Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1720 - 1739)


Mr Roy Greenslade

  Q1720  Chairman: When you were there did you have any feeling that his financial affairs were in a total mess; that he was crooked?

  Mr Greenslade: There were always rumours that he was short of money, not that you could ever tell that because he still threw largesse about; even then, in my period there, he bought the New York Daily News. He once rang me and said, "I have a splash for you tomorrow, I have just bought all the papers in Croatia." I tried to point out that that would not make a great Daily Mirror splash; but, in other words, we got no inkling. I left in March 1991 and, as you probably know, he went for his swim in November 1991, so there was still a six-month gap there. There were always rumours and some members of staff, noticeably Paul Foot, did their best to try and track down whether it might be true or not, but we could not obtain any evidence.

  Q1721  Chairman: And no regulatory authority could have intervened?

  Mr Greenslade: Within the paper probably not but you have to think about the auditors and whether or not they were doing a good enough job, but that is old news.

  Q1722  Chairman: You can actually prevent, can you not, someone on fit and proper grounds from taking over as a proprietor?

  Mr Greenslade: Yes. That has been used a couple of times. It was used notably when David Sullivan, the Daily Sport owner tried to buy a paper in Bristol; he was considered not a fit and proper person. I actually found that a rather extraordinary reason for not allowing purchase of a newspaper and when I have complained previously about subjective public interest tests that is one of the subjective tests. I absolutely dislike Mr Sullivan's empire, I dislike Mr Desmond's empire, but whether that makes them, since they are engaged in legal activities, not fit and proper people to own a newspaper is, I think, a moot point, and it is one of those points that I think the Committee ought to think about in deciding how you make the public interest test more objective.

  Q1723  Chairman: We will look at that. Tell us about the Murdoch press—you have worked for both The Sun and The Sunday Times—the influence there?

  Mr Greenslade: At various times I suppose over four different occasions, so it amounts to 12 years in total, I worked for Rupert Murdoch. Of course, as an assistant editor at The Sun, which made me number three on the paper, my dealings with him were tangential.

  Q1724  Chairman: Who was editing then?

  Mr Greenslade: Kelvin MacKenzie. So I heard a lot from Kelvin about what Mr Murdoch said on the phone day by day—that would be relayed—"Old gorilla biscuits has got it in for me today!" He would come out rubbing his backside as if he had been given a good kicking on the phone. So he had a really quite interesting relationship with Murdoch and we below him got to know what was being said. My own personal dealings with Murdoch during The Sun days and then at The Sunday Times, where I was also number three in the hierarchy were fantastically cordial; I never had any reason to think that he was being unusually interfering. He used to like to gossip, he used to like to know what was going in the paper; he liked to know who had said what about whom. I never received a single instruction from Murdoch to actually not do something or to do something, although he would certainly hint.

  Q1725  Chairman: But you knew what was expected of you?

  Mr Greenslade: Yes. The most important thing about the selection of an editor and then of the editor's hierarchy is that you are very well aware of what the proprietor wants—a lot of second guessing therefore goes on. A classic example, since we have touched on Maxwell, is when Maxwell died I was then working very briefly as consultant editor at the Today newspaper, a paper again, by the way, that Rupert should never have been allowed to buy, but there we are. I was immediately asked by the editor at the time, Martin Dunn, if I would write down all the kinds of things I have told you of my memories of Maxwell, and I was approached by the then Chief Executive of News International and therefore Rupert Murdoch's man on earth in Britain at the time, Andrew Knight, and he said to me, "Rupert would like you to be kind to Maxwell"—we did not know anything, by the way, in November about the pension problem, which did not occur for a month afterwards—and I took that on board. Some time later, in a reminiscence about five years later I mentioned that Murdoch had asked me to be kind and I got a phone call from Andrew Knight to say, "Actually Rupert did not say a word about that, it was just my idea; I thought he would want you to be kind and that is why I was telling you." That is a very typical example about somebody acting on behalf of Rupert who thinks he is doing it for the best possible reason. By the way, I think that was a perfectly reasonable thing to ask me to do; I do not think it changed much of what I wrote anyway. But it is in the nature of any organisation where there is a hierarchy that the people below the man at the top will always attempt to please the man at the top by trying to guess what he wants.

  Q1726  Chairman: What you were saying about Kelvin MacKenzie and The Sun and the relationship between him and Mr Murdoch and the amount of advice he was given, if I can put it that way, seems to be rather different from what the editor of The Sun was saying last week that really all Mr Murdoch was interested in was celebrity coverage and Big Brother. It seems to be a bit more profound than that.

  Mr Greenslade: I can only think that she was either being economical with the truth or that Mr Murdoch has mellowed a great deal. I think it also goes back to the difference in Rupert Murdoch's empire and the difference of society today. The 1980s when I was at The Sun were a fantastically rugged time; there was still a clash between socialism and Thatcherism and between communism and capitalism. The collapse of communism, the collapse of a socialist alternative, as it were—now I think it is social democratic—has really removed the kind of ruggedness, so the involvement of Rupert, which was very much about politics, has been removed to a large extent. Therefore, it is now who manages best the economy or who manages politics best, rather than really an ideological divide; and I think that Rupert really fought that kind of ideological war and used The Sun as a weapon to do so. I think the difference now is about whether or not he can maintain the sales of The Sun and it is an argument about which is the best way of doing it, and I think Rebekah Wade's evidence reflects that.

  Q1727  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Before I ask the questions I want to ask could you comment briefly on what Andrew Neil said right at the beginning of his evidence about the rather extraordinary proposition that lies behind a lot of this debate, that newspaper proprietors should not interfere, as it were, in the content of their newspapers. Do you have a view about that?

  Mr Greenslade: Of course! As an editor you want the greatest amount of autonomy. You are never likely to rise above the position of editor unless you get extremely rich; therefore, that is going to be the zenith of your journalistic career and at that moment you wish to exercise the greatest amount of power and influence over the content of your newspaper. Anything which intrudes into that is a pain. I believe that the difficulty that exists between the relationship between proprietors and editors is opacity—a lack of transparency. I have spoken about that in many ways with the Maxwell way at least everyone knew where you were. It is the discreetness, the using of other channels, the word on the telephone and then you will have heard rightly editors want to deny that they are ever influenced and so on by their proprietors because that gives them a certain sense of dignity, whereas proprietors wish to cloak it because they do not wish to be seen involving themselves in editorial interference because that will bring them into public disrepute and because their papers will be largely seen as Rupert Murdoch's Times, Rupert Murdoch's Sunday Times, and so on. So I think what I would always be calling for is a much more overt and transparent communication between editor and proprietor and in many ways what Andrew Neil said about all the financial risks are taken by the owners and so on is perfectly true; they are the owners. It is, to use a phrase common in Fleet Street, their train set and they work the signals and they own the trains and they own the track; and given that they do that why should they not be involved in what goes into their newspapers? Let me just introduce this idea to you. The difference between the newspaper business and any other business is that there are four reasons for owning a newspaper; I call them the four Ps—profit, propaganda, prestige and public service. No one really owns a newspaper for one of those reasons, it is always much more complex than that; but generally a public limited company will own it for profit and profits need to be made by everyone else as well—always not always. For instance, Tony O'Reilly owns The Independent newspapers which have always made a loss ever since he bought them; he calls them a calling card, he clearly owns them for prestige. We know that Rupert Murdoch—and he is quite overt about it in what he says in the interference of The Sun and News of the World, that he owns them partly for propaganda and partly for profit. We know that the Scott Trust will say that The Guardian they own is for public service, and we will, by the way, always hear every proprietor pay lip service to the idea that they are in fact in it for public service, despite the other reasons. So those four overlapping reasons as they try and work out their relationship with their editors, as they work out, most importantly, their public profile, have to be taken on board in every consideration of the relationship between editor and proprietor.

  Q1728  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: That leads helpfully on to the question of regulation, the possibility of regulation either internal or external to preserve editorial independence. You heard Andrew Neil tell us in fairly unambiguous terms that he thought that was pretty much a waste of time and that the most important thing that needs to be preserved is diversity of ownership and if you have diversity of ownership—and I paraphrase his remarks of course—then most of the rest of it will regulate itself into a state of balance. Do you have a view about what he said about that and do you have your own view—I am sure you do—about whether or not there are ways in which editorial can be preserved through regulatory structures, whether they be internal or external?

  Mr Greenslade: I have thought incredibly deeply about this subject because it is the subject about how you sort this out, and I cannot see that there could be a form of regulation which would not either inhibit market freedom or inhibit press freedom. It is incredibly difficult to find a mechanism which could intervene in that position. All I would say is that at the moment we have sufficient diversity in order that we police each other. I think it is quite clear that the media generally but newspapers particularly are jealous guardians of their own business and are constantly seeking out weaknesses in their rivals and trying to point it up and so on. So at least we police each other. The important thing, therefore, is that we might call on proprietors not to be so mealy-mouthed and not to be so economical with the truth about their relationship—we could call on that, I do not think it would make much difference. But at the moment as long as you have a mechanism which ensures diversity that will work better, and that has been the great failing in the past. There is no real genuine reason why Rupert Murdoch should have ever been enabled to buy The Times and The Sunday Times, and certainly no reason why he should have bought the Today newspaper, giving him five national newspapers at one time, which he later closed, by the way, which could have been another voice elsewhere. I think it was the failure of the regulatory authorities and of the political machine to ensure that those papers were not sold elsewhere. By the way, Harry Evans did have a possible consortium; it is perfectly true that The Times newspaper was a profitable organisation and it was portrayed as not being, so there was a terrible mistake there, and that is why we now talk consistently so much about Rupert Murdoch, because this man controls four very important voices where perhaps he should only ever have controlled two.

  Q1729  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: So do you think that diversity, clearly at the moment, is adequate, at least?

  Mr Greenslade: I do at the moment.

  Q1730 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Do you think it is likely to remain sufficiently protected under the regulatory system that we have at present? Do you think that system is robust enough or can you see weaknesses?

  Mr Greenslade: I think there are weaknesses because there is a problem here and let us try to isolate the problem. It is that some people are very good at producing newspapers and Murdoch is a classic example of that; and some people are very poor at producing newspapers. So the difficulty with maintaining diversity is always how do you ensure in getting a plurality of voices that you are not stifling the good newspaper owner, who would give life and breathe life into an organ, and at the same time ensure that you are not giving your paper to somebody who eventually is going to kill it off. I think that is the great difficulty. Really in a sense—and I say that as a precursor to saying that what you need is a mechanism which ensures that the tests that you give every time a newspaper is bought, sold or started has to ensure that it is as objective as possible, that it segments the audience properly so that you ensure you are getting a plurality of voice across a segmented audience—I am talking about class and demographics here—and at the same time that you ensure that you do not stifle initiative by those who perhaps have more than they should but at least are good newspaper owners. I think this is a really difficult conundrum to sort out.

  Q1731  Chairman: But we are where we are, though, are we not, as far as newspapers are concerned? We can fight the battles of yesterday—

  Mr Greenslade: Yes, you cannot divest; I am not calling for divestment, I think it would be iniquitous. What you could say about Rupert Murdoch is that he has kept a loss making newspaper in The Times going for the best part of 26 years and you should not take that away from him as he is on the verge of making a profit from it.

  Q1732  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: I think you have pretty well answered this question, but from the perspective of regulation we have evidence from the NUJ who feel that there is a strong case for putting the regulation of press standards on an appropriate statutory footing given the failure of the PCC to maintain adequate standards of accuracy and fairness in the press. Do you think there is a case for clauses being written into journalists' contracts protecting their independence?

  Mr Greenslade: No. I think all newspapers are run in a hierarchical way and if you get journalists having contracts which in many ways allow them to say, "I am not doing that, I will not do this," then within the organisation in which they exist they would simply be frozen out—the maverick with an organisation will be identified as such, who will be standing on principles which are perhaps not shared by the rest of their organisation. I do not mind the collective, I do not mind if that collective trade union—from which I have just happened to resign—wishes to stand up and represent the whole staff; but to put individuals in the position in which they say, "As my contract of employment I will not do this or will not do that," I think would create a number of running troubles and in the end would not actually come out with a positive result.

  Q1733  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Do you agree with them that the PCC is not doing its job properly?

  Mr Greenslade: No, I am not so down on the PCC. I am a heavy critic of the PCC over specific matters but I think every case should be taken on its merits. The failing of the PCC is the failing to adjudicate often enough. It is an arbitration and it resolves too many cases that I feel it should go on to adjudicate for.

  Q1734  Chairman: For what purpose?

  Mr Greenslade: Because I think that newspapers escape censure and punishment too often when they actually at the final hour do some kind of deal to get themselves out of a mess, when they breach the rules as it were. For instance, we would not in law allow somebody who had broken the law to say, "Now that I have apologised right at the final hour no punishment, please." I think that could be a mitigation circumstance but the truth is that they do not go to adjudication often enough. But that having been said, as an example of self-regulation in a very, very difficult set of situations in which they must not inhibit freedom of the press, in which they do not have investigative powers to ensure that the reporters do have the sources they claim to have, I think it does on balance a pretty good job—better than the Press Council that preceded it.

  Q1735  Lord Maxton: Do you think it should have the power to investigate without a complaint?

  Mr Greenslade: There are two problems. Firstly, it would cost a fortune because you would need to increase the size of the Press Complaints Commission's offices to a fantastic level. Secondly, and most importantly, I think you would introduce lawyers into the conundrum; that is, immediately you started investigating you would have legal apparatus coming in and I think that would inhibit first of all the speed with which they generally carry out their work, and I am not absolutely certain in this situation that it would succeed because most of these investigations would be about whether or not the journalist had the source they claimed to have; and because we believe that journalists have the right to maintain a protection of their sources and their confidentiality I do not think that would work either.

  Q1736  Lord Maxton: Do you actually believe that there is a concentration of ownership of the media in this country?

  Mr Greenslade: Of overall media?

  Q1737  Lord Maxton: Yes, in the wider sense. If so, do you think it is to the benefit of the owners?

  Mr Greenslade: I think consolidation has gone about as far as it can and I think it is free flowing; I think we might see, for instance, other divestments gradually anyway. The largest media organisation in this country is the BBC, as you will hear Rupert Murdoch say endlessly. I am happy about that, by the way, and I am happy that a public service broadcaster should be our biggest media baron, as it were—that is fine with me. As for the private ownership of newspapers, we still have six or seven voices and if you look back through the history of newspapers, back to the wartime that is roughly the same number as we have always had. So I am not dismayed about that at all. I would hate to think that we are going to lose too many but the truth is—and you did ask about the future—I would say that we are going to lose voices in the next ten to 20 years and that might be worrying, except that militating against that, to go to your point earlier, is that the rise of the Internet is changing everything. In fact we may be actually discussing ownership and worrying about ownership of newspapers at the very minute that the technology is already creating a situation in which that ownership is going to be less of a problem than it has ever been in the past.

  Q1738  Lord Maxton: Should we therefore be concerned about the ownership of platforms at the Internet level rather than perhaps the ownership of specific titles and specific news outlets?

  Mr Greenslade: You could say that, if you are worried about Google and Yahoo! and so on, although whether or not they are as influential as papers have been—and I say that very carefully because I should have said earlier, but I will say it now, that I believe we are actually seeing that newspapers are less influential than they have ever been in my lifetime because we are seeing a fragmentation of the media; and because if you look at today's Financial Times you will see that the social attitudes surveyed for this year shows that far, far fewer people are actually reading a daily newspaper or even reading the news on websites, so we know that fewer people now than ten years ago are looking at news on television either. So we are actually seeing a situation in which perhaps media moguldom is less of a problem than it has ever been and the most important thing about the Net is not the portals but about the great blogger sphere, the fact that you can pick up alternative views much easier than you have ever done before.

  Q1739  Chairman: You can pick up alternative views but picking up alternative news is not so easy, surely, and is it not going to be the case that The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times Online, are all going to be important players in the future as well as newspapers.

  Mr Greenslade: Yes. The most serious newspapers in this country have done brilliantly in terms of engaging with the digital world. The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times and The Financial Times have fantastic followings across the world, but in Britain as well. The Daily Mail, I see, now has more readers in America than almost any other newspaper website in this country. Also, those are four or five very diverse voices as well, and that is quite apart from the fact that you can go straight to Associated Press copy or straight to Reuters copy and pick that up on the Net as well, so you are actually enabled to see it before the newspapers have spun it.

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