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


Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 660-679)

MR PETER HILL

28 APRIL 2009

  Q660  Chairman: Well the Daily Sport I believe.

  Mr Hill: You cannot blame me for what other people do.

  Q661  Chairman: No, but it is the same attitude. We will put in a story which is going to sell newspapers because it looks interesting but it does not matter too much if it is not supported by the facts.

  Mr Hill: No, that is not the case. No, that is not what I do. I am just not that kind of person. I do not do that.

  Q662  Mr Hall: I am sure you are keen to get off the McCann case.

  Mr Hill: Whatever. I am here to tell you the truth and that is it.

  Q663  Mr Hall: I want to explore the concept of responsible journalism but, just to satisfy my curiosity, how has the Daily Express handled the McCann story since you settled with them in court. Do you still give them the same kind of coverage or do you not report them any more?

  Mr Hill: Nothing has happened; nothing has happened since. The whole point about this is that what it is all about is what happened to Madeleine. Is it possible to find Madeleine or is it possible to get to what might have happened to Madeleine? As far as I know nothing whatever has happened to help anybody to get to that truth. There have been no stories, there has been nothing. There has been no real development in this case for a long time.

  Q664  Mr Hall: So the Daily Express has not published anything about this story for quite some time.

  Mr Hill: A little, a very little, but I think you could say that about all the other newspapers.

  Q665  Mr Hall: We are coming to the two-year anniversary, are we not, of the disappearance?

  Mr Hill: Yes. I am sure we shall do something on that and if anybody can suggest a way in which I can help find Madeleine or find what happened, I am very willing to listen because we would still like to do that.

  Q666  Mr Hall: May I change track now on to responsible journalism? We have the Reynolds judgment, improved by the Jameel judgment. We have written evidence now from the National Union of Journalists that they do not have much confidence now in this kind of defence in court because it is having to be tested in court and there is a cost there. On the other side of the story this is being undermined because of what we call celebrity journalism and inability to verify facts. What is your opinion about actually putting this onto a more statutory basis to bring back confidence in the responsible journalism defence?

  Mr Hill: I think that these cases that you are talking about apply to matters which are deemed to be in the public interest. First of all, who is going to decide what is a matter in the public interest? That could well be a very borderline issue as to whether a matter is in the public interest. Some things are clearly in the public interest and some things are not clearly but might possibly be. It is a pretty shaky kind of defence to rely on and I would not have thought that it was very helpful in many cases at all. The fact of the matter is that you have firms of solicitors now who go to agents of celebrities whose sole object is to run up enormous costs so that they can keep their companies going and celebrities who want to manipulate people's opinion of them and in many ways create a fake opinion of them. Those things would never fall into the realm of the public interest. It is a pretty odd sort of situation out there.

  Q667  Mr Hall: If I understand what you are saying, you are saying it is difficult to define what the public interest is.

  Mr Hill: I would have thought it was very difficult; not in every case of course.

  Q668  Mr Hall: Therefore it would be difficult to put that on a statutory basis in terms of providing journalists with their defence?

  Mr Hill: Yes, it would be very difficult; it would be very difficult to interpret. You can see that interpretation of the law is very problematic for newspapers. We have one or two judges now who appear to be trying to introduce a privacy law and who knows where that is going? Nobody knows. I do not think you could make a general rule because every case would have to be considered as though it were alone and that makes it very difficult for newspapers to have great confidence in it I would have thought.

  Q669  Mr Hall: There is a difference between what interests the public and what is in the public interest.

  Mr Hill: Not always.

  Q670  Mr Hall: But there can be. You have already said that the McCann story was of interest to the public but not in the public interest.

  Mr Hill: Yes; I do not believe it was a matter which could be described as "in the public interest". I feel that "in the public interest" are matters which affect the culture, the lives of people more generally or perhaps in larger groups and it is very, very seldom there is an individual case and is it not considered to be very bad law to generalise on the basis of an individual case? It is very difficult to know what is in the public interest sometimes. I can see that MPs' expenses are in the public interest because that is a general thing and it is clearly a matter of the public interest. However, it might be quite difficult if you had something which involved a group of people, a sect or something like that. I do not know. Who knows?

  Q671  Mr Hall: From what you have said to us this morning, you have actually never used the responsible journalism defence yourself.

  Mr Hill: I have never had need to. It certainly was not considered in the case of Mr and Mrs McCann and I do not believe there have been any cases since so I have not had to.

  Q672  Rosemary McKenna: On responsible journalism, in fairness, when the Committee interviewed Max Mosley a few weeks ago the room was full of sketch writers and journalists with pages and pages of copy rewritten with salacious information and details of his case and swipes at the Committee of course; perfectly fair. Last week we had Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail in front of us. There was no coverage. Does that surprise you? Would you expect to be treated similarly? Is there an unwritten code between newspapers that everyone else is fair game but journalists are protected?

  Mr Hill: No, I do not agree with you. I think we are all fair game. I am quite certain that there are quite a few journalists who would like to score points at my expense and indeed at Mr Dacre's expense. The question is whether it is good copy. It is what you were saying before: is it interesting? If it was not interesting enough, if editors thought it was not going to interest the readers, they would not bother to put it in the newspaper, that is all. I did read reports of what Mr Dacre said on the odd media website.

  Q673  Rosemary McKenna: The odd media website.

  Mr Hill: Yes; yes.

  Q674  Rosemary McKenna: Who decides what is interesting?

  Mr Hill: The editors of newspapers and when I say "editors" I mean the people who also carry out editorial executive functions, the people who read the copy and decide whether it is interesting or not. There are thousands of things which we do not put in the newspaper every day, many, many things; there is so much stuff out there.

  Q675  Rosemary McKenna: When was the last time you wrote a story about a journalist?

  Mr Hill: I cannot remember ever writing one.

  Q676  Rosemary McKenna: I do not know whether you remember reading one.

  Mr Hill: That is because I cannot remember any interesting ones.

  Q677  Rosemary McKenna: So they are all boring.

  Mr Hill: I did listen to what Mr Dacre said and it was interesting to me but I cannot imagine that it was going to be very interesting to my readers because it was about matters to do with the technicalities of running a newspaper and legal matters. It was not very interesting to the general public although I do think it was in the public interest.

  Q678  Rosemary McKenna: Well now, there you are. Is it in the public interest? Who decides?

  Mr Hill: On that occasion it was in the public interest but it was not interesting to the public.

  Q679  Rosemary McKenna: I want to move on to your decision to leave the PCC. Whose decision was it that you should leave? Did you offer to resign?

  Mr Hill: I did not offer to resign. I certainly considered resigning from the PCC after the case; I considered it very carefully. I talked to quite a number of people whose advice I listened to. There was a very, very strong majority, apart from perhaps one person, who said that I should not resign because if editors had to resign from the PCC every time they made a mistake, there would not be any editors on the PCC and I do believe that it is right that there should be editors on the PCC because they are there really to offer the benefit of their knowledge of the newspaper business and their advice. They are not in a majority on the PCC and in any case my recollection of my five years on the PCC was that all the editors, myself included, carried out their duties as conscientiously as they possibly could and did not operate in a biased way at all. I did leave the PCC some considerable time after the settlement with the McCanns but it was because after five years it was time for a change and I felt it was time for a change.



 
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