Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580-599)



  580. Who would make that decision and how would you make it?
  (Mr Black) The Commission would make the decision. Every decision is made by the Commission, by all 16 members, who will see the correspondence in such a matter.

  581. Do you take legal advice when you are making that decision?
  (Mr Black) We may do. The Commission has external lawyers to whom we sometimes turn.

  582. When you are considering the decision, if, for example, someone is clearly not in a position to employ lawyers and to pursue a case, would that be a factor in your decision?
  (Mr Black) It depends again, if I may, on the circumstances of the case. If it were, for instance, a contractual matter, whether or not somebody could afford lawyers or whether or not they come to the PCC, we could not deal with it.

  583. On the one hand you are saying this is a remedy for people who cannot afford to go to lawyers and on the other you have this test.
  (Mr Black) It is for matters that fall under the Code of Practice. If they fall outside of the Code of Practice, then there is very little that we can do about it.

Mr Bryant

  584. You will have heard or seen, or heard of anyway Rebekah Wade, when she appeared before the Select Committee saying that she had paid police for information in the past. Have you followed that up?
  (Mr Black) It would seem to me that that is a very good example of what I have just been talking about. That is a criminal matter, if that is the case, and it is a matter for the police, and I would suggest that the appropriate people to ask in those circumstances would be the police.

  585. So you have not followed it up in any way at all? You do not think that there is an issue whether other newspapers are doing that or not?
  (Mr Black) No regulatory body or self-regulator body has powers to work outside its own remit and its own terms of reference. Our remit and our terms of reference relate to the Code of Practice. The Code of Practice does not cover matters which are appropriately dealt with by the law.

  586. You think it is a criminal offence for The Sun or for a newspaper to pay a policeman for information?
  (Mr Black) As far as I understand it, if a policeman receives payment, the policeman concerned is committing a criminal offence.

  587. Indeed, but how do you understand it to be an offence for a newspaper to pay?
  (Mr Black) Those are matters for the law, and I am not a lawyer, I am afraid.

  588. So it is then a matter for the Press Complaints Commission, is it not, because it is a matter of the press; there is a matter about whether it is legal or illegal, whether it is legitimate or illegitimate, and whether it is moral or unethical for a newspaper to be paying police for information, surely?
  (Mr Black) It would seem to me that was a matter for the criminal law. I cannot say any further than that.


  589. So if you do not get involved in matters for which there is a civil legal remedy, and if you do not get involved in matters which you think may be a criminal offence, you are rather subscribing your ambit, are you not?
  (Mr Hinton) There are many things, Chairman, that the Code of Practice does not tell people not to do. I think it is fairly well accepted that most journalists understand the law and what it is legal and illegal for them to do. It is illegal for them to commit libel or to commit contempt of court. Those issues, should they be committed, the police will investigate or the Solicitor or Attorney General will investigate, and action will be taken, and has been in the past. There are many areas in which the conduct of journalists is constricted by law, beyond the remit of the Code Committee.

Mr Bryant

  590. So you think it is a criminal offence. You also think, as Chairman of News International, that it is a criminal offence for a News International newspaper to have been paying police for information?
  (Mr Hinton) My understanding is—and I heard a little of the evidence that was given, and there were several observations made in seeking to establish how the conduct of the press has improved over the years, substantially as a consequence of the PCC—that Miss Wade said that there had been payments in the past. I am the Chairman of News International. I have no reason to know or believe that there have ever been payments. I spoke to Rebekah myself. She told me that she has not authorised payments to policemen.

  591. But she told the Committee she had.
  (Mr Hinton) No, no, no. She said in the past, I think. She said there have been payments in the past. That is my understanding.


  592. Rebekah Wade came before this Committee and made an extremely favourable impression on the Committee as a straightforward, candid person. When Mr Bryant asked her a question, she gave an immediate, straightforward, honest answer, which won the respect of the Committee. Are you now saying that that answer which she gave was not accurate?
  (Mr Hinton) I was not present, Chairman, when the answer was given, but my understanding was that she said that there had been payments made by newspapers in the past. If I am mistaken, I am happy to revisit it. Can I just add though, Mr Bryant, your article in The Guardian would seem to pre-judge an awful lot of the issues we were hoping to discuss with you—

  Chairman: Order! Order! We have already received what I regard as an impertinent and offensive letter from you on this subject. Mr Bryant wrote that article in The Guardian having consulted me, and my having authorised him to do so, he being an individual member of the Committee. That article did not pre-judge anything whatsoever, unlike an interview that Mr Black gave to The Guardian, which did pre-judge the outcome of this inquiry, when we had only held one session. I will quote this to you, Mr Black, after you have shaken your head. Mr Bryant is a free Member of Parliament. He is allowed to write to the press. Indeed, I thought that was an excellent article, and I think The Guardian should offer him a regular column.

Mr Bryant

  593. I would have to declare that though, Mr Chairman.
  (Mr Hinton) Thank you for correcting me, Chairman, but can I just continue to make the observation I wanted to about what was contained in the article? Mr Bryant appeared to indicate that he was in possession of evidence that it was a widespread practice among newspapers to pay police officers. You then quoted an Act of Parliament that made clear that this was illegal. All I can suggest, since you are clearly in possession of that information, is that you make it available to the police. If you give it to us, we will happily do the same.

  594. I have done so, and this is one of the other areas the Government obviously has to look at, and there is the new Corruption Act that the Government is thinking about at the moment, and there are issues there. To me, there is some irony here. You say in your written evidence to us that the industry, the press, must have confidence in the PCC and in the Chairman, and in the appointment of the PCC Chairman and of the Commission. I would suggest that perhaps also the public has to have confidence in that body, if you are able to do your work most effectively, and yet now we have the odd situation of having had a News International editor before us and being extremely candid, and now the Chairman of the Code Committee, who is the Chairman of News International, and therefore has two hats, giving us a different version of the story. I just wonder whether you think that if you were to clean up your act in terms of who you have on the Commission, and if you were more genuinely independent—
  (Mr Hinton) Clean up our act, sir? What does that mean? Are you saying our act is dirty, Mr Bryant?

  595. For instance, Neil Wallis has now had several complaints upheld against his newspaper. He is both on the Code Committee and he is on the Commission itself. Indeed, he himself, over the Sarah Cox case, confesses that he made a mistake. That is subject to legal negotiations, as I understand, at the moment. Last month he had an adjudication against him, yet he remains sitting on the Committee. You might as well have Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken sitting on the Committee on Parliamentary Standards.
  (Mr Black) If memory serves me correctly, Neil Wallis was editor of The People for five years, in which time there were two complaints upheld against him, one of which was actually a very complicated privacy complaint. It is going to be inevitable in any system of self-regulation, where you must have editors on a body—and it may be a point that we need to discuss—that those editors will from time to time make mistakes. People in any walk of life make mistakes. People in any regulated industry, whether they be doctors, dentists, policemen, whatever , will make mistakes. The point about the system that we have is the manner in which we try to get those rectified, and the manner in which we try to ensure that they do not happen again. The first of the complaints that you raise that was upheld against Neil Wallis related, if I remember rightly, to an actor called Stephen Billington, which was an issue about using the question of whether somebody was being blackmailed to publish material that was to a degree intrusive. That was an excellent example of a very good complaint that was brought to us, and we upheld it. It has not recurred in The People or in any other newspaper. That is the strength of the system, and it is buttressed by having editors on the Commission.

  596. Do you not see the hypocrisy of the situation? If a member of the Committee on Parliamentary Standards were to have an adjudication against him or her in the House, that person would be removed instantly, and you would be clamouring for that person to be removed. We have been told by editors that if there is an adjudication by you against them, that is considered in the industry to be the moment at which you hang your head with shame, yet you retain people on the PCC who have recent adjudications against them.
  (Mr Black) As I say, it will always be the case that editors are going to make mistakes from time to time.

  597. That is a very casual attitude to adjudication: mistakes from time to time.
  (Mr Black) It is not a casual attitude in the slightest. If you had to find an editor to sit on the Commission who from time to time had not erred in some way or another, it would be a very difficult job, and I tell you why that is: it is because they are producing stories week in, week out; day in, day out—millions of stories a year.

  598. So how often do you think an editor should err a year roughly? How many adjudications do you think would be fair enough?
  (Mr Black) I would never have an editor err at all, but the point is they do. My job is not to defend editors; the job of the Press Complaints Commission is not to defend editors who make mistakes. Our job is to get it put right.

  599. It looks as if your job is to defend editors.
  (Mr Black) I am defending the concept of having editors on the Commission who from time to time are going to have adjudications upheld against them. It will happen. It is the way of the world. It has certainly happened in the past, and I suspect it happens in any form of regulatory body that you might find. That is not my principal concern. I am not going to defend editors who make mistakes. I never would. I spend a lot of my time trying to educate everybody and make sure that they stay on the right side of the rules. I do not know whether Vivien might have a point to make on that.
  (Ms Hepworth) I would like to say something, because I think one point that needs to be made very firmly is that the lay commissioners are in a majority on the Press Complaints Commission. There does seem to me to be some misapprehension that the lay commissioners somehow do not exercise their authority. They do.

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