Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1580 - 1599)


Mr David Schlesinger, Mr Pierre Lesourd and Mr Tony Watson

  Q1580  Chairman: The Press Association and the PA reports are absolutely crucial, are they not, for many newspapers in the country?

  Mr Watson: Yes, depending on what customer group you look at, people use us in different ways. Obviously the regional newspapers rely on the Press Association for covering national events on their behalf. The national newspapers will tend to use us as a raw material to fashion their own reports and also as a backstop, particularly in things like the coverage of Parliament. The broadcasters will use us a sort of breaking-news alert and also for background material.

  Q1581  Baroness Thornton: What about AFP?

  Mr Lesourd: Yes, it is the same commercial and economic model on our side. Sometimes we have clients buying piece by piece on the photo side because we have a huge databank, so the main newspapers have subscriptions, but sometimes individuals or some companies, for some advertising needs or editing needs, they will pick up only one, two or three pictures and then they will pay for what they need.

  Q1582  Baroness Thornton: Who are your biggest UK customers and has that changed over, say, the last 15 years? Has the nature of your customer base changed?

  Mr Schlesinger: For Reuters, I think it is what you would expect, the BBC, News International, ITN, Sky, the Telegraph Group, the Guardian Group, all the major newspaper groups and broadcasters. I think the list is probably very similar to what it was. There was a period in the late-1990s when the first internet boom developed when there were some start-up companies which jumped into the top-ten list and then disappeared very quickly, but the ones that survived are basically the same ones.

  Mr Watson: It is still the main regional newspaper groups, the national newspapers and the major broadcasters which form the bulk of our customer base. I think what is beginning to show is that there is no real growth in that market now and where we are beginning to see growth is in the digital market, either through some of those traditional customers starting to transition their brands on-line or also to the major portals and websites and even the mobile market.

  Q1583  Baroness Thornton: What would your relationship be with Google News? Do you have one?

  Mr Watson: Yes, we do, we have a commercial relationship with Google News as a supplier of content.

  Mr Lesourd: The biggest clients are about the same, BBC, Sky, the main national newspapers. The BBC is a particularly big client because now we are producing in many languages and it needs products also in other languages for BBC World and all their radio programmes outside the UK. The evolution is that as we are producing more and more, what we call, `multimedia products', so some clients, like Yahoo UK or Lycos are becoming very important and very large clients for us which was not the case, say, ten years ago. With Google, as you probably know, AFP was instrumental and we sued Google because they were using our content without respecting the copyright and the rights on property and things like that, so we managed to get an agreement with them after two years of battle in the US and the European courts, so now our relationship is, let us say, legally established and Google is a client, as are other sites.

  Q1584  Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: Mr Watson, I feel I should apologise because you probably know that the most important person in this building is not the Prime Minister, it is Chris Moncrieff, a very fine and trustworthy journalist, if I may so. I think, between you, you have answered the question about how many journalists you each employ and I think each of you said it is far more than ten or 15 years ago. Is that right?

  Mr Watson: I have not answered that question, no. In terms of numbers of journalists, if you look at the agency as a whole, which would encompass news, sport and entertainment, within the news area we would have around 170 journalists around the UK and Ireland. Of that, there would be about 125 reporters in the field, about 30 journalists involved in gathering video and the rest would be desk staff. On the sports side, we have just over 40 people working on the sports main wire and another 15 concentrating on features just for the main wire, and we do features away from the agency products and we have 35 photographers around the UK, so in total we have around 260 editorial staff working purely for the agency products.

  Q1585  Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: Is that up or down from five or ten years ago?

  Mr Watson: It is up and the main drivers have been regional coverage, and that is in terms of fulfilling some specific contracts, and I think it has also been driven by the devolution agenda and there is just more interest in regional coverage generally. The other area is multimedia and the thing that we have developed at the PA over the last three years is a video-gathering capability in recognition of the fact that particularly on-line now will support rich media and our customers' customers are expecting that.

  Q1586  Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: Do you wish to add anything, Mr Lesourd?

  Mr Lesourd: Yes. If we take our English service, the development has been considerable and very important over the last years. We are now employing a lot of British journalists, for example. The English writers in the company are mostly British and then you have a lot of Australians, New Zealanders and Americans, but the main group are British journalists. An interesting example which I was looking at yesterday, for example, as you may know, is that no British newspaper has a correspondent in Iran now because the last one, The Guardian correspondent has been expelled, so you have only three British journalists in Tehran these days. One is working for the BBC, one is working for Reuters and the other one is with AFP because our Bureau Chief in Tehran is a British journalist. Here, obviously in London, we have 38 people and most of them are British, so we are a big employer of British press journalists.

  Q1587  Chairman: It is a very interesting point you make there. Is it true that British newspapers, and we are concentrating on British newspapers at the moment rather than European newspapers generally, are now having far fewer permanent foreign correspondents than they had ten, 20 or 30 years ago?

  Mr Schlesinger: It is not just British newspapers, but I think that is a worldwide fact.

  Q1588  Chairman: People are just cutting back?

  Mr Lesourd: Yes, so it is why the news services are more and more important.

  Q1589  Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: Which leads me on to the next question I wanted to ask. What demand do you get for investigative journalism? I can understand that perhaps it is easier more in the financial services area and you might be asked to do specialist stuff there.

  Mr Schlesinger: It depends on how you define `investigative journalism'. We do not have an investigative team in the way some newspapers do where people go away for eight months collecting information and then hopefully send somebody off to prison; we do not do that. If there is a story that we feel needs more attention, we will put a team on to it, but they tend to publish as they find out. The news agency ethos is so much about getting the news out quickly that we tend to report episodically as we have it, whereas the typical investigative journalist hoards information until he or she can release it in a big bang, so that is not really the way that we are set up.

  Q1590  Chairman: Is that the same with PA?

  Mr Watson: Yes.

  Q1591  Chairman: And AFP?

  Mr Lesourd: Yes, the same thing. We have a new era. We were not maybe covering as much a few years ago, but it changed. For example, we have people specialising in following all stories on terrorism which is pretty new. For the last three or four years now, we have specialists working on that, but this is not per se investigative reporters.

  Q1592  Chairman: So we are really relying, particularly on the foreign side, on the news agencies to do the old foreign correspondent job really, are we not?

  Mr Schlesinger: I think if I were starting out in the business wanting to be a foreign correspondent, the only places I would look would be to AFP, Reuters, the BBC and maybe one or two others, but it has really shrunk down.

  Mr Lesourd: Partly the reason is when we are looking to our people, for example, English writers mostly, we do it in London mostly and we have a lot of candidates because, for these people, we offer them the world if they want it. If they want to work some day in North America, in Asia or in some other place in Europe, the best chance for them is to work for a news service like us.

  Q1593  Chairman: So in a rough world for journalists, you are in a rather saviour position?

  Mr Schlesinger: We are one of the few who have been hiring actually. When others have been hiring, we have been firing.

  Q1594  Lord Maxton: You are hiring, but are you involved in the training of those journalists? Do you actually do training courses or, if you do not, do you recruit from these universities and schools of journalism and do you help finance them in any way?

  Mr Schlesinger: We do internal training at Reuters. We have a graduate recruitment programme where we take in about a dozen people per year without journalism experience, but who have languages or have an expertise in finance and we train them to be journalists, and we train our internal staff. It is very important because I imagine we have close to 2,400 journalists around the world and these are people from 85 different nationalities, so having internal training is absolutely vital to make sure that you have a common language around ethics, a common language around standards, and that there is a common understanding about what you do and what you do not do.

  Q1595  Lord Maxton: So how long does this course last, roughly?

  Mr Schlesinger: The graduate training programme, the actual classroom part is about half a year and then they are supervised for another half a year and then they are sent out on assignment. Then we run short programmes throughout the year for established staff both in person and on-line.

  Q1596  Lord Maxton: Is that true of the others?

  Mr Watson: Yes, at the Press Association we recruit from a mixture of postgraduate courses from the universities and the regional press, typically. We have our own internal training programme which we have run now for over ten years and it has been very successful. We have the trainees running on a programme for two years which gives them a very, very broad spectrum of journalistic skills, and many of those journalists go on to senior positions within the PA or are recruited by national media.

  Mr Lesourd: It is about the same. I would just add that, just like for Reuters and the PA, we do focus a lot on languages because we need people and generally we need people with at least three languages, their first language, the one they will work in, for example, English, and then they will need at least two other languages and hopefully one rare language, like Chinese or Japanese. In Beijing, China, we have a lot of limitations to working in China and the Chinese authorities forbid us to hire Chinese journalists, so that means that all the people doing really a journalist job in Beijing, China, has to be an expatriates and that means non-Chinese, so we have to find people with a perfect knowledge of this language.

  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: On this subject of training, there is such a wide range of information available now from various mediated and unmediated sources that journalists can go to, along with the rest of us, but when you are training your journalists, how do you advise them and direct them in terms of the sources that they should be relying upon? For instance, there was an example this morning on the radio, a very trivial one, of a journalist who admitted casually that she had checked out one of her guests on Wikipedia and the information was not right. How do you help your journalists to negotiate all of that?

  Q1597  Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Perhaps I could also ask my question because it is very similar and it is specifically about the role of PR companies because we have seen an enormous rise in them. Now, clearly their clients would not be paying them if they did not think it was effective and that they were, therefore, effective in getting their story across, so how do you view the rise of PR companies and how do you ensure that it is not used as a shortcut for journalists who are under pressure in whatever way?

  Mr Schlesinger: They are excellent questions and they apply beyond just the world of journalism. I was amused that one of the clerks of the Committee had a picture purportedly of me that she had downloaded from the internet and it was the wrong person, so it can happen even in the most august circles!

  Q1598  Chairman: I think, to be fair, that it should be said that that does not apply to the Clerk of the Committee here.

  Mr Schlesinger: It was one of the staff of the Committee, but it was the wrong David Schlesinger.

  Q1599  Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: There is no such thing surely!

  Mr Schlesinger: Basically the rules have not changed. You go to sources who have standing, who know what they are talking about, you go to not just one source, but you check out everything and you do not take shortcuts, but the role of the PR companies is very interesting because sometimes it is a shortcut and sometimes it is simply the necessary way to get information, so, as a journalist, you always evaluate whether the person you are talking to has standing to know what they are talking about, whether they have a particular axe to grind and, in the case of a PR company, of course they have a certain reason for wanting to speak to you or wanting to present you with information, so knowing that helps you evaluate what that information is and evaluate what else you have to do to check out the story. I think that, if you stick to the basic rules which have always been enforced in journalism, you can deal with the new media as effectively as you can with the old media.

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