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
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 thereI do not think I am mistaken
in thisthat I was pleased to see those references. That
leaves aside the other activity which the PCC engages inand
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
weeksin 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 ofand 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 confidentiallyand
you have suggested some of the work that your predecessor has
done has always been on a very confidential basisto 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
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 work95% if you want arithmetic
precisionwhich 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 workis this what you are sayingis 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 1995you could not choose
a much more public place in which to make such a speechin
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 thoseI do not think it would be members
of this Committeewho 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 liablenot 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
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 saidand 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 judgedand maybe this was
the wrong judgementthat 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 happenand
this really does make me anxiousis 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 groupI think I speak for everyonethat 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 thisand
again, this is partly based on my experience as a press secretaryis
that the government, either directly or through a body like OFCOM,
needs to keep out of regulating newspapers. I am scarredthat
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 16and soon to be 17, if I have my waycommissioners
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 workit was my basic brief for the jobit
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 problemthis is a
point that you made, Chairmanwhen 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 proactivityI am sorry to use the word againon
the part of the PCC, then we do have a serious problem in this
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 industryand goodness
knows I have said that 100 times alreadyI do not think
that situation could have happened in British journalism.