Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2320 - 2339)

WEDNESDAY 26 MARCH 2008

Mr David Montgomery

  Q2320  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: So, on the side of the Sky battle?

  Mr Montgomery: And I was a director of Sky at a certain point.

  Q2321  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: During the period that you were editor of the newspaper?

  Mr Montgomery: Absolutely. The four or five channel satellite system was launched and clearly you know the economic effects on Rupert Murdoch's business—that endeavour almost brought him to his knees. I and my fellow editors were hugely enthusiastic about bringing new television services to the UK and we believed in it. I think that we believed in it without any pressure from Rupert Murdoch who was an inspirational leader in terms of business, but I think all of us believed that more freedom of choice for the British television viewing public was a good thing.

  Q2322  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: You were really locked into it in your own beliefs on any view of it apart from being a director, so you were no doubt helping the push in that direction.

  Mr Montgomery: Absolutely. I personally believed in it and I made suggestions about how to promote it. The Today newspaper gave away satellite dishes to its readers. From memory, I think that we gave away something like 10,000 satellite dishes to help to promote Sky. We were evangelical about it but I think that we believed that this was a good thing. It helped to promote newspapers as well which was helpful, but I think that we all believed in it. I do not know if it a mixture of whether Rupert Murdoch had a great vision and we followed it or whether we simply believed that it was generally a good thing to introduce more television choice and mixture.

  Q2323  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: What you say is very interesting because obviously it happened on that occasion that your view of how the market should be developed in satellite broadcasting coincided very, one might say, conveniently—and I do not imply any criticism there—with that of your proprietor. Had you, for instance, been convinced of the merits of BSB at the time before it became anything else, how difficult do you think it would have been for you to take an independent line on that given that obviously it could have been very difficult as you were a director of Sky, but suppose you had not been? Supposing you had been in the position of editing a newspaper owned by a proprietor who was also developing interests in the television market which you, as editor of that newspaper, did not necessarily support. Do you think that it would have been possible for you to run a different agenda from your proprietor on that occasion?

  Mr Montgomery: It was never put to the test and I suppose that when editors disagree with something that their management want, they have a pretty simple choice to make.

  Q2324  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: I am asking the question—and hypothetic questions are very difficult and not very helpful and I accept that—because I am really interested in whether or not you felt yourself at the time constrained in any way by Rupert Murdoch's commercial interests and whether you are aware that the commercial interests of a proprietor in a field where there is a great deal of consolidation may, or should perhaps be, influential on the way that editors edit individual newspapers because that is something which people are preoccupied and concerned about.

  Mr Montgomery: I can only generalise here. We deal with these situations on a daily basis across many prestigious newspapers in Europe and we have a written charter which affects all of our newspapers and the editor in chief is absolutely the final arbiter of what goes into the paper and there is absolutely no management interference. You should not forget that journalists are very good whistle blowers. I mentioned earlier that we had a scandal involving a peer in the UK and I was put under tremendous pressure not to publish.

  Q2325  Chairman: Pressure by whom?

  Mr Montgomery: By his legal advisers and the gentleman himself. The reality was that they were wasting their breath because, had I caved into that, all my journalists would have known about it and it would have ended up in Private Eye or some other newspaper.

  Q2326  Chairman: We are talking about Lord Archer?

  Mr Montgomery: We are, yes. It is quite obvious—and we see this time and again—that if you run a newspaper in a democratic country, you cannot prevent publication of information that the public desire and should have. I know that we have had the recent incident in the UK where Prince Harry's whatever it was, eight or ten-week sojourn in Afghanistan was very effectively suppressed, but it is highly unusual and, if an individual newspaper editor or indeed proprietor tries to suppress something, it will end in failure because, as I say, journalists are whistle blowers, naturally trained whistle blowers, and they will get the information out by some means. Twenty years ago it was more difficult but now you have the Internet and, within a few minutes, the information will be disseminated.

  Q2327  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Would I be right in thinking that you would expect the role of the proprietor in a consolidated media business to be one of ensuring that the business ran effectively and that it delivered for his overall interests sufficient profit, prestige or whatever it was that he was after, but that you would not expect such a proprietor to try and influence directly these days the way that content of those newspapers was developed?

  Mr Montgomery: You would be immediately caught out.

  Q2328  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Because it would simply not be an effective way of operating with the proprietor?

  Mr Montgomery: And it would not be a commercially sensible way of operating. There is a lot of glamour attached to newspapers and newspaper influence but the reality is that the people who operate them are experienced professionals who are not blinded by the glamour or the influence. The people we appoint as editors or managers are seasoned publishers. Indeed, one of the things that we have done in our company in the last two years is that we have cleared out most of the non-publishing management and four out of five of our country chief executives are journalists and editors. So, we have a very strong publishing tradition which guards against this heavy-handed influence to which you are referring. However, there are occasions where editorial decisions spill over into the commercial or worse. We have had the recent republication of the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark which was a very serious thing for the editor to decide on but she alone made that decision, that rather lonely decision. She obviously informed the group management because there was a security implication and indeed the police in Denmark were concerned for her personal safety as a result, but she made the decision. Commercially, it could be seen as possibly an issue for management as well because we have many staff in many countries we need to protect. Nevertheless, we were alerted to it and we made certain arrangements and the editor was able to exercise her right to publish the cartoon.

  Q2329  Chairman: I want to bring in Lord King on this but, before I do, I want to follow up on one point that Lady Howe was making. You said that when an editor joins a newspaper, he or she understands the tradition of that newspaper and the tradition of the News of the World was as a Conservative newspaper. That is skating over a number of issues. First of all, traditions change. In 1987 when you were the editor of the News of the World, certainly there was no question but that the News of the World and the Sun were supporting the Conservatives. Moving ten years forward, we find that certainly the Sun and, from memory, the News of the World are both supporting Labour. A certain amount of acrobatics seems to be done by some of the editors.

  Mr Montgomery: Without going into the history of who was editing the paper ... I should know who was editing the paper when the Sun went pro-Labour and indeed it was a great disappointment to me that it went pro-Labour because I was the Chief Executive of the Mirror Group and I would have much preferred the Mirror to have been on the winning side and only the Mirror to be on the winning side. The reality is that I have moved between the two organisations in the UK and indeed I have been fortunate enough on two occasions to preside over newspapers in Northern Ireland which had diametrically opposed political views, the Derry Journal and the Belfast Newsletter.

  Q2330  Lord King of Bridgwater: You cannot get more diametrically opposed than that!

  Mr Montgomery: Exactly. So, I have been in the position where it is possible to commercially manage businesses which—

  Q2331  Chairman: I do not dispute that but the point I make is that a certain amount of flexibility on the part of an editor may come in quite useful when the proprietor changes his mind.

  Mr Montgomery: Yes, but the country changed its mind as well in 1997. Of course, I see where you are going but we fortunately do not have these problems in Europe.

  Q2332  Chairman: We will come on to Europe shortly.

  Mr Montgomery: We did not have them in Northern Ireland either. Sometimes people from a different background were in charge of the newspapers in Northern Ireland, so they were able to adapt to the cultural and political tradition of the titles concerned.

  Q2333  Lord King of Bridgwater: I am really interested in your last remark that you do not have these problems in Europe as though somehow Europe is a tolerance-free zone. You have given us some extraordinarily interesting information about what you are doing in Europe—it s a most interesting exercise—and, as you rightly said, each one of them is a bit different in one way or another. For instance, talking about the political approach of the newspapers, did you say that your Polish newspaper is 49% owned by the Government?

  Mr Montgomery: Yes.

  Q2334  Lord King of Bridgwater: Does the Government approve the appointment of the editor in chief?

  Mr Montgomery: We have management control and the editor is approved by the supervisory board, but it is our nominee and we just have to go through a transparent process and a very rigorous process to attract a suitably qualified person.

  Q2335  Lord King of Bridgwater: We have not heard anything about your board. The thing that interests me about how much political influence or power you are exposed to or you as the Chairman would seek to impose any political approach on your papers. One of the questions that you were asked by one of the journalists in our brief—and I cannot remember which country this was—was "Can you read our newspaper?" You have Danish, Dutch, German, Polish and you have Ukrainian. I know that you are a talented man, but I do not think you are multi-lingual.

  Mr Montgomery: Of course I cannot read the papers, but I sort of know what is going on.

  Q2336  Lord King of Bridgwater: How do you do that?

  Mr Montgomery: I clearly get a brief of what is happening in the papers on a daily basis. Not all the papers because there are 300 papers, but I certainly see Berliner Zeitung, Rzeczpospolita and Berlingske Tidende. I see the main papers.

  Q2337  Lord King of Bridgwater: In translation.

  Mr Montgomery: In summary and, when I look at them, I have a very strong idea of what is going on because Berliner Zeitung, Berlingske Tidende and Rzeczpospolita deal in high-grade national and international content, so clearly I am aware of what is happening and I can make judgments about their design. However, I am not responsible for any of the editorial side, but clearly I need to see that the papers are of a marketable quality and I can make judgments about what sections they have, what supplements they have and so forth. So, it is important to have a journalistic eye and that is why we have encouraged editors to become managers in our organisation and, as I say, four out of five of them are. So, with that line-up of talent locally, it is not necessary for me to be involved in the minutia and indeed it would not be right that I would be involved in the minutia of journalism.

  Q2338  Lord King of Bridgwater: When you visit these newspapers, do you meet the Prime Ministers of these countries?

  Mr Montgomery: I occasionally meet politicians, but again it is for the chief executives of the local organisations to deal with the political side of life and I would not put myself up to meet people but occasionally, just through social contact, I might see them.

  Q2339  Lord King of Bridgwater: Have you had representations/complaints made to you such as, "We are very worried about the way in which your responsible publication is going"?

  Mr Montgomery: I do not think that our newspapers would be doing a good job if they did not get complaints from politicians who disagreed with some of the comment.


 
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