The House of Commons culture, media and sport committee will hear evidence from Matt Brittin, managing director, Google UK and Paul Bradshaw, lecturer in journalism, Birmingham City University this morning (scheduled for 10.30am but there was a problem with the live feed, which is now working). Caroline Beavon (@carolinebeavon) is liveblogging for the Online Journalism Blog.
You may recall that back in April Nick Davies gave evidence to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee, for its review into press standards, privacy and libel.
In the course of that session he claimed there was ‘a real will on the part of the PCC [Press Complaints Commission] to avoid uncovering the truth about phone hacking’ and that newspapers still used private investigators: “It is wrong but they are not doing anything about it and that continues despite Motorman [investigation undertaken by the Information Commissioner’s Office into alleged offences under data protection legislation.] All that has happened is that they have got a little bit more careful about it. I actually got to know that network of private investigators who were exposed in Motorman. Years after that I was in the office of one of them and he was taking phone calls from newspapers while I was there.”
The committee chairman, John Whittingdale, said: “We did do an investigation both into Motorman and into Goodman so I do not want to revisit old ground too much”.
The same committee which today announced it will open a new inquiry ‘into the Guardian revelations about the use of illegal surveillance techniques by News International newspapers’ (Guardian.co.uk).
Yesterday Nick Davies’ Guardian exclusive – which reported Murdoch papers paid £1m to silence victims of phone hacking – alleged that the evidence posed difficult questions for the PCC: it has ‘claimed to have conducted an investigation, but failed to uncover any evidence of illegal activity,’ it was reported.
Davies is no friend of the Press Complaints Commission – as reported on Journalism.co.uk before – and used his appearance in front of the committee in April to argue that the ‘PCC’s performance is so weak that it threatens the concept of self-regulation.’
The PCC has stated today, in light of the new reports, that ‘any suggestion that further transgressions have occurred since its report was published in 2007 will be investigated without delay.’
Now, let’s look back at Davies’ comments in the Commons in April (from uncorrected evidence on House of Commons site). Davies laid the bait for us all, but it would seem only he pursued his allegations against News of the World, to secure yesterday’s scoop:
Mr Davies: It is that word that Roy [Greenslade] has just used that is the important one, their independence. They [PCC] are not sufficiently independent to do their job properly; they are not functioning as an independent referee. You could see it, for example, in the way they handled the Clive Goodwin [sic] story. There are newspapers publishing stories all over Fleet Street; there is a whole lot of hacking going on, hacking into mobile phones. They conducted an inquiry which was set up in such a way that it could not possibly disclose the truth about that illegal activity. Why? Why did they not conduct a proper, independent inquiry? It was the same with the information commissioner after Operation Motorman. We used the Freedom of Information Act on the information commissioner and got hold if the e-mails and letters between the commissioner and the Press Complaints Commission. You can see there the information commissioner saying, “Look, we have just busted this private eye. It is horrifying what newspapers are doing. Will you put out a clear warning to these journalists that they must obey the law?” The short answer was, “No, not if we can help it”. You may be familiar with all this —–
Q435 Chairman: We had an inquiry into Motorman.
Mr Davies: Did you have the e-mails and so on?
Q436 Chairman: We had representatives of News International and so on.
Mr Davies: Also, when he [Paul Dacre] goes into hospital to have operations on his heart, there is always a message sent round Fleet Street saying, “Mr Dacre’s in hospital, please do not report it”. Medical records are supposed to be plundered by Harry Hack with beer on his breath and egg on his tie. It is wrong but they are not doing anything about it and that continues despite Motorman. All that has happened is that they have got a little bit more careful about it. I actually got to know that network of private investigators who were exposed in Motorman. Years after that I was in the office of one of them and he was taking phone calls from newspapers while I was there. It has not stopped; it has just got a bit more careful. It had got so casual that every reporter in the newsroom was allowed to ring up and commission illegal access to confidential information, now they have pulled it back so that you have to get the news editor to do it or the news desk’s permission. It is still going on and it is against the law.
Q446 Paul Farrelly: Do you think the PCC missed a trick with its own standing reputation in not summoning Mr Coulson?
Mr Greenslade: I wrote at the time and have maintained ever since that the Goodman affair was a very, very black moment in the history of the PCC. This man was jailed for breaking the law. His editor immediately resigned but there were huge questions to ask about the culture of the News of the World newsroom which only the man in charge of that newsroom could answer. When I challenged the PCC about why they had failed to call Mr Coulson they said that he was no longer a member of the press. That seems to me to be a complete abnegation of the responsibilities of the PCC for the public good. In other words, to use a phrase Nick has already used, it was getting off with a technicality.
Mr Davies: If you say to Coulson, “Come and give evidence even though you are no longer an editor” and if he says, “No” then that is an interesting tactical failure on his part. It is not just the editor of the paper; what about the managing editor? Why not call Stuart Kuttner, the managing editor of the News of the World, who has been there for years and who has a special responsibility for contracts and money? Why not call him to give evidence? There was a real will on the part of the PCC to avoid uncovering the truth about phone hacking.
Q447 Chairman: We did do an investigation both into Motorman and into Goodman so I do not want to revisit old ground too much.
Mr Davies: It is what it tells you about the PCC.
In its last evidence session for its inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee today heard from not-for-profit campaign organisation Global Witness’ co-founder Charmian Gooch and Mark Stephens, a lawyer from Finers Stephens Innocent, who has represented non-profit organisations previously.
Most significant were Gooch’s comments on the impact of UK libel and privacy laws, high legal costs and conditional fee arrangements (CFAs) on media organisations compared with not-for-profit organisations.
As journalistic resources, in particular the investigative units of news organisations, are cut back, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are increasingly filling that reporting space, said Gooch.
They must work under the same legislation as for-profit organisations, but have very different interests at heart, she added.
“This is long-term work, often years of work, attacking and trying to change vested interest. It’s not just the publication of a damning and very good article; it’s about trying to change behaviour. That can cause the loss of millions of pounds for a company or individual. That means these individuals might respond in a very different way to non-media organsiations than they would do to media organisations,” explained Gooch.
She said all researchers/reporters at Global Witness were trained in defamation and libel, and a Reynolds defence is considered at all stages of research and every point of publication.
Yet Stephens said he was yet to see an NGO that, despite having a good Reynolds defence, would win at trial with it.
“The problem is the cost of fighting it,” he said – around £100-200,000 or the equivalent of two researchers for an NGO.
High level public interest stories are denuded by high costs, added Stephens, who said his firm had NGOs coming through its doors concerned that they would be sued.
The cost of fighting on a Reynolds defence in the UK is ‘out of kilter’ with the rest of Europe, added Gooch.
However, Stephens said, it is not necessary to put Reynolds into statute:
“What wil happen is that the claimant’s lawyers at the libel bar will attempt to erode that defence by chopping at it and eroding it slowly but surely. That’s what I’m concerned about. If it is left in the common law, as it is at the moment, the judiciary have the option to resist that erosion,” he said.
Libel tourism was also described by the representatives as a threat to the press freedom of NGOs.
“Claimants who have an overseas domicile should be required to put a significant cash deposit down or the chances of doing justice are very slim,” added Gooch.
“For governments, that are serious about and claim they want to make poverty history, not to tackle this massive abuse and facilitate corruption is a long-term problem.”