John Home Robertson interview
John Home Robertson was a Labour MP for 23 years from 1978 to 2001, during which time he held a number of posts including the membership of two Select Committees. He was a member of the Scottish Parliament from 1999 to 2007 and was Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs in the Scottish Executive between 1999-2000. He is the founder of the Paxton Trust.
What made you want to join the PCC as a Commissioner?
Having been in elected office for 30 years, I was very aware of the role of the press, both good and bad. Like many people, I did my fair share of moaning about the media, but decided that it would be more useful to actually do something about it and get involved directly. I saw an advert for a lay Commissioner vacancy in The Herald and thought the opportunity looked too good to miss. I decided to apply and things went from there.
How do you think your previous experience as an MSP and MP helps you in this new role?
I'd say the main thing is that it gave me such huge experience of case work. I am used to assessing a mass of information before coming to a conclusion, which of course is one of the key tasks of a Commissioner. My experience dealing with constituents taught me two very valuable lessons: not to jump to conclusions before reading every part of the relevant correspondence; and to treat each case on an individual basis.
More generally, politicians can have a fairly turbulent time with the press, and I wanted to see how things looked on the other side of the fence. There is a perception among some politicians that the press is out of control and that the PCC could do better, so I wanted to help to put it right.
What are your first impressions of the cases dealt with by the PCC ? Are they close to what you expected?
I didn't really know what to expect. But what has really struck me is quite what a wide range of complaints there are, from all sorts of people.
I have perhaps been surprised by the number of complaints I have seen from celebrities so far, all of which have come via lawyers. This puzzles me, as of course the PCC's services are completely free to use for anyone, including celebrities. But having represented ordinary members of the public for such a long time, I find it particularly satisfying to see how the PCC can help people without a public profile.
How have you found your encounters with other Commissioners so far?
I can honestly say that I have been very impressed by everybody I have met. The Commissioners are a really busy group of people, with challenging jobs, and they show great commitment to their PCC work. It's important for a body like the PCC that Commissioners have a good working relationship with each other, so I found the recent Away Day in Manchester very useful as a means of getting to know my colleagues better. I hope there might be a chance to do something similar at some point later this year.
What were your experiences of the press like as a politician?
Perhaps inevitably, it was a very mixed bag: I had some very good experiences and some pretty dreadful ones. I'm sure this is much like everyone else operating in the political world. In one of my previous roles I chaired a Committee which was in charge of overseeing the completion of the Scottish Parliament building project. We had a very tough time from the press, so I understand what it's like to be at the sharp end of things.
The press has such a vital role to play, both for information and commentary purposes, which is why it's so important they get it right. The press are certainly facing very serious challenges at the moment: staffing and budget cuts, increased competition with other media etc, but it is really important that editorial standards do not slip as a result.
Has your perception of journalism been affected by taking decisions under the terms of the Code?
Before I joined the PCC it is true that I was worried about press standards. I am definitely very supportive of all the pro-active work the PCC undertakes (for example, supporting individuals who are being harassed by the press by issuing desist messages to the industry, and offering pre-publication advice to editors and the public) but I would like to see the PCC praising more examples of good, accurate reporting. Seeing the PCC publicly give more plaudits to the industry where deserved would definitely be a good thing.
The PCC 's remit covers newspapers and magazines across the whole of the UK , including Scotland . How do you think the press in Scotland compares to UK-wide publications?
It does seem to me that Scottish papers receive more than their fair share of complaints. (The statistics for 2008 show that complaints about Scottish papers constituted 7% of the PCC's total). I don't know whether this is because they are necessarily any worse in terms of overall standards, or whether the Scots are just more likely to stand up and be heard by making complaints.
What does good regulation mean to you?
For me, it all comes down to deterring bad, dishonest journalism without stifling vigorous, robust journalism in the process.