Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 960-979)

Wednesday 21 May 2003


  Q960  Mr Bryant: When we asked Mr Black in this very room what instances there were of any proactive work that they had done, these were not referred to at all. In fact, effectively we were told that there was no proactive work that the PCC engaged in. Sorry, there was one instance which was mentioned, which was, of course, the work that you have done around trying to negotiate a deal between the newspapers and the royal household.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: All I can say to you is this: not having read the record of Mr Black's testimony and his exchanges with you when he came in to see you in March, all I can say to you is that a very important part of my preparation for this job was reading the large submission that was put to you by the PCC, and it was there—I do not think I am mistaken in this—that I was pleased to see those references. That leaves aside the other activity which the PCC engages in—and I know this is much appreciated by newspapers because I have been travelling around the UK talking to them in the last five or six weeks—in helping to train journalists, in taking part in seminars, in which great issues are discussed in which the press has a role, for example, asylum seekers and refugees. So I think there is a fair degree of—and I must say, Chairman, I prefer the word "activity" to "proactivity".

  Q961  Chairman: It is a horrible word, but it appears to be all we have, Sir Christopher.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I know. I have been trying to say "activity" on the record but it always comes back to me as "proactivity." I think I am not mistaken in saying that there is currently a case, initiated by the PCC before my time, vis-a-vis a newspaper over a payment to a criminal. So I think this is a pretty active body.

  Q962  Mr Bryant: One of the issues that has been raised by one of the people who has appeared as a witness before us, Rebekah Wade, is the issue of the relationship between the police and newspapers. We have been told by her that her newspaper has paid the police for information. That is obviously an issue which must be of major concern to most readers of newspapers and most people who pay for the police through their taxes and, I would have thought, for the PCC as well. Is that not the kind of area where, without the "Aunt Sally" direction that you seem to be going down of creating an Orwellian organisation that is going to look at every single jot and tittle of what is appearing in a newspaper, you could play an active role in looking at the issues and exposing the problems if there are problems?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: There are two ways of answering that, and I will use both ways. One is to take the easy dodge and say what has been said and done before I was Chairman has been said and done, and I am determined to set my own course and my own path, and I have sketched out some ideas, that may or may not run, in the speech which I made to the Newspaper Society. It does not need the Chairman of the PCC to tell newspaper editors that they should not break the law. I am very happy to do that, and I am doing it now, if you like, in answer to your question. That seems to me as plain as a pikestaff.

  Q963  Mr Bryant: But the PCC is in a unique position in being able to talk confidentially—and you have suggested some of the work that your predecessor has done has always been on a very confidential basis—to newspaper editors to ascertain what is really going on. It is uncertain, I would suggest, precisely how buying or selling of information, depending on what the buying or selling of information process is, is illegal. So again, you are setting up a second Aunt Sally here.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Mr Bryant, I think you are being a bit unfair here. I am not here to set up Aunt Sallies. I am actually responding to things I have heard quite a deal of in the brief time that I have been Chairman, and I am trying to respond to points that have been made to me, I have to say, in a very intensive period of consultations which I have been undertaking. I have not only been in London: I have been in Manchester, Liverpool, Belfast, Falkirk, Dundee, Edinburgh, and somewhere else which I have now forgotten, and I am doing Wolverhampton, Barnsley, Oldham, Norwich before the summer break, and I am doing Cardiff in September some time. This is pretty intensive at the moment, but I am going to carry on painting the Forth Bridge, if you will, and you hear all kinds of things as you go round the country. I am not trying to create a straw man; I am responding to something specific.

  Q964  Mr Bryant: One of the issues there was in the big report that we were sent by the PCC and which we have all read was in reference to Soham and the work that the PCC did to try and make sure that there was not excessive media intrusion there. Part of that revolved around the work of the local vicar. But I suspect if you were to ask the general public where they think the PCC is most active, it is actually in looking after the rich and the famous, and in particular, the deal that you have done with the royal family.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: As the Americans might say, can I try and deconstruct that? The reality is that when I look at the work of the PCC, it reminds me of an enormous iceberg. The bit that you see most obviously above the surface, which actually is written about by newspapers and is discussed in Select Committees and places like that, tends to be the work as it relates to people who are in the public eye. They may be footballers, they may be fashion models, they may be politicians, they may be members of royal families. In reality, the massive bulk of the work—95% if you want arithmetic precision—which tends to be below the surface is what we do with ordinary people. Do not ask me to define an ordinary person, but you know what I am trying to get at. So in a way, it is unfair that there is a public perception of the work of this organisation which focuses on the rich and the famous and the celebrated, because that is not what we are doing most of the time.

  Q965  Mr Bryant: Most of the time you are responding to complaints, so the 95% is the complaints on behalf of ordinary people, but the five per cent of proactive or active work—is this what you are saying—is when you do a deal?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I must get back to this "doing a deal" and comment on that before we move on to some other aspect. On this "doing a deal," I presume you are talking about relations between Prince William and the newspaper editors. One of the first things I read as I was preparing for this job was a speech made by Lord Wakeham in St Bride's church in 1995—you could not choose a much more public place in which to make such a speech—in which he set out what I thought were some very sensible, common-sense guidelines about how St James's Palace and Prince William should interact with newspapers. There was no cosy, pokey, hole-in-the-wall deal here. This was out there in public. I have already had the opportunity to say that this arrangement which John Wakeham described back in 1995 is such obvious common sense, and has been so robust so far, that you would be barking mad to let it slip away while Prince William is at university.

  Q966  Chairman: There are two things that I would like to follow on from what Chris Bryant has been saying. Let us take as an example the public statements that have been made over the past few days about respect for Prince William's privacy, even though he cannot any longer be categorised as a child. There could be those—I do not think it would be members of this Committee—who are not out and out royalists who say that now that Prince William is recognised as being an adult, and he is a public figure, he is as much liable—not to have his privacy invaded, obviously; nobody, public or private, should have that happen, but in his public appearances, he should be no more liable to special protection than any other adult public figure. If what appears to have happened, namely the Press Complaints Commission say that he is still to have some protection, I will not quarrel with that, but what I would ask is, is he the only conceivable person who would appear to merit that special treatment? I exclude from other conceivable persons every politician; I am not for a moment indicating that any politician or adult child of a politician should have that protection, though there are certain implications when, say, the son of a politician who is alleged to have committed a criminal offence only gets that report in the national press because he or she is the son or daughter of a politician.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: What I am saying is intended to be very simple and straightforward here. I think everybody in principle is equal before the Code of Practice, but over the years a particular arrangement has grown up between St James's Palace and the newspaper editors which I think is simply an example of sheer common sense. It obviates paparazzi feeding frenzy in St Andrew's but at the same time I think responds to a very real public interest to know how the son of the heir to the throne is getting on. It is very sensible, very common-sense, and I simply hope that it manages to survive until the prince finishes his university education. That is all I am saying.

  Q967  Chairman: If that is all you are saying, Sir Christopher, and you are simply talking about common sense, then when we get the editor of The Sun, in a commendably straightforward reply to a question by a member of this Committee, saying that her newspaper has paid police for information, even though, of course, any police officer who has done that may be regarded as having committed a criminal offence, would it not be useful for the Press Complaints Commission to make a statement saying, "Now that this has been brought out into the open, and with great honesty, the editor of the largest circulating daily newspaper has said that it has happened in her newspaper, regardless of whether the criminal law is to be invoked or not, we call upon all newspapers to desist from such practices." What is wrong with that? Why could you not do that?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I could not disagree with you.

  Q968  Chairman: Then why was it not done?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I was not Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission then.

  Q969  Mr Bryant: So it would be done by you if it were?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: This is not a practice that I could possibly condone, and I would be astonished if anybody on the PCC itself would condone it. This is a given.

  Q970  Chairman: The second point is, you said—and who could disagree with you?—that the Press Complaints Commission cannot be expected to scour all of the press for transgressions. While it is perfectly true that when we put to the witnesses from the PCC when they came as a group the remarks made by Linda Gilroy in the House of Commons about potential intrusion on families of servicemen and women who might have been casualties in the war, the witnesses there said, very understandably indeed, "You cannot expect us to scour every column of Hansard to see what might or might not be said." Of course, one accepts that, but with the impending arrival or the actual arrival of a war in Iraq, knowing the susceptibilities of any family who has a member of their family serving in the gulf, might it not have been a good idea for the PCC, without saying it is going to happen, to remind everybody that there are these susceptibilities, and that therefore the press ought to use every caution in dealing with such matters? Your words will be better than mine, but nevertheless I offer them to you as a draft. Would it not have been a good idea and an example of proactivity that nobody, the press or anybody else could conceivably contest, for that to have been done, whether or not Linda Gilroy said anything in the House of Commons on the subject?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Let me say first of all that I would like to take this opportunity to express, if I may, my 100% support for my staff, some of whom are here today, and my Director, Guy Black, who I think appeared before you to give evidence to you. I think they have over the years done a very good and a very under-valued job, and that is one of the reasons why I decided to take this job, because I knew I would be resting on a very firm foundation which was capable of evolution. As to the specific case of the Iraq war and British casualties and the feelings of those who were families and friends of those who died, I did give thought to this when I took over in my first week. In the end, I judged—and maybe this was the wrong judgement—that it was not actually necessary, but I am very open to doing that kind of thing in the future.

  Q971  Derek Wyatt: Good afternoon, Sir Christopher. When Paul Dacre appeared in front of us, he said that all his journalists had in their contract all the PCC regulations, that they were written in, yet when you look at the end of a year to see which of the newspapers that had their knuckles wrapped, Mail on Sunday is one of the highest. Why are you so set against fining or introducing fines for newspapers that persistently abuse the Code?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not know whether that statistic is correct, but you have been dealing with these matters longer than I have, Mr Wyatt, and I am not going to seek publicly to contradict you. A lot of people have taken this view with me in the various debates I have had around the country, and this has been one of the strongest. Many people have said to me "Why in God's name don't you fine the blighters," except sometimes the word is stronger than that, "or introduce some system of monetary compensation, because only money will really deter the transgressors.?" I actually do not think that is true. I have dealt with journalists in one way or another for a very long time, both as a government spokesman twice and now as Chairman of the PCC. I actually think that for an editor who transgresses, and against whom there is a critical adjudication, having to spell that out in terms in his or her newspaper is actually a greater sanction and deterrent than money, and the trouble with money is it throws up other problems. What is the tariff? How high do you set it? For a newspaper with very deep pockets, £50,000 is all part of the game. £100,000. What are we talking about? It would be very difficult. The other thing that would happen—and this really does make me anxious—is that not only would it be a lesser deterrent than the publication of a critical adjudication, it would also I think bring in a cumbersome system. Lawyers would come in behind the money, there would be appeals, and the fast, free, fair, effective system which is at the basis of what we do now I think would be severely compromised. You would have a different animal and, in my view, a less effective one.

  Q972  Derek Wyatt: I just point out that ICSTIS, which is the equivalent of your body for mobile phones, does fine and the fining has been so fantastic that it has stopped the pornographic selling on mobile phones. So there are other cases where it seems to have been incredibly successful.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I know. I agree. I think the estate agents' self-regulatory body do that as well. All I would say to you is I think this is horses for courses here, and I think on our course the horse that I am riding is the fastest and the best.

  Q973  Derek Wyatt: Has that issue as a whole been discussed with the PCC?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: No, I have not done that. No, that is not an accurate answer. I have had informal discussions in different permutations, with groups and individuals, with every member of the Commission, and we have gone through a whole bunch of issues, including some of those that I raised in the Newspaper Society speech. I think the consensus of opinion, including among some very robust lay commissioners, who have no connection with the newspaper industry at all, is that the adjudication is the way to go.

  Q974  Derek Wyatt: Simon Kelner said that he did not fear a statutory back-up at all, but it seems something that the PCC does not want. Can you explain why you do not want it, and why when we saw people in camera, we did feel as a group—I think I speak for everyone—that they just wanted to feel there was an alternative place to take that criticism and that complaint that was not involved with the PCC. Why set yourself against that so quickly?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I set myself against that so quickly because my core belief in all this—and again, this is partly based on my experience as a press secretary—is that the government, either directly or through a body like OFCOM, needs to keep out of regulating newspapers. I am scarred—that is an exaggeration, but I did spend a lot of time when I was in John Major's Downing Street, taking part in the discussion of a possible White Paper on a privacy tort. I had inherited it from my predecessor and in the end the whole thing died a death, and it was when you got into the details of how that was going to work, or how some kind of statutory ombudsman was going to work, that it was very hard to see how it would actually add value or quality to what has been done now by the PCC, always assuming the PCC is enforcing the Code effectively. I have had a lot of discussion with people about this, and I came to the conclusion that there is a real danger in a statutory back-up, because that is getting closer to government regulation of newspapers. Secondly, it was not clear to me whether this statutory back-up was going to be one person, or a group of people. If it is going to be, say, an ombudsman, then why should he or she have better judgment than the 16—and soon to be 17, if I have my way—commissioners of the PCC? Having said that, I do not know whether you have read my speech. We do need inside the PCC someone aside from the Commission looking at the way we reach decisions and seeing whether we do this right, and I am determined to get that off the ground.

  Q975  Derek Wyatt: How do you react to the idea that you should meet in public?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Most of the people who come to us do not want to have their case ventilated in public. If you are an aggrieved newspaper reader, you have quite a pallet of remedies potentially open to you. You can just write to the editor, and if you are lucky he will take your point and publish your letter or publish a correction. If you do not like something, heaven forfend, that you have read in The Guardian, you can go to the readers' editor, which is an interesting thing, or you can come to the PCC or you can go to law. If you go to law, it will be very public, probably more public than you would want. So I think that what we are doing is responding to our customers, provided that the adjudication is spelt out very clearly and in full, where there is one. We post it on the website so the reasoning is very, very clear for all to see, and of course, there is a huge process of telephonic exchange with the parties, writing to the parties. So it is not as if this thing is hermetically sealed, but I think if we started going to public hearings, we would actually deter people from using the PCC.

  Q976  Mr Doran: I want to come back to proactivity, although I will try and avoid using the word as much as I can. I read the speech that you made recently to the Newspaper Society, and you said some interesting things there. You have repeated some of them today, and it is quite clear that the sort of idea of proactivity that we have in the Committee, which I see as setting standards or maintaining standards in the press, is not something that the PCC is interested in in the future, or is that too broad a statement?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: It is a broad statement. It upsets me to hear that. Stated at that level of broad generality, I would say that we both have the same objectives. I think there is some disagreement between us, or between some members of the Committee, on how we should get from A to B. I have to say, in the submission to the Select Committee, for which I take no responsibility but which I thought was an excellent piece of work—it was my basic brief for the job—it does lay out a very significant compendium of actions which the Press Complaints Commission takes without having to be sparked or prompted by any complainant and, as I said in that speech, I want to take this further. I have no problem—this is a point that you made, Chairman—when a very sensitive issue comes up, or where one is worried that the press may over-react, about sending a note out or saying something like "Be careful. Watch it. Don't forget the Code says this" or whatever. I have to say, Mr Doran, it is in the full mainstream of what the PCC has done. That is why I say it is a somewhat under-valued institution because I do not think you give it credit where credit is due. I think it has done a lot, and this should be recognised.

  Q977  Mr Doran: I recognise that it has done a lot, and I have said that quite explicitly in previous hearings and to previous witnesses, but it seems that there are certain boundaries which are not going to be crossed. But you are suggesting that you will be crossing some of them.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: Which boundary do you have in mind?

  Q978  Mr Doran: Proactivity is one of them. What we have heard from you today we have not heard from any other witness on behalf of the PCC. Can I just mention one of the areas that does concern me. You paint a picture in your speech, and it is quite clear in all the submissions we have had from the PCC, that proactivity is seen as getting out there and taking a message, and it is about training journalists, which is something we approve of. One of the things that worries me about the parameters that you have though is that it seems to me that the Code has now become effectively the code of ethics for journalism in this country. I know that the National Union of Journalists has a code, but they are not recognised in every newspaper. Unless that code is enforced, not just because members of the public decide to write a letter to the PCC, but there is some proactivity—I am sorry to use the word again—on the part of the PCC, then we do have a serious problem in this country.

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not argue with what you have just said. I think the Code, code of ethics, the constitution, whatever you like to call it, something which has been amended 30 times since it was first promulgated in 1991, and it was changed again just before I took over to take care of a very serious lacuna, in my view, on witness payments, has done that. I do not believe in a uniquely passive interpretation of the Code. I think we should be active in its defence and promulgation. Having said that, I am not quite sure what in practice this is going to mean. If you ever invite me back again, a year from now or whatever, I might be able to put some flesh on those bones.

  Q979  Mr Doran: Can you foresee a situation where a British newspaper would do what the New York Times has just done?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I will give you a different answer to that question. Although I am not a spokesman for the British newspaper industry—and goodness knows I have said that 100 times already—I do not think that situation could have happened in British journalism.

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