Press standard, privacy and libel - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 303-319)


24 MARCH 2009

  Q303 Chairman: Good morning. This is the fifth session taking evidence into our inquiry on press standards, privacy and libel. In the first part of this morning's hearing we are taking evidence from what we have termed "working journalists". I would like to welcome Jeff Edwards, Chairman of the Crime Reporters Association, and I think recently retired Chief Crime Correspondent for the Daily Mirror.

  Mr Edwards: Yes, not working any more.

  Chairman: Sean O'Neill, the Crime and Security Editor of the Times, and Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science column on the Guardian. Adam Price is going to start the questions.

  Q304 Adam Price: One of the themes that has emerged in the inquiry so far is the huge pressures that modern journalists are having to work under. We are familiar with the term "churnalism" that Nick Davies has added to the lexicon. In the study by Cardiff University that underpinned some of his work, a survey showed that, for example, facts were only checked in 12% of stories, and they claimed that journalists in national newspapers were having to produce three times as much copy compared with 20 years ago. Is this an accurate picture in your experience of the pressure that journalists are working under now, compared to, say, a generation ago?

  Mr Edwards: Yes. I think everybody in a newspaper office has to do more for less now. I can only speak about the organisation I was with for the last 20 years, which was the Daily Mirror, but during that period I have seen the staff shrink year on year, and when I left in December it was probably about 50% of the strength it was when I joined in the late 1980s. Inevitably it depends on what is happening on the day. As a specialist correspondent, I might start the day with nothing on the agenda or with five or six projects in the air at any one time and having to dip in and dip out of things. Pressure to produce is not a new phenomenon. That has been ever-present, in my experience. It is slightly different if you are a very experienced journalist—as I am, as Sean is, and my colleague here, I am sure, is as well. Obviously it is a matter of professionalism that you check your own facts as closely as you possibly can all the time but it is true that at certain times you might be dealing with, essentially, an overload of information. I think that is just changing times in the newspaper business. Its back is to the wall at the moment. We have seen shocking cuts and economies being made wholesale. Especially in the tributary system through the regional and local paper system, we have seen huge job losses. I think that, inevitably, the overall effect will be a poorer standard of journalism.

  Q305  Adam Price: Some of the more colourful passages in Nick Davies' book refer to the use of industrial language, I suppose, by certain leading figures in the newspaper industry: "Journalist reduced to tears under pressure to produce," but was it not ever thus? Or is this a new phenomenon?

  Mr O'Neill: I do not think there is anything new about that. It is a fairly robust work environment, where every day there is an absolute deadline otherwise the paper does not get out. You have to produce. I agree with Jeff: there is a new pressure to update internet sites and websites continually, but from my own experience at the Times, if I am on a particular story and the web are saying, "We need copy for this," I can very easily say to the guy who is running the website, "I have to research this for the paper and I haven't got time to do it," I talk to one of his online reporters—he has a dedicated team of online reporters—have a chat with him on the phone, and that can be my input for the web for that particular story. Other times, if I feel I have time, then I will certainly follow up for the internet as well. I think the pressures have always been there. I have been on the staff of national newspapers, the Daily Telegraph and then the Times, for 17 years now and we have always had a pressure. The Daily Telegraph back then was a much bigger paper. It carried an awful lot of stories. You would be writing two or three stories for the paper every day. You might do less stories now but you might do one for the paper and one for the web—one version for each.

  Q306  Adam Price: To a certain extent you are all specialists. In the news environment, are you give the time and the space to develop the specialist expertise, the contacts and the depth of knowledge that you need really to be a specialist?

  Mr O'Neill: Where Jeff and I are, we cannot do our jobs in the crime field without spending a lot of time developing contacts. You just have to look at some of the agendas over the last year to see journalism of the last year to see that people do have the time to get out there and still dig into a story. If you look at my own paper's coverage of the Eddie Gilfoyle alleged miscarriage of justice case, one of our reporters spent months and months on that. He has had plenty of time to work on that. Ian Cobain at the Guardian, in the work he has done on alleged British complicity in torture, took months and months to pursue one topic. I myself have a 3,000 word piece in the Times today which has taken weeks and weeks to do. There is time. Absolutely. If you have the right story, you will get time to do it.

  Mr Edwards: But quality journalism is expensive, frankly. It is expensive in terms of staff power. It is expensive in the literal sense: if you want to investigate something properly you have to go out and travel, you have to stay in hotels, costs mount up. There is an element in certain papers now of "pile it high and sell it cheap". Without a doubt. There is a huge budget squeeze. A ratcheting effect has gone on. This is not entirely new. It has gone on over at least a decade, I would say. I think the end product is a lower standard of product. It is interesting to note that the consistently successful newspapers, the ones which either maintain their circulation or at least manage to have a slower rate of decline than the others are those that invest heavily in journalism. There are commercial benefits to be gained from proper investigative journalism, but I am afraid that for many newspaper groups that is not an option any more. They have missed that boat or the boat sailed without them noticing. The Express Newspaper Group is a very good example, I suppose—although I do not really want to single anybody out. The truth is that is merely a shell of the organisation it once was. Newspapers are run by accountants now, not by journalists.

  Q307  Adam Price: Clarence Mitchell, who is the media adviser to Gerry McCann, painted a pretty appalling picture of almost frenzied pressure on the journalists working on that particular story to produce. One of the discussions is whether that was a one-off because of the particular circumstances, but in the last few days we have had another crime story in an overseas jurisdiction, the Fritzl case. The Sun was the first newspaper in the world, I think, to publish a photograph of the daughter. The Daily Mail then followed up by publishing the name of the village where she was living now with her family, and she has had had to move back into a psychiatric institute because the cover has been blown. It hardly makes you proud to be British. Does it make you proud to be a journalist?

  Mr Edwards: No. It is a vast topic this. When you look at the amount of trade and traffic that a newspaper like the Times or the Daily Mirror generates every day—millions of words, thousands of different topics over a period of a year, and things happen. There have always been things that have happened that I certainly did not approve of and no doubt a number of my colleagues would not have approved of. With the McCann case, which I was not directly involved in, I did not travel to Portugal—I did a little bit of work at this end, but I was only peripherally involved—I know from talking to colleagues, not just colleagues at the Daily Mirror but colleagues across the business who were out there, that there was intolerable pressure brought to bear on some of them to produce results at any cost. One of the interesting developments or one of the interesting aspects of how technology can take over is that all newspapers have websites now, and editors were coming in each morning and looking at the number of "hits" per story on the websites, and certainly the ones which were getting the greatest amount of attention were the ones they then wanted to repeat the process with again the next day. With the McCann case I know that most newspapers were in this situation. Editors were coming in the morning, having a look and saying, "There've been 10,000 hits." I have no doubt the same thing would have applied to the demise of Jade Goody over the last few days. They would come in, have a look and say, "This story is getting twice as many hits. People are twice as interested in this as anything else, thus we must have more on this story. So the editor tells one of his line managers, "We must develop more on this story," the line manager leans heavily on the reporter in Portugal and says, "We must have more on this story," and the reporter says, "There is no more. We have squeezed this dry." The line manager—and I am not talking about any particular newspaper: I am sure this is happening across the business—will be saying, "I don't care what we do, just get something"—you know: "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions." I have heard that expression many, many times in these sorts of circumstances. Essentially reporters, I know, will have been congregating in Portugal over breakfast, and saying, "What the hell are we going to do today to resolve the situation?" Thus a huge amount of recycling of information, and I have no doubt that some of what went on strayed beyond the boundaries of what was acceptable and some newspapers paid the price for that.

  Q308  Adam Price: Sometimes, of course, the problem lies not with the body of the text of a story but with the headline. To what extent, if your buyer pays for the story, do you, as journalists, get consulted in relation to the headline?

  Mr Edwards: No.

  Mr Goldacre: You do not.

  Mr O'Neill: I have had cases where we have had legal problems which have emanated from headlines and captions rather than from the body of the text. But I think it is part of the job of the reporter to be sensitive to the nature of the story. If you think there are legal issues there, you must say to the in-house lawyers and to the sub-editors who write the headlines, "Be very careful about the headline. Don't put the word `terrorist' in there" and make sure the lawyer sees the headline before the page goes to print. There are ways of avoiding it but you have to have your antennae out at all times. The other thing is that sometimes people insert mistakes into your copy while in the business of correcting your grammar or something.

  Q309  Adam Price: This must be one of the problems with some of the health scare stories that certain papers seem to major on. People will read the headline which will give an impression of whatever problems with MMR, et cetera. Maybe the body of the text is more balanced but they will just have read the headline and that is it.

  Mr Goldacre: I think that is sometimes true. "Facebook Causes Cancer" was a good example of that in the Daily Mail. I think there are a lot of problems that are possibly specific to health and science coverage. I am slightly worried about the extent to which people are keen to use overwork as an excuse in bad journalism. One of the stories I have covered, for example, the media's MMR hoax—as I believe it will come to be known, effectively—is not an example of people being hurried. It is also quite a good example of how, even though there are people in newspapers who are well trained (for example, specialist health and science correspondents who are often very good at what they do), commonly when a story becomes a big political hot potato, it is taken out of the hands of the specialists and put into the hands of journalists. In the case of MMR that was very clear. There is study from the Cardiff University School of Journalism from 2003 which shows that of all the science stories in 2002, which is when the coverage of MMR peaked, the stories about MMR were half as likely to be written about by science and health correspondents as stories about GM or cloning. I think that is very problematic because, suddenly, the people who normally would be writing about a funny thing that happened to the au pair on the way to a diner party were giving people advice about epidemiology and immunology, which is plainly never going to work. That happens time and again with stories of the kind that I cover, where you see a scare story, or a story about the supposed benefits of one particular vegetable, written not by a health or science correspondent but by a journalist who has picked up a press release.

  Q310  Adam Price: Nick Davies' speeches about churnalism are borne out, and it is driven by sales in this country, because a paper believes that there is a public interest in these kinds of stories and therefore they want them to go on the front page of the papers.

  Mr Goldacre: I recognise that you have to be realistic and that there is a difference between the work of a public health physician trying to convey good, clean, clear information to the public about the risks of different health behaviours and the desires of the newspaper to sell copies or to sell readers to advertisers, but I think the drive to sensationalism has gone to the point where people create stories that really have basically no factual content at all in the area of health.

  Q311  Alan Keen: It is coming through clearly—and people knew before we started the inquiry, but every time we have asked anybody during this inquiry, whether it is lawyers or Gerry McCann or Max Mosley, and you have said it again this morning—the standards have changed, have deteriorated, because of people getting desperate. What can we do about it? We are talking about a privacy law or not a privacy law. Are the press intruding too much or are they not? You are insiders. What would you say we should do?

  Mr Edwards: I do not have any answers. I could take you back through my career and I could sort of chart the demise of journalism. When I started my career in the late 1960s, working on very well-produced newspapers in East London, advertising was the packaging that went around the editorial content. They were editorially driven and had a large editorial staff. If you look at those same papers today—if they are not free sheets—they have almost no editorial staff whatsoever, and what editorial content there is, it is the packaging that goes around the advertising. I like to compare regional journalism, say, in this country—and this is a bit whimsical, but I am an angler—to the tributaries that feed into the main rivers. Those regional and local newspaper offices and so forth—as with radio and television, I am sure, as well—are the spawning beds of the industry. If you destroy those spawning beds, do not be surprised if the number of salmon coming through over the next few years is reduced. Ben made a good point. We laugh about it sometimes, ironically, at work. I have seen extraordinary schoolboy howlers creeping into papers I have worked for over the last few years, simply caused by just a lack of knowledge or a lack of training or a lack of experience by people on the production side. Sometimes you hear conversations that make your hair stand on end. I walked behind two sub-editors at the Daily Mirror just before I left—these are people in their thirties, you would have thought they would probably have had a good education—and one was saying to the other, "Do you know, I didn't know Japan was in the Second World War." I am serious. And I thought, "Then you shouldn't be working here." I do not really want to bring levity into this, because it is a serious matter, but the Guardian was honest enough to be the first newspaper that started a purpose-designed corrections column, and the Daily Mirror does the same thing now, and it is one of the things that you first look at in the morning to cheer you up. Things happen in there that you find completely unbelievable. But it is symptomatic of a much more serious problem.

  Mr O'Neill: I would take a slightly different perspective from Jeff in that. I have spent quite a few days recently in the Newspaper Library at Colindale, which is a fascinating place. It is not that long since newspapers had advertising all over the front page. They did not have news; advertising was very much to the fore. Also, I do not necessarily recognise "churnalism". I do not have a lot of time for Nick Davies' thesis at all. The old Telegraph in the 1950s and 1960s had about 40 or 50 stories on a page and somebody was churning that out. I am a very passionate, heated believer in the power of journalism to shine a light in dark corners and to get where people do not want stories to be told and things to be found out, and journalism today is a damn sight more professional than when I started 30 years ago, and, I think, a cleaner and more conscientious business than it was. We were chatting outside about the old days but I think people are a lot more conscientious now about how they go about it. It is just a more professional business. Frankly, we spend a lot less time in the pub than we used to.

  Q312  Paul Farrelly: I became an MP in 2001, and I was City Editor of the Observer and an investigative journalist beforehand. My coming here coincided just at the time when these collaterised debt obligations and all this fancy stuff was taking off. I had never heard of it until recent times. I cannot help thinking that the number of old hands from financial investigative journalism that I still know in the trade I could probably count on the fingers of one or maybe two hands, whereas there used to be a lot of them. I just wonder, coupled always with the implicit threat of libel, always with the implicit threat of spoiling the sources if you are in the City, whether, even 10 years ago, the press would have done a far better job of investigating the causes of the current troubles than it does now in terms of the amount of resources it is willing to put into investigative journalism.

  Mr Edwards: I agree, in a way, with what Sean just said. I think we have been "professionalised" in one sense, but it has not necessarily made us better journalists, if you see what I mean. Newspapers cannot afford, never more so than at the moment, to be cavalier about what they do. Lawyers in big newspaper groups are more active than they have ever been. The biggest struggles that I know go on in a newsroom on almost any given day are those between journalists and our in-house legal departments, because, in an ideal world, they would put a blue pencil through everything they possibly can because they are also judged on their results. If things get through the net, they are culpable. In the end, the buck stops with them. They are the people who carry the responsibility for keeping us out of the courts. Journalists are passionate in their views, or should be, about their profession, and of course they are always looking in a certain sense, with responsibility I hope, to push the envelope, to push the boundaries. Once again, it comes back to investment in the product. It strikes me the Sunday Times is not feared by the establishment in the way it used to be, for instance. You could almost rely on it, week by week, 20 years ago, to produce stories that really grabbed attention, that really brought about change, that brought important matters under public scrutiny—and not just the Sunday Times but many others. The Daily Mirror, where I worked until very recently very proudly, had a fantastic tradition for really great journalism. It had many, many extremely creditable people working for it: people like Paul Foot, John Pilger—great names—journalists who built a reputation on righting wrongs, on fighting injustice and so forth. As I said to you before, that element is no longer considered, even in a paper like the Daily Mirror, to be a commercially viable or a commercially interesting asset.

  Mr O'Neill: Your generation of financial journalists were probably the generation that did not see Maxwell coming. Maxwell got away with robbing the Mirror pensions blind.

  Q313  Paul Farrelly: Read the last transcript.

  Mr O'Neill: When they went for Maxwell, he went to the courts and he obtained injunctions against everybody. That is the situation we are in with a lot of investigative stories now . You probably see less of it because a lot more of it is being stopped in the courts by injunctions and by threats from Carter Ruck. People run to Carter Ruck as soon as you ask the question and stories get stopped.

  Q314  Chairman: That leads neatly on to this issue. We have been told that there has been a gradual shift in the balance between freedom of expression and privacy, but that in the area into which I think all three of you fall—which is exposing genuine matters of real public interest, not sensationalism—all three of you are dealing with either crime or health matters which obviously are in the public interest, there is the defence for journalists of public interest, which has been set out specifically in the Reynolds case, where there are various tests which, if you meet them, provide you with a defence. Are you satisfied that you are still able to devote the time and the resources in order that you have that defence and that it is not preventing you from righting wrongs as you do it?

  Mr O'Neill: I personally think we still get the stories and we still do the work. Where the obstacles come in—and this is particularly just in the last two or three years—is in the rise of this kind of unwritten, judge-made privacy law, and the rise of—I am sure you have heard of it—what I call "no win, no fee" but which I think is called CFA libel.

  Q315  Chairman: Indeed.

  Mr O'Neill: That scares the living daylights out of newspaper lawyers. As soon as they see Carter Ruck coming waving CFA at them, they know that by the end of the week the costs are going to be tens of thousands of pounds and going up from that in a spiral and they settle cases and run away from cases rather than fight them. I have been involved in a number of stories where, frankly, I think we could have fought cases and won them, but it would have been so expensive. Might the guy at the other end have had the money to pay our costs? Probably not. The judgment is made that we will wait for a bigger one, but we have to stand our ground at some point. It is difficult to give examples of this but I have been involved in a couple of cases involving terrorism stories, where people have gone to Carter Ruck and sued. I hope I am privileged in here, but ... .

  Q316  Chairman: You are.

  Mr O'Neill: Jolly good. I am fairly sure that in two cases that I am aware of some of the money that was paid in damages to one individual was then later used for bail surety for a man on a very serious terrorist charge, and I am pretty damn sure that money was used to bribe officials in Pakistan to set free a very serious terrorist prisoner. On the other business of privacy law, I can give you an example of a story I was working on with a couple of colleagues a couple of years ago. A fairly senior lawyer, who back in the 1980s was a student animal rights extremist, now works for, advises and represents the Metropolitan Police and police forces up and down the country. His previous animal rights activity is well-documented back in the early 1980s. We were going to do "Look where he's gone now" as a matter of public interest but as soon as we put the questions to him, we called him up and informed him of what we were doing and here are the questions, he gave answers—he basically admitted everything—within an hour we had Carter Ruck on the phone threatening, "This is breaching his privacy. We'll get an injunction" blah, blah, blah, and we ended up having to pull back and look at that another day. We run into that sort of thing all the time.

  Q317  Chairman: But you believed that that story was in the public interest and that is a defence against any attempt to obtain an injunction.

  Mr O'Neill: I believed it was in the public interest. If I am right in remembering, I think my lawyer said, "We think we would win on public interest, but this privacy law is so uncertain, we don't know where we are going, and is this the one on which we want to make our stand?"

  Mr Goldacre: I think one problem is the time and money required to deal with the problems you could pick off is so enormous that it is a very big risk. I get the sense that people often exploit the fact that they know it will be a lot of time and money for you in order to make quite trivial objections to your own stories.

  Mr O'Neill: It is blackmail.

  Mr Goldacre: Yes, but it is a test really of how much you want to cover a story. In some cases it can make you more dogged, because you think, "Right, there's obviously something worth covering here" and, also, just out of bloody mindedness, "I'm going to pursue this because I feel offended that you are trying to bully me." But I think in a lot of cases, if it is a 50:50 thing and you are not that bothered, then people will often drop things just because the nominal cost is too much.

  Mr O'Neill: We had a similar one at the Times recently, with Mohamed Ali Harrath, a Tunisian who is on an Interpol red notice. He is a wanted man in Tunisia but not anywhere else and he is an adviser to the Metropolitan Police on Islamic affairs in this country. When we first approached him it was as a side issue on another story, and, once again, we got Carter Ruck down like a ton of bricks "How dare you harass our client." He abused the reporter and he called him "a Zionist, an Islamaphobe." He was more abusive and we were terribly polite, as always. In the end, I thought, "This is just not worth it." But we had a young Australian reporter who came in recently, and he spent three months nailing that one down and got it into the paper. But it took a hell of a long time and an awful long time spent with the lawyers, and basically not to deviate very far from the point at which we started.

  Q318  Mr Hall: I want to explore with you the relationship between journalists and the PCC. Before I do that, you said that we have unwritten, judge-made privacy laws. Would you like the Government to clarify the position on privacy laws in primary legislation?

  Mr O'Neill: I think that once we start getting ministers and judges and lawyers editing newspapers, we are heading towards Portugal.

  Q319  Mr Hall: I take that as a no, then.

  Mr O'Neill: Absolutely.

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