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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 580-599)


23 APRIL 2009

  Q580  Paul Farrelly: I am surprised you do not remember it because it has attracted some comment in the media.

  Mr Dacre: In Britain?

  Q581  Paul Farrelly: And it was a story of great human interest.

  Mr Dacre: Oh, yes, the Fritzl case. I am not being evasive, I really was unaware of it. I am very happy to look into it when I get back and send you a very full note on it.

  Q582  Paul Farrelly: The final question on this point. You said in your speech that some people revile a moralising media. Others such as myself believe it is the duty of the media to take an ethical stand, and the word "morality" courses through your speech, and I would just like to ask you whether you feel that publishing the name of a village where somebody had been resettled who had been through such a horrific experience was a moral thing to do?

  Mr Dacre: I cannot answer you because I do not know the circumstances. I do not know what the German newspapers were doing; I do not know what the news agencies were doing. I can give you this assurance, that I will send every member of this Committee an answer to that, and if we were wrong I will apologise.

  Q583  Paul Farrelly: If you could, because if you are saying: "I do not know what the agencies were carrying, I do not know what the other newspapers were carrying", it rather sounds like the excuse: We were only following the others or following orders.

  Mr Dacre: No, it does not. You must know the speed newspapers work at. We come out six days a week, we print thousands and thousands of words, I do not know whether it slipped through as an act of calculated irresponsibility by the journalists—I will look into it and get back to you.

  Q584  Paul Farrelly: If you could.

  Mr Dacre: Of course.

  Q585  Philip Davies: Specifically on the PCC I think you said in answer to a question earlier that you regret that the McCanns did not pursue their complaint through the PCC. In the evidence that Gerry McCann gave he said he had been advised by both his legal advisers and by the PCC itself that they were not the most effective route for them to go through. Furthermore, the nub of the issue seems to me was that he said: "I did think it was surprising that an editor of a paper which had so fragrantly libelled us with the most devastating stories could hold a position on the board of the PCC." Do you not think that undermines the credibility of the PCC and people's preparedness to go through that route when they see that the people who they are complaining about are there to sit in potential judgment?

  Mr Dacre: Firstly, he would have been one of the seven editors on the PCC with a majority of 10 lay members. Secondly, and I was not on the PCC, I do not think, at the time but my recollection is he left the PCC after the furore over the McCanns, and all I can say as someone who has sat on the PCC for many years that the lay members would have had their say on this and the McCanns would have got justice. What I would say is that the PCC does not exist apart from the courts, it exists alongside them, and my only regret was in the early days, when they thought the newspapers were behaving badly and not observing accuracy, if they had lodged a complaint then with the PCC a lot of grief could have been saved. That was the only point I was trying to make.

  Q586  Philip Davies: I would be interested in your thoughts about what is the right make-up of the PCC. I think one of the people giving evidence to us earlier this week said it was like having a jury of twelve and finding if you are being prosecuted that five people on the jury were members of the family of the defendant, and the fact that seven might not be is not really much of a comfort to you. Would you share that particular concern?

  Mr Dacre: I would not at all, no. This is self-regulation. Obviously you have to have editors on the Commission; they have to buy into this process. I have huge respect for you all and I do not want to intrude into grief, but perhaps it beholds MPs to ask journalists about self-regulation. At least we have members on our Commission; you have none on your regulatory body. We have an independent Chairman; we have independent Appointments Commissioners. It is a much more robust form of self-regulation than exists in Parliament.

  Q587  Philip Davies: You might have confidence, and you work closely on it so you see it at first hand, but would you accept that there is a general perception that newspapers do not really take complaints to the PCC seriously so the only thing that is really going to get a newspaper editor to get concerned about something is if Carter Ruck sends a letter with the potential huge costs that you talked about earlier that will really make you sit up, but actually a complaint to the PCC is neither here nor there?

  Mr Dacre: I think that is a totally unfair misreading of the situation. It is a matter of huge shame if an editor has an adjudication against him; it is a matter of shame for him and his paper. That is why self-regulation is the most potent form of regulation, and we buy into it. We do not want to be shamed.

  Q588  Philip Davies: But do you think that is the general perception of the PCC?

  Mr Dacre: I think the perception of the PCC has improved considerably from what it has been in the past. What gets my goat a little bit is the refusal of a, to be fair decreasing, minority to accept that standards have not improved very considerably in the press since the start of the Commission. I have been in this business forty years; the journalistic landscape has changed dramatically since the `80s; journalists are much better behaved. There is an argument that the Code and the Commission has toughened things up so much that, vis-a"-vis the earlier conversation, it is blunting the ability of some of the red top papers and the red top Sunday market to sell newspapers. I think it is churlish not to accept there have been improvements. I think it is counterproductive. Yes, further improvements could be made; the Code is organic, it is always changing, we are amending it, but what sickens me, frankly, is the charge that we are not independent. It traduces the independence of the Chairmen, who often have been very distinguished people; it traduces the independence of the Appointments Commissioners who have to ratify all the Commissioners to the Commission, and they are most senior people, former Lord Chancellors; it traduces the integrity of the lay members, the Bishops, trade union leaders, ex MPs; it traduces the integrity of the Compliance Officer. Self-regulation works and it would be nice if occasionally that was recognised, along with the fact that we have continual vigilance, we continually update things, we change things, we change the Code in response to public worries. We do not always get it right but we try.

  Q589  Philip Davies: I think many of us would support self-regulation. I am sure everybody would agree that people want to be as effective as possible and have as much confidence as possible. Are there any areas where you yourself think it could be strengthened or improved?

  Mr Dacre: Yes. I do not want to hold any hostages to fortune here but there is a lot of thought going on about this at the moment on various levels and more thought needs to go into privacy, and we are grappling with this at the moment, how we change the Code to tighten up on it because clearly it is a matter of concern. The problem with the Code is it cannot be above the law, obviously. I cannot think of any other areas at the moment but recently we tightened up on things like suicide reporting and areas like that.

  Q590  Chairman: When you have had an adverse verdict from the PCC, as an editor what do you then do?

  Mr Dacre: What do you do? Well, you kick the reporters in the head who landed you in it but—

  Q591  Chairman: Well, without being too jokey about it, do you take action against the reporter?

  Mr Dacre: Oh, goodness me, certainly disciplinary action, yes. It is difficult to convey this because it sounds like we are being sanctimonious but there is deep shame when you have to carry an adjudication, and there is a major investigation. My managing editor has an office of four or five people investigating every mistake; we issue official warnings if we think they are right or the reporter concerned has behaved badly—we want to get it right. There is no percentage in getting things wrong.

  Q592  Alan Keen: What was the reaction when you realised the anti MMR campaign was wrong? Did you take serious action then against journalists? Did you agree it was wrong? You are not running it now.

  Mr Dacre: Well, there is a bit of an urban myth grown up that the Daily Mail was against the triple jab. All newspapers at the time had deep concerns about the triple jab. As you know, a senior doctor was leading a campaign against it; as you know, there was a group of grieving parents who had formed a class action; there was a great concern they were being denied legal aid. The Mail's particular gloss on this was we thought it was deeply hypocritical of the then Prime Minister not to reveal whether his own child had had a triple jab because he was such an eloquent advocate for it. Since then we have carried articles for it, articles against it, but all newspapers were carrying very rigorous articles at the time questioning the MMR jab. To this day I accept the science but I still do not understand why people cannot be given three individual jabs if they so wish.

  Q593  Chairman: We are nearly at the end but may I just ask you a couple of things? We are very conscious of the financial climate in which newspapers are operating which you have highlighted, and it is obviously putting huge pressure on you. One of the things where there is a perception growing is that the rigour with which stories are tested and checked prior to publication has diminished, partially as a result of this. To what extent does the Daily Mail undertake fact-checking before you publish?

  Mr Dacre: We do not have a fact-checking process like some American newspapers have, I do not think any British newspaper does. The cost involved is worrying those American newspapers all the time. Our reporters are extremely professional operators; they have all had extensive training on local papers and provincial newspapers. Accuracy is the most important thing in their operations. If they get things wrong a most serious attitude is taken by the paper. We have a very extensive sub-editing process which is encouraged to check facts where possible. I do not see what more you can do than employ first rate reporters and first rate subs who self-evidently are more concerned than anybody to get things right.

  Q594  Chairman: And do you also believe that, in order that you are able to reflect every side of the argument or to give an opportunity to somebody who you are going to write an article about that you should hear their version or their side of the story, you should inform somebody that you are going to write an article about them before you publish it?

  Mr Dacre: Ninety-nine times out of 100 yes, I think we always do, and indeed the PCC, although I do not think it can codify it, will find against the newspaper if the newspaper has not given space to the other person's side.

  Q595  Chairman: You say 99 times out of a hundred. I retracted my earlier remark and I fully accept you were not the editor of the newspaper responsible, but in the case of Max Mosley was that a one in a hundred case where it was right not to tell him, or do you think he should have been told?

  Mr Dacre: Well, this is the age-old problem. Almost certainly if they had told him he would have injuncted them. Almost certainly if it had been a Saturday morning you would have had a part-time judge on who would not be expert in defamation or privacy. Almost certainly that judge would have granted an injunction. Almost certainly it would have got bogged down in the long grass and taken several weeks. The way Strasbourg is deciding on privacy there is a good possibility that the injunction might have stuck. It goes across the spectrum of journalism. I hope I am not talking out of turn but I was talking to the editor of a paper that carried an article about tax evasion by British banks and he confessed they were not able to put the charges to the banks for that very reason, because they knew they would be injuncted.

  Q596  Chairman: But if that is the consideration then it would suggest to me certainly that it is not going to be 99 times out of 100 that you notify; there would be a very large number of times that you do not.

  Mr Dacre: With great respect, Chairman, these stories do not come up that often; they are quite rare, particularly for a paper like the Mail. We do not, by and large, go in for that kind of journalism.

  Q597  Paul Farrelly: When you were referring to Nick Davies' book in your speech last November you did say: "Heaven forbid that its author should have observed the basic journalistic nicety of checking those facts with the parties concerned" which seems—

  Mr Dacre: I cannot see in this instance why he should not have checked them, do you? I do not think the Daily Mail is going to injunct.

  Q598  Paul Farrelly: In the Mosley case, had you had that story would you have given him the opportunity of comment? Would you have said: "Look, Max, we have you bang to rights, we have video footage, the person who took it is very well qualified, she is married to a British agent, she had a camera down her bra, but there is one thing we are uncertain about, did it have a Nazi theme? Would you like to comment?"

  Mr Dacre: Can I just short-circuit this please? The Daily Mail would not have broken that story. We are a family newspaper, our readers do not expect us to print those kinds of stories. This is the irony of the situation.

  Q599  Chairman: You did publish quite a lot about it after it appeared.

  Mr Dacre: Of course we did. So did the BBC and so did the Guardian.

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