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


Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 380-399)

SIR CHRISTOPHER MEYER, MR TIM TOULMIN AND MR TIM BOWDLER

24 MARCH 2009

  Q380  Paul Farrelly: What position does Peter Hill occupy at the moment?

  Sir Christopher Meyer: I have not a clue—he 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 "going native"?

  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 is—and let us call a spade a spade because that is what you were asking me to do 20 minutes ago—that 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 moment—and it is changing so quickly, we have obviously a digitalised and globalised media now—that 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 course—Ofcom—and 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 PCC—because 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 instance—and thank you for the correction—do 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 thoroughness—if 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 summoning—I could not summon him, I had no authority—an 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 investigation—which we did—but it would be pointless at that precise moment, even if we had the authority, to call an ex-editor. That was the reason.

  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 with.

  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 told—we being the Press Board of Finance—in 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 fold?

  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 helpful outcome.

  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 rogue publisher—

  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 outside.

  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 a dialogue.

  Q392  Chairman: That is not the same thing.

  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 year—and 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 onwards—one 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 thing—and this is where we are dependent on others—is 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 family—and we have been in touch with them through their representatives—do not want to pursue any kind of complaint. The issue then arises whether the third parties—and we have received a lot of complaints—have 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 Code—there 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 decided.

  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 regulators—from the Takeover Panel to Ofsted for example—do. 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 now—and Mr Bowdler you would know very well from your group—for 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 be universal.

  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 that—and it is replicated across many websites—and 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?



 
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