Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
24 MARCH 2009
Q380 Paul Farrelly: What position
does Peter Hill occupy at the moment?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I have
not a cluehe is still the editor of the Express.
If you think, Mr Farrelly, that I should march around to the offices
of the Daily Express and put my heavy hand on his collar
and say "You are fired"when you have Desmond
and Hill before you, you can ask them these questions. I am not
going to sack an editor but I can sure as hell express my view
on the standards of journalism. There was never a question of
a formal adjudication against Peter Hill because there was no
formal matter that could come before us under the Code of Practice.
I made my views pellucidly plain and some people in the industry
did not like me saying that.
Q381 Paul Farrelly: One of my colleagues
earlier asked how the PCC might be strengthened and there was
not much beyond advertising the PCC's services. Sir Christopher,
from your diplomatic career are you familiar with the expression
Sir Christopher Meyer: I know
which way you are going, Mr Farrelly, and let me tell you this.
After serving in the Soviet Union between 1968 and 1970 I have
been permanently inoculated against nativeness and it is as strong
now as it has ever been. If your suggestion isand let us
call a spade a spade because that is what you were asking me to
do 20 minutes agothat I have corruptly performed my job
as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission by showing unseemly
favouritism towards the industry, then I repudiate that utterly.
I will not say any more because I am getting angry.
Q382 Paul Farrelly: That was not
an allegation I made, for the record.
Sir Christopher Meyer: I hope
you did not, but there is no question of going native.
Q383 Paul Farrelly: Is there no way
the PCC could be strengthened?
Mr Toulmin: In terms of where
we are in the media at the momentand it is changing so
quickly, we have obviously a digitalised and globalised media
nowthat has happened actually comparatively rapidly and,
clearly, we have a job to do to adapt to that, and the penetration
of the PCC will intensify online. It is only in the last week
that the Sun has announced they are effectively launching
a radio station online which the PCC Code will cover; we will
be talking to them about that, how it will work in practice. These
are all going to be big challenges for us and growth areas as
well. This will obviously require that we are properly resourced
in the future and the industry remains committed to that and so
on. Asking about how the PCC can improve, it is clearly going
to be in that area where our lack of statutory basis is a huge
advantage because we can move quickly. There are a lot of conversations
that we have with other regulators, of courseOfcomand
with the industry itself.
Q384 Paul Farrelly: Just going back
to the finance and the position of the PCC does the absence of
the Express Group at the moment undermine the principle of self-regulation
and what steps have you taken to get them back on board?
Sir Christopher Meyer: We have
taken a very clear policy decision on this that we operate a public
service and it is our responsibility to the readers and viewers
of the Express newspapers to continue to take complaints from
them as and when they come in. As far as we are concerned so long
as the editors of this publishing group continue to accept our
competence and publish our adjudications or whatever then we will
continue that service. That is the situation right now. There
are of course implications for the industry, to which Tim is much
better equipped to speak than me.
Mr Toulmin: Can I just say that
this is quite a curious dispute in that they have not walked out
on the PCCbecause you asked about the issue of principle
here. The editors are buying into this system still, they are
co-operating, they are publishing corrections and apologies and
there are adjudications against their titles. As Mr Bowdler will
explain this has its roots in an industry dispute about the financing
of the Newspaper Publishers Association. It is not actually an
Express versus PCC issue, we are victims of it really.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Collateral
damage is the right expression for this.
Q385 Paul Farrelly: Just one final
question, Chairman. On reflection, Sir Christopher, in the Motorman
case the editor of the News of the World escaped the jurisdiction
of the PCC by resigning beforehand.
Sir Christopher Meyer: You do
not mean Motorman, you mean Mulcaire and Goodman. There is a big
difference. There is a huge difference.
Chairman: Yes, there is a difference.
Q386 Paul Farrelly: Sorry, Chairman,
we were covering both at the same time. In that instanceand
thank you for the correctiondo you think the PCC on reflection
missed a trick by not summoning him anyway and letting him refuse?
Sir Christopher Meyer: You have
slightly got the wrong end of the stick here. Indeed, Mr Coulson
fell on his sword and this was after or during a police investigation
conducted not even under the Data Protection Act but under the
Regulation of Investigatory Practices Act. It was for a violation
of that Act that Messrs Goodman and Mulcaire went to jail. We
conducted afterwards a very thorough investigation, both of the
News of the World and of the entire newspaper and magazine
industry of the United Kingdom and came out with a report which
set out some very clear principles of good practice for the industry
as a whole, and no lesser authority than Professor Roy Greenslade,
who is not always the best friend of the PCC, wrote that he was
surprised by our rigour and thoroughnessif those are the
words that were used. We did this by going very deeply and very
forensically, among other things, into the News of the World,
into the new editor Colin Myler, to find out exactly what had
happened. I could see no purpose in summoningI could not
summon him, I had no authorityan ex-editor, and I really
wonder what you think we would have got from Mr Coulson that the
police had not already succeeded in getting. Are you saying to
me that Andy Coulson would have come stumbling into my office,
weeping, saying "Christopher, I have got to tell you I have
sinned, no I did not tell all the truth to the authorities"?
I could see no useful purpose in talking to him about it. I had
an exchange of correspondence with him before he resigned and
I also spoke to the then chairman and chief executive of News
International, Mr Les Hinton, about this; so it is not that there
was no contact between the PCC and the News of the World
and News International before Coulson resigned and before the
courts rendered their judgment, there was, but once that had happened
our view was, yes, there needed to be a really thorough investigationwhich
we didbut it would be pointless at that precise moment,
even if we had the authority, to call an ex-editor. That was the
Q387 Chairman: I want to come back
to the Express in particular and the general question.
You will be aware that the PCC's genesis was at least in part
in order to stave off statutory regulation. Surely a self-regulatory
system will only ever work if everybody buys into it. If you have
a part of your industry that is not fully co-operating with the
self-regulatory system that must pose a real threat to the whole
survival of self-regulation.
Sir Christopher Meyer: My answer
to that would be this is a problem and it needs to be fixed and
it is for the industry to fix it, and Tim Bowdler I am sure will
want to say something in a minute. We have been here before, the
Mirror Group fell out a couple of times, I believe, and then were
brought back in again, so we have had this problem before; it
is not as if it is unprecedented but it does need to be dealt
Mr Bowdler: In answering you I
would like first to just go back to Mr Farrelly's question about
funding and the implications of the Express Group not paying their
fees and what impact it has had on the PCC. The answer to that
is currently none because the industry takes a very responsible
view of our commitment to self-regulation, so the industry is
funding the shortfall. We are doing so at the moment by dipping
into our reserves which obviously is not something we can do indefinitely.
The commitment the industry has made to date is to say that despite
the fact that income is not available from the Express
we will continue to fund the PCC in the way that it requires,
and the relationship between Pressbof and the PCC is a very open
one in the sense that the PCC prepares its budget, it decides
what resources it requires to conduct its operations, of course
that budget is discussed with Pressbof but as a matter of telling
us where they have reached in terms of the funding requirements.
Naturally we might comment on it, but we have supported those
needs and continue to do so. Coming to the whole issue of the
Express and funding more generally, if you take the position
prior to the Express withdrawing we achieved a 98.5% return
from the newspaper industry; in other words there was 1.5% which
did not pay, so the first thing to say is it has never been absolutely
universal. There have been some publications, relatively small
of course, which have remained outside. If you extend that to
magazines the return is rather less, something in the region of
80%, which means quite a few of the smaller magazines also choose
to be outside the system. That has not in any way undermined the
validity of self-regulation, it has continued to work very effectively;
however, it has meant that it is not 100%. In the case of the
Express when we were toldwe being the Press Board
of Financein early 2008 that the Express through
a separate dispute with the industry, the national newspaper publishers,
would not therefore be paying their fees to Pressbof we entered
a dialogue. That dialogue has continued, I have mad meetings with
the Express Newspapers' management, with Mr Desmond, we have had
a continuing dialogue by email and conversation during that period.
I have not given up, I still think it is possible that they will
recognise that it would be advantageous for them to return, but
in the end they have to understand what the implications will
be if they do not do so. In practice, at some point in time, Pressbof
might say to Christopher or his successor, Baroness Buscombe,
that the PCC should not continue to adjudicate indefinitely in
a way that Christopher has described, and on the board of the
PCC that continues to be a difficult issue for you to grapple
with. If they were not covered then they would face additional
costs, increased litigation because complaints could only go through
the legal route supported by CFAs. In the end it will be a variety
of pressures that hopefully will bring them back in, but it would
be a terrible mistake to suggest that the system itself is undermined
irreparably by the fact that there is one rogue publisher who
does not subscribe to it.
Q388 Chairman: Would you like to
see more ability to exert influence on him to come back into the
Mr Bowdler: Yes, in a word. Self-regulation
is not helped by their exclusion at their own behest and in the
end if they are disadvantaged by that decision that would be a
Q389 Chairman: But the solution that
you are suggesting, which is that at the moment it appears the
Daily Express are willing still to bide by PCC rulings
even though their proprietor is not paying for the PCC, if you
were to withdraw that in a sense that is going to undermine the
system still further because you then have a major national newspaper
which is not accepting PCC rulings.
Mr Bowdler: Clearly it makes life
more difficult in relation to complainants against Express Newspapers
if that were to happen, but I do not see that that undermines
the system because the vast majority of publications, the overwhelming
majority, remain part of the system. Simply because there is a
Q390 Chairman: We are not talking
about the Gardening Times we are talking about the Daily
Express, it is one of the big national newspapers that is
Mr Bowdler: The decision as to
whether they would be outside the system in terms of adjudications
is a PCC matter and Christopher has expressed his view. To suggest
that even if they were that the whole system was failing would
be a huge assumption to make. The vast majority of newspapers
observe, support, fund self-regulation.
Q391 Chairman: But you are still
hopeful that Mr Desmond will change his position.
Mr Bowdler: We continue to have
Q392 Chairman: That is not the same
Mr Bowdler: I am not in a position
today where I could say I am hopeful though we do continue to
discuss their return.
Q393 Chairman: Can I just turn to
one other issue? The Committee last week heard evidence in private
from some of those affected by the suicides in Bridgend, and one
thing came across very clearly from a family member. This was
somebody who was an ordinary person, they had no experience of
dealing with the press, with loads of national newspapers, and
he discovered that his child had died and was then told that within
a relatively short period of time this information would become
public and he would be subjected to the full glare and pressure
of the media, which obviously was something he had no experience
of and did not really know how to deal with. Is there not a role
for the PCC here? I know you take a proactive role but could not
more be done, perhaps through the police, so that anybody who
suddenly finds themselves in a position where they are like to
be subject to huge media exposure could be told "This is
going to happen to you but there is a remedy or at least there
is advice on hand, the PCC"?
Sir Christopher Meyer: When we
went down to Bridgend in May of last yearand we had done
a great deal before then to alert people in South Wales to the
fact of our existence, not only remind the police of their responsibilities
but also getting in touch with local schools and community organisations,
and we were doing that from February of last year onwardsone
of the things we discovered when we got down to Bridgend was that
to some extent anyway, particularly when we had a closed session
with about a dozen families who had lost children through suicide,
and the police were there, was that the family liaison officer
system that the police operate for families in distress, so far
as conveying to them the fact of our existence had broken down.
It had not happened. One of our painting the Forth Bridge tasks
is constantly to remind police forces around the country that
they really must, in situations of suicide or murder or whatever,
tell families how to deal with the press. Some people find it
cathartic to talk to journalists, others hate it, and we saw that
variety of opinion when we went to see the families in Bridgend.
The key thingand this is where we are dependent on othersis
to get it over to police forces and also into coroners' courts,
into the rooms. The coroners themselves make all these people
aware that they are dealing with individuals who have no experience
of dealing with the press, so we keep on plugging away and when
we go on our missions outside London we always invite to the events
or to a lunch or whatever the local coroner or the local coroners,
depending on how many there are, as well as the local judges.
A number of times we have found that the system has not worked
properly and a coroner has said "I did not know about that",
so we send them all the stuff and say "Please make sure that
you and your staff know about this". It is a permanent struggle
to be perfectly frank.
Q394 Adam Price: One of the issues
raised by Mr Farrelly was the question of third party complaints.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Sorry,
I failed to answer that.
Q395 Adam Price: The public may be
a little bit confused because there is Ofcom, the Advertising
Standards Authority, the BBC Trust who accept third party complaints
whereas as a rule the Press Complaints Commission does not. In
the case of another Northern shareholder publication, OK
magazine, in the last few days, there was the so-called tribute
to Jade Goody, which was effectively an obituary, black-edged
cover et cetera, published in advance of her death. That has elicited
a large number of complaints from the public and you are considering,
it has been reported, whether to launch an inquiry. Is that true
and how do you assess, therefore, when a third party complaint
is legitimate and should result in an inquiry?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I will
let Tim say something about this as well. Let me be clear, we
do entertain third party complaints but not all that often, and
the reason for that is because we cannot find ourselves in a situation
where the third party trumps the interests of the first party.
Sometimes something will happen, people will be affected, they
choose not to use our services but sometimes an indignant third
party sees something reported and will complain to us, but if
the family, say, of a dead footballer who was photographed dead
on a pitch, as happened several years ago, does not want to pursue
the matter, we are not going to pursue it with a third party.
That is the basic position of principle. The Jade Goody thing
is complicated because on the one hand the familyand we
have been in touch with them through their representativesdo
not want to pursue any kind of complaint. The issue then arises
whether the third partiesand we have received a lot of
complaintshave a justification nonetheless for coming to
us and having the case examined because they have been misled
by the front page. Also, are we talking about something that is
taste and decency and does not fall under the Codethere
are a number of issues here that need to be considered and Tim
and his team have already put out a statement for the time being.
I think what is going to happen is that commissioners will have
to be consulted on this. The next formal meeting of the Commission
takes place after I have gone, under Peta Buscombe, and commissioners
will want to take a view. I do not know what that will be.
Mr Toulmin: Might I add on a general
point that actually on a like for like basis we are exactly the
same as Ofcom; they will on privacy issues, where there is a first
party for instance, take a complaint only from the first party.
Where confusion arises is because the BBC Trust and Ofcom deal
with other issues about the impact of broadcasting on the viewer,
such as taste and decency, so anyone can complain about that because
anyone can be outraged, but on a like for like comparison it is
exactly the same. What we do also, as Christopher has suggested
in the Jade Goody case, is if we get third party complaints then
we will alert the first party. It always has to be up to the first
party to want to complain and there may be all sorts of reasons
why they do not want to complain. In this instance the family
of Jade Goody and her representatives do not want to complain
about that, and that has to be a matter for them. As Christopher
said, at a later stage the Commission will make an assessment
as to whether the members of the public who have complained also
have a right to complain about this but that has not yet been
Q396 Paul Farrelly: Sir Christopher,
after your long tenure at the PCC I have no feeling at all from
this session that you think in any way that the PCC either could
or should be more proactive in monitoring compliance with the
Code of Practice as other regulatorsfrom the Takeover Panel
to Ofsted for exampledo. We have discussed the McCann case
where the McCanns were complaining of irresponsible journalism
and people like Sir Max Hastings were, at an early stage, professing
to hang their head in shame at the way the press were behaving,
and yet you did not step in.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Sorry,
how would we have stepped in?
Q397 Paul Farrelly: Can I give you
another example of where the public might well feel that the PCC
should be more proactive in monitoring the Code of Compliance.
In this day and age it is the practice nowand Mr Bowdler
you would know very well from your groupfor newspapers
to invite comments on stories. On New Year's Eve a close friend
of mine lost his 16-year old son tragically in an accident and
that was covered in the local newspaper in Sussex, and some of
the comments that were written by people on that news were just
sick really. I would suggest that one way we might proactively
look at compliance with the Code is to take a snapshot of websites
at any point in time and just monitor whether newspapers are complying
with the Code. I do not know whether that is the sort of action
you would ever consider at the PCC.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Of course
we do. We do our very best to monitor the press and, okay, the
one charge that cannot be levelled against us in 2009 is that
we are not proactive, but there are limits to what you can do.
There are thousands of publications in the United Kingdom with
an equal number of websites; there is a limit to what you can
monitor. We have already had our discussion about the McCanns
and the Express and I suspect that you and I are never
going to agree on this, but that is another matter. As for the
newspaper and magazine industry of the United Kingdom as a whole
of course we do our best to monitor what is going on, but short
of employing another 25,000 people to add to the 14 or 15 we have
already I do not see how we can do this universally.
Q398 Paul Farrelly: Take a snapshot.
Sir Christopher Meyer: That is
what we do, we do take a snapshot. We see a summary of stories
every day but by definition it is not universal and it never will
Mr Toulmin: Your point actually
illustrates a general advantage of the PCC in terms of its flexibility
because this reveals the way in which new technology is being
used. We have seen some appalling examples of comments on news
stories, and after our intervention, newspapers have changed their
practice. People can complain about them if the editor is editorially
responsible for them and the PCC moves very, very quickly to sort
that out. The example you raise is an absolute classic case where
we could have helped very quickly actually.
Q399 Paul Farrelly: If you see an
instance like thatand it is replicated across many websitesand
you think it is sick, and you think it is in clear breach of responsibilities
in the Code, would you act without a third party complaint?
Mr Toulmin: We would; certainly
if a third party brought it to our attention we would absolutely
be in touch with the first party. What we would not do, as Christopher
said earlier, is unilaterally launch an inquiry because the interests
of the first party are actually the whole basis of the PCC, it
is there as a form of redress for people who have a problem with
newspapers and magazines. Absolutely, if that was brought to our
attention there is no question about that, and in fact I think
we have done that.
Sir Christopher Meyer: I know
you want to end but a tiny codicil?