It was a busy week at the Leveson Inquiry as the chairman continued to ruminate on the future of press regulation. Representatives from the PCC, and from various regulators. private investigators’ organisations and mobile phone companies gave evidence to the inquiry. The final witness Baroness Hollins provided a timely reminder of why the inquiry had been set up in the first place.
Stephen Abell, director of the Press Complaints Commission, and Tim Toulmin, director from 2004 to 2009, gave evidence to the inquiry on Monday. The morning hearing began with Toulmin, who denied the existence of a “tri-partite axis” between former PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer, Les Hinton, former executive at News International and Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre. He added:
“There was never any interference by those two men, or indeed anyone else in the industry about what the PCC should say about individual complaints. That was entirely up to the PCC. If that sort of subversive relationship had been going on at that level, people would have spotted it – members of staff, members of the commission. It clearly wasn’t there.”
The former director talked about the PCC’s response to allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, following the arrests of Clive Goodman and Glen Mulcaire in 2006, and a letter sent to the commission by Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, in 2005. Rusbridger had outlined concerns that journalists at other organisations were engaging in illegal activities.
Toulmin said taking action may have lead to speculation and “talking in circles” when asked why the body had not taken steps to investigate the allegations. He added:
“This is about something that doesn’t involve a complaint and does involve a legal problem…I suppose the PCC could have asked yes but what [the reply to Rusbridger] is saying is that it’s likely in the circumstances…to have ended up being fruitless.”
He admitted it had been a mistake to ignore the Guardian’s evidence. He also said in hindsight, the commission should have examined the resignation of Andy Coulson as editor of News of the World in 2007.
In the afternoon hearing, Abell, who submitted a staggering 408 pages of written evidence, warned Lord Justice Leveson against attempting to regulate online publishers and said any organisation replacing the PCC would have to consider the nature of the industry. He said
“I’m not saying that self-regulation is good, statutory regulation is bad… My point is that at the heart of the newspaper industry is legitimately the notion of people exercising their discretion about what should be included, responding to the needs and wishes of their readers … I think one if the virtues of this inquiry… will be to just take a step back and look at the over-arching structure and see what’s missing or what might be changed.”
Abell was questioned by Robert Jay QC, inquiry counsel, who asked the director about PCC rulings on several articles, including a Daily Mail piece by journalist Jan Moir on the death of Stephen Gately which received over 2,200 complaints from third-party individuals and one from the singer’s partner. Both current and former directors said they did not consider the PCC to be a regulator, but defended the virtues of the organisation in handling complaints.
The Tuesday morning hearing began with evidence from Sir Christopher Meyer, former chairman of the PCC. Unlike many other representatives from the commission, he told the inquiry the PCC is a regulator and said it was a public service for the “99 percent of complainants who are not celebrities”. “I am very firmly of the view that you do not go down the road of statute,” he added.
On the PCC’s handling of phone hacking in 2006 and 2007 he said it had not been appropriate to launch an inquiry parallel to the police investigation and said it would have been wrong to question Andy Coulson following his resignation.
Meyer was asked about Max Mosley’s privacy case against the News of the World ( EMLR 20,  EWHC 1777 (QB)). He said the former Formula One executive had been “extremely” rude about the PCC and “the whole thing might have taken a different course” if he had approached the commission.
He told the inquiry he had been in regular contact with Gerry McCann between 2007 and 2008 and that he and his wife Kate had made a “Faustian” pact with the press for publicity over the their daughter’s disappearance. He said journalists were put under pressure to produce fresh stories on the case. He added:
“It doesn’t need a big review to see this. It happens from time to time. It led to the McCanns being accused of something that is utterly abominable“.
He visibly angered when Robert Jay drew comparisons between the coverage of the McCanns with that of Chris Jefferies, the landlord of murder victim Joanna Yeates. He pointed out he was not chairman at the time of the Jefferies case. Jefferies was awarded substantial damages from eight newspapers in 2011 over libellous coverage. He added: “Don’t drag me down that path.”
Meyer said Richard Thomas, then Information Commissioner, gave him the impression journalists would be taken to court in relation to Operation Motorman in 2003, and he would have to have “supernatural powers” to have known the implications of the investigation. He said he would have need “actionable information” or evidence of illegality to question editors over the ICO reports from What Price Privacy? and What Price Privacy Now?.
Lord Grade, serving PCC commissioner, gave evidence during the afternoon hearing. He said incentives could encourage publishers to join a new regulatory system, including aided defences for privacy and libel actions. He added that the power to enact fines would be essential but make it difficult to keep everybody “inside the tent”. Grade said the commission was not able to take on more responsibility due to lack of funds and resources and said he would have left if there had been an overriding influences from sitting editors.
The last witness to give evidence on Tuesday was current PCC chairman Lord Hunt. He said he opposed statutory regulation, as politicians seeking to control the press would likely abuse it, but said he agreed a “tinkering around the edges” approach would not work. He said
“This new structure is sorely needed. We do need a fresh start and a totally new body with substantially increased powers … all backed by commercial contracts.”
He advocated a body with a complaints and mediation arm, and another ensuring compliance with the code, saying the new system would need a formal legal underpinning to enforce sanctions. Hunt said he had been consulting the Irish Defamation Act (2009) and a regulator in this model could include an arbitral system. He said that
“The sword of Damocles hanging over the entire industry is the threat of statutory regulation“.
He told Lord Justice Leveson: “You have opened the window of opportunity. I’d be keen to use the momentum of your inquiry to press on with reform.” The chairman asked Hunt to provide him with updates his proposals for reform and said he was likely to be recalled to give evidence at a later date.
On Wednesday, representatives from Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Press Board of Finance appeared before the inquiry. Lord Black, chairman of PressBoF, was first to give evidence during the morning hearing. Lord Justice Leveson told him “time was of the essence” and any proposals for a reformed PCC must be put to him as soon as possible. Black said the industry and PCC chairman Lord Hunt were mindful and would work quickly to flesh out proposals.
Black said PressBoF had universal support from national newspapers until Northern & Shell owner Richard Desmond withdrew his papers from the system in January 2011, when questioned on a report from 2009 claiming the PCC was an “efficient and accessible regulator”. He said that
“The coverage of the system and the amount of money it raised… had been very strong. The phrase may grate in hindsight but at that time it was certainly true.”
Black told the inquiry a meeting between Lord Hunt and representatives from all national newspapers in December 2011, including editors from Northern & Shell-owned papers, had been promising.
He was asked about evidence submitted by the editor of Private Eye earlier this year. Ian Hislop told the inquiry he was reluctant to join a regulatory system made up of editors from newspapers his publication regularly criticises. Black said
“I would make the point to him that he is not being judged solely by his peers… I’ve never met a newspaper editor who would even dream of taking Private Eye to the Press Complaints Commission so it might not be an issue which ever needs to arise.”
He added: “But we’re looking at obviously many different aspects of the way the system works and reforming it, and I’d like talk to Mr Hislop about that at some point.” The second witness statement of Lord Black can be found here.
Colette Bowe and Ed Richards, chairman and chief executive of Ofcom, gave evidence jointly. Bowe said the principles of the Ofcom code of practice tried to move away from a “box-ticking compliance culture” and that she took comfort in the deep interest in the body by Parliament. She added:
“An active, engaged, well-informed select committee which holds me and the chief executive to account… seems to be not a bad model for public accountability.”
“I think the way our system works is far preferable, which is that the practisers understand the code, they understand the approach we will take if they make an error, they understand that there are sanctions, to which they will be liable if they make do make errors, and they therefore factor that into their judgement and then make a judgement about the broadcast. … The press and the internet publishing world starts from a very, very different set of conventions and orthodoxies and culture to broadcasters, and I think that’s pertinent“.
The pair were asked about privacy. Richards said public figures had a right to a private life but were in a different category to ordinary citizens by holding a position of power or influence. Bowe said broadcasters had to make defensible judgments about how the balance between public interest and privacy is struck in the journalistic decision-making.
Richards discussed a report by Ofcom into media plurality and political influence which will look at “what influence in the political process might [one] have by virtue of the control of particular media assets”. He said the government was considering a system for monitoring ownership proposed by the regulator.
He was asked about a series of investigations into the use of premium rate phone services by broadcasters between 2006 and 2008. Ofcom issued fines of millions of pounds after it was revealed phone lines were being misused, and audience calls often were not counted in competitions and votes. Richards said investigatory powers are a key tool in regulating the industry, ensuring compliance and record-keeping by broadcasters. He said:
“It’s difficult for me to conceive of doing our job effectively in the absence of effective investigatory powers. It’s such a key tool, not necessarily because we routinely use it but because the broadcasters know that we could… I think it’s absolutely critical tool in the effect of a regulator.”
The second witness statement of Ed Richards can be found here.
Guy Parker, chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority, gave brief evidence during the afternoon hearing. He told the inquiry the advertising industry interacts with the ASA on the basis of persuasion and consensus, which has no legal or statutory powers. He said:
“What any good regulator will do is make sure that they threaten the sanction before they apply it and we find that if we threaten the sanction, we get compliance. We don’t have to deploy it.”
Representatives from private investigators’ organisations and mobile phone networks gave evidence to the inquiry on Thursday morning.
Security chiefs from Vodafone, O2 and Everything Everywhere (a company that owns Orange and T-Mobile) were questioned together. All the representatives said networks now restrict the use of easily guessable PIN numbers for accessing voicemail services remotely and customer service agents are given training to spot illegal blagging techniques. The confirmed total of phone hacking victims was 49 for Vodafone, under 40 at O2, 45 at Orange and 71 for T-Mobile.
Mark Hughes, from Vodafone, said victims had been informed in January 2012 following police advice. He said:
“We were expressly told not to contact our customers [sooner] as we may prejudice the police investigation…With the benefit of hindsight it would have been much better to have a level of clarity with the police much earlier so that we could tell our customers what the issue was.”
O2 customers were informed at the time of the original investigation in 2006 while Orange and T-Mobile customers were told in July 2011.
James Blendis from Everything Everywhere said: “I think it’s highly likely that if we had simply contacted everyone that we had as a potential victim, we may well have tipped off [hackers].”
Tony Imossi, president of the Association of British Investigators, told Lord Justice Leveson he had personally tracked down private investigator Derek Webb, who gave evidence to the inquiry last year. Webb, a former police officer, had claimed to be a licensed investigator. Imossi said:
“It turns what he actually meant as that he had membership of the IPI (Institute of Professional Investigators). It wasn’t a licence at all.”
Imossi said privacy concerns over hacking and blagging were an ongoing issue as he was still asked to organise counter measures for suspected bugging problems. He said
“The mere fact that we get asked to organise counter measures for suspected bugging problems would indicate that certainly something is going on … My understanding of what happened with the mobile telephones interception was that it was being used by, obviously illegally, but it was being used as a norm tool of first resort.”
The second witness statement of Tony Imossi can be found here.
David Palmer of the IPI, also a serving police officer, confirmed Imossi’s claims about Derek Webb and said he was seeking to verify the extent of his membership to the body. He added: “All I can tell you from our record check today is that he has not been a member for thereto four, possibly five years.” He told the inquiry he was not surprised by phone hacking and blagging practices.
“It’s not altogether surprising that that sort if thing happened… The fact that people are out there conducting unlawful activities in the name of private investigators isn’t a surprise to me”
Tony Smith, vice chairman of the World Association of Professional Investigators, a not for profit organisation, stood in for chairman Ian Withers and said the profession needs strong regulation. He said he was “amazed” by the extent of phone hacking but admitted it was known about in the industry.
Bill Butler, chief executive of the Security Industry Authority, which regulates door staff, security guards and wheel-clampers, said private investigations were not a designated activity and did not fall under the body’s regulation. He said there was a willingness from the SIA and industry bodies to include investigations. Like previous representatives from the industry, he advocated a statutory backing for regulating private investigations but did not want to move forward without recommendations from the Leveson inquiry. He added: “I think it’s difficult to find anybody who doesn’t think this is a good idea and something which should happen.”
The last witness to give evidence during the afternoon hearing was Baroness Sheila Hollins, a crossbench peer, who told the inquiry of her experience of press intrusion following an attack on her daughter in 2005. Abigail Witchalls was left paralysed from the neck down after being stabbed in the neck by a man believed to be Richard Cazaly, who committed suicide shortly after the attack.
Baroness Hollins said the huge amount of media attention was “incredibly intrusive” and gave several examples to the inquiry, including an article in the News of the World revealing Abigail was pregnant at the time of the attack and still carrying the baby. The story was printed four days after the family was informed, when Abigail was still in hospital and only five weeks pregnant.
Baroness Hollins said police had mounted a guard on each door of her daughter’s hospital ward to protect her privacy. She said a journalist who had visited her terminally ill mother-in-law refused to leave the house without a picture of Abigail.
The baroness described journalists arriving at her mother’s funeral in 2005 hoping to see Abigail, who at the time was still in intensive care. She told the inquiry that more recently a journalist had to be asked to leave her grandson’s school sports day and photographers had been stationed outside Abigail’s house following the birth of her daughter in 2010. She said:
“They all parked in the same place and each car we saw had copies of the [Daily] Mail in the back…[The PCC] said to me that in order to take any action they would need to know the name of the journalists and evidence of anything that’s been published. What they seemed to be interested in was my detailing one specific incident, and the point is that our distress about press intrusion was not about one particular incident – it was about hundreds of incidents. It was about the whole culture of the press,”
The baroness said the public exposure had been incredibly insensitive and difficult for her and her family to deal with.
“People wanted to know what was happening to [Abigail], but part of that was that it had become a big story. I don’t know what you can do in terms of regulation to prevent something being of public interest, but, of course, some of the reason for the public interest was because of exaggeration and inaccuracies.”
She told Lord Justice Leveson: “I think the reason I did write to you in the end was because I thought that what we would say was a little different to what had been said already, and members of the family thought it was important.”
Next week the Inquiry will hear from a wide range of witnesses, from DAC Sue Akers and Paul Dacre, via recalled James Harding and Dominic Mohan to Ian Edmondson, Max Clifford and Darryn Lyons (of Big Pictures). The Inquiry will also hear from Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust and Hacked Off.