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

Examination of Witness (Question Numbers 1120-1139)


14 JULY 2009

  Q1120  Philip Davies: Is it not the case that the News International line to take on the Goodman affair was that this was somebody who was operating as a maverick, totally independently, nobody knew what he was doing (although, clearly, somebody must have known what he was doing). This was the picture being given. Do the allegations in the Guardian not suggest that rather than this being a maverick, acting independently, there was a more widespread culture within the organisation of the News of the World which must have been evident to more people?

  Mr Toulmin: I think that is the way that the allegations have been interpreted by a large number of people, and you can ask the Guardian whether it was their intention to imply that. That is certainly the impression a lot of people have got.

  Q1121  Philip Davies: I am asking you if that is your impression.

  Mr Toulmin: At this stage it is not, because we have had, 2½ years ago, a comprehensive exchange with Colin Myler who conducted an internal inquiry there. If there is anything in the report and anything that you discover today that suggests that that is not true, then, obviously, that would suggest that we have been misled and, of course, we would be right on to it. We will be writing to the paper once we have as much information as we can possibly lay our hands on.

  Q1122  Philip Davies: Do you think that some people might think that this is the PCC being ineffectual, closing ranks on the newspaper industry, on the journalism industry, not wanting to have a big hoo-ha because it might undermine the whole concept of self-regulation and the rationale behind the PCC itself?

  Mr Toulmin: I think whatever the PCC did—if we introduced hanging and whipping and all sorts of ghastly public humiliations for editors—there will always be people that would say that. So I am quite happy to accept that. However, what people should look at is the fact that all of this, all of our activity, takes place in an entirely transparent way. We did not have to, in the way that we are constituted, conduct this exercise two years ago; we did because we thought that public confidence was likely to be undermined by the events at the News of the World in relation to Goodman and Mulcaire. The newspaper and the company co-operated with us at that time. It is worth bearing in mind that we have actually stretched the boundaries of our remit as far as possible. We are a complaints body; we are not statutory; we are like an ombudsman, really. People want us to be more like a general regulator with statutory powers and so on. That is a separate argument; the fact is we are not that body. Nonetheless, based on the industry's voluntary compliance with the Code of Practice we went as far as we could at that time in order to shine a light on how these transgressions at the paper had been allowed to arise. Of course, there is absolutely nothing in it for the PCC to cover anything up at all, or to be fobbed off in any way. If there is any evidence, as I said, that we have been misled we will be straight on to the newspaper, and we will in any case give them an opportunity to come back to us on that. Just one final point I would make: I am, as you know, just an official of the PCC; the Board of the PCC will be the body that will decide, ultimately, whether it has been misled. The Commission is meeting next week, at which all these matters will be discussed.

  Q1123  Philip Davies: Finally, if I may, Chairman, it seems that the Guardian must have seen, in order to publish their story, some sealed court papers. I just wondered if the PCC had any concerns about how the Guardian may have arrived at its particular story.

  Mr Toulmin: I think there are all sorts of issues there. I think the focus at the moment is on the News of the World. I think the Guardian would say that what they have done is publish a story in the public interest. We are not going to find out what the source of the story is because they have an obligation to protect their confidential sources, and that is something that we respect. So I do not think we are ever going to get to the bottom of quite what Mr Davies has or has not seen, and that is probably as it should be. The Code of Practice itself says that journalists must respect confidential sources, so we certainly would not be going down that path.

  Q1124  Rosemary McKenna: Good morning. Are the PCC not concerned that there is an attitude among journalists that this is widespread? For example, on Sunday morning, on The Andrew Marr Show, in the newspaper review, both Sir Trevor McDonald and Amanda Platell, well-known journalists, actually said: "Why are we surprised?" They both actually said that: "Why are we surprised? We know this kind of behaviour goes on." Are you not concerned about that?

  Mr Toulmin: I think it is very depressing that people think that it is widespread and common and that journalists routinely engage in that sort of activity. Of course it is; there is no doubt about it. From where we are sitting, there is evidence—and we have seen evidence, through the court case and there is further evidence in the Guardian—that this has gone on; anecdotally we heard that it used to be more widespread. However, action has been taken, through the courts, the police inquiry at the News of the World, the PCC's activity and your Inquiry, since all these things apparently were more common, to ensure that it does not happen again. I think we ought to focus for a large part on where we are now. Of course, it is easy to condemn historical transgressions, and there is absolutely no complacency about that at all, but ...

  Q1125  Rosemary McKenna: The point is: are we sure? That is the point, is it not? Are we sure that it is historical; that it is not happening today?

  Mr Toulmin: We cannot be 100% sure without having some sort of God-given powers of seeing into journalists' minds and private activity. The point is, if you have any suspicion you can go to the police, you can complain to a lawyer, you can come to the PCC, you can go to a newspaper, you can tell Nick Davies about it and he will probably write a lengthy story about how frightful journalists are. There are many ways of obtaining redress. So much scrutiny has been brought into this area in the last few years that I think we can be far more certain than we were that it really does not go on.

  Q1126  Rosemary McKenna: Or that it has gone deeper underground. That is the other scenario.

  Mr Toulmin: All these things are hypothetical. I just do not know. I would be extremely surprised, given everything that has happened—the newspapers are fully aware of the sorts of punishments that are available—should they be caught out doing it again. I just cannot imagine. I do not understand why they would do that.

  Q1127  Adam Price: Your demeanour, Mr Toulmin, this morning is admirably relaxed, but you are in a fairly unique position here, are you not?

  Mr Toulmin: A fairly —?

  Q1128  Adam Price: You are in a fairly unique position, the PCC, because two of your members, are they not, are effectively accusing each other of lying?

  Mr Toulmin: You mean people who subscribe to the PCC Code?

  Q1129  Adam Price: The Guardian has said that they know for certain that several News of the World reporters were aware of the `phone hacking, which directly contradicts the evidence that was given to this Committee and several statements made subsequently by News of the World executives. The News of the World, in its editorial on Sunday, accused the Guardian of being "deliberately misleading". Is this not a crisis for the industry; that two members of the PCC are accusing each other of misleading the British public, and only one of them can be right?

  Mr Toulmin: Well, I, perhaps, have a slightly longer memory about these sorts of spats. These things go on between newspapers all the time, and there is nothing new about that, at all. We are in a slightly better position than you might imagine in that we do not take complaints from one newspaper about another, or one journalist about another; we tend to take the view that they can look after themselves. So various degrees of scrutiny will be brought to this. Of course there is the PCC, and I have told you what steps we are taking, and then there is, of course, this Inquiry, which is a public forum, where people will have to come and account for themselves. Doubtless, people will make their own minds up as to precisely where the truth lies here, but we have not been asked to adjudicate on that matter, as we might be slightly partial.

  Q1130  Mr Sanders: What you seem to be saying is you cannot believe what you read in the newspapers.

  Mr Toulmin: Those are your words, Mr Sanders, not mine.

  Q1131  Adam Price: Private Eye is not a member of the PCC.

  Mr Toulmin: No.

  Q1132  Adam Price: However, I am sure you are an avid reader of Street of Shame.

  Mr Toulmin: I am, of course.

  Q1133  Adam Price: Can I remind you of a story which appeared in Private Eye in July 2007, where they alleged that Glenn Mulcaire, subsequent to the court case, had been paid a sum in the region of £200,000 by News of the World, they claimed, to buy his silence, and they also went on to say that Clive Goodman could expect a similar payment. Were you aware of that allegation? It has not been denied by the News of the World, to my knowledge.

  Mr Toulmin: Was I aware of that? I cannot quite remember that particular story, I am afraid, but it was not actually pertinent to what we were trying to do with the industry, which, as I said earlier, was building on what we knew already through the court case to make sure that things did not happen again. I do not know whether that is true or not, and that would be a question for the principals concerned.

  Q1134  Adam Price: You will put that question to the News of the World?

  Mr Toulmin: Well, is it relevant?

  Q1135  Adam Price: It is relevant.

  Mr Toulmin: Is it relevant to whether or not we were misled? Is that what you are suggesting?

  Q1136  Adam Price: It is relevant in the sense that the allegation is that they were trying to buy his silence. Specifically, the News of the World denies, of course, that they are trying to suppress evidence, so it is a perfectly reasonable question to put to them. Is this true? Did they pay Glenn Mulcaire £200,000—or somebody close to him £200,000—subsequent to his conviction?

  Mr Toulmin: If there is evidence that in doing so they tried to suppress evidence to us that would have been relevant to what we were trying to achieve, then of course it is pertinent to our inquiry. However, we are not going to chase up every rumour and bit of tittle-tattle that we read in Private Eye, because we would be even busier than we are at the moment.

  Q1137  Adam Price: It is a very specific allegation, it has not been denied; surely, the public interest suggests that we have a right to know whether it is true or not. If it is not true they can deny it and then we are all clear.

  Mr Toulmin: It is the sort of nugget that might be quite interesting to know, just to satisfy people's curiosity, but the question for us is whether it is pertinent or not to the report that we wrote and the inquiries that we made at the time. That is the relevance for us.

  Q1138  Adam Price: I think it is extraordinary that you think that it is just an interesting "nugget". Surely, it goes to the heart of how the News of the World has approached this whole issue. The story that the Guardian wrote was about a pay-off and the sealing of court papers to prevent that information from going into the public domain. This allegation is suggesting something similar. Those allegations start to look like a pattern of offending behaviour. We need to know whether they are true, surely?

  Mr Toulmin: I think it is important to recognise that there is a division of responsibility here, and the PCC's authority is rooted in the Code of Practice, which is, as you know, a voluntary document which journalists and editors sign up to. Our way into this issue is clause 10 of the Code which relates to subterfuge and undercover journalism. Our concern, therefore, is respect for that Code by journalists going forward, and, of course, if there is a complaint then we will look into that. There are all sorts of things that go on at newspapers, no doubt, that people might want to know about, or that otherwise fall under different authorities, such as the police; there are all sorts of laws and rules that apply. However, I do not think it is very fair to expect the PCC to "hoover-up" every last allegation that is made about either an individual journalist or a freelancer, and so on; it has got to be relevant and rooted in the rules that we are set up to apply. If that is the case with this payment, which we will obviously look at, then it will become pertinent, but, on the face of it, it does not necessarily sound like it is. Again, that will be a matter for our Board of Directors to consider next week when we put all the information to them.

  Q1139  Paul Farrelly: Just on that point, is payment to criminals a breach of the Code?

  Mr Toulmin: In some circumstances it can be, yes.

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