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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 320-339)


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 seniority—and I have used this many times over the years—to 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 Amendment.

  Mr Edwards: Not at all.

  Q325  Mr Hall You have been very candid with us.

  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 the standard.

  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 know—you know, in a world that is driven by extreme competition never so more now than it is—what 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 10 years.

  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 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 way—outside 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 about.

  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 Paul.

  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 everyone—I 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 generates—I 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 justice—we 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 that right?

  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 CFA?

  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 Africa—taking 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 on?

  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 was—I 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 doubt—there 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 them—it 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 police—which 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 people—echelon 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 documents—the Guardian—where 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 anything—well, 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.

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