Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)

TUESDAY 11 MARCH 2003

MS REBEKAH WADE, MR ANDREW COULSON, MR STUART KUTTNER AND MR TOM CRONE

  420. I am going to upset the Chairman again but if you go to the Matthew Kelly issue, some tabloid screamed "Not quite guilty" but nevertheless screamed the headlines, and when he was not guilty at all they then screamed "Not guilty". It is quite hard to take and I have some sympathy for Matthew and his family—as much for Matthew's family actually. Where is the balance? The previous editor said he weighs it up but there does not seem to be much of that going on.
  (Ms Wade) I think the police arrested a well-known TV star in the middle of his panto, in front of the public. What are we supposed to do? It was perfectly reasonable to report the arrest.
  (Mr Coulson) Also, in that particular case, the news broke on television first.

  421. I am sorry that we cannot name them because they have asked us not to but some of the groups of people have written to us and also come to give evidence in camera, and to say they were bitter is an under-statement: they were not only bitter but they were angry, upset and distressed because they could get no redress. What should they be able to do? They have not got the money to go to court; they cannot take the system or you to court, they do not have that resource. What should they be allowed to do, given that the PCC let them down, in their terms?
  (Mr Coulson) Is that directed at me?

  Mr Wyatt: Anyone.

Chairman

  422. Can I make it clear that when questions are put, if any one of the four witnesses feels that she or he would like to answer, they would be very welcome to do so.
  (Ms Wade) Perhaps it would be easier if you direct the question depending on which newspaper you are talking about, or is it a general question?

Mr Wyatt

  423. Generally. They were distressed, angry and upset.
  (Ms Wade) Who?

  424. The people that came to see us, the ordinary citizens.
  (Ms Wade) And they were distressed about their treatment—

  425. The way the PCC treated them, the way the case went on and on, the fact that it was made worse, actually, by the PCC. They are asking us to say "This cannot go on" so I am saying to you that these are ordinary people who have written to us and we have interviewed them; they are distressed by the current system; you all seem so thrilled with it, so there are some dilemmas here.
  (Ms Wade) I think we are very proud of the PCC definitely and self-regulation. I would not particularly use the word "thrilled". We are very proud of it and the way it has changed our industry over the last 10 years. Self-regulation is working and I think what Piers Morgan was talking about, in his own way, was that a lot of the language that has been used here by previous witnesses and not by the Committee has been quite aggressive towards the press, and you have generalised. I think Rosemary McKenna said in front of one of the witnesses quite blatantly, "Well, we all know that press standards have deteriorated over the last 10 years", and that is a blatant lie. So you can understand that we are here to tell you that that is wrong and that the PCC and self-regulation has changed the culture in every single newsroom in the land—not just in Fleet Street but every regional newspaper too—so when you tell me about these people who have been to see you and that they have not received the right treatment from the PCC we have to say that they are very much in the minority, and the majority of people who go to the Press Complaints Commission are ordinary people and receive a first class service from Guy Black and his team. The lay members are very distinguished ladies and gentlemen; Guy Black and his secretariat are the finest that you can find, and we have a great system, so forgive us for promoting it but that is the truth.
  (Mr Coulson) The only thing I would add is, there are always going to be occasions where people are dissatisfied and that is the case in law. That is human nature and I do not know how we are going to guarantee that everybody who has a complaint against the newspaper is going to walk away satisfied. What the PCC gives them, however, is the perfect platform for their problem to be investigated, and when we are wrong we correct it.
  (Mr Crone) Mr Wyatt just said there is no redress in law and that is just wrong. There is redress.

  426. No. They do not have the wherewithal to take you—
  (Mr Crone) Listen, if you are talking about harassment, which I think you are, the correction of harassment lies in the protection from Harassment Act for which there is legal aid.

  427. As they said to us, it makes it worse for them to go through that.
  (Mr Crone) I am just picking up on that one small point. It does not cost them a penny, if you are talking about harassment.
  (Mr Kuttner) By virtue of my age and experience in Fleet Street, as must be obvious, I have been around quite a long time from local papers up to national papers and throughout the media, and when I came into the business it was almost entirely unregulated. Journalists would go to the home of perhaps a bereaved person, would see a photograph of somebody on the mantlepiece and think "We can use this in the paper" and help themselves, they would climb over back walls into people's gardens, they would go into hospitals wearing white coats and pretend to be doctors to get interviews, and much else besides, and through a process of the long disbanded and somewhat discredited Press Council, through Calcutt 1 and Calcutt 2, through your own former hearings and through, as my colleagues have said, the establishment of the PCC, the climate, the environment, and the working practices have changed beyond recognition. So far as our newspaper is concerned, no article or photograph goes in the newspaper these days where there may be an argument about it being contentious or an invasion of privacy or anything of the kind without the most thorough internal debate in the office involving almost invariably the editor and heads of department and others. I understand the purpose and thrust of your work but I would say that we are living in a different age and in an industry that bears no relation to its previous self.

Chairman

  428. Could I follow up a question that Derek Wyatt, has put and also something that Rosemary McKenna said when she was questioning Piers Morgan, and I apologise for the fact that she and John Thurso have had to leave but there are Scottish Office questions at the moment and we do now have this terrible conflict of different things going on. Some forms of self-regulation impose penalties. The FA, for example, through its own system of self-regulation, can fine and does fine players if it decides that they transgress. The BMA can strike a doctor off if they decide the doctor has transgressed. Rosemary McKenna spoke about people who, even when they had gone through the whole process and perhaps been successful in the process, still feel aggrieved. Do you believe that it might be useful if the PCC could order compensation to be paid to someone whose complaint was upheld and who had been severely affected? Do you believe it might be a useful idea to fine a newspaper which has transgressed the PCC code—I am not saying the Government or Ofcom or anything, but the PCC itself
  (Ms Wade) I disagree with fines, for two different reasons. Firstly, if you introduce fines or compensation you are introducing or turning the PCC into a semi judicial body. By the very nature of financial compensation being involved there will be lawyers. The fact is that the PCC and self-regulation is the perfect solution for ordinary people, which is what we are talking about here. If people want to pursue financial compensation for what has been written about they can pursue newspapers through the courts, and as you know apart from libel laws there is now Article 8 and lots of areas in which people can do pursue us through the courts and be awarded, as you say, a fine, but I do not think it would work in the PCC. The fact that it is quick, fast, free, easy to use and efficient is perfect for ordinary people.
  (Mr Coulson) I would add that you perhaps under-estimate the kind of humiliation that comes with the PCC adjudication. The News of the World has had some in the past and has been very quick to publish those in the right way, not least on our front page, and I think that the power of that kind of humiliation in what is a very competitive market, especially in the Sunday newspaper market, carries an enormous amount of weight and far more significance than a fine. I would also refer back to the earlier point that you are not going to please everybody, and if you think that by giving them a cheque at the end of it they are going to feel slightly less aggrieved, I just don't see how that makes any difference.

  429. The problem with libel law is you have to be rich to use it. Mr Peck, to whom we referred, is not able to use libel and sometimes it is not libel when there is grievous media intrusion, and when libel law is used it is very hit and miss. Jeffrey Archer won a libel action. When I went on the Daily Mirror, Liberace sued Cassandra and won his libel action for implications which later turned out to be absolutely true, so it is very hit and miss. On the other hand, do you not think, taking into account the massive resources of many newspapers including your group, that compensation being paid to somebody whom the PCC has found had a justified complaint—and I do not mean in every case by every manner of means but in certain appropriate cases—would be a useful thing to do?
  (Ms Wade) No. I think it works as it is. As Andy Coulson just pointed out, the threat of a complaint being upheld by the PCC is what terrifies editors—not particularly a financial sanction; it is the actual adjudication. More importantly, the reason it is not about fines is that self-regulation is not just about an adjudication but it is raising press standards, and that is what the PCC has done, and the last 10 years have seen those press standards steadily become higher and higher and higher. We are not saying the PCC is perfect; we are saying while we are here today you will make recommendations but all the time we are evolving the PCC. Someone made the point of why editors should be on the PCC. The fact is the lay members outweigh the editors in the interests of fairness, but what happens is that as a group we spend a lot of time evolving the code. There have been 31 changes to the code since its inception and when a big case happens, not just for the royal family or a celebrity case but a big case, then for example clause 4, the harassment clause, has been one of the most effective ways of withdrawing journalists from an aggrieved situation. For example, in the Soham murder case in the summer this year the PCC were contacted and immediately the entire press withdrew from the village in one phonecall. Unfortunately the broadcasters and the BBC and ITV and all the news channels stayed because the PCC has no jurisdiction over them, but the press moved and that was an effective way of clause 4 working, and that has been evolved over the last 10 years and now is pretty efficient in controlling the press.

Mr Doran

  430. I think we accept, at least I do, that there have been massive improvements over the past 10 years and I think Mr Kuttner's evidence earlier was quite compelling and ties in with the evidence we have seen, but the simple fact is that if the regulation system which the press has created for itself is operated by lawyers, dentists, doctors and teachers you would be attacking it every day in the newspapers because it would be seen to be inadequate. So why should the press not be regulated in a similar way?
  (Ms Wade) I think we are regulated effectively. I am sorry because I am repeating myself and I do not mean to, but I think the PCC works. Piers Morgan referred earlier to the constant discussions, and as you heard from Stuart Kuttner, and he will forgive me for mentioning the generation gap between us, but I do not recognise that picture that Stuart portrays. Because of my age, in the time that I have been in newspapers I have always been aware of primarily the Press Council but certainly the PCC and the way in which I was a reporter, and stealing photographs off people's mantlepieces I find quite shocking but I am sure it did go on. We have all read the great hospital case about Gordon Kay which was appalling and you would not even dream of doing it now, so all I can say from starting off as a reporter to becoming the editor of The Sun is that all I have seen is constant improvement. Forgive me for repeating myself but it works.

  431. I think we accept that and I have said it several times in today's hearing, but do you accept that we have a situation where the very rich can go to court because they can afford it, and there are some ordinary people who can afford to go to court, but the vast mass of people cannot afford it, so all they have is the Press Complaints Commission. Some people will be happy because they will get a quick adjudication, the case will be dealt with, and they will be satisfied with the findings of the PCC, but somewhere in the middle there will be substantial numbers of people who may have an actionable case but cannot afford a lawyer and have no legal aid, and the result is disgruntlement?
  (Ms Wade) I do accept what you are saying. You asked Piers earlier to describe "ordinary people", or you wanted to define "ordinary people" and for me ordinary people are my readers. The point is that, if the readers are unhappy with my newspaper, by the time I get into the office in the morning the phones are ringing. Tabloid readers out of all the newspapers are very keen to put their point of view across on today's paper; they e-mail us, they call us and send in letters. We have a great relationship with our readers, we interact with them all the time, and if we do something wrong they tell us, and it is absolutely in our interests to care about their issues—and we solve them. It does not just mean the people that go to the PCC: we are solving disputes with our readers all the time. Often they are about the matter of taste. The fact is the recent time that the news desk just went into meltdown was because we said Gary Neville, who is a football player, was ugly, and the entire office I thought was going to close down on the back of it! On the other hand, when people have genuine errors, we take that quite seriously. They are our readers and our paymasters, the most important people to us. If we are sitting here talking about celebrities then maybe we would have a debate but we obviously think the PCC works because it works for ordinary people and it works for our readers.

  432. I want to come to you, Mr Coulson, on another issue. In your letter to us you mention, "It is our experience that people, as described in the committee's document of 19 December as `people not generally "in public life" who nonetheless have found themselves to be the focus of media attention for one reason or another' have got into this situation through their own actions or those of people close to them", which is basically saying it is their own fault?
  (Mr Coulson) Not at all. I think I also made clear that are exceptions to that.

  433. Let me move on because one of the pieces of evidence concerning me is a letter we got from the Police Training College in Tulliallan in Scotland, and they raise the significant issue of the officers who are now specially trained in counselling to be attached to victims of crime.
  (Ms Wade) Family liaison officers?

  434. Yes, and they raised what for me was quite a disturbing issue which is that the press is now moving on from their concern solely with the victims, and we have seen some pretty graphic examples of that recently, to what this officer describes as the "developing trend for the Family Liaison Officer to be targeted by the press during the investigation. Reports have been made of officers being followed and photographed and their families being compared to those of the victims . . . Officers are less likely to volunteer for the role or their welfare could suffer if the press targets them and their family". Now, that strikes me as a fairly disturbing trend in what you say is the new ethical world of the press.
  (Mr Coulson) I am not aware of any incidents and you will tell me if that is specific to the News of the World.

  435. There is no specific case. This is a trend which the Police Training College in Scotland has recognised it has to deal with, and I imagine that the Police Training College here in England is no different.
  (Mr Coulson) I can talk about the relationship between the News of the World and family liaison officers and in the main it has been entirely productive, and I can talk about obviously the link with the "for Sarah" campaign, but in terms of family liaison officers the only other story we have focused on is the situation in Soham, and it was quite clear what the problem with the family liaison officer there was—and I am not trying to be facetious. Other than that I would say that our relationship with family liaison officers has been entirely productive but if you have something to the contrary I would be very interested to hear it, and I would take it on board.

  436. I have no practical experience, I am just presenting this to you as part of the evidence we have received.
  (Ms Wade) I have to agree with Andy, the picture you are painting or the letter you are reading out is completely at odds with the News of the World when I was there and The Sun and what I believe our relationship is with family liaison officers, but if you want us to look into that and give you a written submission we would be happy to do so.
  (Mr Coulson) I am surprised because our relationship with family liaison officers is getting better and better. In the Milly Dowler case we worked very closely. Quite often they are the main point of contact for us and they serve as a very useful device to warn against harassment for the families when they feel we have had enough, and we are always very quick to move away when we are asked.
  (Mr Crone) Has the letterwriter not given any examples at all?

  437. No. He has simply said this is a growing trend and one they are having to take into account in their training of officers.
  (Ms Wade) We will look into it when we get back.

Julie Kirkbride

  438. I was interested in Mr Coulson when he said he put one of his apologies on the front page. Could you tell us what that was and why you did it?
  (Mr Coulson) Piers might not thank me for telling you. There are three other full page apologies which I can show you—Gary Glitter, Clare Short, and one other.

  439. Do you have a policy of putting apologies on the front page, or is it voluntary?
  (Mr Coulson) We put our apologies. It is always agreed in advance and, to the best of my knowledge, we have never had a complaint as to where we have put an apology.
  (Mr Crone) Perhaps I could comment because I tend to deal with this. The apology is not always a front page, I agree, but otherwise the apology goes no later than the page on which the original story appeared.


 
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