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Text of a speech by Sir Christopher Meyer to the AGM of the Newspaper Society

EMBARGO 11.30hrs, Tuesday 6th May 2003

Text of a speech by Sir Christopher Meyer, Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, to the Annual General Meeting of the Newspaper Society in London

“Building on Success”

Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is thanks to Geoffrey Howe, when Foreign Secretary, that I have become intimate with the British press: first as Foreign Office spokesman, then as No 10 press secretary, and now as Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.

It was in 1984, while I was minding my own business in the British Embassy in Moscow, that, on the balcony of the Ambassador’s residence overlooking the Kremlin, Geoffrey importuned me with an invitation to become his spokesman. I accepted with alacrity, though in complete ignorance of what it was I was supposed to do.

Geoffrey remarked later that I was the only member of the British Embassy in Moscow who had been recruited by somebody other than the KGB.

Several years later, on the strength of my times with Geoffrey Howe, I was approached by Sarah Hogg, the then head of the No. 10 policy unit, and asked if I wished to become press secretary to John Major, after Gus O’Donnell.

She expanded warmly on Mr. Major’s deep love of the media, indifference to headlines, and the affection in which he held the Lobby. It was only when I presented myself to the Prime Minister for interview that I realised that this might not be the whole story.

What did I think of political journalists, Mr. Major asked? I said that they gave off a more pungent smell of journalism than the diplomatic editors to whom to I was accustomed.

“Pungent?” said the PM, “pungent? Putrid more likely.”

Undeterred, like a moth to a flame, after an interview lasting all of five minutes, I again went ahead with alacrity.

Two years later I returned to the Diplomatic Service, wings heavily singed and swearing to myself never to become intimate with the press again.

But, then, as my grandmother used to say, “there is no fool like an old fool”. Last year persons in grey suits invited me to put forward my name for the post of Chairman of the PCC.

Yet again I accepted with alacrity. Now, for the first time since working in a chicken factory outside Bath in 1965, I find myself in the private sector.

But, seriously, Ladies and gentlemen, I can think of few better causes in which my wings could be further singed than the Press Complaints Commission. I am immensely honoured to be Chairman.

Just as I am immensely honoured to be invited by you to make my maiden speech, after little more than a month in the job.

Let me make very plain where I stand; why, indeed, I wished to become Chairman of the PCC.

Churchill said of democracy that:

“no one pretends that [it] is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” .

Self regulation of the press is not unlike that. It has its jagged edges and imperfections, and it always will. But the alternatives – state regulation or privacy laws that will necessarily favour the affluent – are offensive in principle and would be defective in practice.

I remember all too well my experience in Downing Street when hours of vain labour were devoted to trying to come up with a workable privacy law, accessible to all.

I have worked and lived in seven different countries. I have been an avid reader of newspapers in all of them, with greater pleasure in some more than others.

(It is, I have to tell you, a close-run thing between Pravda and the Frankfurter Allgemeine as to which was the worse companion to a good English breakfast.)

I am not, and never will be, the spokesman for the British newspaper industry. But I believe that the British press – regional, national, weekly, magazine – provides a better service to its readers than any other newspaper industry in the world. And this includes that of the United States, even with the protection of the First Amendment.

Liberty and self regulation are inextricably linked. Any infringement of self regulation would not just erode the freedoms of the press. Far more importantly it would curtail the freedoms of the citizen, who in a democratic society will always depend on media uninhibited by both control of the state and deference to the establishment to protect their liberty. That is why self regulation – and all the jagged edges that come with it – must be protected, must be nurtured, and must grow.

I have said more than once that in my role as PCC Chairman I must be independent and be seen to be independent. If the PCC is, as it should be, one of the many guardians of the public’s interest, it must be an independent body, free from the pressures of the state, the establishment and, indeed, of the press itself.

That is why the term “self regulation” perhaps fails fully to capture what is involved. It is self regulation “plus”. The PCC is not the fox in charge of the hen house. A robust and independent lay majority acts as the moral heart of the Commission. It makes our decision taking process, if anything, a form of “civil regulation”, where the interests of the public always have to come first.

A characteristic of a civil, and a civilised, society is that it works for all our citizens, regardless of their means or position. The vulnerable and the celebrity stand equal in our eyes. The PCC delivers where law or statute never could – with speed, with effectiveness and with efficiency. That is our raison d’etre; and it is our trump card.

The last five weeks have been something of a personal odyssey of discovery. I would never in the first place have wished to join the PCC had I not believed in its value and the central importance of self-regulation.

What I had not appreciated in full was how good it is. It has a tremendous story of success to tell. It is often unfairly criticised, sometimes by those who should know better.

I have, if you like, moved from one undervalued organisation, the Foreign Office, to another, the Press Complaints Commission.

The PCC’s Submission to the Select Committee has set out comprehensive testimony to the strengths of the system and the effective manner in which the Commission has administered it.

In reading it I was struck by three things in particular.

The first was the high level of public recognition for the PCC – at 80% in a very recent MORI poll, that is far higher than one would expect for an organisation such as ours.

The second was the Commission’s programme of proactive work. There are some who say we are not proactive enough. But in the last few years there is no region of the country we have not visited, no group of vulnerable people we have not thought about, no service we have not offered to ensure people know how to complain – and no stone we have left unturned to ensure that complaining is as easy as possible.

The PCC has taken the initiative in raising issues, such as witness payments and intrusion into grief, un-prompted by complainants. That is the sort of proactivity to be encouraged. What I will not do is become champion for a kind of activism which is half-nanny, half-Orwell.

The third thing that struck me in the Submission was the high level of customer satisfaction. In any regulatory system – and particularly one about the press, where passions run high – you will get a fair share of disgruntled customers. That our proportion is so low is a tribute, and in striking contrast to the large number of metropolitan chatterers who have asserted to me the contrary.

The record continues to improve. In the first quarter of this year – at a time when we were dealing with a record number of complaints – satisfied customers rose to nearly 70% of the total. That, of course, includes a significant proportion of those whose complaints did not prosper.

That the PCC is able to deliver such a service reflects a number of factors. One is leadership. John Wakeham and then Bob Pinker have been authoritative and innovative figures. Between them they have helped inculcate into newsrooms across the country – as I have personally witnessed - a respect for the Code and the need, wherever possible, to reach agreement with the aggrieved reader. That is a formidable achievement, of benefit to public and industry alike.

John and Bob in turn – as they would be the first to admit – could not have done what they did without the wisdom, dedication and sheer hard work of the PCC’s Director, Guy Black, and the team he leads. I have come, in a very short space of time, much to admire Guy’s sterling qualities.

Then there are you, the publishers. It is your commitment – channelled most often through the indispensable link of David Newell and his colleagues at the Newspaper Society - that makes everything work. Without you, and your own investment in the highest possible ethical standards, there would be no self regulation and no PCC – from which the loser would be the public.

That is one of the many reasons why almost as soon as I arrived I embarked on a tour around the country, to hear the views of publishers and editors in the regional press. I have been already to Manchester and Liverpool, to Dundee, Edinburgh and Falkirk. Tomorrow I leave for Belfast. Before the summer, I will have also been to Norwich, Wolverhampton, Barnsley and Oldham, and twice more to Scotland. In the autumn, I want to go to Wales, to the North East, and to the South of England – particularly Kent and Hampshire.

If I have my way, these tours will not be a one off. One of the things that I learnt from my time in No. 10 was the importance of listening regularly to people who do not live their lives inside the metropolitan hothouse.

The regional and local press have as much of a stake in the future of self regulation as national newspapers. The issues confronting regional newspaper editors are as acute as those facing their colleagues in London. That has already been put to me with the clarity and directness you would expect from Mancunians, Liverpudlians and Scots.

But, Ladies and Gentlemen, there is absolutely no room for smugness and complacency. I return to the UK and take up the Chairmanship in, as the Chinese would say, interesting times.

• Criticism in some quarters of our structures and procedures (but, interestingly, very rarely of PCC decisions).

• Pressure to submit the PCC to the authority of OFCOM – even though, as David Currie repeated to me last week, he does not want to touch newspapers with the most robust of barge poles.

• Slings and arrows from some on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Guy Black will be the first – and, I hope, last – recipient of the PCC’s specially struck Medal of Valour for coolness under fire.

• Debate about the relationship between the Human Rights Act, privacy, and self regulation. It is pretty clear that the handful of recent high profile cases under the Human Rights Act have, ironically, strengthened the authority of the Code and the PCC. But that is not the point. There is a variety of remedies available to the aggrieved reader: letter to the Editor, Readers’ Editor, PCC, the law, to name but four. There is plenty of room for all and there should be coexistence between all.

• And, behind all this turbulence, the ceaseless dialectic between the public and private interests, between the right to free expression and the obligation to responsibility – debates, which will rage on until the end of time, the sign of a healthy, mature democracy.

So, our natural condition is turbulence and restlessness; our habitat a constantly moving landscape, not still life; and our response, not permanent revolution, but permanent evolution.

The PCC should always be trying to keep ahead, anticipating, as much as responding to, where the next challenges will come from.

Some people have commiserated with me. It’s a tough time, they say, to take up the Chairmanship. Some think I’m just daft. On the contrary, I think it is the ideal time to grab the debate by the scruff of its neck, brush away the myths, and move forward as we always have to the benefit of the millions of people who read and enjoy newspapers and magazines.

Over the years the PCC has shown its ability to grow organically, and to adapt. Along with the Code, it is a living, breathing entity, not an Easter Island statue. I want to build on this and to strengthen the unique characteristics of a system that is being copied the world over – hence my theme today, “Building on Success.”

So, as an appetiser before lunch, I intend to sketch some ideas that I think will help achieve this.

But I do want to make one thing clear. I retain a pretty open mind on how we can grow in the future. Only on those things that would fundamentally change for the worse the nature of the system is my mind closed. In that I include four heresies:

The first is any suggestion that the PCC should have the power to levy fines or award compensation. This would invite the colonisation of the system by lawyers, with all the costs and delay that this would entail. You could throw “free” and “fast” out of the window. Those who believe that fines mean sharper teeth fail to understand that no editor wants the blemish of a negative adjudication on his or her record.

The second is any proposal to bring the PCC either under OFCOM – directly or through the back door – or any Government appointed Ombudsman. That would be Government control by any other name, and is utterly repugnant.

The third is any measure that would turn the PCC into a directive body – initiating complaints at random, intervening in issues which are nothing to do with the Code, or establishing any superior service for the rich and famous. We have a set of rules that work well for everyone – regardless of status – and we move away from them at our peril.

The fourth is the notion that in some way the PCC should act as a general control on the press. This derives from a misunderstanding of the PCC’s role and is a cousin to censorship. Some people do not like the partisanship and the stridency of newspapers; or the velocity and intensity of campaigns; or the harshness of some commentators. But, this is not the stuff of regulation in a free country. It may be the stuff of wider discourse in Parliament or society at large. There should be a constant debate between newspapers and their readers. Sometimes I feel that the PCC becomes, unfairly, a surrogate target for those who are gunning for this or that editor.

These are heresies, which would strike at the heart of our self regulation. So, what I want to do is nail to the door of the Newspaper Society eight ideas which would reinforce it to the benefit of the ordinary citizen.

In each of these areas I am seeking both to build on and to expose to greater sunlight the strengths of the PCC and the Code.

The first area relates to the PCC’s independence. The lay majority on the Commission is absolutely vital. It is a symbol of the industry’s commitment to independent scrutiny. It is the guardian of the public’s interests, as well as the public interest – different, but equally important, concepts. But far too many people, including again many who ought to know better, do not understand that, or do not accept that the independent majority is as authoritative and rigorous as it is. I can testify to both these qualities from my first Commission meeting last week (just as I can to the fact that the editors do not comprise a bloc vote or strike fear into the hearts of the lay commissioners, to whom I have already spent a great deal of time talking ).

All that said I think that the current balance of lay members to editors both looks, and maybe is, too close. The PCC’s Articles of Association envisage a Commission of up to 17 people. So why not strengthen the lay majority, so crucial to our authority and credibility, by appointing an extra lay member? That would then make the balance on the Commission 10 to 7 – a clear, tangible, forceful sign of the PCC’s independence and objectivity.

Then, second area, why not reinforce greater independence with greater transparency by advertising openly for that new lay member around the countries and regions of the United Kingdom? That, of course, would apply to future lay members.

The third – and by far the most important to citizens – concerns the PCC’s service to customers. It is first rate: fast, free, fair – and effective. As a dispute resolution body – often in the heat of the most vicious arguments between parties – we are second to none. Our satisfaction surveys testify to that.

In short, we have nothing to fear from scrutiny and should, I believe, welcome it. So why not have our customer service audited once a year by an independent panel appointed by the PCC and reporting to it as necessary with suggestions for the future? That will add an important layer of accountability to our work.

The fourth issue concerns the PCC’s powerful sanction – the critical adjudication. You don’t need to spend too long with editors in the national and regional press to realise quite how strong this sanction is, and far more so than the threat of fines ever would be. When the PCC does have to censure an editor, not enough is done to make that visible to the public. Visibility is crucial in winning the battle of public opinion. Why not build on our sanction to make sure people are aware of adjudications by giving them a clear, common branding?

At the moment every newspaper has a different way of presenting an adjudication – some of them, I have to say, less than obvious. Adjudications need to be clearly, consistently and prominently labelled as PCC criticisms of a newspaper.

On a related issue, I would also like to see all papers and periodicals carrying contact details for the Commission and its services, as well as more links to the PCC website on newspaper and magazine websites. It might lead to more complaints! So be it. That is a small price to pay for increasing the visibility and accessibility of the service we offer.

Fifth, I have been very impressed by the PCC’s wide-ranging proactive programme of public information, reaching across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. I want to build on that even more. So why not hold – very visibly – open meetings in the Cities and big towns of the United Kingdom in conjunction with the local newspaper, at which I and my colleagues on the Commission could talk about the PCC, its work and answer questions?

This would have the bonus of helping me and my colleagues stay in touch with opinion outside London – something without which a Chairman cannot do his job properly.

Sixth, I have already referred to the way the Code has developed over the years: to catch up with technology, to respond to public concerns, to answer points raised by the Commission and so on. Again I want to make more of its ability organically to grow in that way. Why should not the Code Committee – perhaps in conjunction with the Commission – itself undertake an “audit” of the Code once a year? We would, in effect, be conducting a regular “health check” on its terms, looking at the same time at the PCC’s recent adjudications, to decide whether there are areas where improvements can be made?

I have also been concerned about the extent to which people are unaware that members of the public, or organisations, can make proposals for change to the Code Committee. The occasion of the annual “health check” could also be one where we more visibly invite the public to let us have their suggestions. Accountability and transparency are the keys to the Code, and we must make more of them.

My seventh point relates to the Code’s crucial importance in news rooms around the country, something that has been very much brought home to me in my regional tours so far. It is, or should be, now part of the bone marrow of editors and senior journalists. But often those having to make instant decisions may come across an unfamiliar situation. I have already heard examples of this on my recent visits in England and Scotland.

I would, of course, always encourage them to ring the PCC: there will always be someone there to assist – not with any form of clearance, but with information about relevant precedents. Why not build on this even further, particularly in a way which would help with the vital issue of journalist training, by producing a “Users’ Handbook” for all newsrooms – which could be made available on a Code Committee website - setting out the background to the Code’s provisions, and highlighting on a continuing basis PCC case law? I would include in this the various notes circulated to Editors on issues of the day, unprompted by complaints.

The last of my eight ideas relates to the difficult question of procedural review. I am unattracted by the idea of establishing a legal construction – such as an Ombudsman – to which disgruntled complainants could “appeal” a decision of the Commission. As a matter of principle, why should one person’s view on a complex matter be better than seventeen’s? As a matter of practice, appeals against the decisions of the Commission would merely mean once again the insertion into the system of lawyers – meaning once again cost and delay.

But there is a crucial difference in my mind between appeals against the substance of an issue – which should be the preserve of the Commission – and review on procedural grounds. The PCC already has in place a number of ways of tackling this. Complainants can ask us to look at their complaint again if they have new evidence. They can do so if they believe we have misunderstood the case – and we will. They can, of course, take us to judicial review. (Two have – and we have won each time.)

And they can complain to our own Charter Officer about possible procedural breaches of our Complainants’ Charter. Every complainant who comes to us has that right – although very few of them do. Why not make more of that and highlight more clearly the ability of complainants to take up procedural issues with us? Indeed, why not establish a position of Charter Commissioner – he or she could be one of the members of the audit panel – who could look at any such procedural matters brought to him or her and then publish a quarterly or half yearly report about issues raised, with recommendations for any changes? This would be tantamount to creating our own internal system of judicial review, just as PCC case law parallels that of the Courts.

So, there you have it. The first thoughts of a virgin Chairman. The name of the game is independence, proactivity, transparency, visibility, accountability: all qualities already entrenched in the PCC and its Code, but which can, in my view, be significantly enhanced.

I want in the coming weeks to continue my discussion with as many people as possible; to canvas views on those ideas and how we put them into practice; and to hear other suggestions how the PCC can do even better in its central mission: to serve the public and raise newspaper standards.

Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen. Let me end – in time honoured fashion – where I began. Holding the Chairmanship of the PCC is an honour, a privilege and a high responsibility. Maintaining self regulation, and ensuring the PCC remains the strong, authoritative, effective and respected organisation that I have inherited will be my mission. Where I can build on its success, I will do so with imagination and vigour. Where it needs defending, I will do so with passion and commitment. And where its virtues and benefits need evangelising, I will do so with as much eloquence as I can muster.

Thank you for asking me here today. I look forward to working with you all in the days and years ahead on a task we all hold dear – and the success of which is crucial for the liberty of our country.

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