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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 800-819)


5 MAY 2009

  Q800  Chairman: But there are lots of stories you run which do have those consequences, that marriages end and careers are finished. Essentially, you are setting yourself up to decide whether or not you are going to destroy someone's life.

  Mr Myler: No, it is not about destroying someone's life, with respect.

  Q801  Chairman: Destroying a marriage and destroying a career.

  Mr Myler: I disagree fundamentally, Mr Chairman, with respect, because it is very easy to put the News of the World in the stocks and say, "Isn't it awful that the News of the World does this and the News of the World does that?" All newspaper editors have to make a decision. Everybody in an elected position, in your case, has to make a decision. You hear representations from your constituents but you ultimately have to make a call. Sometimes it is what they want and sometimes it is not. Yes, the consequences of running certain stories in newspapers have a catastrophic effect but it is too easy to shoot the messenger. Yes, I think it does come to something when the News of the World is using its editorials and its column inches to question where the moral compass has gone in some instances that come via the courts, that come from judges. Is that wrong? Do we not have a right on behalf of our readers? They have a choice. If they do not agree with what we do, they will stop buying us. It is simple. If people do not agree with what you do, they stop voting for you. We are accountable, very transparently, every day of the week and every Sunday. There are not many industries or professions where you are accountable and made accountable so quickly.

  Q802  Chairman: But you yourself said in that specific instance you decided that this chap had made a mistake and it was too harsh to throw away all the service he had given to this country on the basis of a mistake.

  Mr Myler: Yes.

  Q803  Chairman: That is therefore a judgement which you, as the Editor, will make on a regular basis, basically as to whether or not to spare somebody, and that is just part of your job, is it?

  Mr Myler: I think the way of answering that, Mr Chairman, with respect, it is to say that there is a great deal of responsibility on an editor's shoulders each day, and we do not always get it right, and when we do not get it right, we have to put it right. Sometimes that can be not only very costly but it can also be very embarrassing and it can be very humiliating.

  Q804  Chairman: But the alternative argument is that actually, rather than an editor, who is inevitably going to be influenced by questions of newspaper sales, for instance, it might be more appropriate to have a neutral figure who can determine whether or not there really is a public interest, and that neutral figure should be a judge.

  Mr Myler: Why? In what way would a judge be able to sit in neutrality to decide whether or not a newspaper story is to be published? Notwithstanding, by the way, that over the years, and indeed, only two years ago a trial had to be halted when a judge asked, "Can somebody tell me what a website is, please?"

  Q805  Chairman: It is easy to make jokes about judges.

  Mr Myler: That is not a joke. That happened. They stopped the trial. It was a trial involving three people on internet terrorism.

  Q806  Chairman: I am sure there are bad judges just as much as there are bad editors.

  Mr Myler: Absolutely. I think it would be a sorry day indeed, quite rightly—and you cannot sack a judge; you can sack an editor—it would be a sorry state of affairs if we got to the point where we had to go into committee by asking judges "By the way, we have this story [...] " That is indeed what is happening now, by the way. That is, in a sense, exactly what is happening now.

  Q807  Chairman: That is why I raised it, because that is what is happening.

  Mr Myler: I think maybe the best way of answering that is not my words but the words of Sir Ken MacDonald, who wrote a very interesting piece in the Times last week, which I am sure you have seen. He said, "Britain is a better place today than it was at a time when the common people were not to be told that their king was sleeping with a divorcee. Of course the public interest is not necessarily the same thing as what the public are interested in but, as Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, once sagely observed, if newspapers are routinely prevented from publishing stories that interest the public, fewer people will buy them and that is certainly not in the public interest."

  Q808  Janet Anderson: Mr Myler, I think you said when you were referring to the case of the MP that you gave him three opportunities to comment. Was that before you published the story?

  Mr Myler: Yes, and indeed, in the two weeks before the story was eventually published.

  Q809  Janet Anderson: But you did not do that with Max Mosley. In fact, you went to great lengths to keep the story out of your first edition.

  Mr Myler: Not great lengths but we did not put it in the first edition.

  Q810  Janet Anderson: Was that because you were afraid of Mr Mosley seeking an injunction or was it just to protect the story?

  Mr Myler: Spoof stories, as they are so called, have been around for decades. There is nothing new in that. Great play is made that we kept the story out to avoid it. If you do a spoof story, ostensibly it is to make sure that your rivals do not have an opportunity of following it and ripping it off and stealing it. We are in an incredibly difficult place because of where privacy law is at the moment, and that is again a judgement call about what you do and I had to make that call.

  Q811  Janet Anderson: So why did you warn the MP, as it were, and not Mr Mosley? What was the reason for the different decision in those two cases?

  Mr Myler: We just decided that we would give this MP the opportunity of talking about what we had found him to be doing.

  Q812  Janet Anderson: Why did you not give that opportunity to Mr Mosley?

  Mr Myler: Because we knew that probably Mr Mosley would get an injunction, and I felt very strongly that this was a story that actually should not be stopped because of an injunction.

  Q813  Janet Anderson: So it was because of the possibility of an injunction?

  Mr Myler: That, and the commercial rivalry. There are two things, not just one.

  Q814  Alan Keen: I made a joke in my maiden speech in 1992 about my career taking another downward step when I became elected to Parliament. I just wondered, we understand that you started off with the Catholic Pictorial News, and you came directly from being Editor of the New York Post to the News of the World. We went to see the New York Post not that long ago and they were not too complimentary about the British press. Would you say your career is taking a downward path or an upward path because now you can battle away commercially to save the newspaper world by the stories you write.

  Mr Myler: It is a very interesting journey, is it not, from a reporter with the Catholic Pictorial in Liverpool to the editorship of the News of the World? Very, very interesting. It was one of the proudest days of my life when I was asked to be editor of the News of the World. It is a huge institution that I think we should be proud of in this country. It certainly was not a step back.

  Q815  Alan Keen: I am not being critical.

  Mr Myler: No, no. I am interested to see how the people in New York, bearing in mind it was an Australian and a Brit, in myself, who ran the New York Post, how the Americans view us. I have to say that if you talk to any of my American colleagues and friends over there in journalism, and I was away for five years, and I have to say that when I came back, the landscape on privacy and legislation was unrecognisable to me from the London that I left, and they are just astonished at what we are having to deal with here. Astonished.

  Q816  Mr Sanders: On that point, libel laws are very different in the United States. Do you think we would benefit, if we had an absolute right to freedom of speech and the onus was on the litigant to prove that you had got the story wrong? In that culture and that environment, do you think it would make you check facts as closely as we get the impression the American newspapers check their facts? It is a different culture; you are given more freedom but that also makes you exercise more responsibility.

  Mr Myler: If I may, I think Mr Crone is probably best to answer this in terms of where we are, and the legal complications are very interesting. Maybe if I could invite Tom in the first instance to give a response on the law, then I will come in.

  Mr Crone: You will know already, I am sure, because of the investigations you have already made, and your visit to America, that the difference between the two laws, the American and British, primarily is the burden of proof in libel, and indeed, the difference between defamation law in this country and every other area of civil law is that the claimant who comes to court saying, "I have been wronged. Give me money." does not actually have to prove anything. He just stands up and says it is wrong and the burden of proof is automatically, from the first moment in the case, shifted on to the defendant, and that is in front of a jury. I must say, over the last 29 years I have found that to be a very, very onerous burden indeed for newspapers to shift, especially—and this is just human nature and perception—if you happen to be the Sun or the News of the World. They are the two newspapers I represent. I think it is wrong because I think the burden is too great, frankly. We had a case in court last month where I thought—and so did most people actually watching it, I think—that the burden of proof was pretty well satisfied by the evidence we called. Even on the claimant's own account, he behaved appallingly, but the jury went away and came back the next day and gave him £75,000, and it cost us about £1 million. Very interestingly, someone—and perhaps I should not be saying this—bumped into a jury member in the pub not long afterwards. He declared himself as a jury member and he said, "We did not understand any of it, so we decided there was this big rich newspaper on one side and this little guy on the other, so we decided to give it to the little guy."

  Mr Myler: That is it in a nutshell.

  Q817  Paul Farrelly: What was the case?

  Mr Crone: I should not say.

  Q818  Paul Farrelly: You have given the example. I think you should name the case.

  Mr Crone: In that case, it was a former Eastenders actor called Mo George against the Sun newspaper. It was an allegation of beating his girlfriend.

  Mr Myler: I cannot put it in any better words than that. It really does need to be addressed.

  Q819  Mr Sanders: Do you think you can change the ethics? There is a lot that is written in the newspapers that is written in code or it is hint or innuendo. Actually, if you had that system, a similar system to America, with absolute freedom of expression and of speech enshrined in a constitution, you would get rid of that innuendo and you would actually tell it like you want to tell it, and you would not be hiding behind code and hints and innuendo.

  Mr Myler: The problem that you have, and Mr Crone has just said it, is that you can have a week or a two-week trial and the jury comes out at the end of it and it does not understand what it is being asked to adjudicate on. So hinting innuendo is no good. People read newspapers to have questions answered, not to be offered more questions than we can answer.

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