Q720 Conor Burns:My apologies that I missed the first few moments of your evidence. I arrived just before the point, Mr Barber, that you were blaming the political class for where we now are.
Lionel Barber: That is not quite correct, sir. I am laying the blame on everybody. You may have interpreted it that way, but that is not what I said.
Conor Burns: You would accept that the Leveson inquiry was set up after appalling breaches of ethics by members of your profession. That was the reason that Leveson was set up.
Lionel Barber: That is correct, sir.
Q721 Conor Burns: Did you have the opportunity to review Lord Hunt’s evidence to us many months ago where he reminded us of his evidence to Leveson, where he told Leveson some nine months before the publication of the report that in his judgment the report would be unnecessary because the editors, the press, were on the cusp of signing up to a new system of binding voluntary self-regulation and that Leveson’s recommendations would be irrelevant because the press would already be there?
Lionel Barber: I did not read that testimony. I have had several conversations with Lord Hunt over the past 18 months. He has not ever used those words to me.
Q722 Conor Burns: I would invite you to have a look at that evidence, because he made the point several times that in his judgment the press were pretty much all on the same page. For the record, I am one of those who are against statutory regulation of the press; I believe in a free press. I totally endorse what you say about it being a vibrant export, a great asset to Britain and a shining light on the best of Britain around the world. So I do not want to see us go down any of these routes. I want you guys to sort it out, come forward and get ahead of the process. But every time we hear from editors and representatives of your profession I get more and more frustrated, because you keep telling us about all these points of agreement and yet you are sitting there almost saying, "Well, we are just bobbing around like corks on a rough sea; it is nothing to do with us, and we will wait and see what the next recommendation is".
Lionel Barber: Well, Mr Burns, that is not what I said in my testimony this morning. I have been very clear that there are some areas of difference.
What I have said also is that I believe that these areas of difference can be resolved. How we do that is an open question. You may say that we need somebody with some experience of the press to bang heads together. Perhaps that is the way to go. My conversations with the editors, some of whom I have only just got to know in the last 18 months, because we do not spend a lot of time in smoke-filled rooms, is that there is a broad area of agreement. There are some issues-I have outlined them-ranging from the appointments process-although the industry has moved on that-group complaints, apologies, the arbitration system, which are outstanding. But I do believe that they can be resolved.
Q723 Mr Sutcliffe: I have been told differently. I have been told by Oliver Letwin, Maria Miller, that you are that close.
Lionel Barber: I have said that; I have in the recent meeting that I had with Secretary Miller. I did.
Chris Blackhurst: If I could just come back, please, to David Hunt. I think the point I would make on that is, yes, David Hunt was going around devising a self-regulatory framework; yes, I think we were all pretty much in agreement about it. But there was also something else happening in parallel while he was doing that, which was the Leveson inquiry. Whatever David Hunt was doing, in a sense-I would not say it did not matter-there was this bigger beast, which was Leveson, where they were holding a judicial inquiry with a report and the key thing there was: what did Leveson think of what David Hunt was proposing?
Q724 Conor Burns: I understand that, but the point that we put last week to representatives of the Mail group was that if you were all virtually on the same page, if you were all ready to sign up to something that was going to pre-empt what Lord Justice Leveson recommended, Leveson would have been irrelevant. If you had taken that leap back then and introduced the strong, robust self-regulation with strong penalties, setting the record straight, all the other bits that Leveson ultimately recommended, you would have been able to shrug your shoulders and say, "We are already doing that; we are already Leveson-compliant", before Leveson.
Lionel Barber: If I may just slightly correct that, I see the logic of your argument, but in practice I think there were two things that happened. One was when the decision to set up a public inquiry was taken, that was the trigger to where the industry really understood that it had to change. It had to make meaningful change and go beyond the rhetoric of moving beyond the PCC.
The second crucial fact was-and again I do not recall a specific conversation-there was a sense that we could not pre-empt Leveson. We needed to wait to see what Lord Justice Leveson was going to say, and then he ended saying it in a lot of pages.
Chris Blackhurst: I would totally endorse that. We certainly had conversations at The Independent about what would happen if we pre-empted Leveson. The feeling was, frankly, in PR terms it just would not look good. You have a judicial inquiry that has been properly set up, sitting in the courts day after day after day and taking evidence from everybody, including the Prime Minister and so on. For us just to come out with our own scheme while that was going on, I am not sure that would have washed with the public.
Q725 Conor Burns: Last week the two people who were before us representing the Mail group in particular, when I put it to them, "Do you regret that you did not just get on with it?" he said, "Probably from where we are today, yes, I do".
Chris Blackhurst: Probably I agree with that now.
Q726 Conor Burns: So you have a system whereby you were broadly in agreement with the thrust of what Leveson recommended before Leveson even recommended it. You were broadly in agreement with what Leveson recommended after Leveson recommended it. And we are now in the middle of this complete shambles of an impasse. Nobody seems to be driving this forward today. Now, we have been through the Hacked Off, pizza, 2.00am meeting. Oliver Letwin took us through that; what it felt like at the time actually in real time. I felt that I was almost there.
Can I ask two questions: who is going to unblock this impasse? Who is now going to take the lead? Exactly the same puzzled look came across the face of the Secretary of State when I asked the same question.
Lionel Barber: It is not for me to recommend. We know that there is a cross-party political agreement on the charter. That does mean something. At the same time you have an industry that is reluctant to sign up to that; to all the specifics. So, as I said, we should have some kind of meeting where a person with authority, with knowledge, could hammer out the differences, because to stress the point, I do not believe that these differences are unbridgeable.
Q727 Conor Burns: That is what is coming across loud and clear from everybody who appears before us. But we go on week after week after week taking evidence from people telling us that these differences are not unbridgeable and we are very close to finalising it; it just requires an intervention. Who is going to make that intervention?
Lionel Barber: It does require, though, sir, if I may say, an ability of all sides to give a bit of ground. At the moment there are some areas where people feel very, very strongly that you will not get an agreement unless everybody is prepared to give a bit. I think that the industry’s concession in terms of the veto that I alluded to earlier was very important. That was important. They understood that it was an unsustainable position.
Q728 Conor Burns: If we and our successors are not to be inquiring into this in a year’s time, two years’ time or three years’ time-
Lionel Barber: I hope you are not.
Conor Burns: -who are the sort of people who can make that intervention? Who is the sort of person who can be that honest broker to unblock that?
Lionel Barber: Michael Grade.
Q729 Conor Burns: Okay.
Finally, if you were given a choice-
Chair: Is that just a name you plucked out of the air or is this something that you have thought about and Michael Grade might be amenable?
Lionel Barber: I am just trying to answer the question, sir. His name has come up in conversations with one or two editors. You need somebody who has some experience of journalism; some experience of business; somebody with some political nous; and someone who is respected by all sides.
Chris Blackhurst: I must stress I am not even sure if Michael Grade knows his name has talked about.
Lionel Barber: He does now.
Q730 Conor Burns: In terms of driving this within the Government, you have been dealing with Oliver Letwin, and you have been dealing with Maria Miller. Who would you say in your dealings with both of those was driving Government policy?
Lionel Barber: That presumes that the policy is actually being driven.
Conor Burns: I guess that is what I was trying to ascertain. Thank you very much.
Lionel Barber: Let me add, after making that semi-facetious remark, I think this has been a very difficult process, very difficult, and it would have been difficult for anybody. Anybody who has read Lord Judge’s comments on how to balance a free press with the risks of abuse that come along with a free press would understand. He warned how difficult this would be. It was, if you like, a tacit comment ahead of Leveson. So I am not saying that it is an easy job to drive policy.
Q731 Angie Bray: In order to get to a final solution, which we all hope will happen, do you think it is important that other organisations such as Hacked Off back off a little bit? Is it important that we now take those organisations out of the debate?
Chris Blackhurst: Yes, I think it is unfortunate. I do not think it is just about the press, I do not think it is just about the politicians. I think Hacked Off are very vocal, And, when Lionel mentioned the mild hysteria in all four quarters, one of those quarters would be Hacked Off. They also have to understand how policy is formulated and how Government works. Some of the stuff about secret meetings with Ministers; they did not feel that secret. There were no dirty dealings going on. We were not matey with each other at all. It was a very straight process. I am afraid in some respects they have clouded some of the issues.
Q732 Mr Bradshaw: Have they provided an effective voice for the first time ever for the victims?
Lionel Barber: You make an important point that they have played a role in highlighting the abuses. They have acted vociferously on behalf of the victims. There were victims, there have been victims; nobody is denying that. So they have made a contribution. Any solution or resolution of these issues needs to enjoy the support of those victims and Hacked Off have to be bound in, if you like, or feel that they have been part of the process. But, as I have said, there needs to be some give on all sides in order that we get over the finishing line.
Q733 Conor Burns: All of the victims? Are the Dowlers equivalent to Hugh Grant?
Lionel Barber: No, I do not believe that they are, but that is leading me into other areas. As you know, we do not have a show-business correspondent at the FT.
Q734 Mr Bradshaw: Are you still in conversations with them? Do you still have contacts or communication with Hacked Off? Are you talking to them about where some of these areas of compromise on both sides might be?
Lionel Barber: No, I am not involved in that. I have a pretty full-on job.
Chris Blackhurst: I saw Hacked Off yesterday. I had a session with Evan Harris. But I also saw Peter Wright of the Daily Mail. It would help if possibly the Mail and the Mail on Sunday could be in the same room as Hacked Off. That would certainly mark an element of progress.
Q735 Mr Bradshaw: Is that because the Mail and the Mail on Sunday refuse to do that?
Chris Blackhurst: I am not sure who is refusing; I am not that close to it. But they seem to be on opposite sides.
Q736 Jim Sheridan: Just in terms trying to take things forward and break this impasse, is the solution not just for the political class to legislate and see how that works out?
Lionel Barber: I am not in favour of legislation, of a press statute.
Q737 Jim Sheridan: Introduce the charter and see how it goes, how it pans out: will it be the end of the world as we know it if we legislate and bring in the charter?
Lionel Barber: It certainly would not be the end of the world. I do not think that you should be looking coerce the industry. And this is in tune with the Leveson principles. He talked about voluntary, independent self-regulation, and I am not sure how that squares with your approach, sir.
Q738 Jim Sheridan: Your papers aside, if other industries, other disciplines, other professions had behaved in the way that your industry had behaved, who is going to be sitting as judge and jury in that industry?
Lionel Barber: Well, sir, certainly the Financial Times was not involved in phone-hacking or any criminal behaviour. There was definite abuse. There is a legal process now under way and, as I have said, and stressed to this Committee this morning, I believe that the industry has made significant changes.
Q739 Jim Sheridan: But not enough?
Lionel Barber: No, I think that there is a lot of meaningful change that shows that the industry has understood that the old system did not work and did not serve the public.
Q740 Jim Sheridan: We heard last week about people saying, "We have learned from our past mistakes" and then we identified areas where they had not learned because they were still pursuing people who did not agree with their agenda. So, my concern is that this will just drag on and on and on and hopefully will be kicked into the long grass up until the next election and different things will happen. From the victims’ point of view, nothing is going to change. You keep talking, and the politicians will keep listening.
Chris Blackhurst: From our perspective, and I guess Lionel’s as well, he is right in the sense that changes have been made already in terms of mindsets. We are happy to change. We are doing everything we can.
Q741 Jim Sheridan: On your terms?
Chris Blackhurst: Well, not on our terms. We are small players in this. Apart from going out and starting our own regulator, I am not sure what we can do. One thing I would say, and I echo what Lionel says, is that The Independent did not hack, did not pay paparazzi, did not bribe a public official-yet you talk about the press. You do not have to pass an exam or anything in order to be a journalist. We are not a body like the Royal College of Surgeons or dentists or anything like that. We are not like the Jockey Club. We are not like that. It is pretty free-ranging-
Q742 Jim Sheridan: Excuse me. You are a very powerful organisation. You can exert influence in this country. So you are in a very responsible position. You seem to have different standards for everyone else in every other discipline.
Chris Blackhurst: Who, The Independent? We do not have-
Jim Sheridan: No, I am talking about the press in general.
Chris Blackhurst: No, I cannot speak for the rest of the press. I cannot speak for the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, The Sun, the Mirror, I can only speak for The Independent, and The Independent does not have different standards. So I do not know what you are talking about.
Q743 Jim Sheridan: It seems to me that this is just going to drag on and on; it has been kicked to death.
Chris Blackhurst: I agree with you.
Jim Sheridan: It seems to me there is a deliberate agenda to drag this out as long as possible. From a victim’s point of view nothing is going to happen because the press cannot get their act together and do not want to get their act together and that is the agenda.
Chris Blackhurst: I agree with you that it is unfortunate if it does. It is not with our doing and I do not think it is of some papers’ doing either. We are not the people who are dragging this out.
Q744 Steve Rotheram: Given the obvious difficulties of getting everyone to agree on anything, and Mr Barber said, "We will not get an agreement unless people are prepared to give a little bit", what do you believe should happen if one or more significant publications fails to join up to a recognised regulator?
Lionel Barber: I am not sure that anything would happen. One of the problems, of course, would be if a large newspaper group did not join. In the event that there was a common regulator set up, that newspaper group would be an important financial contributor. We have not talked at all about the financial state of the industry, which is pertinent. It is very important to understand why some people have reservations about joining a regulator that could financially be very costly.
So I do not think it would serve the industry’s interests to have a fractured regulatory system but I don’t think it would be the end of the world if somebody did not take part. We will have to make our own decision and we will base that on principles of whether it is effective, independent regulation, self-regulation, and we will also look at the financial burden associated with joining. If it is too burdensome we will not join.
Q745 Steve Rotheram: So you do not believe if, for instance, one or two decided to remain outside the tent, so to speak, that there should be any force upon them to sign up to the regulator?
Lionel Barber: No. The constraint would be that they will face exemplary damages in libel cases, and that for a financially pressed industry is a significant deterrent; or carrot, depending on which way you see it.
Chris Blackhurst: This is the so called Desmond question, which we are all familiar with, which was examined inordinately at Leveson. I do not think there is a fine solution; the only solution I can think of is that when we come up with the regulator it has to be one that does appeal to everybody. If you are not signing up to something-in the travel industry there is ABTA or something like that-and if you are not capable of putting that on your masthead or on page 2 or something, that you are part of this body, then it does look bad in PR terms. If you go beyond that into exemplary damages, then I am sure if it is even legal to have exemplary damages. I would not want to see a stick waved over someone’s head and told, "You must join the regulator". They should want to join the regulator.
Q746 Steve Rotheram: Probably like many other Members I have had representation from my local paper about the national and local arguments and they believe that they were not part of what happened. Leveson came about because of what happened at a national level. Do you believe that they should be exempted in some way from any charter or any regulator?
Chris Blackhurst: No, they are currently part of the PCC, as are we. They do make mistakes occasionally. It is certainly the case that they do not have the same defamation issues that we have on the national press but if you took that argument to its logical conclusion, as I said earlier, and I think I can say this for the FT as well, we did not hack, we did not do those things so why are we any different from the local press? What is the argument? Why should the local press be excluded?
What we have to get right is an arbitration system that is acceptable to them. We understand their concerns, because their concerns are our concerns. We do not want to spend a fortune on arbitration either.
Lionel Barber: Yes, I am very sympathetic to the regional press. I think it was very unfortunate that they were not included at an early stage. That led to natural disaffection. But I also think that they are part of the press and they should want to be part of a reasonable regulatory system.
I should also stress, by the way, one of the problems has been those people that have felt excluded, and if we are Monday-morning quarterbacking, then you would say it was unfortunate that there was no tabloid representative on the Leveson panel because that would have at least given them the feeling they had a stake in this process. So that is controversial perhaps and it is too late now but it has been a real problem of how do you get adequate representation in the room of the interested parties throughout this process?
Q747 Tracey Crouch: Can I just follow up, Mr Barber? You quite rightly talked about the financial security of the newspaper industry and you said that you would not join if it was too burdensome. Could you just define for me what that means?
Lionel Barber: Well, we will have to look at what provisions are in the regulatory system on arbitration and how much we are going to have to pay for guaranteed enforcement powers that you will need to see; whether you have people who could investigate; whether you will need to hire a QC with staff. I think the other area that concerns us, which has been raised elsewhere in the industry is if you have a regulatory superstructure, the recognition body above the actual regulatory board, that if there are constant ad hoc investigations or auditing of the regulator, that could lead to a new superstructure and extra cost. How much? We have no idea, and that is a big issue for us.
Q748 Tracey Crouch:But even within the national newspapers some of them will be able to cope with the costs better than the others. The impact on the local press has already been quite clearly stated by everyone and I think everyone has genuine concerns about the financial impact on the local press. But surely within the national industry there will be differences in one paper being able to afford those financial constraints.
Chris Blackhurst: Yes. Our estimate is that the cost of the new regulator would probably be twice what it is now. These are our estimates. I am not saying they are right. We have done some sums. We currently pay for the Evening Standard and The Independent somewhere in the order of £200,000, something like that, to be in the PCC. That would double; more than double.
Q749 Tracey Crouch: Can you foresee any newspapers going out of business because of this?
Chris Blackhurst: Well, in our own case I can either ask my owners for more money to pay for the new regulator or they say, "Find it out of the existing budget". I suspect I know what answer they will give. In that case that could be people’s jobs. These are very serious concerns. If it is more than double, these are heavy sums. The industry on the print side is in bad shape.
Q750 Tracey Crouch: Presumably a reduction in the number of journalists can increase the pressure that those remaining journalists find themselves in to deliver good quality journalism every single day?
Chris Blackhurst: Yes.
Lionel Barber: The other way of looking at it is there are things that you want to do and want to cover that will not be possible.
Q751 Tracey Crouch: One of the complaints that has been made about why journalists were doing things that they perhaps should not have been doing was because of editorial pressures on the journalists to deliver stories; to deliver them quickly. Therefore it would be perhaps logical, would it not, that if you are reducing the number of journalists within your newsroom that corners will be cut and perhaps potentially breaches of future statutory regulation could be found?
Lionel Barber: I do not think it is as binary as that, frankly. I think that crucial point, and this is one that we have worked on very hard at the Financial Times for a very long time-it is our anniversary year, by the way, this year, 125 years-we have worked very hard to build a culture of excellence where we do have a strict code of conduct regarding editorial practices, conflicts of interest, which we enforce. We have to remain very vigilant and I am very proud but not complacent about that. So I do not think it is the simple practice of whether you have five more or six more journalists; it is a question of the culture in the industry, in the business, in the individual news business because, of course, it is not just print; it is online now.
Q752 Tracey Crouch: You are one year younger than the mighty Chatham Town Football Club, so I congratulate you on reaching that stage.
Lionel Barber: We stand in awe.
Tracey Crouch: I am sure you have covered it many times.
Just finally, do you see that because of potential financial constraints that this might place on yourself as an individual newspaper or indeed as the industry as a whole, we could be going further down the online route as a means of saving money for the industry and thus depriving those of us who like to read our newspapers in print of that opportunity going forward?
Lionel Barber: Again, if I could slightly correct the impression, it costs a lot of money to run a website and it costs a lot of money to invest in technology and software engineers. This is not something that you should look at in terms of newspapers costly, online cheap. It is true that you save on distribution costs and printing costs but, believe me, it is expensive to run a top class website.
Q753 Chair: Mr Barber, I am conscious that you need to be away at 11 am. Are you able to give us a few more minutes, or is your deadline firm?
Lionel Barber: Mr Chairman, I would be happy, if you feel it would be helpful, to stay 10 more minutes, and then I would need to go.
Chair: I will try to keep this brief but we have a couple more people who want to ask questions. Paul Farrelly.
Q754 Paul Farrelly: I just wanted to explore the basis of arbitration, but just before I do, Mr Barber, you said-and it sounded quite categorical-that there has been a change of mindset in the press. Do you think that the way Sir David Bell was treated provides compelling evidence of that change of mindset?
Lionel Barber: I think I have probably said as much, if not too much, about that particular story and I do not have anything to add.
Paul Farrelly: I am asking about the mindset now and using one example.
Lionel Barber: I think I have made it very clear my reaction of mild surprise. I probably do not have much to add on that, sir.
Q755 Paul Farrelly:I will not pursue it any further.
One of the genuine sticking points seems to be the issue of free arbitration and some of the consequences. When we talked to the regional press, that followed down to their real concern, the lack of flexibility allegedly in the system to impose a charge or increase a charge, or have a pilot that was free and then perhaps look at charges. On the other hand, the recognition criteria do say that while it should be free for people, the powers of the board of the regulator, which the press itself will set up, should provide the arbitrator with transparent arrangements for claims to be struck out for legitimate reasons, including them being frivolous or vexatious and provide supervisors for the arbitrator to ensure the process operates fairly and quickly. Isn’t that flexibility on the other side built into the system that the charter envisages the press setting up in the first place?
Chris Blackhurst: Yes, I have always thought that there will be a filter. There is a filter now at the PCC, with complaints, as I think there is in any regulator. The regulator ought to have the ability to decide whether this is vexatious, whether somebody is a serial complainer or whatever, and whether there is no cause. If there is no cause, reject it, "No, you can’t go to arbitration". I do not see a problem with that.
Paul Farrelly: That is built into it?
Chris Blackhurst: Yes.
Lionel Barber: I have reservations about it because I believe that this creates a new incentive for more complaints. I think we have heard enough today and read enough over the last few months to understand that there are many people and many members of the public, elected representatives, even unelected members of the press, including editors, who see things written that they may find either offensive or wrong and they would love to raise a complaint. This system that you described creates a new incentive to complain and I have a problem with it because I think it will lead to greater complaints; it will lead to more. We already have plenty.
By the way, I just want to make it very clear that although I have been critical of the PCC, one of the things they have done very well is deal with complaints. Editors take them very seriously. We are engaged by the PCC, they have good staff and they expect a response. I think that system works very well. I would be worried it we went to a new system that, in effect, bypassed the regulator.
Q756 Paul Farrelly: I find it difficult to see where those strong incentives lie just reading what the recognition criteria set down. They do not say the board of the regulator, which the press will set up, should provide an arbitration system that will provide for compensation for claimants. It is nowhere there.
Lionel Barber: The issue is the word "free".
Chris Blackhurst: I agree it is the word "free".
Q757 Paul Farrelly: So we are coming down to "free". This is the nub of the concern?
Chris Blackhurst: Just on the basis, like Lionel, and indeed this is the concern of the local press, that there will be deluge of complaints on all sorts of matters. Frankly, until it is tried and tested none of us know. If there is filter that can be built in let’s see how that works. Let’s have the pilot test, let’s see if it can work, let’s try it in one part of the country for a certain period of time. I cannot see any problem with that.
Q758 Paul Farrelly: After a period of operation, the recognition panel could say after one year, "We recommend this change to the charter because this is not working and the industry’s fears have been borne out".
Chris Blackhurst: Yes.
Paul Farrelly: So, that is inherent in the system potentially.
Chris Blackhurst: Yes.
Q759 Paul Farrelly: One final question, just on the even-handedness of this, one of the aims of having an arbitration system was to reduce costs and keep things out of court. Are there any instances from your experiences as editors where you can see the merits of an arbitration system that people who otherwise use the chilling effect of the sheer costs of going to court to try to silence you where the system would benefit you?
Chris Blackhurst: Yes, when I appeared before Leveson we discussed this and we discussed it, not from the point of view of the claimant, but what I thought of an arbitration system that would help us reduce our libel costs. Our libel costs are enormous and we now live in a world of very rich people who have access to our websites, access to our publications. The London Libel Courts are a free-for-all for any rich person in the world and they think nothing of suing us. The costs are enormous, absolutely colossal. If we can get those down, that would be great.
Q760 Paul Farrelly: But if they were not to use this arbitration system they would be liable for your costs whether they won or not, I would say.
Chris Blackhurst: Yes, we would be in favour of that.
Lionel Barber: We would be broadly in favour of that. Certainly I would endorse what Chris said about it. At the Financial Times we have to deal with very rich people, some of whom live in London, some of whom do not, but all of whom can hire expensive, aggressive lawyers who are intent on intimidating the press in not publishing stories about their wealth or what they have been doing abroad, and this is a real problem. It takes up a lot of time and it can be very expensive; very expensive. Just to deal with the original complaint. By the way, this would not resolve that problem.
Q761 Mr Leech: Mr Blackhurst, earlier you suggested that you could live with both of the charters but you had some reservations. You also suggested that as a relatively small player within the industry compared with some of the other newspapers, signing up to the Government’s charter probably would not make that much of a difference. Is there not a sense from you that if one of the newspapers takes that first step, others will follow? Given that we have a bit of a standoff position at the moment and the newspapers that Mr Barber has described as using mild hysteria as one of their defences that none of the newspapers have signed up, perhaps if one did sign up, some would follow?
Chris Blackhurst: I would have to say no to that. I cannot remember if it was Lionel but one of us used the word "polarised" earlier. I think Lionel did. The opinions are so polarised. If The Independent signed up to the charter I think the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, News International would sneer and laugh and say, "So what?" I do not think it would lead a popular crusade, sad as that is.
Q762 Mr Leech: Do you not think it would have public support though?
Chris Blackhurst: It could do. It could do.
Mr Leech: It might sell a few more newspapers.
Chris Blackhurst: It could do but I think that the opposition is such from other camps that it would just drown us out. I do not believe there is any merit in it.
I come back to something I said earlier. The whole point surely is not for one paper to break out on its own and set up its own regulator or sign up to a charter entirely on its own. From the point of view of those drawing up that Royal Charter, if you went through the whole of Leveson, the whole of parliamentary debate, the whole of cross-party talks and you had the Royal Charter, you had the Privy Council involved, so we have all that framework in Government, the machinery of politics in this country, and it took months, and you had a judicial inquiry lasting a year, at Lord knows how much it would cost, and at the very end if you had one newspaper signing up to it, I think people would think there was something very wrong. It just does not seem right.
Q763 Mr Leech: Finally, last week I put it to our witnesses: were they not concerned that if this standoff continued that there was a danger that the Government might decide to come down more heavily on the industry? That was reported in The Times as me threatening the media with state regulation, which was not what I was suggesting at all. I was merely asking the question whether or not there was any nervousness within the industry that if this standoff continued, the situation could get worse. So isn’t there an incentive on some of the less hysterical newspapers to push for a compromise deal, a deal that you can live with but the politicians can live with, for fear of something worse?
Chris Blackhurst: Yes, we are trying. If you recall The Independent, the Financial Times, The Guardian all wrote a letter together voicing our frustration at the slowness of proceedings. We did that some time ago. We are concerned and I am worried that if nothing happens we will end up with legislation.
Q764 Mr Leech: But could you not end up, as a result of some of the more hysterical newspapers, getting a deal done by Government that is worse for you than the current one that is on the table, as a result of the hysteria in some of the media?
Lionel Barber: That is hypothetical because we do not know. The point that I would make, and I speak very carefully here because I have no interest in interrupting the course of justice, but I think it is fair to say that people in the industry are aware that there will be certain cases brought before the courts later this year that will further inflame public sentiment, revive all the controversy about the press practices. So if I was looking at this as a neutral observer-or even a politician, which I am not-I would say there is a window in which you could strike a sensible deal before that happens.
Chris Blackhurst: I think we have until mid-September.
Q765 Mr Bradshaw: Mr Blackhurst, you seemed to be suggesting earlier that you were worried that if you went ahead and signed up to something, you would then be trashed by the other newspapers. Is that part of your consideration?
Chris Blackhurst: I have no doubt it would happen. Does it scare me particularly? No.
Q766 Mr Bradshaw: Do you think they would go for you; would they go for your proprietor?
Chris Blackhurst: I think they would go for both. I would have 12 pages of David Bell. Honestly, I do not know what it would achieve. I take your point that, yes, we might get a public bandwagon going and Hacked Off might say, "This is fantastic, The Independent has gone out on its own and agreed to the Royal Charter" and so on, but until those others swing into place, I would come back to what Lionel said. I think it is very important, and if anything can galvanise the process, it is the thought of what may be coming in the autumn, and we have until early autumn to get the framework put in place because the whole thing is going to reopen.
Chair: We are going to have to stop. Conor Burns wants one last very final question.
Q767 Conor Burns: Mr Barber, in the week of Royal Ascot, you said earlier we are not far from the finishing line; you say we have a window until the autumn. What are the odds on this being resolved by the autumn?
Lionel Barber: I don’t know. How about 50/50?
Chair: That sounds rather an optimistic note. On that one, perhaps, can I just thank you both very much for coming.