Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-459)

TUESDAY 11 MARCH 2003

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

  440. That is the policy of News International?
  (Mr Crone) Certainly The Sun and News of the World which I look after, so by agreement with the other side. They say, "Where will it appear?", and I will answer, "No later than the page that the original story appeared".
  (Mr Coulson) I think that is across the board, and not just us.

  441. So all your front pages were by agreement with the PCC?
  (Mr Coulson) Our apologies are by agreement with the complainant and the PCC.

  442. It seems to me from other examples that it is not always the case that the apology gets the same prominence as the original article, and although there may be circumstances where the complainant does not want that much publicity attached to what they said—
  (Ms Wade) That is why we have never had a complaint about the position of an apology. We normally agree it with the person we are dealing with and, as Tom says, it is never later than the page that the story appeared on. As the PCC tells us, it is always with due prominence.
  (Mr Crone) And the words are agreed. The words can only fill the space they fill and, if it is smaller than the original story, that is the way it has to be.

  443. As with all our other editors there has been a very robust defence—not with admiration for the PCC but essentially there is no other area where you think the PCC might be reformed. Is there any help you would like to give this Committee as to what we might do to maintain the confidence in the system by suggesting other improvements to its working? Do you have any suggestions?
  (Ms Wade) We would certainly not be sitting here today—no editor would—and in the case of Mr Kuttner's evidence and obviously Mr Rusbridger's later they may have their opinions on how they want to improve the PCC. We all say it has to be improved. As I said earlier, it has already had 31 different changes to it. The latest change related to witnesses where the PCC worked very closely with the Government and with all the relevant bodies to tighten up that clause and that happened, so it is very difficult for me to sit here and say, "Well, in the future this story will happen and this will throw up this issue", but that is how it evolves—very naturally—and that is how it will evolve over the next 10 years and will continue to evolve and improve. For example, one of the questions you asked was about the PCC being proactive but that is quite difficult, not only because we have 1,400 regional newspapers, nearly 30,000 magazines if you include trade, and it would take some kind of Orwellian structure to monitor every single word that is printed every day and for the PCC to be proactive it, but what we are looking at at the moment is these big cases. There are two clauses in the code, clause 4 for harassment but also the clause for intrusion into grief or shock. Now it is through crime probably that the majority of where ordinary people find themselves in the blaze of the public eye and obviously those times are extremely sensitive. In the case of Soham the PCC were contacted and they issued a statement to all of us and we all withdrew immediately, but perhaps we could be proactive in those circumstances where, because of experience, we absolutely know what is going to happen. The only thing I would say is that, in the case of Sarah Payne, the family, Sara and Mike Payne, wanted the press to be there because it was their only hope that Sarah would be found which is why they did a press conference every day, because they were hoping that there would be a sighting and the police could help. Often we give rewards which are publicised for those same reasons so it is not always fair to think that the press need to withdraw immediately from these situations but, like I said, clause 4 for harassment has worked perfectly in those situations.

  444. And how do you view the European Court of Human Rights intervention in all of this which seems to be suggesting a much more active right to privacy as opposed to the attitude that we have in the United Kingdom at the moment which is slightly more of a free-for-all for people on a public beach saying, "It is anybody's right to take a picture of you"? How do you see the European Court of Human Rights judgment affecting the way you work, and how would you seek to accommodate it in your terms rather than maybe in Parliament's?
  (Ms Wade) Again, it is not ordinary people that are going on Article 8, it tends to be the rich, the famous or the powerful so far that have used it, and the judgments that have been made so far we completely agree with.

  445. So there is nothing new coming from it?
  (Mr Coulson) Not on the basis of ordinary people as it appears at the moment, no.

  446. And in the case of celebs?
  (Ms Wade) We are here to talk about ordinary people. If we get into the celebrity debate, it really does cloud the issue. We are happy to talk about ordinary readers; celebrities are completely different.
  (Mr Coulson) And the fact that 90% of the people using the PCC are ordinary people reinforces our point.

Michael Fabricant

  447. I never thought I would say it but I think I preferred Piers Morgan! I have never heard the word "perfect" used so frequently—
  (Ms Wade) To whom are you referring?

  448. PCC is a "perfect" solution—
  (Ms Wade) I am sorry. I do have to clarify this. I have been insulted in my time but, quite frankly, I do not think anyone has ever struck so low! But Mr Fabricant continue, we are going to have a great relationship. Presumably you were referring to me?

  449. You said that the PCC is a perfect solution and perfect for ordinary people. In fairness you did then say there is room for improvement, and I have to say that Stuart Kuttner's remarks were very powerful, saying how the PCC has improved over the years and there can be little doubt of that. But can you understand, and I am addressing this to you, Rebekah, how people will think that that there is a very cosy, very smug, complacent relationship between the PCC and newspapers because of the structure of the PCC, and while maybe 85% cent of the time those ordinary people who make complaints are having their complaints redressed properly, accurately and adequately, do you not accept that for that 15%—a figure quoted off the top of his head by Piers Morgan—of people whose cases are not dealt with properly, it is a personal tragedy?
  (Ms Wade) I do accept that for any ordinary person who has felt that their privacy has been intruded by the press it is a tragedy and we work to solve that and make sure that corrections and apologies are made and they come out, because every single one of them is one of your readers so you do not want to insult them and you do not want to invade their privacy. In fact, the biggest thing tabloid newspapers do is campaign for those ordinary people. I have spent my entire career thinking of campaigns that will help my readers and that is the only thing I am interested in really. I am sorry, you saying you preferred Piers Morgan is still affecting me, but what you say is true—we do take every case seriously, and I was not saying it was perfect. I did make the point twice that we all believe that the PCC has to evolve and improve but what I was trying to point out is that you have to give the PCC and self-regulation credit for the last 10 years.

  450. But when the Chairman said to you that perhaps one area of improvement might be some form of compensation to victims because they cannot afford to pursue it in the courts, you rejected that out of hand?
  (Ms Wade) Just because I do not agree with fines does not mean to say that I do not agree that we should evolve and improve the PCC and self-regulation as times change. Just because I do not happen to agree with that one answer to it—I do not think that is right for the reasons I explained but I do think it is right that we all work together to improve the PCC. Like I said, it often gets improved when a big story breaks or an issue comes up—for example, a payment to witnesses.

  Michael Fabricant: Derek Wyatt asked a question about ICSTIS and even asked whether Ofcom could be a backstop and Piers, who has now stomped out of the room, said this would be like Zimbabwe but the Independent Television Commission which will be consumed into Ofcom—

  Chairman: Or Iraq.

Michael Fabricant

  451. The ITC has control over ITN and Sky News and all the rest of it and no one is going to argue that they are a part of the state organisation. Do you not think that there is room to have Ofcom or some other organisation acting as a further backstop for maybe those 15%?
  (Ms Wade) If you take Ofcom for a start, it has experience in telecommunications and broadcasting and absolutely no experience in newspapers. As I said earlier in answer to the other question about the lay members and having editors or people who understand newspapers on the Committee and how important that is, it would be ludicrous to put the press or control of the press under an umbrella of Ofcom.

  452. Why?
  (Ms Wade) Because they have no experience in newspapers; they are broadcasting and telecommunications. It is like putting the press under ICSTIS; it is ludicrous. I do not really think that Ofcom is something for this Committee to debate. What you are looking for, and presumably the reason we are all here and you are talking to us and asking for our submissions, is a way to improve self-regulation. I know Mr Bryant has had the courage to say it and I know the Chairman's view in the past has been the same—that the essential components of a democratic society are freedom of expression and speech—and any threat—

  453. But there is also that inalienable right to privacy, and there may be mutual contradictions?
  (Ms Wade) But I think self-regulation is that balance.
  (Mr Coulson) From a practical point of view the most compelling evidence I have seen on this issue is from Geoff Elliott, who served on both the PCC—and I think he is unique in that he served on the PCC—and Broadcasting Standards so he has experience of both, and he reached the conclusion that it would be a nonsense to try and bring any statutory control involving the press mainly because it would slow things up to a terrible degree. One of the great advantages is the PCC is the speed with which it works—32 days. How many hearings do we see through the Broadcasting Standards each year? Very few. Also, at the end of those hearings, people are left dissatisfied, they've either won or they've lost, so it is no different to what we were saying earlier about the PCC.

  454. Do you not think, though, it is a question of public perception? It was said earlier there are more lay people than editors on the Committee but only by one, and I gather at the moment it is seven and seven, and this idea of self-regulation, which I think is a good idea, is a problem when people are seen to be their own judge and jury. I, for one, am trying to make the BBC come more under Ofcom simply because even if the BBC judges a complaint against it correctly people will say, "Well, the board of Governors would say that because they are their own judge and jury". Can you not see that people think sometimes that the PCC are the journalists' own judge and jury?
  (Ms Wade) No. The PCC, first of all, is not our own judge and jury. I think both Andy Coulson and I have explained to the Committee the fear and the humiliation that is involved in having a complaint upheld by the PCC. Self-regulation is not just about complaints being upheld but about the change in the culture and how we fight and ask questions. Every single story that is put in our newspapers goes through a list, a set of criteria, not just of the code but in the spirit of the code, the convention of the code. Is it judge and jury? As Paul Dacre said, we go to the ballot box every day to our readers and our readers are very decent people and if they were not reading a decent newspaper they would not buy it. So we are not our own judge and jury at all.

  455. I think that is a simplistic answer but can I ask you one more question—
  (Ms Wade) Sorry, but you prefer Piers Morgan's answer so there is nothing I can do really, is there?

  456. Well, simply because I think people will buy newspapers and if one person is hurt because of irresponsibility then that is terrible but you are talking about millions of readers to your newspaper and if that one person does not buy your newspaper then it is hardly going to affect your circulation figures. That is why I said it was simplistic. But what I want to ask you or anybody is this: given that you do accept it is not perfect, although self-regulation is working to a large extent but nevertheless not to a total extent, how would you improve the PCC?
  (Ms Wade) I suggested earlier that in the huge media events I do think that is something we can look at—

  Michael Fabricant: What do you mean by a huge media event?

Chairman

  457. Michael, let's have a civilised conversation.
  (Ms Wade) For example, when a very high profile crime happens and people wake up having had no experience of the press in their entire lives perhaps, and they wake up in the morning and they draw back the curtains in a time of shock or grief and they find five crews from the BBC, three from ITN, the satellite channels and freelance agencies, a member of every national newspaper and all the surrounding local newspapers—that is a pretty huge pack to be faced with, and I think one of the things we can look at is how the PCC can deal with that in a proactive way. As I said, in Soham it worked perfectly; the PCC were contacted and they did deal with it. Perhaps we can be more proactive knowing, as I said, what normally happens in these circumstances. Unfortunately it tends to be the broadcasters who refuse to move.

  458. Do you think when you are talking about PCC being proactive that it might be useful if, rather than awaiting complaints, and obviously it gets complaints and should go on getting them, the PCC might on occasion institute inquiries of its own?
  (Ms Wade) What you are saying is can the PCC be proactive? They have been on occasions but, as I said earlier, for them to be properly proactive in the sense of the word it does mean this kind of Orwellian structure, because there are so many newspapers and magazines in this country. So it would not be feasible, but I think on certain occasions like that we could be proactive, yes.

Chris Bryant

  459. I am slightly perplexed about the general "All is beautiful in the garden; everything is rosy" vision of modern press standards that you suggest, because most recent polls show that more and more people believe they cannot trust what they read in the national newspapers and that has grown over the last few years but that is for a different day because we are not talking about the broader issues today; we are just talking about the specific issue of media intrusion. I guess one of the most important questions for you is pursuit of a photograph because that is the way you help tell a story, which is what primarily you are about and that can lead to the harassment issues which you suggest are now being perfectly met by the Harassment Act.
  (Ms Wade) I was saying that the harassment clause in the code has been very effective.


 
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