Roger Alton: PCC works, despite Madeleine McCann case
Independent editor Roger Alton has said press treatment of the McCanns made him want to 'viscerate his own bladder' - but said he did not believe press regulation needed an overhaul.
By Owen Amos
At a debate on the future of press regulation at the Frontline Club in London, the McCann case was used as an example of ineffective self-regulation.
The family, whose daughter Madeleine is still missing, won £550,000 from Express Newspapers and a front-page apology, after the group printed a number of untrue stories.
Alton said: "The McCanns was a case of such astonishing ghastliness, you feel like viscerating your own bladder with it. But you can’t say the whole industry is fucked."
Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, argued the Press Complaints Commission was ineffective.
He said: "This guy [Gerry McCann], whose four-year-old daughter has gone missing, says it was the press that nearly destroyed his family. That’s outrageous. Who has been held accountable?"
Commentator and journalist Albert Scardino said the PCC worked – but only for publishers.
“It’s working absolutely brilliantly – for publishers,” he said. “It’s a complete success as it protects publishers from people who have been victimised.
“It’s a protection system for people that would rather have this to deal with than deal with the courts. This was set up by publishers to protect publishers.
“It was not set up for the protection of the individual, to whom freedom of expression belongs.”
But Alton – a former member of the PCC – praised its work, and said: “It’s just not true the PCC is this big battalion, defending itself against the little people. That’s horse shit.”
Alton added the Media Standards Trust, which recently published a critical report on the PCC, was wrong.
"I was a member of the PCC for a number of years and was extraordinarily impressed by what went on," he said.
"I do think there was a gross assumption that the PCC was a limp old crock, and it’s just not true.
"Sure there has been bad behaviour. That behaviour is getting less and less, not least because of the work of the PCC."
'They want to put Gordon Brown in charge of our papers'
Barnett said debate was difficult, because newspapers assumed abolishing the PCC meant state regulation.
"Every time we say the system isn’t working, there’s this mad rush from people like Roger to say: ‘Oh God, they want statutory regulation, they want to put Gordon Brown in charge of our papers’," he said.
Barnett said newspapers could learn from broadcasting, which had more effective sanctions.
Phil Harding, former editor of the Today programme, was in the audience and said culture was more important than regulation. "Regulation is a back stop," he said. "In the end, it has to be about culture.
"Journalists in general are very good at handing it out. They’re not very good at taking it. Regulation, in the end, is a back stop."
One member of the audience said, like lawyers, journalists should be licensed, to improve professionalism.
But Alton replied: "I think it would be awful. Law, medicine, these are professions. Journalism is a trade."
And, when asked where press regulation would be in five years’ time, Alton said: "In five years’ time, I feel I’ll be working behind the counter of the local kiosk, and hopefully someone will want to buy the one remaining newspaper that is left."
Via Press Gazette
Frontline Club: a discussion of press standards, self-regulation and public trust on the question: Is the press accountable enough?
* Roger Alton, editor of The Independent
* Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster who researched the Media Standards Trust report ‘A More Accountable Press’
* Albert Scardino, an independent journalist and commentator
* Steve Hewlett, a writer and broadcast consultant who currently presents The Media Show on Radio 4.
From the Transcript - which you can read in full here: Gerry McCann Oral Evidence: The Transcript
Q189 Paul Farrelly: You have described some of the interaction you had with the PCC. Did you consider making an official complaint to the PCC that they were publishing stories about you on the basis of no evidence at all and indeed about Mr Murat as well whose life was also destroyed?
Mr McCann: In terms of the defamatory stories on that specific point, we were advised that legal redress was the way to address that issue.
Q190 Paul Farrelly: You were advised by the PCC?
Mr McCann: I had an informal conversation that was directed to me, yes.
Q191 Paul Farrelly: Can you tell us who you had the conversation with?
Mr McCann: It was with the then chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer.
Sir Christopher Meyer, the former Chairman of the Press Complaints Comission is to attend the forthcoming Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing and explain if the PCC specifically advised legal action to the McCanns or not.
An extract of Sir Christopher Meyer previous attendance at the committee on 6 MARCH 2007
Sir Christopher Meyer: My question to him was, "What exactly is it that you want me to do? The Act is policed by the authorities, by you, and you have had one prosecution. Is there more to be done on our side of the line?" You, Chairman, said earlier on commenting on an answer that we, if you like, complement the law, we add to the law or something like that. What I was looking for was this precise added value that the Press Complaints Commission could do in addition to what was provided for in the law.
Q162 Helen Southworth: What answer did you get as to what he was asking you to do?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I think in the end the practical conclusion we came to was to see whether we could refine the guidance note.
Q163 Helen Southworth: Did he not give you an answer to that question?
Sir Christopher Meyer: No, he did not give me the dossier.
Q164 Helen Southworth: Did he give an answer to what he expected of you?
Sir Christopher Meyer: If I remember rightly, and he took a record of our conversation and I am relying on my memory now, in 2006 I think the burden of his remarks were we are after the middlemen and not the journalists.
Q165 Helen Southworth: He was not asking you to do anything, in fact?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I think he wanted the Code Committee to take a tougher line in the Code on these practices. He has made a textual proposal to the Code Committee which I think the editors will be considering next week.
Q166 Helen Southworth: Perhaps it would be helpful if you could come back to us on what he was expecting you to do and what you did.
Sir Christopher Meyer: A further guidance note was one idea and he did go and see the secretary of the Code Committee and some of the newspapers themselves. A further guidance note and perhaps an amendment to the Code, that would be my short answer to your question.
Q167 Helen Southworth: What you are saying to us now is that, sorry I am trying to work it out, you said he was really proceeding against the middlemen and not the journalists?
Sir Christopher Meyer: That is what he said to me at the time.
Q168 Helen Southworth: That would mean that there would be no real role for you there.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Well, you will have to ask him to come back again to explain.
Q169 Chairman: If Mr Thomas would like to come and rejoin us we would be very happy for him to do so; rather than you recounting what he said to you, perhaps you could tell us.
Sir Christopher Meyer: His response might contradict me.
Mr Thomas: I have a note of the meeting and I will not go through it in detail. My recollection is not far apart from Sir Christopher's which was I was looking for some plain English guidance which the PCC could give out as to what is unacceptable in these terms. I was looking for an amendment to the Code which I first put forward in September and, although the Code says it can be changed within weeks, nothing has yet happened on that particular front. I also explained to Sir Christopher that the focus of our prosecutions had been the middlemen and I explained, as I have done to this Committee this morning, why we did not take any further action against the journalists concerned. I think I should also put on the record that we do not feel able to identify the individual journalists in fairness to those journalists, they have not been prosecuted and for me to bandy their names around in public or to their employers I do not think would be acceptable.
Sir Christopher Meyer: I think our memories tally pretty well. As I say, I think the Code Committee is meeting next week.
Q170 Chairman: Your expectation is that the Code will be—
Sir Christopher Meyer: I do not know. I will not anticipate, wisely I think, the outcome of this meeting. There is something to be discussed and it will be discussed.
Q171 Chairman: It has taken an awful long time for the Code Committee to consider the recommendation of the Information Commissioner.
Sir Christopher Meyer: One of the reforms, if I may toot my trumpet a little bit, that we did bring in back in 2003 was to insist that we recommend to the Code Committee that they should meet regularly once a year to look in the round at the number of proposals that come in from members of the public and from elsewhere for changes to the Code and that is now a regular occurrence, so you need to see that in this context.
Q172 Helen Southworth: Could I ask what steps you would hope that newspapers or publications would take to ensure that they were using proper agencies which were operating within the law?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Mr Esser talked, before we came on the stand, about inquiry agencies being properly registered. I have never dealt with an inquiry agent so I have got no first hand experience of this. Newspapers, if they are to respect the requirements of the Data Protection Act, subject always, of course, to the public interest consideration, know perfectly well who are the good agencies and who are not. Regulating the newspapers is quite enough, thank you, but to give me inquiry agencies as well would be probably more than I can handle.
Q173 Helen Southworth: Would you expect them to have some good practice steps to be taken before they are in their employment and the information being used in the industry?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Would I expect the newspapers?
Q174 Helen Southworth: Yes.
Sir Christopher Meyer: I think what we have heard from the previous two witnesses is precisely that. I would expect best practice, indeed.
Q175 Alan Keen: One of the issues that I have been struggling with this morning, and other people have, is that I tend to feel that as long as it is in the public interest almost anything is justified to investigate, is it not in the public interest that we know the names of the journalists? Does Mr Thomas not think that is a parallel with the things we have been talking about this morning? Is it not in the public interest to know who the journalists are?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I know you have done this, but you will notice in our Code of Practice that a number of clauses has an asterisk against it and that denotes that the requirements of the clause can be overwritten by a public interest argument and at the bottom of the Code of Practice we set out not an exclusive list, not a comprehensive list, but some illustrations of how that would apply. I think here is the nub of the matter in many, many ways because one person's public interest is not necessarily in another person's public interest. The animated debates that we have every month when the board of commissioners meets at the PCC to adjudicate on cases very often rotate around an issue of where is the line between what is properly private and what is genuinely in the public interest and this can be very contentious and very difficult. At the end of the day we have to make a judgment and we say either it was not in the public interest or it was in the public interest, and once the adjudication becomes public it usually becomes very contentious and controversial, indeed it pops up all over the place, sometimes in the House of Commons and sometimes in other newspapers saying "How on earth did the PCC come to that conclusion". What I am really saying is that we, any of us, will never come to an absolutely objective standard for the public interest but that does not mean we must not introduce it in consideration of these matters.
Q176 Alan Keen: If I was on the list as a politician, do you think it would be in the public interest to declare my name, or is it different for journalists than for politicians?
Sir Christopher Meyer: If you hired an inquiry agent to do some inquiring for you?
Q177 Alan Keen: It would be in the public interest—
Sir Christopher Meyer: I cannot really see that happening. When I was a press secretary, one of the rules to survive, particularly in John Major's Downing Street, was never to answer a hypothetical, so I think I will keep away from that, if I may.
Q178 Mr Hall: Can I give you a non-hypothetical question. We have heard in evidence this morning that the Code of Practice does not appear to be working because it does not have a conscience clause to allow journalists to refuse to undertake activities their editors ask them to do, it does not involve complaints by third party referrals, there are no penalties for infringements, there is no compensation for people who have had their privacy infringed, there has been a call for an ombudsman, there is not any transparency in the payment for stories or the use of employment agencies. Are you going to take any of that on board when you look at the review of the Code of Practice?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I think you are being a tad unfair there. I think there is a whole bunch of stuff in there which we have already taken on board.
Q179 Mr Hall: Which one of those is in the Code of Practice?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Can I start with the conscience clause?
Q180 Mr Hall: Is it in the Code of Practice?
Sir Christopher Meyer: No, of course it is not in the Code of Practice.
Q181 Mr Hall: Do you think it should be?
Sir Christopher Meyer: No, I do not and I will tell you why. I thought I had solved this with the NUJ but clearly I have not from reading their submission. On 7 February 2006 I attended a meeting of the NUJ Parliamentary Committee, I think that is its title, Austin Mitchell is the Chairman, John McDonnell is a member and Jeremy Dear, the General Secretary of the NUJ, was present. True enough, they said to me, "Why do you not have a conscience clause in the Code of Practice?" and I said, "We have to draw a line between what is basically an employment practice between a newspaper editor and a journalist and what rightly belongs to our Code" and what we said—and Tim was there as well at this meeting—was "So, we are not going to interpose ourselves at the PCC on employment matters and become an employment tribunal, but what we do insist on...", and this is spreading, I hope, pretty widely around the UK, "[...] is that all journalists including editors should have as a matter of course written into their contracts respect for the Code of Practice". I said that is the main campaign of the PCC in this respect. Mr Dear, General Secretary of the NUJ, was there saying, "That is great".
Mr Toulmin: That is correct.
Sir Christopher Meyer: We thought we had resolved that matter with the NUJ but it has come back again like a Jack-in-the-box.
Q182 Mr Hall: What about third party referrals?
Sir Christopher Meyer: In principle, we look at third party complaints with a great deal of care. We do not rule them out absolutely. There is a feeling in the land that we will never look at them, we might look at them. What we are more concerned about is a first party complaint rather than a third party complaint, so that if a third party complains about something which has happened to somebody else, the direct subject of the story, we would go back and check with the first party to find out whether they wish to pursue the complaint and if the first party says, "No, I do not want to do that", then we will turn down the third party. I can give you an example of this.
Q183 Mr Hall: No, I think that is perfectly okay. Compensation?
Sir Christopher Meyer: We do not do money. If we did money we would have lawyers, if we had lawyers the whole blinking thing would come to a grinding halt. Every now and again as part of a conciliation process and we resolve a complaint the editor will make an ex gratia payment for whatever reason, but that is not the same thing as compensation.
Q184 Mr Hall: Ombudsman?
Sir Christopher Meyer: We are the ombudsman.
Q185 Mr Hall: You are?
Sir Christopher Meyer: We are the ombudsman and another one of the reforms that we introduced—
Q186 Mr Hall: Part of the make-up of the Press Complaints Commission is that you have got editors on the board itself so that is taking self-regulation right until the end if you are not independent, is it not?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Mr Hall, I am not quite sure where to start.
Q187 Mr Hall: Well, you have not got a lot of time.
Sir Christopher Meyer: Very quickly, on the matter of independence, yes, we have editors on the board of commissioners because one of the bases of our operation is that the buck stops with the editor and it is right that editors drawn from all over the land, not just national newspapers, should be there to provide their viewpoint when we come to discuss matters. A key thing, the moral heart of this, is that they are in the minority and the majority of the board of commissioners comprises publicly appointed lay commissioners who have no connection whatsoever with the newspaper industry, plus the fact that the permanent staff at the PCC, a dozen of us give or take, have never been employed in journalism and I do not want anybody to be working on our staff who is any way previously beholden to the newspaper industry. That is why we are independent.
Q188 Chairman: Can I move on to the number of complaints that you receive and what happens to them. It has been suggested that the fact that the number of complaints upheld has steadily fallen is a mark of your success. On the other hand, the number of complaints that you receive has been rising steadily and the vast majority are resolved without any formal adjudication. You will have heard the comments from witnesses earlier that whilst it may be obviously in the interests of the complainant to resolve a complaint, there is a wider public interest that the PCC should lay down markers, they should publish adjudications, they should produce case law which other newspapers can then see and be guided by in future and that is simply not happening now.
Sir Christopher Meyer: It is happening, Chairman, and I beg to differ, if you allow me to do so. On the matter of setting down standards publicly and very visibly, all our adjudications are published on our website. The website has a full compendium of all adjudications made and people can refer to that very easily.
Q189 Chairman: The adjudications have fallen to a trickle.(...)