Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1740 - 1752)


Mr Roy Greenslade

  Q1740  Baroness Thornton: Can I ask you your view about the social implications of the fact that people are not reading news and what do you think that means?

  Mr Greenslade: Obviously I am worried about that. On the other hand, I think that is a cultural phenomenon that is true in the affluent West. People no longer feel that their lives are dependent on items of news. They are well off—relatively well off—they can live their lives without knowing what the riots are in Kenya; they will inform themselves if our soldiers are at war, of course, but only in a very general way. And they are not scared; we are largely a nation no longer fearing invasion and no longer fearing even the nuclear bomb, so we feel safe and we therefore feel that we can live without news. Of course I am worried about that; I think if you are going to be a part of a mature democracy you should have information and knowledge enabling you to make the rights decisions when it comes to elections and to involve yourself in your local community. On the other hand, you cannot force people to do that.

  Q1741  Baroness Thornton: That was not what I was supposed to be asking you about, but thank you. What I wanted to explore, leading on from other questions, is about the regulatory regime because you have written about, for example, the Hollinger International's sale of The Telegraph titles in 2004 and the tests that are applied by what was then the DTI and the way that the Enterprise and Communications Act work together. If I might ask you a couple of questions about that? Does it concern you that the tests about a media merger and public interest are largely subjective? That is one thing I would like you to talk to us about. Also, whether you think there is any better way of dealing with the subject of media merges?

  Mr Greenslade: One of the terrible things about being a journalist is you also forget what you write. Did I really say that? I was probably concerned with the fact that the other bidder, if I may remember rightly, was the Daily Mail, was it not, at the time, and how one reaches the decision that one is a good buyer—I thought the Daily Mail would have been a wrong buyer for the same reasons that I said Rupert Murdoch was a wrong buyer previously because they had two fantastically profitable, healthy titles. They are good at the job of doing newspapers but would they be right to minimise the number of voices? I thought that would be wrong. It seems to me that some of the reasons advanced for why people are allowed to bid and others are not need to be very transparent, very upfront and they need to be spelled out in as—I hate to use this word—an objective a way as possible. I thought that the Barclay Brothers were not particularly necessarily going to be a bad set of owners for The Telegraph, even though in my short number of months at The Telegraph a year or so ago, unlike Andrew Neil, I felt they did interfere in my press freedom, and obviously my experiences with them are different from his, but then he works for them. As long as you set down sets of objective tests then it is fine.

  Q1742  Baroness Thornton: Do you think that the Secretary of State should be bound, for example, by the findings of the Competition Commission?

  Mr Greenslade: Yes. I think that the Competition Commission have investigatory powers and they take all the evidence and I think that for a Secretary of State to stand out against the Competition Commission would be wrong. After all, going by my test, they are more likely more objective; they are dealing with the commercial reality rather than political reality.

  Q1743  Chairman: So you would take the Secretary of State out of the final judgment?

  Mr Greenslade: I would. By the way, I think the Secretary of State might enjoy being taken out of it because I think it puts immense pressure on the Secretary of State from internal politics and external pressures and the Competition Commission can make a rational decision.

  Q1744  Baroness Thornton: Should Ofcom be able to issue an Intervention Notice independently of the Secretary of State?

  Mr Greenslade: I saw that question and, do you know, I do not know anything about it; I do not know what an Intervention Notice is. You have an expert in front of you who does not know; I do not know what it is.

  Q1745  Lord Inglewood: Can I ask you briefly to back to the Press Complaints Commission? The criticism that I have often heard about the Press Complaints Commission is that at the end of the day it has no teeth and a big, robust newspaper if it has to make an apology is rapped on the knuckles on day one and on day two it has forgotten all about it and goes on its old evil ways. Do you think that is a fair criticism?

  Mr Greenslade: No, I do not. First of all, having been there, as it were, editors really do not like having to put something in their newspaper which says that they got it wrong; that is the first thing, and it is a greater pressure than you might imagine. The other important thing to understand about the PCC when you look at their judgments is that gradually—and this has been gradual, in the 1980s when we felt we needed to construct a Press Complaints Commission because I was on the committee that set it up, the 1980s were hugely reckless in what newspapers were then publishing compared to today; you might not think so but it is true—since 1991 when it started until now you can see that papers have gradually got better behaved and have not made the same kind of mistakes, the same kind of breaches endlessly; so they are not now interfering in people's lives in the way that they did in the 1980s. There are bad moments, terribly bad moments when you think, "Why ever did they do that?" but I think, by the way, that Rupert Murdoch's admonition for Piers Morgan in public, when the Sunday People editor intruded into the privacy of Sara Cox by taking nude pictures of her on honeymoon, those kinds of things are not going to be repeated. We are not going to put cameras over walls in clinics, which Piers Morgan's paper did, which led to the Rupert Murdoch admonition; we are not now going to take nude pictures of people on private beaches. By the way, a recent case by a magazine was quickly dealt with for that reason. So it is not perfect but it is as perfect as anything can be.

  Q1746  Chairman: That really is quite a claim, is it not—as perfect as it can be? Do we not have Mr Blair talking about feral beasts and all that sort of thing?

  Mr Greenslade: I think his feral beast is not about the Press Complaints Commission though, is it?

  Q1747  Chairman: No, it is about the people.

  Mr Greenslade: His complaint is about the coverage of politics, which he feels is cynical—that it has moved from sceptical to cynical, and about feeding the 24-hour news cycle. I think that is slightly different from what the Press Complaints Commission do.

  Q1748  Bishop of Manchester: There are two areas I want to explore a little further in relation to a couple of answers you gave earlier. One was in your reply to Lady Thornton, and this is what you said, "The Barclay brothers did interfere in my press freedom." Could you amplify that and give us a couple of specific examples?

  Mr Greenslade: It is a very definite example. I was hired by the Daily Telegraph editor at the time, Martin Newland, to write a media column on a weekly basis. After I had written my first column Mr Newland called me into his office and said, "There is a lot of nervousness upstairs," and I said, "Why?" and he said, "They do not want you to write about media personalities." I said, "What am I supposed to write about?" and he said, "They would prefer it if you wrote about media business." I said, "Business—not the personalities of business, just business?" He said, "Yes, I think that would be how they would see it, how they would prefer it." A week later I happened to be up on the management floor and I was introduced to Aidan Barclay, who really runs the papers on behalf of his uncle and father, and he said to me, "I have a great story for you about our success at The Telegraph and I would like you to write about that." I said, "I must take that on board," as it were. After a couple of weeks of attempting to write this column and Mr Newland consistently pointing out to me that that had not particularly pleased them it was agreed that I should leave, and I departed. So the interference was that really in the end they did not want to write about the media—and you may have noted that since my media column disappeared from the Daily Telegraph no media column has appeared. So clearly that is the way they wanted it. Let me reveal that there is a Fleet Street pact between Associated Newspapers and Telegraph Newspapers that they will not write about each other, so that they ensure that they at least are free from criticism in either paper.

  Q1749  Bishop of Manchester: Thank you, that is very interesting. Can I very briefly—and this does not require a large answer, I am sure—go back to the Ofcom point and your comment about removing the Secretary of State from it, do you feel that if the Secretary of State is removed from that intervening background power is Ofcom as it is currently constituted, in your view, a sufficiently fierce body in terms of takeover?

  Mr Greenslade: I do not think, to be absolutely honest, that I am in a position to be able to certain about that. I do not think that it has been tested, to be honest, in the heat of battle so I cannot be certain. It certainly seems to me to be a fairly fierce body in dealing with broadcasting but I do not think they have had to face the difficulty of a switch of newspapers.

  Q1750  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: You have already said a little about the future and your view of how it may be in the future, say ten years on. You have indicated possibly one danger, that there might be less diversity as things go online—diversity of ownership. Given that the BBC, Andrew Neil said was a good public service benchmark, as it were, in lots of other directions for reliability, independence, impartiality, do you think that by that stage the newspapers will still have the same quality mark and political mark, if you like, that each of them has today, or do you think that the whole thing will have blended into a much less public service broadcasting style of newspaper? And will there be any newspapers left, as such?

  Mr Greenslade: I am on record as having said that I think we are heading for a non-print future. When that will be I do not know. You will get various American academics who will say it is 2043—October 3 or something! And people will try to make this kind of forecast. But it is quite clear to me if you look at the trend in newspaper reading and newspaper buying that at least in terms of national newspapers and indeed some large regional newspapers that there will come a point at which it will not be profitable to go on publishing a newsprint version. We might see hybrids, we might see all sorts of different forms, we might see the growth of more free newspapers—I know it has been mooted that The Independent might go free, much denied; that the Sun might go free, also denied—but it must be on the minds of people that perhaps they can combine a presence on the Net with free newspapers. To go to your second part, will that be good or bad in terms of the output? I think when you look at the current output online it is pretty good and in fact you could find anything on line that you want. If you want to ogle Page Three girls the Sun site provides that for you; but if you want serious news there are masses available and analysis and comment. In my view we are in the middle of a revolution, the digital revolution, and we do not know, we cannot have any idea where it is going because ten years ago we did not know that we would be here today, and in ten years' time we do not know what it will like. But I think we can look to a point at which newspaper publishing in the newsprint form will be a rarity rather than the norm.

  Q1751  Chairman: That does not mean that there will not be a Guardian, there will not be a Times, there will not be a Daily Telegraph?

  Mr Greenslade: No, it just means that they will be in a different form.

  Q1752  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: But might they, if you are not right, have lost that quality and really blended in?

  Mr Greenslade: If you look at the current state of their online offerings there is masses of quality there. I do not think one needs to worry about the quality of the journalistic output because it comes from a different platform.

  Chairman: I am going to cut it short at this point. Thank you very much, Mr Greenslade, for coming; what you have said has been interesting and perhaps again if we have some further points we could write to you about that?

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