Meyer hits out at PCC critics

The former chair of the Press Complaints Commission has made a staunch defence of the self-regulation body at the Leveson Inquiry today.

Sir Christopher Meyer, who chaired the self-regulation body from 2003 to 2009, grew exasperated as he was asked by counsel Robert Jay QC whether the body should stop the press coming up with stories to fit supposed facts. “As long as human beings are involved, there will be fallibility,” Meyer told the Inquiry.

“It is as if you say to the police ‘you are useless because you can’t stop crime’,” Meyer said. “These are ridiculous arguments.”

In one of the more heated sessions of the Inquiry, Meyer told Jay that he seemed “to ignore” that the public has confidence in the complaints body, which has faced criticism in various witness testimony for having failed to deal proactively with complaints. In her evidence to the Inquiry in November, Harry Potter author JK Rowling called it a “wrist-slapping exercise at best”, while the father of missing toddler Madeleine McCann suggested “repeat offenders” of incorrect coverage should lose their privilege of practising journalism.

Meyer contended it was unfair for Jay to suggest he was slow in protecting the McCanns or condemning the Express’s coverage of them. The couple, whose daughter went missing in Portugal in 2007, received a libel payout of £550,000 from Express Newspapers for defamatory articles published about them.

Meyer said he had made it “perfectly plain” to Gerry McCann that he had an option of taking a legal route or the PCC, stressing to the Inquiry that the PCC made “particular efforts” to make itself available to the McCanns within 48 hours of their daughter, Madeleine, disappearing.

He added that he told the then-editor, Peter Hill, “you have to resign” after the payout.

He continued, “the McCanns needed the press for publicity’s sake”, adding that the couple had made a “Faustian” bargain with the media.

He also rejected Jay’s suggestion that, had the PCC taken a more proactive stance with the McCanns, the libellous coverage of Bristol landlord Chris Jefferies would not have been able to go so far.

“Don’t drag me down that path,” he told Jay, noting that he was no longer the PCC chairman at the time, and that the body had been successful in containing media scrums.

Quizzed about why the PCC did not call in newspaper editors in the wake of the Information Commissioner’s reports on Operation Motorman, Meyer said he needed “actionable information” and wanted to “see the beef” before talking to editors.

Last month, the former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas told the Inquiry the PCC “should have done more” in response to the Motorman findings, and that he “just did not buy [the] line”, that the PCC could not intervene because the use of private investigators by the press was a criminal matter.

Discussing the oft-criticised PCC report on phone hacking in 2007, published after the jailing of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman on related offences, Meyer argued it was not useful for the PCC to “duplicate” the police inquiry, and that interviewing former News of the World editor Andy Coulson would not have added “anything of value” to the report.

He said the PCC decided to conduct a “lessons-learned exercise” to shed a “little more light” on what had occurred at the News of the World. Meyer called the report “monumental” and said the police and papers uncovered more evidence of phone hacking than was known in 2006.

His exchange with Robert Jay QC became more agitated as they moved on to Max Mosley, who sued the News of the World in 2008 for publishing a story accusing him of engaging in a Nazi-themed orgy.

Meyer said Mosley was “extremely rude” about the PCC after he decided to launch a legal complaint against the News of the World, adding later that “the whole thing might have taken a different course” had Mosley had gone to the PCC before the tabloid published its sting. “We around the table — the commissioners — would have had a very interesting debate,” Meyer said, adding, “we would have found for him.”

He added that the PCC could have attempted to halt the publication of Mosley sting, as the body “regularly” gave pre-publication advice and there would have been a “big debate” about whether the Nazi theme of the story “affected the central argument”.

Meyer grew increasingly frustrated when asked if there was “collusion” between the PCC and editors serving on its board.

“God knows I had my conflicts with the editors on all kinds of things,” he told the Inquiry. “If you think I was sitting in their pocket not daring to do things that they did not like, think again Mr Jay.”

Meyer gave a staunch defence of free expression, noting that he was a “strong believer of freedom of the press” and “very firmly of the view that you do not go down the road of statute”.

Meyer warned that state involvement in press regulation was a “slippery slope”. He argued that in the future a “less permissive, less liberal state” may try to take advantage of existing legislation to do things that “might be offensive to freedom of expression”.

He added that the press is “quite closely hemmed in by statute and code of practice”, adding that he would not not want to see a “system of regulation that is more repressive than need be.” Referring to a 2003 speech, Meyer said he still believed the PCC should not be able to fine newspapers, contrary to current PCC director Stephen Abell’s view expressed yesterday.

Contrasting with the testimony of Abell and former director Tim Toulmin, Meyer said he believed “very firmly” that the PCC was a regulator, noting that “it is regulation unlike anything else”.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Libel: today in parliament

I’ve just got back from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee meeting on press standards, privacy and libel in Whitehall.

The meeting was split into two sittings: the first with journalists, and the second with members of the Press Complaints Commission and the Press Standards Board of Finance.

The journalists’ panel addressed an issue very close to Index’s heart: the UK’s defamation law, and its chilling effect on reporters and editors.

Jeff Edwards of the Mirror told how his paper sometimes found itself shying away from even seemingly innocuous stories about the super-rich, such was the fear of massive legal fees should the subject take umbrage.

Sean O’Neill, crime and security editor of The Times, went further, saying that the use of Conditional Fee Agreements in libel cases is ‘distorting journalism and justice’. He claimed ‘predatory lawyers’ were ready to pounce on newspapers, particularly newspapers that attempted to link certain individuals to Islamist terror and extremism.

On the issue of ‘prior notification’ of stories, which Max Mosley had raised as a possible remedy for the publication of stories that invade privacy, Edwards pointed out that enshrining such a system could prove unworkable: people who knew they were to be the subjects of stories could simply make themselves unavailable to the newspaper, turning off their phone, leaving journalists on a deadline hamstrung.

The Guardian’s Bad Science columnist, Ben Goldacre, raised the idea of a press small claims court, where claims of defamation could be settled quickly, with minimal fees.

The second session focused on the role of the Press Complaints Commission. Under sustained questioning, PCC chair Sir Christopher Meyer launched a sound defence of the PCC and press self-regulation, saying it was the only way to protect free expression while simultaneously encouraging responsible journalism.

Responding to the increasingly multi-platform nature of newspapers, (the Sun’s new online radio show, will for example, be subject to the PCC) Meyer said he hoped that one day soon Ofcom would ‘move out of content’, allowing all media to self regulate.

You can watch the meeting here