Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1780 - 1798)


Sir Simon Jenkins

  Q1780  Chairman: And you would have no reservations?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I would probably have reservations ad hominem in the particular case but my ideology is plurality. So as long as the regulatory regime—which we have not discussed—ensures multiplicity of titles and a multiplicity of ownership then I am not terribly queasy about who owns these papers.

  Q1781  Lord King of Bridgwater: Would you think a Russian oligarch would be a suitable owner of The Times and Sunday Times?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I think it would be dreadful but you might have said that of a Canadian magnate.

  Q1782  Lord King of Bridgwater: Would you? You do not distinguish?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I am sure there might be a Russian oligarch who would be terrific, I do not know. To take Rupert Murdoch's ownership of the Wall Street Journal, he does not want to own the Wall Street Journal to wreck it; he wants to own the Wall Street Journal because it adds glory to his name, and he will do well for it, I think. The assumption that there is a good proprietor and a bad proprietor is a distinction I do not see.

  Q1783  Lord King of Bridgwater: With great respect, they live under a rule of law and there are differences. You could see a situation with a Russian oligarch who might have a very different hinterland from which he came and you think that would not matter?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: It would all matter. I remember when we were trying to sell the Evening Standard there were about half a dozen serious bidders for the Evening Standard, which was losing a fortune; and indeed we went through which were suitable and which were not suitable and there were some that were very unsuitable for precisely the reason you are suggesting. No, I would not be happy with it but money is money and it needs money to run these newspapers.

  Q1784  Chairman: To try and summarise it, you are obviously putting a market case but it is sometimes the case in the media that we do not have reciprocal arrangements; in other words, an American company can come and buy ITV tomorrow but there is no way we could go to the United States and do that. Does that fit in to your market philosophy?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: Television is more oligarchistic than newspapers. I am not terribly worried by that, to be perfectly honest. When Al Jazeera opened up in London an English language service it is extremely regimented; it is under the thumb of its regime and I do not regard its journalistic standards very highly. I am just glad it is there because it is another channel.

  Q1785  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You talked about the proprietor's influence on the nature of content but not on the quality of content and you worked at The Sunday Times in the glory days of investigative journalism. Do you think in the modern world that there are proprietors who are still willing to invest in quality investigative journalism?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I do not think that proprietors invest in it in that way; I do think we are over obsessed with proprietors. There are managements that are worried about money, yes, and one reflection of that is the size of the editorial staff. One reason why most investigative journalism tends to take place in Sunday newspapers is there is nothing else to do for six days a week, but that is just in the nature of the beast of a Sunday newspaper. I think there is, if anything, more investigative journalism now than there used to be then; I think journalists are far more sceptical—you might say cynical. I do not think that Ken Livingstone at the moment regards the press as lacking in scrutinising zeal. More newspapers do that sort of journalism than used to; The Times never used to do it, The Telegraph never used to do it, but now they are all out looking for scoops. I have to say that I think journalism today is infinitely better than it has ever been since I became a journalist. I am rather naively optimistic about this profession at the moment, but the future is a different matter.

  Q1786  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Among the many things you do I see that you have a blog with the Huffington Post, as it is called. How different do you find that as a journalistic experience from writing a column, both from the actual nature of it itself and also the relationship with the editor?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I do not do it very much but there is also a blog on the Guardian and we are all asked to contribute to these things. The difference between sitting at home and fashioning what you like to think is a cultured essay, laying down your pen, going round to the pub, having a drink and telling the guy standing next to you what you really think of it, it is the difference between writing and a barroom chat, which is why I cannot take it terribly seriously because the people who answer you back are the sort of people you would get answered back to in a barroom chat. At the same time Huffington Post is a closed group of people talking to each other and it is quite stimulating on occasions not to have everything in the 1200 word format, but a response in 200 words, a response in 400 words, and it is a conversation that goes backwards and forwards. That is new and that is stimulating and it is a good thing. I just think it would be a pity—I obviously would say this, would I not—if the old fashioned column went out business, which some people think it will.

  Q1787  Chairman: You said that as long as the regulatory regime ensures plurality of ownership things will be okay. Do you think that the present regulatory regime does enough to ensure plurality or are there changes you have in mind?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I was a member of the Competition Committee press sub-committee, whatever it was called then, and we had this rule of thumb of 30% of any market and then we would spend hours arguing about what was the market. The proof of the pudding is in the eating; it has more or less worked. I think you have a reasonable spread of proprietorship and a reasonable spread of opinion in the newspapers. Someone on the far left or the far right might not agree with that, but that is what I feel. There were interesting moments in press history when we wobbled. There was a moment, I can remember, when I think the Daily Mirror was up for sale—I just cannot remember the date—and had the Daily Mirror not gone to Maxwell there was a chance that every single newspaper in Britain would have been right wing, would have been Conservative supporting. I think at that point you would have triggered intervention from government. What form it would have taken I am not sure, but it might have been a Swedish style, it might have subsidised a paper of the left, I do not know. Before the war that is exactly what would have happened; someone would have gone to a tycoon and said, "We will make you a viscount if you back a newspaper". So there are ways of doing it. The regulatory regime which exists at the moment works so I would be reluctant to change it. I think the rules that they apply, the size of market that they permit and the cross-media ownership that they allow more or less works.

  Q1788  Chairman: Do you have any reservations about the Secretary of State at the end of the day being the man who takes the decision?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I agree with Roy on that; I think it would be better if you had a freestanding Competition Commissioner—I may say I would apply this to many other industries than the press—and that the Minister should not be involved and that it would help the Minister not to be involved as well. It is something that needs constantly watching and certainly if two of the groups now running newspapers maybe went to Russian oligarchs or to Dubai fundamentalists I think I would be worried and I would start asking questions about whether they should be entitled to own them.

  Q1789  Bishop of Manchester: I want to address what I feel is a very important issue, which is about standards and integrity and keeping the faith of the readers. I say it is a very important issue not only because I believe that myself but I understand from what I have read from you that that is very much your own view. I would like to quote something that you said, not least so that it can be on the record of this meeting. This is what you wrote: "I think all newspapers are under intense pressure from sophisticated public relations to cut ethical corners." Indeed, having said that you then went on to underline it further, and I quote again: "No question about it, all papers are." That does seem to me to be a very serious issue and I wonder if you could expand your views on that and perhaps also give us a picture of how things have altered over, say, the last 20 years and where you feel we are now and where we ought to be?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: It is one of the problems that Roy had too—I cannot remember writing that; I must have had a bad week! It is undoubtedly true. I think that the amount of attention devoted by commerce in every sense and politics in every sense to suborning newspapers is out of all proportion to what it used to be. This is a huge industry now devoted to this particular task and it is to the credit of newspapers that they think it is worth their while, I may say. But they clearly do, and the pressure on newspapers and the pressure on those people writing newspapers from that particular prism between reality and the press is very considerable. At the same time I do not think that journalists are unaware of it; I think that good journalists resist it, bad journalists capitulate to it. What I would not have said is that the end product is more craven than it used to be. I noticed occasionally when I was at The Times I used to take down early copies of The Times about which one was constantly being browbeaten by irate readers or politicians. The Chairman may remember, they were insufferably blasé; they were dictated to by government; frankly, it was completely dull, great screeds of Hansard—it may have been all right for you—and great screeds of court report and that was two-thirds of the newspaper and the editorials never came to a conclusion. I find newspapers today incomparably livelier, more pointed and more sceptical about what they are being told by the PR industry. So I am not denying the fact of that industry and the pressure it puts these people under but I do think—and I do not want to sound complacent—but journalists are trained to be sceptical.

  Q1790  Bishop of Manchester: But I detect from what you say—and obviously you will correct me if I have this wrong—that whilst you were assuring us earlier on that our concerns about the influence of proprietors was probably overstated, from what you have written and from what you have just been saying it would seem that there is an ogre in the background in this public relations industry which, were it to get out of control, would really have a serious effect on the standards and integrity of newspapers and what journalists were expected to provide.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I hate your use of the words "out of control"; I do not know what sort of control you suppose it ought to be under. I am against control. Where I totally take your point—but I am putting it in a wider context—is that every newspaper is bombarded with pressure; everything in the newspapers, as I think Lord King said, wants to be propaganda to somebody. There is no shortage of material; you come into the office in the morning and there is a blank format in front of you, it is War and Peace you have to write by that evening—the number of words—and it has to be written in one day and there are five wars and peaces clamouring to get in. So the exercise of editing, which goes on in the head of the journalist and in the editorial process itself is the exercise of squeezing that into the available amount of space. The fact that the pressures are intense—and I think the pressures are probably greater than they used to be, I take that point—is in the nature of public life. All public life is people trying to persuade people of things and the job of the newspapers is to try and sift the truth from falsity and to minimise the amount of falsity that ends up in the paper.

  Q1791  Lord Maxton: Is it not more likely as to what they think is interesting for their readers and not its truth or policy?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: You have the reader's mind in view when you write but I do not think many journalists are consciously trying to tell a lie to the readers, I really do not. They are under pressure of time, which is one of the great pressures; they are under pressure of the available material. The Web has immeasurably increased the ease with which they can access alternative material so there is less excuse for getting things wrong now than used to be the case. But the idea of what is in the public interest, which is always where we get back to, is a chimera; the public is interested in things that the public is interested in.

  Q1792  Lord Maxton: There is a difference between the interests of the public and public interest; they are not necessarily the same thing.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: When I was on the Calcutt Committee we banned the phrase because it was irresolvable.

  Q1793  Chairman: What happened to that committee?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: That was the committee on privacy. What happened to it? It got binned.

  Bishop of Manchester: You did say that there was no question about journalists ever being pressed to cut ethical corners and I would just like to have one example of what you have put down in your own words as a very serious situation?

  Q1794  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Could I come in on that because it might actually help to focus? I am going back a few years where I attended a conference where a number of journalists were in the audience and very critical about maybe the slipping standards of what editors expected from their journalists. So as an example of this one of the examples given was that editors were no longer as hard on their journalists to actually know that what they were writing was fact as opposed to floating an idea which was not in fact verifiable.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I think we are in danger of seeing the profession as being too monolithic. A story in a Sunday tabloid about a starlet and a footballer is probably going to be made up and it is being made up in such a way to appeal to the interest of the reader—the prurience of the reader. I think most people shrug their shoulders and say, "That is Sunday journalism for you."

  Q1795  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: A more serious newspaper.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: More serious newspapers, I agree with what other people have said. If someone says to you, "You have that really wrong" then you are upset; you did not mean to get it wrong. I probably get one or two things wrong every week and we have a great corrections column in the Guardian, which is a source of great amusement to people. You are not proud to get something wrong. When I say cutting ethical corners cutting an ethical corner could mean not double checking something because you are right up against the clock, or it could mean—and this is something where I am answering your question quite specifically—you absolutely know that if you mention a product or a service in a column or in an article in the newspaper it either vastly benefits or vastly dis-benefits that particular service. An example of a general point, as a particular, you do know in the back of your mind that that is real money to someone, and that is why someone puts you under pressure to make that mention. You will see that people quite often mention books—I quite often mention books. Is it the book of a friend? I am not quite sure; it might be. Why did I mention that book? Because I was sent a free copy. Is that cutting an ethical corner? Up to a point. Vast amounts of money are spent on public industry trying to get books on the BBC programmes. The way that the BBC chooses books for its programmes is a source of mystery to all of us; all one knows is that it is worth thousands and thousands of pounds to be on the Andrew Marr show or one of these shows, and therefore it is worth thousands and thousands of pounds to get on it. Ethical corners are being cut; they are in the nature of the business, I am afraid.

  Q1796  Lord Inglewood: A small question, really to go back to where we have been before and thinking about ownership of the newspapers. Can you see a time when one of these sovereign wealth funds from China or some such buy a newspaper in a country like ours, to get over its point of view?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: The sovereign wealth funds tend to be chasing money rather than glory but the owner of the fund might be chasing glory.

  Q1797  Lord Inglewood: That is the point.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: The Sheikh of Qatar or somewhere, in exactly the same way—and I can only use the parallel again and again—that he wants a string of racehorses he wants a newspaper. That is a different sort of want. But the juices that flow when the subject is mentioned are the same; it is a desire for glamour, glory.

  Q1798  Lord Inglewood: That is obviously right but the impact on this country of owning racehorses or a football club might be very different from owning a newspaper.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: Yes, it might, if you had anything approaching monopolistic control of opinion; but as long as there is no danger of that then I am inclined to say all is fair in love and war and newspapers. The one thing I would say, which we have not discussed, but just as a coda one of the defences against that sort of what one might call buccaneering newspaper ownership is the way in which the profession itself regulates itself. Mention was made earlier of the Press Complaints Commission and the way in which the press regulates itself. I think one of the defences that journalism has and journalists have against proprietorial interference or unethical practices or whatever it may be, is a far more rigorous structure of self-regulation—not statutory but self-regulation—and I do not think you are getting it at the moment at all.

  Chairman: I am very tempted to go down that road and we come back to you on exactly that point because it is obviously turning out to be an interesting part of our investigation. I would like to thank you very much for coming. I am going to ignore entirely your implied criticism of The Times of the 1960s when I was there, and the dullness of that particular newspaper! We also had a corrections column as well at the time, I should say! Sir Simon, quite seriously, thank you very much for coming; we are very grateful for the time. As I say, I think there a number of points which we may want to come back to you on.

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