Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
24 MARCH 2009
Q320 Mr Hall: You are quite happy
to put up with the situation as it is.
Mr O'Neill: In my situation the
PCC Code is part of my contract of employment. It is a very serious
matter for me. I cannot mess about with that. I cannot say, "I'm
not going to stick by that." It is in my contract. If I breach
that, I can lose my job. I think we are all pretty aware these
days, especially on crime stories, that you are dealing with very
sensitive areas. You are approaching people who have been bereaved;
you are dealing with ongoing criminal investigations. You have
to be very careful. I personally take that Code very seriously.
Q321 Mr Hall: The National Union
of Journalists has campaigned for a "conscience" clause
in the PCC Code to allow journalists to say to their editors,
"I'm sorry, I don't like this story, I don't want to cover
it." Do you think that should be in the code?
Mr Edwards: It is very difficult
to apply. In my situation I had sufficient seniorityand
I have used this many times over the yearsto go to the
editor, if I knew in advance what we were doing, and say, "I
think we're wrong to do this. I think we are barking up the wrong
tree. I think this is dangerous." I have worked for 26 different
editors in a 25-year career on national newspapers. The turnover
was very rapid. Different editors. Different personalities. Some
were good listeners and would take good advice; others did not
want to know at all. I think senior journalists do have that facility.
I have no doubt that senior political journalists regularly brief
their editors and say "I think we should be doing this"or
"I think we should not be doing this" is just as important.
But, of course, the majority of the staff of any newspaper are
not in that privileged position. It would be deemed to be quite
impertinent for most of the people I can think of to go the editor
of the paper and say, "I'm not doing this, boss, because
I simply do not agree with it" on moral or ethical grounds
or whatever. You would probably be quietly eased out of the organisation,
is the effect. It would be impossible, I think, to police it.
Q322 Mr Hall: We have heard reference
to the MMR story, which you are calling the "media hoax".
A journalist goes along to his editor and says, "This is
completely wrong. We are going to end up in seven years time with
an endemic of measles, the research side of this story is complete
garbage and we should not be doing it." Would that work?
Mr Goldacre: I think that did
happen in a lot of newspapers. There were a lot of people who
spoke sense to power but were ignored. I think there is a problem
in that health and science coverage have unique problems, in that
people at the top of news organisations tend to be humanities
graduates who do not understand the basics of evidence-based practice
but, also, there is a desire for certainty about either risks
or benefits that medical research simply cannot offer. Certainly
in relation to MMR I have been told a lot of stories about this
stuff. Also with the silly science stories. There was one where
the headline in the Sun was "All men will have big
willies". It was a classic example of churnalism. It was
a promotional piece for a TV channel but it was presented as if
it was an important breakthrough within the science of our understanding
of evolution. This was reported as a serious story in all national
newspapers. I have been told by people who were in newsrooms on
that day that they said, "Look, please do not make me write
this story, it's ridiculous." News editors and other senior
people in the paper made it very clear that this would be bad
for their career. That is a trivial example, but I think it speaks
to a larger problem. Journalists often talk about "writing
for the spike," which is where you are forced to write a
story, and so you do write it, but you write it with as many caveats
as possible so that it is effectively unpublishable. I suppose
it is that dirty protest that is the closest you can get realistically.
Q323 Mr Hall: How effective is the
PCC's Code of Practice, if you are not going to sign up for a
conscience clause? Sean, you have already answered this question.
What is your view, Jeff?
Mr Edwards: I think the PCC is
taken very seriously. I know from the last few years working at
the Daily Mirror that I frequently heard and was part of
debates where the question of whether we would we be leaving ourselves
vulnerable to that kind of complaint was taken. I was quite pleased,
in the sense that I think it was necessary to form a body like
the PCC. And of course initially people said, "It does not
have a great deal of bite" but I suspect that the longer
it has gone on the more seriously it has been taken. I really
think that is probably about as good as it can get.
Q324 Mr Hall: What is your experience
of the complaints procedure? You might want to invoke the Fifth
Mr Edwards: Not at all.
Q325 Mr Hall You have been very candid
Mr Edwards: I will be honest with
you, in my entire career I have never been the subject of a PCC
complaint. I have only been the subject of one libel, which was
on my first week on the News of the World, and, interestingly,
bearing in mind something else we were just debating, it was not
about the text of the story. My copy was not libellous but the
headline was. We lost that, I think. Again I make this delineation:
amongst senior journalists who are given responsibility and expected
to show responsibility and expected to understand their profession
fully there is a great deal of discretion and a lot of integrity
and a lot of commonsense application. Your knowledge of the rules
should keep you out of trouble anyway. Instinctively, your experience,
your knowledge, your learning and a number of factors should be
able to tell you: "If I write that we are likely to run aground.
We are going into tricky conditions here." In my particular
field, many, many times, I have adjusted my approach to a story
out of deference to victims of a crime or to recognise that you
need to show some sensitivity. I have sometimes been critical
of colleagues who have written things. We have had debates afterwards
and I have said, "If I had been writing that story, I would
not have pitched it that way. I would not have said that. You
could cause a lot of damage unnecessarily. How does it enhance
the story? What would we lose by it if we had not included that?"
No saint am I, but I have accrued a lot of experience and I think
that is invaluable in keeping you out of trouble.
Mr O'Neill: I have two outstanding
PCC complaints at the moment. They are both being taken very seriously
by our Readers' Editor. One is from Terry Adams and the other
is from Kenny Noye both with links to organised crime, and I have
to answer those in full when they come in. On the conscience clause,
I think a conscience clause would turn into a bit of a shirker's
charter. I was born and bred in Northern Ireland and I spent a
lot of time reporting on The Troubles. It is my job in something
like that, no matter what I think and feel personally about a
matter, to report that impartially. There is a paper in Northern
Ireland called the Impartial Reporter. I think a reporter
has to be impartial. You report what you see in front of your
eyes. It is not about what you think when you are a reporter;
it is about what you see and what you hear and what occurs. You
have to report that fairly and frankly and openly. I think if
you have a problem with an issue, if you have a problem with a
news editor suggesting you go and do something, I think Jeff is
right this is where experience comes in. If you are an experienced
reporter, you can tell your news editors to hang back a little:
"We do not want to do that. It is a bad idea."
Q326 Helen Southworth: You have been
very clear about the importance and significance of the PCC code
of practice, all three of you. How universal is that? Is it automatic
for any journalist that the code of practice would be part of
a contract, for example?
Mr O'Neill: I do not know if it
is universal across the industry. I think it is in News International.
When we had the previous body, the Press Council, before the current
Commission, I think it was taken less seriously. I think that
for the last five, six, seven years it has been regarded much
more seriously, because all newspapers, like Jeff says, want to
stay out of the courts. Nobody wants to get to the courts. If
there is a system of self-regulation and it can be seen to be
working, then everybody in the industry takes it seriously. We
have to. I think that has become much more the norm and much more
Mr Edwards: Certainly in the last
eight or nine years at the Mirror, however long the PCC
has been running, it was made very clear that we were going to
comply, we were going to clean up our act. I think that may well
have been said in other newspaper offices as well. Unfortunately
what happens is that sometimes a set of circumstances may be so
irresistible that people conveniently push aside that commitment.
They become overexcited. I suspect that if you look at the McCann
saga it is probably a good example of that, whereby if you had
shown various editors the year before a play written around those
circumstances, they would have all read it and said this is jolly
interesting but we would never allow it to happen. It is a peculiar
psychology. I do not know what gets into people but that is an
ideal example of it. It is a paradox. On the one side I know I
have had many, many conversations, as I have said, where we have
talked about the risks, about the morality of a particular story
or whatever, and said, "Listen, we want to stay the right
side of the line. We have a commitment to abide by the rules."
Then you will see a certain set of circumstances where it is almost
as if, I do not know, people suddenly act out of themselves for
a limited period over a particular story. I do not knowyou
know, in a world that is driven by extreme competition never so
more now than it iswhat you do about that.
Q327 Helen Southworth: I want to
follow up about the drivers and whether these drivers have changed.
We have been touching on it in your answer, Jeff. The mass media
communication world has changed so rapidly in the last 10 years.
You do not have to travel across the world to find out what parts
of the world are saying. Some of those media are completely outwith
the journalists' body of experience and knowledge and skills in
print media and broadcasting previously. What kind of impact do
you think that is having currently? Is that something that the
PCC needs to give a focus on, putting something into the public
domain, for example? It has shifted really radically in the last
Mr O'Neill: In a way we are the
responsible end of the business. What they call "citizen
journalism," out there on the blogosphere and forums and
rumour sites, nobody is controlling any of that. The stories are
still out there about the McCann family and that case. It is circulating
madly. The internet feeding frenzy that goes on is completely
beyond regulation. Nobody has any control over any of that. I
think that is really quite worrying. I am not saying you people,
but if you look at the courts, judges make contempt of court orders:
"You must not report this" and "Nobody must know
anything about this" and when jurors get home they Google
the name of the defendant and find out everything they need to
know. Not necessarily from responsible media but from all kinds
of sites. It is getting to a world where you can regulate the
press and you can talk about privacy laws and libel and all the
rest of it. Who is going to sue truecrimeblogger.com while he
peddles loads of nonsense that cannot be checked or verified and
all the rest of it?
Mr Edwards: Sean is right in that
respect. I have said that mainstream newspapers are almost being
pushed to the fringe of the media world and, as you say, we can
only self-police ourselves internally as the world pertains to
us. There is an incredible mass media world and, as Sean said,
there is citizen journalism now; it seems that the internet is
entirely unrestrained, there are no legal restraints on it and
you can write what you like almost about anyone providing that
you are shielded in some wayoutside the UK jurisdiction
or whatever. I do not know what you do about that. I was fascinated,
I watched an episode of a police series called Traffic Cops
the other night and the police officers had to arrest two very
violent men inside a supermarket. By the time they got them under
control the camera was facing towards the front glass of the supermarket
and you could see about 10 people with mobile phones videoing
this arrest. I thought it was quite interesting that after the
prisoners were put into a van and taken away to the police station
the reporter said to the PC "That was a difficult bit of
business" and he said "Yes, because we had to behave
extremely well in these circumstances because you saw all those
people who were videoing what was going on. That won't be the
first time that our relief has been on YouTube." There is
good and bad in that; it actually acts as a restraining factor
and also acts as a restraining factor on journalists sometimes,
in some circumstances, you never know, because we are all subject
to more scrutiny in more circumstances which you might not expect
because there is so much more media out there.
Mr Goldacre: I actually disagree.
There is certainly a lot of idle tittle-tattle on the web which
is much like conversations in pubs, and that could be policed
very simply if our libel system was not so all or nothing; if
there was the equivalent of a small claims court then it would
be fairly straightforward. More importantly, there are many, many
stories in the area of health and science where the coverage on
the internet is infinitely better, more accurate and more relevant
than the coverage in national newspapers; that is something to
be very optimistic about and something to actively encourage.
It is not just blogs, it is not just of random people, it is academics
who write about their own work, who write about their colleagues'
work, it is medical research charities, it is the NHS evidence
site which gets through many visitors a week, and actually as
the quality of newspaper coverage deteriorates alternative sources
are improving in quality and it has a two-sided effect. On the
one hand they are producing better coverage and on the other hand,
as you say, they are pointing out the flaws in mainstream media
coverage. That is very powerful and something to be very enthusiastic
Q328 Paul Farrelly: I tend to agree
that a conscience clause would be unworkable, and I can imagine
the conversation afterwards with most editors, that if you want
to continue working for this paper, son, before you get up tomorrow
and leave the house you had better leave your morals at home.
Mr Edwards: Absolutely.
Q329 Paul Farrelly: I was interested
to hear what you say about the seriousness with which the PCC
is allegedly taken because I know the sort of people who comment
in the press, but actually if somebody threatens to take you to
the PCC over a controversial story there is almost a palpable
sigh of relief because people have not got the confidence or the
wherewithal or the bottle to sue, and unless you threaten to sue
it will not change a newspaper's behaviour or they will not take
it seriously, you are not a threat. Therefore the PCC in many
respects is laughed off as a bit of a
Mr O'Neill: I can only speak from
personal experience. If I get a PCC complaint then in no uncertain
terms I have got to go through the anatomy of the story: where
it started, what I did, who I speak to and where the information
came from. With some stories it is quite difficult to reveal or
hint at where the source of information about a particular person
came from. That is increasingly the case so I disagree with you
Mr Goldacre: I have had several
PCC complaints and I have taken them extremely seriously. Often
they have been on things which I have regarded as quite trivial
and I am very happy to spend the time. The fact that it costs
you a lot of the time is one of the main reasons for people going
to the PCC because they know it is a way of effectively punishing
you for writing about them.
Mr Edwards: I would agree with
my colleagues here. As I stated before, I was pleased, certainly
in the last few years at the Mirror that the presence of
the PCC was taken seriously. Earlier I said that I have never
been subject to a complaint; Sean has just reminded me and funnily
enough I think the only complaint I recently received was from
a multiple rapist who said that I had said that he was the worst
rapist in the prison system; it turned out that there was somebody
else with one more conviction so it was not true. He received
a letter back from our Legal Department wishing him a nice day
in prison and to stop bothering us. It is quite interesting actually;
a lot of complaints that go into that body are actually from people
who do it in anger, they often do not understand what is right
and what is wrong. Lots of people who find themselves on the wrong
end of publicity, quite justifiably, immediately lash out. People
are always talking about suing newspapers but they go and see
solicitors and it is not a question of the expense when they are
told in no uncertain terms that actually the newspaper story appears
to be fair and accurate. It is the same thing with the PCC, that
people tend to make threats or make a lot of fuss and write letters
to the PCC when in fact there is no case to answer. Certainly
it was instilled in everyoneI have never worked for any
newspaper at all where wilful inaccuracy, wilful going out to
get somebody, was encouraged or tolerated or ever wanted. Quite
often complaints go to the PCC because it is a mistake rather
than a deliberate piece of mischief that brings about that situation.
As I said before, when you look at the enormous amount of traffic
that one copy of the Guardian generatesI do not
know how many words go into one issue of the Guardian or
one issue of The Times every day but the accuracy rate
contained therein is astonishingly high when you consider all
those words. It is a good thing also that you will hear a lot
of people talk about being maligned in the papers and what they
actually mean is it is a difference of opinion about something
rather than a difference of facts. I spend a lot of time with
police officers and we hear regularly of miscarriages of justicewe
saw one last week where a man convicted of murder was released
after 27 years when his conviction was believed to be unsafe.
I do not know any police officers who take pleasure in convicting
and putting in prison the wrong person for a crime, and I do not
know any journalists who take any pleasure in deliberately distorting
facts or maligning people who do not deserve to be in that situation.
Mr O'Neill: If I can come back
on that, you are right that the PCC is maybe not taken as seriously
as being sued in the libel courts and I am sure that in a case
where somebody thinks they have a strong case for libel they will
go to the libel courts. What is happening now though with CFAs
is that you are being threatened with libel actions over things
that really at the end you just know actually I am right here,
but the lawyers are saying "We have got to settle this one,
we cannot afford to fight this one". That is distorting journalism
and it is a distortion of justice.
Q330 Philip Davies: I am interested
about this sort of chilling effect that seems to be taking place.
Has the balance shifted? It seems to me as a layman that perhaps
15 years ago the common view would have been do not bother taking
on the News of the World or The Sunday Times because
they have got such deep pockets you may be asking for a bankruptcy,
just do not bother. It seems that that has now changed and it
is now the newspapers who are saying we cannot afford to risk
taking this to court and the balance of power has shifted; is
Mr O'Neill: The cases would go
to court if the fee structure was in any way fair. I am no lawyer
and I do not really understand it, I just have lawyers saying
"Look, we cannot afford this" and because of this CFA
thing the costs start like that and then they go like that.
Q331 Philip Davies: Is it simply
Mr O'Neill: It is also predatory
lawyers. Carter Ruck, if you see their newsletter, they boast
about running around the country, reading through the newspapers,
picking people and approaching them and saying "We can get
you some money here". It is ambulance-chasing and that is
really going on extraordinarily in some areas, especially if you
write anything to do with Islamic extremism or suggesting someone
is an extremist or a fundamentalist or anything like that. You
can bet your bottom dollar Carter Ruck will be on it within days.
Because of that it is a chilling effect, absolutely, but we do
go around and we cross the I's and we dot the T's and we check
again and again and again.
Q332 Philip Davies: My starting point
is that a free press is essential in a democracy and that we rely
on the press and the media to expose and challenge wrongdoing
in authority; I would hate to see a privacy law because it is
an essential part of our democracy. If this is happening, from
your perspective what is the solution that would allow you to
expose this wrongdoing without worrying about being sued or being
prevented from publishing wrongdoing? Is it simply abolishing
CFAs or does it need something more than that?
Mr O'Neill: Ben just talked about
this idea of more of a small claims court for libel so that libel
does not become this extraordinary, hugely expensive thing.
Mr Goldacre: I was recently sued
by a vitamin consultant who was selling vitamin pills in South
Africataking out full page adverts in national newspapers
saying anti-AIDS drugs will kill you, it is a conspiracy by the
pharmaceutical industry, vitamin pills are the answer to the AIDS
problem. This was obviously very irresponsible and it was fairly
cut-and-dried to my mind where the evidence stood on whether vitamin
pills or anti-AIDS drugs were better for treating AIDS, but this
was such an enormously long drawn-out process that eventually
by the time he pulled out our costs were half a million pounds.
I had watched the process accumulate with unending meetings with
huge numbers of very professional and very highly-paid people
and I found myself amazed at the huge amount of time and effort
that was being expended on looking at what seemed to be something
that could be resolved in an afternoon.
Q333 Philip Davies: Are there individuals
that you would shy away from, that because you know that they
will threaten legal action through Carter Ruck or whoever it might
be, have we got to a situation where there are now individuals
whom you consider to be untouchable because you know you cannot
take them on or your newspaper would not be prepared to take them
Mr O'Neill: I am not sure there
are any number of Maxwells, that was the classic case.
Mr Edwards: We are in a position
of privilege here, that is understood. Certainly the Daily
Mirror fought shy of anything that might be perceived to be
critical of Roman Abramovich recently. I actually had a story
myself which was not critical, it would not have been in any way
libellous, it simply talked about some security arrangements,
some extravagant and interesting security arrangements that he
was making concerning his fleet of luxury yachts, and we did not
run the story at the time because the edict was can we absolutely
back this story up? I know what it wasI knew it was absolutely
true but his organisation denied it, because he is a very private
person and he considered it apparently to be some commentary about
some aspect of his private life. The message came back we do not
mess with Abramovich, he is too powerful, he is too litigious,
if in doubtthere was no doubt in my mind, I said "Orders
have been placed for this equipment, I can tell you with which
organisation" but they ran away from the story and I accepted
that that is the world we live in now, sometimes you cannot do
anything about that.
Q334 Philip Davies: It is quite serious
if people for whom it is important to have scrutiny and be challenged,
simply because of the legal
Mr O'Neill: It has always been
that way, it has always been the rich and powerful who have been
able to go to the libel courts and silence the newspapers.
Q335 Philip Davies: When Max Mosley
gave evidence to the Committee I actually was not here but one
of the most convincing things that he was complaining about was
the issue of prior notification. He felt it was absolutely right
that if a newspaper was going to print something about them the
following day they should be notified prior to that. In his particular
case that did not happen, presumably because the paper concerned
would be pretty sure that an injunction would be taken out and
that they may not be able to run the story, so presumably prior
notification was not given in that case in order to prevent an
injunction. Would you support a system where you had to give prior
notification to somebody if you were going to print an unflattering
story about them?
Mr O'Neill: No. The normal course
of action when you are doing a story with most people is that
you will ring themit is not really prior notification,
you are saying this is the allegation we are about to make or
the story we are about to tell, we know it is true, what is your
response, what is your comment, what have you got to say? There
are other stories where, again, like the Maxwell situation, people
will injunct you, where you have High Court judges basically censoring
stories. Maxwell was protected for years by the courts and the
people who lost out were the Mirror pensioners whom he
robbed blind for years because he was not properly exposed. The
other situation, slightly hypothetical, is imagine you were writing
a story about someone who has committed a criminal act or is a
fraudster or something, you are one step ahead of the policewhich
sometimes happens. You do not want to flag that up to that person
to allow them either to start shredding documents or escape the
country or something like that, you want them to get the story
out, you want to get the authorities informed but you do not want
to have to give the game away.
Q336 Philip Davies: But I think the
argument would go that surely it is better in terms of an injunction
that an independent judge decides whether or not something is
in the public interest rather than the editor of the newspaper
making that decision that it is in the public interest and I do
not know care what anyone else thinks. That is how the argument
goes but what would you say to that?
Mr Edwards: First of all, how
do you apply prior notification because especially in the case
of very wealthy, very important people, they can avoid prior notification
if you like because very frequently if I wanted to speak to Roman
Abramovich I could not, it would be easier probably to get an
audience with the Pope, as they say, than speaking to somebody
like that because they are constantly on the move, they are shielded
by layer upon layer of security and public relations and all sorts
of peopleechelon strength. If you are the editor of the
News of the World, it is Friday evening and you say "Right,
now it is time to tell Roman Abramovich what we are about to do",
you speak to your first line of contact which is maybe a public
relations agency or whatever working on his behalf and they say,
"Sorry, we cannot get hold of Mr Abramovich, we have no idea
where he is in the world; he has 16 homes, eight aeroplanes and
nine yachts and we do not know where he is." Have you fulfilled
your obligation to try and contact him or have you not, and do
you then say we cannot publish the story until we can speak to
him directly, because that situation could run on endlessly? What
criteria do you apply that says we have actually attempted to
do our best to contact this individual to give him prior notification?
Important people, as we said, will always find ways to make themselves
unavailable, so that is a difficulty that I can see straightaway.
Chairman: We are going to have to stop
very, very shortly. Paul.
Q337 Paul Farrelly: Just on the chilling
thing I am sure the News of the World might argue that
actually we published a dummy edition in time-honoured fashion,
not because of the threats of injunctions, to be sure of our story,
but because we did not want the Sunday Mirror getting in
on the story.
Mr O'Neill: Quite right.
Q338 Paul Farrelly: We have recently
just had an example where a newspaper was very sure of its story
because it verified the documentsthe Guardianwhere
Barclays found a judge at two o'clock in the morning who could
not order the paper to be pulped because it had gone out at that
stage but ordered the removal of the documents from its website
for breach of confidentiality. Ben, very briefly in the time that
the Chairman has allowed us, could you just explain, when you
are running health stories how do the people who are peddling
these wares approach you and the Guardian to try and stop
you writing what they consider to be bad things about their reputations?
How do they tie you down?
Mr Goldacre: Legal threats generally;
obfuscation, so unsatisfactory defences which take a lot of time
and effort to unravel but more commonly legal threats which have
never come to anythingwell, they have come to 15 months
of weekly meetings and harassment but nothing more than that.
Q339 Paul Farrelly: Finally, do you
find that in these circumstances it is not really about the money
they want, it is about the chilling effect and also causing you
and the newspaper so much aggro that you are more likely to give
up and leave it alone?
Mr Goldacre: Yes, because the
motivation is to bully you and that can have very different effects.
With me in a lot of cases it has made me much dogged about pursuing
a story but on a much bigger scale there are points where it goes
beyond what a newspaper can actually administratively handle,
and at that point people become untouchable.
Chairman: We need to move on to our next
session. Can I thank all three of you very much.