Former Press Complaints Commission chairman Sir Christopher Meyer mounted a robust defence of the PCC‘s record this morning insisting that condemning it for press failings was like blaming the police for crime, or bishops because there was still sin.
And unlike current PCC chair Lord Hunt, Meyer said the PCC was a ‘regulator”. He said: ‘It is regulation unlike anything elseâ€¦As you develop a jurisprudence to the application of the Code of Practice, judgments and rulings, you are actually telling journalists what they can do and what they can’t do. In my book, that is a form of regulation.”
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Meyer, who was chairman of the PCC from 2003 to 2009, also insisted that Max Mosley could have prevented the News of the World from publishing details about his extra marital sexual activities if he had gone to them in advance of publication.
The News of the World did not contact Mosley in advance of its March 2008 front page story revealing his sex party with five paid dominatrices.
But if it had, and Mosley had gone to the PCC, Meyer said: ‘The PCC might have been able to help him. One of the areas that has been a growth industry for the PCC has been the pre-publication help we have given people. It could be that we might have been able to do somethingâ€¦
‘We would have said to the News of the World, ‘are you sure you have got the public interest argument right’? That’s where they went down in courtâ€¦
‘I have in my time as chairman stopped big stories from being published â€¦This can happen.”
On the subject of the McCanns – who were subject to a campaign of libellous press coverage over many months following their daughter’s disappearance in May 2007 – Meyer admitted that he told the couple that they could complain to the PCC, or sue via the courts, but that they could not do both.
He did, however, say that the PCC helped the McCanns in terms of preventing media scrums.
Asked why the PCC did not intervene during the months of libellous coverage in the Express and other titles suggesting the McCanns were complicit in the disappearance of their daughter, Meyer said that he did have one private conversation with then Daily Express editor Peter Hill.
Meyer said: ‘I spoke to him at a commission meeting. It was an informal conversation before we sat down around the table to do business. I said to him: ‘Are you sure you’ve got this right?’ My recollection is he said something about Portuguese police sources.”
Meyer revealed he asked Hill to resign from the PCC the day after all four Express Newspapers titles agreed to pay £550,000 in libel damages and publish front page apologies, in May 2008. Hill stepped down two months later.
Asked why there was no PCC inquiry into the way the McCanns were treated in the Express and other titles, Meyer said: ‘It was screamingly obvious what had gone wrong.”
He added: ‘The poor McCanns needed the press for publicity’s sake. In those circumstances it was a Faustian bargainâ€¦You could see reporters out there in Praia da Luz being pressured by the newdesk to provide fresh copy and they started taking risks they shouldn’t have taken. It doesn’t require a big inquiry to see this. It’s something that happens from time to time. In this case it led to the Mccanns being accused of something that was clearly abominable.’
Counsel for the inquiry Robert Jay QC then asked Meyer why the PCC didn’t consider the lessons learned and send out a ‘clear message to the industry as to how we avoid the chance of future repetition”.
Meyer said: ‘We did not take that opportunity, maybe we should have, but I have to rest on my record.”
Meyer strongly denied that doing so would have prevented the coverage in December 2011 and January this year which later led to the Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Record, Daily Express, Daily Star and the Scotsman paying substantial damages to Chris Jefferies for wrongly suggesting that he was guilty of the murder of Joanna Yeates.
Meyer said: ‘It’s as if you would say to the police, you’re a useless organisation because there is still crime. Or to the bishops that there is still sin. These are ridiculous arguments.
‘The PCC might not always have got it right and it needs strengthening, but the PCC is a service to the public.”