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


Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 680-699)

MR PETER HILL

28 APRIL 2009

  Q680  Rosemary McKenna: Does the Express group intend to resume paying fees to the Newspaper Publishers Association and return to the self-regulatory system?

  Mr Hill: We have never not been part of the self-regulatory system. We have always been part of this and all the editors in our group have always subscribed to it and continue to subscribe to it. I personally am a big supporter of the PCC and I have never not been. The dispute you are referring to had nothing whatever to do with the PCC.

  Q681  Rosemary McKenna: No, it is the Newspaper Publishers Association.

  Mr Hill: My group's dispute was with the Newspaper Publishers Association and it concerned a levy they tried to impose for newspaper advertising. The board of directors of Express Newspapers decided that in these difficult times it was a ridiculous thing to ask for more than £300,000 for a fairly pointless advertising campaign and the Newspaper Publishers Association have decided that they did not want Express Newspapers to be part of their organisation. Membership of the PCC was part of that wider membership of the NPA and since then the board of directors, or whoever is responsible, has been trying to sort this out. I know in fact that the negotiations are in a very advanced stage at the moment. What I want to say is that during all this time the newspapers and their editors and their staff have continued to subscribe to the PCC and to self-regulation and we have never ever dropped out of that and have no intention of doing so. That remains our position.

  Q682  Helen Southworth: May I draw you out a little more on that? In terms of your journalists, how would you describe the code of conduct in relation perhaps to their contract of employment or certainly the expectations you had of them in terms of their professional output?

  Mr Hill: We do expect our journalists to follow the code of conduct and everybody is well aware of it. Yes, all our journalists are aware of it.

  Q683  Helen Southworth: Is it a matter of contract?

  Mr Hill: No, I do not believe it is but I do not think that is necessary. Everybody in the business now is very well aware of the code of conduct and they are very, very careful about it. Over recent years we have made a lot of changes to the way newspapers operate. We are much more careful about the exposure of children to newspaper coverage, very much more careful. All of us are very much more careful about matters of privacy; we are more careful. For instance, we very much changed the way we report suicides and lots of other things on which the code has been quite helpful and I think everybody is very well aware of what they can and cannot do. That is not to say there will not be mistakes because mistakes happen, but we do try to be very careful. A lot of material in newspapers does not come from your own people, it comes from outside, from freelancers and people all over the place. It is often very difficult to check it out. We simply could not operate if we had to have a board of people whose sole job it was to check every single fact out. We would never get the papers out; it would not be practical.

  Q684  Helen Southworth: In terms of child protection, could you describe what your expectations would be for one of your journalists who is producing copy for you?

  Mr Hill: Can you be a bit more specific? For instance, that really more often applies to the situation of photography. I am always very, very careful and I have rejected many photographs of celebrities where their children were involved and I have either not published those photographs at all or I have obscured the faces of the children. I am always very, very careful to make sure. It is mostly a photographic thing really. Hardly ever is it a matter of the actual words. That is the principal thing. I am always very careful and my picture desk is very careful about it and we are all very aware of this thing.

  Q685  Helen Southworth: May I take you back to the code of conduct? Do you think that there are perhaps areas the code of conduct could improve on in terms of child protection, perhaps putting children's interests first?

  Mr Hill: We do put their interests first. I do not know that it could be improved. I think it is pretty good.

  Q686  Helen Southworth: So you are quite content that the code of conduct covers all those points?

  Mr Hill: I am. From my point of view I am content because I am very, very careful and my journalists are very careful and they know that they have to be.

  Q687  Helen Southworth: We have had quite strong evidence from other parties saying they thought it very important that the code of conduct should be part of the contract, that there should be a contractual relationship to enforce the message that this was a definite expectation of the company. Is that something you have seen?

  Mr Hill: I do not think it would do any harm. It would be quite possible that we could do that.

  Q688  Helen Southworth: Is that something you are going to be looking at?

  Mr Hill: I will look at it. If you think that I need to look at it, then yes, I will look at it. I promise you I will look at it and I will get back to you on that matter when I have spoken to my managing editor's office and seen what they think of it.

  Q689  Philip Davies: I would actually like to see an American system of libel law in this country. I do not think it is going to happen, but I would certainly approve it and I certainly believe the freer the press the better the democracy that we live in. To have that you would need a very robust self-regulatory system. Would you conceive that the PCC was undermined somewhat by the fact that it is seen as a creature of the press itself? I do not want to come back always to the McCanns but Gerry McCann did make the point and asked why on earth he would complain to the PCC.

  Mr Hill: Why did he not try? I am quite sure we would have listened had he done so.

  Q690  Philip Davies: I will explain to you why he did not. He said that he looks at the PCC, he has a complaint about the Daily Express, and who is on the board of the PCC but the editor of the Daily Express. Do you not think that because it is perceived as a creature of the press that undermines people's confidence in taking a complaint to the PCC?

  Mr Hill: No, because the PCC has taken up many matters concerning editors who were members of the PCC many, many, many times. It has never deterred anyone. After all that person is one editor and also, whenever there is a matter which concerns a particular editor, that editor takes no part whatsoever in the deliberations of the PCC on that matter and is not even allowed to be in the room.

  Q691  Philip Davies: Indeed, but perception is everything in these things and if that is the perception people have—

  Mr Hill: I think it is a false perception.

  Q692  Philip Davies: The other perception that people have is that you complain to the PCC, it is neither here nor there, water off a duck's back, get these things all the time, let us not worry about it. The only thing which really makes a newspaper editor sit up in this day and age is not a complaint to the PCC; thank goodness they have gone in that direction. It is a letter from Carter-Ruck saying they have a conditional fee arrangement. That is the only thing which makes an editor sit up these days, not a complaint to the PCC.

  Mr Hill: I do not see it that way myself. In fact the PCC is a far better route for most people, albeit one that does not of course eventually produce a large amount of damages for them. What the PCC has been very, very good at is amicably settling disputes between people and the press. We are not now talking about things being brushed under the carpet or anything like that at all. I think you will find that most complaints are resolved very, very satisfactorily by the PCC. It has been extremely successful in that. After all, is it not better to resolve matters amicably than to go to law and end up with a desperate dispute which makes everybody feel a great deal worse about the other side? The PCC is an effective body and if people are dissatisfied with its decisions, there is also an ombudsman who is tremendously conscientious. I have seen him in action. I can assure you that people on the PCC do behave in a very responsible manner. I am quite sure you would be very welcome to sit in on their meetings. If any of you would like to go, I am sure the PCC would welcome it. To me it is a far better way of resolving disputes and I honestly believe that if Mr and Mrs McCann had gone to the PCC and the PCC had discussed it, things would have happened in a different way. In fact they chose to go down the legal route, which is a combative route to go down. That is not a way of resolving disputes, that is a way of fighting things.

  Q693  Chairman: Are you seriously saying that if Gerry McCann had been to the PCC and said, "We don't like the Daily Express coverage, they keep printing these stories which are completely untrue," you would have stopped?

  Mr Hill: Yes, I would certainly have thought very, very carefully about it. I really would, most certainly, but it never happened.

  Q694  Chairman: Gerry McCann was certainly making it clear that he did not like the stories you were writing. He must have complained to you.

  Mr Hill: Yes, but you cannot pretend that the Daily Express was in isolation here. The story was everywhere.

  Q695  Rosemary McKenna: On the issue of people going to the PCC and getting a matter resolved, would you accept though that what it does not do is take away the original story which may have been based on a tiny modicum of fact but is embellished and the individual concerned does not want to rehearse the whole story by going to court or they want to protect other members of their family from the stories which appeared in newspapers with a tiny bit of fact but hugely embellished. They then go to the PCC. What kind of resolution is it that does not take it off the original publication? That is what most of the resolutions are, are they not? They get the newspaper to say they will not publish any more.

  Mr Hill: I would have thought if the newspaper had made a mistake most of the resolutions would involve the newspaper either publishing a correction or an apology.

  Q696  Rosemary McKenna: But sometimes people do not even want that because they do not want the whole story rehearsed.

  Mr Hill: What more can one do? I do not know.

  Q697  Rosemary McKenna: Stop writing that kind of story in the first place.

  Mr Hill: We cannot put the clock back, can we?

  Q698  Rosemary McKenna: Exactly and someone's reputation is damaged.

  Mr Hill: I have worked for many newspapers and I can assure you that newspapers of all sorts—

  Q699  Rosemary McKenna: But it is another example of the PCC being self-regulating and not being able to make newspapers behave in a more responsible manner.

  Mr Hill: How would you make newspapers? I cannot make Members of Parliament behave in a responsible manner.



 
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