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


Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 360-379)

SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER, MR TIM TOULMIN AND MR TIM BOWDLER

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 year—and Tim will correct me if I get this wrong—85% 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 is printed?

  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 is yes.

  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 the press?

  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 McCann—and I am sure you have got all this in your papers but I will repeat it for the record—we 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 2007—he happened to come round to my house to see my wife who runs a charity that specialises in missing and abducted children—and 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 to—and I take my cue here from the court case—was, 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 Farrelly.

  Q372  Paul Farrelly: Let me just move on.

  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 example—you 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. Proactive—what 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 Gerard Tyrrell.

  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 lawyers—I am not going to quarrel with their decision—that 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 Farrelly.

  Q379  Paul Farrelly: It is a question, has it?

  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 compare—I say this myself—with 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.



 
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