Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
24 MARCH 2009
Q360 Chairman: Is there not a case
therefore that the same case could be put for the Code Committee?
Sir Christopher Meyer: You can
make the case, it is not a disreputable argument or anything like
that. I certainly thought it necessary to increase the credibility
and the independence, perceived and real, of the PCC, but I thought
the most important thing to do was in the Commission itself, on
the board of commissioners itself, which is why we increased the
lay majority and we now publicly advertise for lay members. That
has been a great success. It is also the reason why we created
the job of a charter commissioner and the charter compliance panel;
their reports are produced every year and you have probably seen
them. Tim and I have absolutely no influence over the way in which
they are drafted and published. If you take the balance we have
got to have an editorial voice in the system, but what you must
not have is editors ruling on editors, journalists ruling on journalists.
We do not have that because we have a lay majority where it matters,
which is where the decisions are taken.
Q361 Chairman: Can I just put to
you one other criticism which I think you are familiar with. When
you were first appointed and you appeared before the predecessor
committee to this one you were asked about corrections and adjudications
and you said that they should be at least as prominent as the
original otherwise it would be ridiculous. I do not think anybody
would say that corrections and adjudications are being given equal
prominence to the original stories; do you not feel that that
is something which could be improved?
Sir Christopher Meyer: It should
have been improved and it has been improved. I am pleased to report
to this Committee that last yearand Tim will correct me
if I get this wrong85% of all apologies and corrections
either appeared on the same page as the original sin or on a page
ahead of the original sin. In 2004 the figure was somewhere around
60% so there has been significant improvement. Room for more improvement:
always, yes. We have to be a little bit careful about making a
precise arithmetic or geometric connection between something that
has gone wrong and the necessary correction. You have to make
a judgment on how much of the article was wrong, was it one sentence
in a long piece, was it the whole thing, what was the burden of
the inaccuracy or the fact for which there needed to be an apology?
The real phrase is due prominence.
Q362 Chairman: To what extent do
you as the PCC, once you have reached an adjudication, have any
ability to influence the decision of the newspaper as to the size
in which that is given or the position in the paper in which it
Sir Christopher Meyer: We do,
and that is another thing that has changed. We were quite passive
on that before but now we take a violent objection to adjudications
or apologies which, without reference to us, suddenly pop up on
page 33. In fact we have had two cases recently where we have
gone back to the publications and said you have not published
this in the proper way, including sufficiently prominently, and
we censure you again; this time make damn sure you publish this
in the right place. We have done this recently with a regional
newspaper and with a magazine.
Q363 Paul Farrelly: Sir Christopher,
could you tell the Committee why the editor of the Daily Express
Peter Hill left the PCC board?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I said
in an interview with journalists at the time of the publication
of our 2007 report that there was a combination of reasons. There
was the fact that Mr Desmond, because he was not paying his fee
to the NPA was not paying his fee to the self-regulatory system,
then there was the affair of the McCanns and then there was the
fact that Peter Hill had been on the Commission since 2003 and
was due to go. There was a mixture of things there.
Q364 Paul Farrelly: My understanding
from within the industry is that during the McCann coverage many
editors felt the position of Mr Hill on the board was untenable
and in effect revolted. Peter Hill offered his resignation but
Richard Desmond refused in the circumstances to allow him to carry
it out, is that correct?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I would
not know; you need to ask Mr Desmond that. I do not know if you
are inviting him to appear before you or even Peter Hill, if you
are inviting him to appear before you. Mr Farrelly, you will have
to ask them.
Q365 Paul Farrelly: Is it correct
that he offered to resign but then rescinded that offer?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I was under
the impression that he did realise that he needed to resign after
the announcement on 19 March of the judgment, and I certainly
had the impression that he was going to do that, but that was
an impression that was not confirmed by life.
Q366 Paul Farrelly: Events. The answer
Sir Christopher Meyer: Probably,
yes. I think he was going to resign.
Q367 Paul Farrelly: Yes definitely
or yes probably.
Sir Christopher Meyer: It has
to be yes probably because I am not inside his brain. I was certainly
under the impression immediately after 19 March that he was going
to resign from the Commission, but he did not.
Q368 Paul Farrelly: I just want to
explore the position of the Express further but first of
all, in retrospect, you are about to leave the PCC after long
and distinguished service. On reflection do you think that the
PCC could or should have acted in the McCann case better to restrain
Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not
see how we could and the people out there who say that the McCann
case is a failure of self-regulation, I believe this to be absolutely
false and without substance, and I will tell you why. As soon
as we heard about the disappearance of Madeleine McCannand
I am sure you have got all this in your papers but I will repeat
it for the recordwe got on to the British Embassy in Lisbon
and said "Will you please tell the McCanns and their representatives
that we stand ready to help in any way we can, this is what we
can do." We maintained contact with their press representatives
Q369 Paul Farrelly: You will be aware
that Mr McCann told us that that message was not received.
Sir Christopher Meyer: He told
me it was not received as well, because I then saw him on 13 July
2007he happened to come round to my house to see my wife
who runs a charity that specialises in missing and abducted childrenand
I took the opportunity to say to Gerry McCann, "Look, this
is what we can do, here is the brochure that explains in detail
how you can complain and the different ways in which you can make
a complaint." At that time he told me he had never got the
message from the embassy. Whether that means the message was never
conveyed to the McCann party, if you like, or whether he, Gerry,
did not know that their press person at the time had got the message,
I do not know and I have never been able to establish. We continued
to keep in touch. At the time his press representative was a woman
called Justine McGuiness and we kept in touch with her, then his
press arrangements changed and I saw him again on 29 February
last year. By that time he had taken the decision to sue Express
Newspapers and I said to him, "If it is damages you are after,
that is what you should do, but we remain ready to help",
and we have been able as you know to help on the separate issue
of protecting his children and family, as I said. With the benefit
of hindsight what we would have needed to have acted earlier is
for the McCanns to have come to us and said this or that or whatever
is wrong, but we cannot be more royalist than the king, we cannot
take action unless in those particular circumstances the first
parties come to us and say something is going wrong. The most
we can do in those circumstances is to say "We are here;
this is what we can do" and we can explain it several times
over. But if the first parties themselves do not want to take
action with us then there is not a lot we can do because in the
end what it boiled down toand I take my cue here from the
court casewas, was what the British press was reporting
accurate or inaccurate, was it right or was it wrong? Sitting
in London I had no way of judging whether what was coming out
from the Portuguese authorities, going into the Portuguese press,
being regurgitated by the British press was right or wrong. Unless
the first party comes to you and says we have grounds for complaint
there is no way in which we can intervene.
Q370 Paul Farrelly: In your evidence
you said to us it would have been impertinence by the PCC to have
got involved sooner and contacted the McCanns directly. We put
that to Gerry McCann and he told us he would not have felt that
an impertinence, yet you contacted the embassy but you did not
contact them directly.
Sir Christopher Meyer: You start
off by contacting the embassy because you do not know how to get
through to them. In the very beginning, in the first two days,
yes, that was what we did. For example, if you had a similar case
in the UK, say a horrible crime where the victim's family find
themselves the attention of a media scrum, one of the first things
we would do is get on to the family liaison officers at the local
police force who already ought to know the drill and say "The
family does not want to talk to the press, they want to keep them
away." The family liaison officer will then act on our behalf,
that is one way in which we do it. We did not have any phone numbers
in Praia da Luz but we knew that the British Embassy had sent
somebody down there from the consular section of the embassy to
keep an eye on the McCanns, so you ring the embassy and say "While
you are down there make sure that they know that this service
is available." In due course we made direct contact with
Justine McGuiness and I personally had a meeting with Gerry McCann
as I said on 13 July. In all honesty, Mr Farrelly, I do not see
what else in those circumstances we could do. The truth or otherwise
of what was written by the press at the time, or at least by the
Express at the time, in the end had to be tested in the
courts because the advice that Gerry McCann got was that this
is defamation, this is libel. By definition the Press Complaints
Commission does not do defamation, does not do libel.
Q371 Paul Farrelly: A lot of people
reading the evidence that you have given might find that rather
weak, Sir Christopher.
Sir Christopher Meyer: I am sorry,
I must come back at you. Why weak? We do not apply the law Mr
Q372 Paul Farrelly: Let me just move
Sir Christopher Meyer: No, you
just said something very significant.
Q373 Paul Farrelly: What is your
view then on the suggestions that actually the PCC's operations
might be improved if it were more proactive and also acted on
references from third parties?
Sir Christopher Meyer: We are
extraordinarily proactive, it is one of the great growth areas
over the last few years. We have just of our own volition, to
give you the latest exampleyou may remember the case of
Alfie Patten, a 13-year-old boy living down in Sussex who may
or may not have fathered a child with a 15 or 16-year-old girl.
We have not received any complaint about those stories but we
are now investigating the matter and at the next meeting of the
Commission the Commission will take a view on whether there has
been a breach of the Code or not. We do this all the time but
we must have grounds for so doing. Where a lot of our critics
go wrong is that they expect us to apply the law, they expect
us to be either instruments of the state or to have legal powers
in areas which are reserved for the courts and for the judges.
Proactivewhat does it actually mean in the case of the
McCanns, what does it mean in real terms beyond making sure they
know what their rights are under the Code of Practice.
Q374 Paul Farrelly: Can you just
clarify how the PCC acted in the instance of the story about Prince
Philip in the Standard; did the PCC act after receiving
a formal complaint from the palace?
Mr Toulmin: Yes, through his lawyer
Q375 Paul Farrelly: The PCC did not
proactively offer its services before that.
Mr Toulmin: No. It is well-known
that the Royal Family knows how to use the PCC; Prince Philip
instructed Harbottle and Lewis and they complained on his behalf.
Q376 Paul Farrelly: In the McCann
case has the PCC censured the Express?
Mr Toulmin: We did not have a
complaint about the Express.
Sir Christopher Meyer: There are
two different jurisdictions here. We cannot censure them unless
there is a case before us; there was not a case before us. The
McCanns took a deliberate decision not to come to us except on
the question of protecting their children, because they had been
persuaded by lawyersI am not going to quarrel with their
decisionthat they had been defamed and they had a case
at law. They chose to go down that path.
Q377 Paul Farrelly: On what complaint
was any censure made in the McCann case? Has the PCC issued any
censure at all?
Mr Toulmin: The extent to which
the PCC was used by the McCanns related to pre-publication work,
harassment and so on where the remedy if you like was the minimising
or indeed the cessation of the physical activity. That was the
bit that they came to us over. No investigation was necessary
because it was about the whole pre-publication area. They did
not complain to us about the subject-matter of the articles and
they went to court instead, as do some people every year. We do
not ambulance-chase libel cases and then go after them.
Q378 Paul Farrelly: In conclusion,
as an industry self-regulator after months of false coverage the
PCC has issued no comment on the standards employed by the press
in the McCann case.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Wrong Mr
Q379 Paul Farrelly: It is a question,
Sir Christopher Meyer: First of
all you are looking at this with 20:20 hindsight, forgive me for
saying it, but what is obvious now was not obvious at the time.
On 19 March when the judgment became public I rose from my sickbed,
stuffed myself with paracetamol, staggered out to a radio car
and on the PM programme castigated Peter Hill and Richard
Desmond for a bad day for British journalism. Contrast and compareI
say this myselfwith some of the reactions of the BBC Trust
in recent cases. There was no question of us remaining silent;
I said it was a bad day for British journalism, that Peter Hill
should consider his position and that Mr Desmond should make a
greater effort to ensure higher journalistic standards across
all his publications.