In his office in the Press Complaints Commission’s central London headquarters, Sir Christopher Meyer cuts an amiable figure.
Instantly charming and affable, he emits authority and a little sternness through his smile. He gives the impression he has lived through much, but hardly touches on his experiences in Washington, as Britain’s US ambassador, a post he held from 1997 to 2003, or in Downing Street, as John Major’s press secretary from 1994 to 1996.
Today he wants to talk about the present and the future of the Commission he has chaired for nearly four years.
In the wake of the recent jailing of Clive Goodman and the hounding of Kate Middleton, Prince William’s girlfriend, many politicians and press commentators have questioned the effectiveness of the Commission.
The PCC’s refusal to censure any newspaper in either case has been criticised, though Meyer said it would have been “impossible” for News of the World editor Andy Coulson not to step down and he did convince News International chairman Les Hinton to ban his papers from buying paparazzi pictures of Middleton.
In March, Meyer will give evidence at the All Party Commons and Media Select Committee and is expected to face some harsh questioning on both matters.
In the light of these cases, don’t the people calling for greater Government regulation of the press have a point?
Meyer’s response is an emphatic “no”. “The self-regulatory model is the way forward,” he says. “The state is unbelievably inflexible and unsuitable to regulate newspaper content.
“If you are watching it from a government side of the line you think, ‘what a screaming nightmare it would be if we were responsible for regulating newspapers’. No government that has got a brain in its head would want to get into this.”
Not everyone agrees of course, but Meyer puts this down to the fact that “there are people out there who until their dying day will be hostile to journalism and hostile to the notion of self-regulation and believe that the PCC doesn’t do its job”.
“There are always enemies out there,” he adds. “Even if I introduced capital punishment for editors who have breached the code and actually decapitated them people would say, ‘it’s a slap on the wrist because you didn’t torture them first’.”
When pressed on the Goodman issue, Meyer leans back in his chair, stares into space and mutters: “It’s a bad business, that.” Last week, he wrote to Colin Myler, the newly appointed News of the World editor, asking him a number of questions about the practice of both his staff and its “outside agencies” and what he plans to do stop phone tapping.
The PCC will write to all newspapers and magazines asking the same questions and collate the answers. Meyer hoped the report could have been completed in time for his appearance before the select committee, but it won’t be ready until the spring.
“We need to turn the whole Goodman-Mulcaire thing from a seriously damaging episode for newspapers into a springboard for better behaviour,” he says.
But surely the Goodman case shows the PCC is powerless to stop phone tapping or any other illegal behaviour. “But let’s remember,” he quickly replies, “we’re talking about the law here. Goodman went down under the Investigative Powers Act.”
He pauses for thought.
“I can’t… this is criminal law… neither the information commissioner nor the police, nor the courts and all the judges can be certain that people aren’t breaking the law. I can’t be certain either.
“If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times: I exhort journalists not to break the law. It’s the most obvious thing in the world — if you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot don’t break the bloody law.”
Does Meyer believe Andy Coulson stepped down because of PCC pressure or the threat of police action? And if so, doesn’t the whole Goodman affair show that it is the law that will influence editors’ conduct rather than the PCC code?
“I don’t think it’s like that. There are certain areas that should definitely be reserved for the law. I know from my four years of being here that… editors hate it when [they are sanctioned].
“I hear them screaming when they know they are going to have to run an adjudication over which they have no control and if they do it two or three times a year they could lose their job.” Some have argued that it is the culture of British newsrooms that make journalists break the law to get stories.
But Meyer is not convinced that this is a culture that “rules everywhere”. He says: “In certain newspapers the pressure to come up with stories and therefore to cut corners must be very, very great.
“There should be a more powerful countervailing force, which is, ‘if you break the law or the code of practice you bring the entire profession into disrepute as well as your own newspaper and the penalty for that could be the destruction of the system of self-regulation’.”
This, says Meyer, should be the industry’s overriding concern. He is not appealing to journalists’ morals or better nature, he says, but asking them to look after their “self interest” by staying within the law. The other contentious issue Meyer expects to be grilled on at the select committee is the press “hounding” of members of the public.
He says: “This is one issue where we’ve been extremely effective. Part of the reasons the hounds were pulled off Kate Middleton was because we made it perfectly plain both in public and in private that there was no public interest justification of it.
“Until the story moves on I think she should be able to get in her car and drive to work without being harassed. When she is coming out of a nightclub with Prince William that is, of course, a different matter.” But Meyer says being photographed by the paparazzi is the price people in the public eye pay for their fame. The PCC’s services are mainly for ordinary people, he says.
“What we do is call up and reinforce the desist message: ‘Mrs Smith does not want to answer questions, she does not want to be photographed, go away.’ Meyer, who on 31 March will have completed four years in charge at the PCC, says it is this aspect of his job, as well as ticking off editors, that he enjoys the most.
“You really feel like you cover everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. We deal with Mrs Whatshername who actually came first place in the flower competition and not second.
“Things like that are just as important as Goodman. We have to take them all.”
…Contempt of court
“I don’t think newspapers ignore the law, but there is muddle and confusion. I feel very strongly this is a matter for the Attorney General. Obviously at the PCC we don’t want court cases to be prejudiced, but this is quintessentially something for the Attorney General and law officers. They should say, ‘here’s the line guys’.
“We take quite a strong view on court reporting. If it’s already out in public it’s fair game to be reported. But on the other hand we say to newspapers if there is a grizzly detail of an inquest in a coroner’s court it should not be reported; it’s too distressing for the family.
“What would be a huge mistake would be to start duplicating more and more out of the criminal code. Where would it end?
“The code committee will consider a proposal about court reporting and contempt of court, but personally I can’t make out whether it’s a good thing or not.
“We should not be regarded as a surrogate authority.”
“We are very active in things like this. We employ a company to search the entire press every day for the phrase ‘illegal asylum seeker’.
“Every time the phrase pops up I personally write to the editor telling them that ‘there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker, don’t use it and will you please write a letter back confirming you understand what I say’.
“Last year I only had to do that 14 times, which is not a lot considering the zillions of stories that come out every day.” “One of the British press’s great glories is that it is validly partisan. You get some very strong opinions and it pisses off a lot of people — but that’s freedom of expression.
“There is bit of a culture around London that only one type of opinion should be tolerated. There is a chattering class orthodoxy which wants to impose on journalism a certain view of the world. It’s very authoritarian — it doesn’t tolerate other views.”
…Regulating audiovisual content
“This has been one of the biggest areas of debate between us and the newspaper and magazine industry. We have since the late 1990s regulated not just print, but also online versions of newspapers. What we are concentrating on now is digital material like video, blogs and podcasts. The industry agreed last summer that this was what it wants.
“Some things are clear and some are less clear. Why regulate the Telegraph’s website and not the BBC? There are some slick answers I could give, but they’re not whole answers. If an organisation recognises the PCC and contributes to the levy then our writ will run over it.
“If you take the Sky website or ITN website, these are areas to which Ofcom’s writ does not run. We wouldn’t claim it either — it’s an anomaly that needs sorting out. We could expand our remit in the future, but that’s blue-sky thinking.
“If all of this stuff is economically viable… convergence somewhere down the line is going to pose some issues about whether the regulatory structure we have today is unsuited for that. This is a debate that isn’t going to completed tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”
…John Prescott and Jack Straw
“People say I called John Prescott and Jack Straw political pygmies. What I said was, we had all these people coming through Washington and you could distinguish the really good ones like Masai warriors in a crowd of pygmies.
“I actually said Straw was a solid performer and Prescott a shrewd operator. I didn’t call anyone a pygmy. But it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.”