Grâce à la liberté dans les communications, des groupes d’hommes de même nature pourront se réunir et fonder des communautés. Les nations seront dépassées.
Friedrich Nietzsche (Fragments posthumes XIII-883)

09 - AVR 21 - CPCM (3) - 433-491 (RG, ND)

Enquête sur les critères de la presse, l'intrusion dans la vie privée et la diffamation (3)

Aux entités et autorités appelées à déposer sur l'affaire MC, le Comité parlementaire posa deux questions auxquelles répondre par écrit. 
1) Pourquoi le régime d'auto-régulation n'a-t-il pas été utilisé, pourquoi la PCC n'a-t-elle pas eu recours à sa propre enquête et à quels changements cette affaire a-t-elle donné lieu dans l'industrie journalistique ?
2) L'action pour diffamation gagnée par les MC contre l'Express Group et d'autres journaux  indique-t-elle que le régime d'auto-régulation accuse une sérieuse faiblesse ?

Auditions de Roy Greenslade et de Nick Davies - 21.04.2009 

Q433  Adrian Sanders : That  (le fait que les "bons" reporters pour les rédactions soient ceux qui écrivent de bonnes histoires, même fausses) is extremely depressing. We did have an example with the McCanns when they were before us. 
Roy Greenslade : The McCanns are a classic case. I know Nick wants to address you on this so I will just do this very shortly. The McCanns is a perfect example where reporters were encouraged to get a story or several stories and their only source for most of those stories were other journalists in Portugal who were themselves receiving probably unauthorised and inaccurate leaks and then they would be spun by British journalists. The whole McCann saga is an indictment of our competitive nature of journalism, of 24 hour news and also of the PCC for failing to stamp on it at its outset. Perhaps Nick wants to come in now.
Nick Davies : It is the PCC point that I wanted to get into but perhaps that is not where you are with your questioning.

Q434 AS : How effective do you think the PCC is in upholding standards?
ND : I would say the PCC's performance is so weak that it threatens the concept of self-regulation. If the PCC does not lift its game then the whole notion of self-regulation is going to be discoloured by them. The McCanns is one of numerous examples. I was reading yesterday, in preparation for coming here, the evidence when Christopher Meyer was being questioned by Mr Farrelly and he was saying, for example, We could not contact the McCanns directly when the story broke because we did not know their phone number. That is pathetic. That is bad faith on Mayer's part. He is in touch with all those editors who have all their journalists down on the ground there. It really, really is not difficult to use those editors to ask those journalists, What is the street address in Portugal of this family so that we can write to them direct and ask them to complain so that we can then get involved? In answer to your questions he was saying, What could we do? What were we supposed to do? This is the PCC that wants to be able to claim that newspapers respect it, that it matters what the PCC says. What they could have done, if they were acting in good faith and not bad faith, is contact that family, invite them to make a complaint and then put out a clear public statement to these journalists: you have a clause in your code of conduct that says you have to tell the truth; it looks to us that you are breaking it and we are now handling complaints from this family, we are going to go into it and we are going to name names. Why did they not do that? Because they are not really there for the readers and the victims of the press over and over again. They do not stand up as a genuinely independent referee. Over and over again they end up sidling towards defending the bad practice of the media.
RG : I agree but let us specify some areas that are wrong about the PCC. I said that it was founded specifically to overcome the fact that we were going through a bout of particularly bad behaviour in the 1980s from the tabloids, particularly the News of the World and particularly at that time the Sun (which is less true nowadays I ought to say). There have been different phases and periods in the life of the PCC and in my view it has done some things that are pretty good because it has made journalists very conscious of the idea of their being a code. It only came to light in 1991 when the PCC actually began after we drew up the Code in 1990; Meyer calls it a "healthy teenager" but it still is only a teenager and it has a way to go to mature. They have done some things well but they are not and never are really proactive enough. They will say that this is due to funding or they will say it is because they do not have phone numbers, but they are not proactive. So it does mean that when there are feeding frenzies—let us admit that the ultimate feeding frenzy was the treatment of the McCanns and, by the way, Robert Murat—they are allowed to go forward because they fail to be proactive. The famous telephone call between Meyer and McCann about whether he advised him to go to law or not has been somewhat obviscated I think. The truth is that at that point Meyer could have said Look, you're worried; we're going to take some action. If you want to go to law later that is your view, but instead the PCC attitude is If you're going to go to law we are having nothing to do with it. I think that is wrong. I think that self-regulation should mean that they get involved irrespective of whether that person goes to law or not. That is item one. I also think that the way the PCC operates is all about smoke and mirrors. It is all behind the scenes; it is all about resolution and arbitration rather than adjudication so there are only 45 adjudications and 3968 complaints last year. That is far too small a proportion to be credible. Christopher Meyer said in an interview I did with him a few weeks ago, We would love to adjudicate more; nothing would please us more than to adjudicate, it would be easy to do. We could simply say, no, we are going to adjudicate, but it would bring us into disrepute. It would bring the PCC into disrepute with its funders; it would actually mean that there were clashes between the PCC—as there were with the Press Council—and the industry that set it up and it would not do it any more. That is the fig leaf that goes on at the moment. Then there is the opacity of the PCC. Apart from the smoke and mirrors setting, it is not a public body so we cannot look at it through the Freedom of Information Act as we can other self-regularly bodies. The IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) is a public body so you can actually check on what people are doing in terms of really, really amazing complaints relating to the police, but you cannot in terms of people who complain to the PCC. Christopher Meyer's argument is that if you did that then fewer people would complain but it has not stopped people complaining to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. We are not saying that the names of those people and what they write would ever be revealed in the press; what we are saying is that it would test much more clearly about how they are going about their work and what they actually do and whether the resolution is working. To offset that they set up the independent charter commissioner. The independent charter commissioner is appointed from within the chairmen of the PCC. I do not know whether that means independent or not but the next one is going to be former Black Rod Sir Michael Wilcox, himself famously subject to a PCC complaint on one occasion. Again that work is carried out quietly and behind the scenes. So in every way there are questions about its independence. If you look at who appoints who within the industry, apart from the fact that the independent commissioners who form a minority on the commission, everything else is self-selected and self-appointed by the chairman or by the chairman of PressBof which funds it. 
ND : It is that word that Roy has just used that is the important one, their independence. They are not sufficiently independent to do their job properly; they are not functioning as an independent referee. 

Q470  Chairman: Is Paul Dacre a public figure?(Q469 was Is a public figure somebody who lots of people in the public have heard of)
RG : Yes, Paul Dacre is a public figure. I think editors and publishers are.
ND : It actually comes back to the public interest point. I am thinking that you could have somebody who is not inherently a public figure but becomes a public figure because it is in the public interest that they are. The man who is storing firearms in his house so that he can go out into the street and massacre strangers, it is in the public interest that we should be able to treat him as a public figure and say that without risk of him suing us. He has become public because of what he is doing.

Q471  Ch. : So did Gerry McCann become a public figure?
ND : In that he should have been exempted from the standard protection against libel. Both of these concepts, public figure and public interest, are fuzzy but I think public interest is probably more helpful to deal with : is it in the public interest for Gerry McCann to be exempted from libel protection? I do not think it is. He does not have power over people, does he? People do not need to know. The man with guns in his house we need to know about; politicians we need to know about; we need to know about editors.

Q475  Paul Farrelly: The highest profile case of ordinary people using the CFA was the McCann case. They could not have done it otherwise.
RG : They have been transformed, as we have described, into public figures.
ND : They would not have been able to sue unless the CFA was there for them. They could not have afforded the lawyers.
RG : No, I do not think they would have done.

Q490  Ch. : Can I just come back to the McCann case because that was one of the main reasons for our inquiry. That is probably the most serious libel committed by a large number of papers although only one finally reached the court in recent times and has caused deep concern. First of all, do you think it was a one-off, that it was such an extraordinary case, that that kind of thing could not have happened elsewhere? Secondly, given what has been revealed by the extent to which papers were just making up stories do you think that they actually learned lessons? Did they sit and take a long hard look at themselves and say, "We must never allow this to happen again?"
RG : I do not think so. I do not think the lessons are easily learned in that matter and indeed many newspapers have got away with things because they were not sued. They just chose to go for the most obvious examples in the Express newspapers. By the way, when you talk about the McCanns you must include Mr Murat as well who was severely libelled throughout. I think it was an extraordinary case but which brought to light what goes on at a lower level day after day after day, which is irresponsible behaviour and the publishing of stories which are inaccurate. In that sense, although it was an extraordinary story and an extraordinary episode in the life of the press, it was not one which in some ways was an aberration and will never happen again and that was an aberration that had never happened before. It is in fact part of the on-going culture of popular journalism in Britain.
ND : I would agree. You have to look at the underlying drivers here. There was a similar case with that guy who was killed in the bush in Australia and his girlfriend was blamed by the press. The guy who died was called Falconio. Do you remember that case? It is rather similar. There is a crime, we do not know what the answer is; okay, we will blame one of the players. There was a ghastly press campaign against this poor girl and she was completely innocent. The underlying drivers are what I wrote the whole book about, the underlying drivers commercially driven organisations desperate to sell papers and get ratings, feeding off each other's sources of information, not checking. It is that commercial pollution that has occurred which is very, very common. The McCann case was particularly big and particularly cruel but not unusual in the drivers behind it. You ask about lessons learned, there is no reason to think that lessons have been learned because, if anything, commercial drivers have become more powerful because of the financial problems than now encroach on newsrooms.

Q491  Paul Farrelly: The tabloid press has said that the McCann case was a one-off so that is a refreshing counter-argument. There are inaccuracies that may not affect people's whole lives; with the McCanns of course it did affect their lives. There is also the question of whether it is accurate or is irresponsible and I just wanted to read into the record another case recently, the way the British tabloids treated the daughter, Elizabeth Fritzl, and the Sun in pursuing her to her new home, published a pixellated face. Then on 11 March the Daily Mail actually felt the need to publish the name of the village where she lives. The Austrian press referred to our press as "Satan's reporters". Florian Klenk of the Falter newspaper in Vienna, in the case of Elizabeth, has said that their new existence has been destroyed thanks to the British reporters who have divulged the name of her village. Is that not another example, when there is such a big story like this, that every new fact, every new angle is a fresh lead and a fresh headline, and nobody steps back to ask Should we be doing this?
RG : That is a very good example of Mr Whittingdale (président du comité parlementaire CMS) asking whether they had learned any lessons. That would suggest that no lessons at all have been learned. By the way, just to add to your record is the fact that the chequebook came out and there were offers to Mr Fritzl for his story which completely runs against the spirit and letter of the code of conduct.
ND : As a secondary point, the Mail disclosed the name of the village on 11 March; two days later the Express did the same and the Independent followed by Scotland on Sunday. So it is not as if it was just the freakish Mail; they led the way but others were perfectly happy to follow.
RG : This is a really good example of how feeding frenzies take off in that one paper does something and the others feel they have to catch up or at least feel that this is in the public domain therefore we are justified in doing it. In no time that creates a vicious circle. In many ways the McCanns—the case which was an extraordinary example—is merely the tip of an iceberg in the sense that this is fairly common stuff. I have great respect for the Independent and I know that Nick does, but is it not disgraceful that a newspaper of that sort would feel able to do it and it felt able to do it because it would use the defence that it was already out there. That is not responsible. It should actually have been critical of the Mail for having done it in the first place.