Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1600 - 1619)


Mr David Schlesinger, Mr Pierre Lesourd and Mr Tony Watson

  Q1600  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Well, it is interesting that you put it like that because you imply that it is obvious which sources have standing and which do not, but I would have thought, as a lay person, that the number of sources that are arising almost daily which offer themselves as authentic is quite alarming, given that journalists are often under pressure, so really where does the authenticity of sources come from, how is it derived?

  Mr Schlesinger: Well, you have to develop the relationship with the source.

  Mr Lesourd: We have internal rules which are regularly updated. For example, it was interesting that you cited Wikipedia, for example. We have a written rule inside our company which forbids any journalist from using Wikipedia. We have the same thing, which has been updated last week, for Facebook because there was an incident last week with Bilawal Bhutto in Oxford where some newspaper picked up some pictures on the Facebook site about Mr Bhutto which turned out to be fake, so we are trying to be vigilant about it, but obviously every day you have new possible virtual sources where we have to be very careful and journalists have to recruit their sources normally, so he cannot follow only one source.

  Mr Watson: I agree with all of that. It comes back down to the guidance that you give your staff, how it is updated and good training. We have got a saying in the agency, that we must be first, but first we must be right, and that is the sort of standard that we live by and we take a very, very serious view of making sure our information is accurate because we have this incredible responsibility because it is going out to so many news sources.

  Q1601  Chairman: But you must be inundated, both in your old regional newspaper job and now in PA, by the press releases from the PR companies and the rest.

  Mr Watson: Yes, and I imagine many of them end up in the bin, but there are certain sectors of the news industry where it is a necessary fact of life. For example, within the entertainment arena, the people who control access to celebrities and people in show business, you have to deal with them, but it is a balance of deciding whether the restrictions they place on that access are worth that particular assignment, so that is an ongoing process.

  Q1602  Chairman: The amount of these kinds of releases, and I was going to say "pressure", but that is overstating it perhaps, but that has increased, has it, over the last ten or 20 years?

  Mr Watson: Yes, it has, with the advent of email.

  Lord Inglewood: First, I feel I should declare an interest as Chairman of the Cumberland Newspaper Group and we are one of the shareholders of PA.

  Chairman: Actually, our interests are on the side there, and perhaps I should just mention that I am Chairman of the Thomson Foundation which trains journalists mainly in developing countries. It took its name from Roy Thomson, but in fact our connection is an historic connection and not a current financial connection.

  Q1603  Lord Inglewood: You explained to us that in fact, it seems for all of you, there has been an increase in demand for the services you supply, but have you noticed in your experience a change in the character both of the customers in terms of who they are and also what they may be wanting and, in particular, has there been any change in the demand for what you might call `hard news'?

  Mr Schlesinger: I think absolutely. I mentioned that the list of customers was very similar to what it was a decade ago in the UK, but you have to remember that three of those at one point had 24-hour television stations and now two still do and that was not something they had ten years ago. Also, now all of our newspaper customers have websites and that is something they did not have ten years ago, so there is an absolutely voracious demand for news of all kinds, hard, soft, all kinds.

  Q1604  Lord Inglewood: But, for example, is there more demand for soft news, do you think, than there was previously?

  Mr Watson: I think there is, but it is in addition to rather than instead of, and that is reflected in the increased numbers of journalists that all three agencies have talked about. Yes, there is a very great interest in celebrity. Now, we might not regard that as serious news, but it is a fact of life and, if you are supplying a news media that deals in that output, you have to reflect it in your own output.

  Q1605  Lord Inglewood: Would it then be fair to say, if we can put it this way, that there has been an increase in demand for news and information about celebrity which has driven you to supply more of that?

  Mr Watson: Yes, I think that is fair comment, just speaking for the PA.

  Mr Lesourd: Yes, we have too. Inside the AFP, it is a big debate because the traditional view is that people say we should not go too much on these kinds of subjects, but obviously we have to, but where are the limits and so on, particularly in France where you have very strict privacy laws on photos, on texts, and there is also the debate about our President—

  Q1606  Lord Inglewood: Which category is that in?

  Mr Lesourd:—so it is a big debate. Obviously the clients want more and more content on celebrities and sometimes it is difficult to fix a limit of what is still news and what is not really news, and then we are back on to the PR stuff on things like that.

  Mr Schlesinger: But this is a question that is beyond just the media clients for us. We know from our usage statistics that our financial clients who, you would think, would be spending their time trying to make millions at every second, in fact the most-read stories tend to be sport and celebrity even amongst our financial guys, so in any moment of downtime they are checking their team or checking their sites.

  Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: That explains Northern Rock!

  Q1607  Lord Inglewood: And Newcastle United!

  Mr Lesourd: For example, we have a huge databank of photos with millions of digital photos and things like that and last year worldwide the picture which has been most downloaded, probably hundreds of thousands of times, was a photo of Prince William with Kate Middleton and probably not a special, quality picture, but people are just fascinated by celebrity here in this country.

  Q1608  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I was just thinking, apart from celebrity and sport which I think we all appreciate, given the coverage that everybody has now internationally, globally, is there any reflection of that in the demand for foreign stories and international stories?

  Mr Schlesinger: That is our bread and butter at Reuters because we are in fact not local anywhere.

  Q1609  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: But is there any increased demand? Is that one of your growth areas?

  Mr Schlesinger: I think the real growth is in what I would call the `emerging markets'. There is always going to be interest in, say, the G8 countries, but what is growing now is interest in the Gulf, interest in developing Africa and we are seeing growth there.

  Mr Watson: Yes, I think it has. We have actually located two journalists in LA for the first time over the last couple of years and in New York to service that particular demand.

  Mr Lesourd: Our main zone of development in this is Asia, China obviously, but India also is very important.

  Q1610  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: The question I want to ask is about foreign bureaux and I know that the Press Association does not have any and, as far as I can work out for AFP, you say you have them in quite a number of countries, but I think you have probably got something like 55 countries where you have not got a bureau.

  Mr Lesourd: No, we have a bureau in 110 countries, at least one, and, for example, in the US we have more than one bureau.

  Q1611  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Quite, but, out of the 165 countries that you span, it says in the background information that 110 have bureaux, so you presumably have some without bureaux?

  Mr Lesourd: What I am told is that AFP has bureaux in 110 countries and that means we probably have 150 or 160 bureaux overall.

  Chairman: Which is 150 more.

  Q1612  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Indeed. That must have grown quite considerably over the years?

  Mr Lesourd: Yes, in the last ten years there has been a lot of development.

  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: You have answered the question about the foreign affairs stories, so that is covered, thank you.

  Q1613  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: I think it must be true to say that recently there has been a huge change throughout the whole news industry both from your point of view and from the point of view of your clients because of the advent of mass media both from where they can receive their information and also the variety of platforms over which they can now distribute the information they receive from you. When looking at the question of quality and what internal checks you have to ensure the quality, accuracy and impartiality of your stories, I imagine that what you have to do in that area has become much more complicated. We have been given two examples from AFP of what they now do, which is ban access to Wikipedia and Facebook from the point of view of acquiring material to then distribute to their clients, but it would be interesting to hear some more from all three of you of both the effect of this change which has caused you to alter the way you control this particular area and what your methods are.

  Mr Watson: I think that one can get too caught up in the delivery mechanism for content. The internet, mobile phones, they are a delivery pipe as opposed to a printed newspaper or linear broadcast. The controls that you apply to the gathering of the content are the same irrespective of which mechanism you use to deliver it to your customers and our customers deliver to their customers. I think it comes back to having experienced hands who are running your news desks, good training, as we have talked about, strong, clear guidance and things like, for example, the Reuters Trust and the PA has just recently established a Trust so that there is an independent view of how we are performing in some of these areas. Yes, there is a multiplicity of information sources out there, but we would still expect our journalists to focus on trusted, verifiable sources.

  Q1614  Chairman: Tell us about the PA Trust because it is a very important point that Lady Eccles has made.

  Mr Watson: At the moment, the PA is owned by mostly media companies and four large companies own something like 67% of the business. While the shareholders have an interest in the PA retaining a high-quality service, there is no real issue, but I think we are looking to the future when possibly the ownership structure may change, although there is nothing to suggest that that is the case at the moment, and we wanted some mechanism which sat outside of the business to actually look at how we performed against the standards that we set for ourselves which can be summed up as fast, fair and accurate. What we wanted to do was to ensure that, in a changing media world where there are likely to be lots of different commercial pressures, there was no dilution of those core principles, and the Trust, although it reports to the Board, is comprised of three respected figures from the industry who have no relationship with any of our shareholders who interview myself and the Editor on a regular basis and they then produce a report for the Board on how we are performing against the standards we have set ourselves.

  Q1615  Chairman: Would it be possible for you to send us an outline of that in even more detail, if that were possible?

  Mr Watson: It would. It is still in progress because we have actually only just confirmed the Trust at the beginning of this year, but yes, I am very happy to do that.

  Q1616  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: But it was the increasing complexity of the media world that really caused you to have a need for the Trust?

  Mr Watson: Yes, and possibly imagining a different ownership structure if some of the interests of the shareholders did not remain the same over time.

  Mr Schlesinger: For what it is worth, we have mentioned some of the mechanisms we have, and training, I think, is very important and it is not just training on the nuts and bolts of how to run a story, but it is really training around ethics and standards which we make sure everybody goes through, but having the Reuters Founders Share Company, I think, is extremely important. The difference between the Reuters Founders Share Company and the Trust, as Mr Watson just described for the PA, is that the Reuters Founders Share Company is completely separate from the Board of the Group and in fact the Chairman of the Board of the Group each year has to tell the Reuters Founders Share Company that the Group as a whole is in accordance with the Trust, so there is an obligation on the main Board to report to the Trust that the company is still upholding all of those principles. I have to meet with the trustees twice a year and the trustees, in the course of their business dealings and also in their private travel, visit bureaux around the world to find out for themselves what the situation is on the ground, so it provides that outside perspective to make sure that our internal standards are up to what we say they are. In those internal standards, the one thing we have not mentioned is the editing process. We believe strongly in what we call the `two pairs of eyes rule', so no journalist can put out his or her story directly to subscribers and it must go through an editor who checks to make sure that it is up to standard, and we have a very strict policy of correcting errors and correcting them swiftly and openly, so all these things contribute to, I think, an ethos within the organisation where, even as the media winds change, we are maintaining our standards.

  Q1617  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: And this ethos will be protected if the merger takes place?

  Mr Schlesinger: Yes, because, as I said, the Thomson family has accepted the Trust for the entire Group and the majority shareholder has agreed to vote its shares in accordance with the trustees of the Trust on matters pertaining to the Trust.

  Q1618  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: Is there anything you wish to add from AFP?

  Mr Lesourd: Just to say that the editorial policy is about the same and no story will go directly to a client, but it has to go from one journalist who is writing the story or producing the photos and it goes through what we call `the desk' and there will be some editing and checking on everything. In terms of organisation, the AFP has no trust per se, but we have what we call in French `une haute autorité' which has three members above the Board, so, if any clients think that something has not been fair or there is something wrong, they can see these members who are absolutely independent of the agency. Then we have the Board and the Board elects the CEO of the agency. It is a 15-member Board and eight, which means full majority, of this Board are newspapers, French newspaper editors, two are elected from inside the company, one representing journalists, one representing the other members of the agency, and then you have two members who are representing the public, radio and television, and three others are representing the Government, so one is from the Foreign Ministry, one is from the Finance Ministry and the last one is from the Prime Minister Office. That means that you can say that five of these members out of the 15 are representing the Government in the agency.

  Q1619  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: Has the Board membership had to change at all to reflect the change in the media world?

  Mr Lesourd: No. Our President would like, yes, this to be changed, for example, to be able to have on the Board some representatives from foreign clients. We have huge clients in Japan, for example, and some are a lot bigger than any French clients we have, so why not be on the Board? It is one of the things which is being proposed by our President right now.

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