The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MS JOAN ALISON SMITH (affirmed).

  • Ms Smith, I'll say to you as I've said before. Thank you very much indeed for agreeing to give evidence. This was a voluntary activity and I'm conscious that it exposes personal matters that affect you in the public domain, which is one of the things you're concerned about, so I'm very grateful to you.

  • Good morning, Ms Smith.

  • Could I ask you to state your full name?

  • Thank you. You provided a witness statement to this Inquiry and we can see that, I think, on the big screen. Before I ask you any detailed questions about your statement, please, can I ask you to confirm that the contents of your witness statement are true to the best of your knowledge and brief?

  • On that basis, can we start with who you are. Those who have the witness statement in front of them are meant to be looking at paragraphs 4 to 7, but for those who don't have the statement, could you tell us a little about who you are and some brief details of your career history, please?

  • I've been a journalist for more than 30 years. I started my career in national newspapers on the Sunday Times. I worked for the Sunday Times insight team doing investigative journalism, doing stories like the Iranian embassy siege, the Yorkshire Ripper murders and so on.

    After that, I decided to go freelance and I've written for a lot of national newspapers: the Guardian, both the Independents, mainly as a columnist, the Evening Standard too, and I also write books. I'm the author of six novels -- published novels and I also write feminist books and my most famous book is about women-hating, called "Mysogynies", and I also wrote for Penguin a book about secular morality. And then I do my human rights work. For -- from 2000 to 2004, I chaired the English PEN Writers In Prison Committee, which was set up to promote freedom of expression around the world and to look after imprisoned writers and their families. So at any one time, we were looking after about 50 writers, academics, poets and so on in places like Syria, China, trying to make representations on their behalf. Latterly, we started sending people to observe their trials if they were in court.

    I -- in 2005, I went and observed the trial of Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul when he was on trying for insulting Turkish identity and then latterly, in 2008, I got involved in a literacy project in Sierra Leone, collecting books in this country. I did that with the Times. They gave me the space to launch an appeal for children's books when I came back from Freetown, and we were able to collect about a quarter of a million/300,000 children's books, which we shipped out to Sierra Leone to set up school libraries in -- between 1,500 and 2,500 books in different schools. So I do both those things.

  • Thank you very much. Can I ask you about one specific part of your career history, please, the one that you deal with, for everyone who has the statement, at the end of paragraph 11 of your statement. It's 23461 on the screen.

    This is work that you do or you did with the human rights policy department of the Foreign Office, campaigning for freedom of expression for journalists around the world. Can you tell us very briefly about that work?

  • Robin Cook was a friend of mine and in 2001, just before the election, he asked me if I would share his last big speech as foreign secretary -- well, we didn't know it was his last big speech, obviously. And afterwards, at a -- he wanted to talk about how he had put into action the ethical dimension of his foreign policy, which had been a very famous statement that he'd made after he became foreign secretary in 1997, and at a lunch afterwards, I met both his special adviser, Michael Williams, and the head of the human rights policy department, and they said to me: "We want more involvement with NGOs", and PEN obviously has NGO status, and they suggested that if I was thinking of sending someone to observe a trial in somewhere like Belarus, which is actually quite a frightening thing to do, to go to court somewhere like that, that we could liaise with the Foreign Office and they would put us in touch with ambassadors and high commissioners. And we set up quite an effective system, so that if somebody was -- I remember there was a trial in Belarus in particular. I asked someone from the PEN committee to go and observe the trial and they got a lot of help from the British ambassador in Minsk, which was very fortunate because actually there was a very unpleasant scene and the court was cleared by the local version of the KGB.

    We also did things like -- there are bipartite talks every year on the future of Turkey's application to June the EU and we did a lot of monitoring of human rights in Turkey and we would take part in those talks at the foreign office each year and give lists of things like all the books that had been banned in Turkey in the last year and whether it was going up or down and whether journalists were still being imprisoned and so on.

  • Obviously a lot of interesting work here on freedom of expression issues. Tell us briefly, how important do you consider freedom of expression for journalists to be?

  • Oh, I think it's absolutely essential. I mean the reason I got involved in this work, this voluntary work, is that it seems to me that a free press is absolutely a cornerstone, sine qua non, of civil society. If you don't have a free press which is able to call politicians and big companies and corporations, multinational corporations, all sorts of people to account, then I think you have real problems. So I've always felt that I was very lucky to be able to pursue a journalistic career in a country where we did have a free press because I'm very aware of what happens to journalists in countries where there isn't one.

  • You've told us bit about the interesting work you do but can I ask you this: do you consider yourself to be a celebrity?

  • Not in the least. I'm a very minor public figure, in the sense that I write books and increasingly people who write books are expected to turn up at literary festivals and talk about where we get our ideas from and things like that, but I'm a writer. I can speak in public and I have, but I don't think that I'm somebody whose private life would be of much interest to the reading public. I mean, I'm sure that apart from the papers I write for and people who maybe like my novels, most newspaper readers would be quite baffled to know who I was.

  • Moving on then to a brief question about your personal life -- I don't really want to ask about any aspect of your personal life save one. You say at paragraph 8 of your statement that for a number of years you were in a relationship with Dennis MacShane, who's the MP for Rotherham and Foreign Minister for Europe. Is that correct?

  • Can I ask you this -- it's probably an indelicate question, but was there anything illegitimate or secretive about that relationship?

  • Dennis and I were -- he was my partner from 2003 to 2010, and I was always quite open about it. I mean, just before this -- I first appear in Mr Mulcaire's notes, we had been to a conference in Venice that Dennis was speaking at in early 2004 and I remember that we had dinner with the former Prime Ministers of Italy and Sweden. That doesn't seem to me a very secretive way to conduct a relationship.

  • Before I move off your personal life, I just want to ask you this: you say at paragraph 27 of your witness statement that you rarely mention your private life when you write your columns and so on. Can you tell me whether you ever have discussed your personal and private life in your columns, and if so, what sort of thing would you typically say?

  • Very rarely. I mean, I remember once Dennis rang me and said that he and three friends had just got to the summit of Mont Blanc that morning and he was excited about it, and I was writing, as it happened, a column for the Independent that day, and I was talking about changes -- the way in which ageing has changed and how people of my generation do things at ages that my parents would never have dreamed of and I just mentioned that. But it was just a sort of, you know, half sentence about my partner rang to say he'd climbed Mont Blanc with three friends who were all in their late 50s. That was all.

  • You mentioned a moment ago that you had appeared in the now famous Mulcaire notebooks, so let me ask you a little bit about your experience of phone hacking, if I can. When did you first become aware that your voicemails might have been accessed in that way?

  • In April this year when I got an email from a detective at Operation Weeting.

  • Can you tell us a bit about what happened and what you did?

  • I arranged to -- I got in touch with the detective and wrote back to his email and said, "I gather you're trying to get in touch with me and here are all my details", including my home address and my home telephone number and my mobile phone, and he emailed straight back and said, "Oh right, those are all the details that we have in Mr Mulcaire's notebook." So he invited me to a meeting and I went to my lawyer, Beinman(?), Tamsin Alin(?) organised a meeting and two detectives came, and I sat next to one of them and Tamsin sat across the table with another detective, and there's a kind of ceremonial unveiling of the notes and you're asked -- I'm sure lots of other people have gone through this now. You're asked, "We're going to show you some pages photocopied from Mr Mulcaire's notebook. Can you tell us if you -- if you recognise anything?" And of course, the very first page is my name, address, all my phone numbers and so on, and as the pages go by, Mr Mulcaire made a note of the fact that I was writing for both the Independent and the Times, and what seemed significant to me and what I found profoundly shocking was that he seems to have been a very obsessive note-taker and as well as writing the name in the corner of the person at the News of the World he was dealing, he also made a note of dates, and my name and address and details appear in Mr Mulcaire's notes for the first time on 5 May 2004, and that's approximately six weeks after Dennis' eldest daughter was killed in a skydiving accident in Australia, which had attracted a huge amount of publicity, and I was incredibly shocked that in that period when Dennis was bereaved -- and, as you can imagine, it's not an easy time for anybody when a 24-year-old girl has just died in such circumstances -- that the News of the World had been interested enough in both of us to ask Mr Mulcaire to listen to our voicemails.

  • Can you tell us what your reaction was when you saw this notebook and you found out in all likelihood you had had your voicemails accessed at this time?

  • I'm amazed by how shocked I was because in my journalistic life, I've had one or two bad experiences, you know. I was caught in a riot in Sierra Leone last year which was pretty unpleasant and I do now recognise the impact of shock, and on that occasion I didn't because I was just in a daze. I saw all these notes and Mr Mulcaire had obviously found out that -- he made a note that we were going to Spain. I was going to a PEN conference to meet other people, other writers who worked for freedom of expression. I was going to Barcelona and Dennis was actually coming out the following weekend and he was going to make a speech in Spain and we were arranging to meet up, and I was amazed by the detail of notes that Mr Mulcaire had made about flight times and a note saying "her to him", so it appeared that he'd been getting information from my voicemail.

    And the police -- the police said to me: "Is there any way that Mr Mulcaire could have got this information legitimately?" And given that it was about two months after the Atocha bombings in Madrid when there was a very high level of security around government ministers, it did seem unlikely that he -- so anyway, to answer your question, I remember leaving that meeting and I had to go to a meeting in the City and I -- my mind was just buzzing. And again, as the Dowlers were saying, you suddenly start thinking: "Oh, did that happen? Does this is explain something?" And I arrived at my meeting and I was slightly early and went up to the boardroom and the managing director's secretary came in and said, "Are you all right? You look completely white", and got me a cup of tea and I realised afterwards it was just shock, complete shock. I had no idea that was happening.

  • Can I ask something else about that period? You said that you were writing columns during that period. What sorts of things were you writing about?

  • I was writing a lot for the Times and I was writing columns for the Times and they would ask me to do additional things like Vivien Westwood was having a huge retrospective of her work at the V&A and they asked me to go and do a cover feature. So I interviewed Vivien Westwood and my name was on the cover of T2. I was also writing columns and I think it was on 8 April 2004 --

  • I think we have that document. It was handed out this morning to everyone.

  • Yes. I wrote a column -- this column headed "Celebrities or pagan deities". I think there had been a huge amount of interest in the marriage of the Beckhams at that point and they had been doing what celebrities often do, which is try to kind of negotiate their way through a personal crisis while also not alienating the media, and so I wrote a column saying -- and I suppose what was in the back of my mind was that -- the intrusive reporting of the death of Dennis' daughter a month before. I wrote a column saying that I think that people make unwise decision, they think that -- celebrities think that they can kind of control the media, you know, that they can keep them friendly, and actually the appetite for stories and personal life is so remorseless that they lose control of the story. So I was saying in this piece that I found it very disturbing that we've gone from a situation where, you know, the idea of privacy used to be a shield for hypocrisy, so people used to do terrible things in their private lives and pretend that they were upstanding, fine Christian gentlemen and so on. We've moved from that, which was not a great thing, to a situation where people have almost no privacy at all and I was saying in this column in the Times that I found it incredibly shocking that no matter what happens to people, whether it's a bereavement or a marital problem, you're apparently expected to deal with this completely in the public eye and be open with the media. And I wrote this column in the Times and four weeks later the News of the World asked Mr Mulcaire to spy on me.

  • What's the link in your mind?

  • I'm not sure there is one. I think -- I think that -- from what I've been able to understand about Mr Mulcaire's activities and the number of names in his notebooks, I think it was -- it has been said that the spying was on an industrial scale and I think almost anybody -- this could happen to almost anybody. That's the astonishing thing, that you don't have to be an incredibly famous actor or actress. You don't even -- you just have be tangentially, you know, come into the orbit of somebody who is well-known, and I think probably that there is such a gap between the cultures of the two parts of the press, the kind of what I think of as the sort of serious press that I write for and the values of the tabloid press, insofar as they have any, that it wouldn't even occur to them to look at what I was writing and actually think about the arguments.

  • You've now had a few months to digest the information that you may have had your voicemails illegally accessed in this way. How do you feel about that now? You've told us a bit about how you felt about having your phone accessed at the time when Mr MacShane lost his daughter. Have you had time to reflect? How do you feel about it now?

  • I do think there is a sort of wider lesson to be drawn from it, which -- I think I mentioned this at one of Lord Justice Leveson's seminars, that it seems to me that tabloid culture is so remorseless, its appetite is so unable to be filled, that the people involved have lost any sense that they're dealing with human beings.

    When I was doing investigative journalism, I quite often had to go and knock on the door of somebody who was bereaved, but it wasn't because I wanted to know how it felt. It was because I was writing about, you know, say, the Yorkshire Ripper murders. I interviewed three of the women who had been attacked by him and survived. There was always a sort of purpose which I could explain and say, "You may not want to talk to me. If you don't want to talk to me, I'll go away." Actually, nobody did say go away.

    But I think this is very different. This is just -- everything has become a story. We're all caricatures. I've said this in my writing. We're all -- I think to the tabloid press, we are just two dimensional. We're just fodder for stories.

  • Can I ask you to turn to paragraph 25 of your statement onwards, where you dealing with press conduct more generally. You explain that a number of articles have been written about you over the years, including as recently as December last year. These articles tended to be, we've seen from them, about your relationship with Mr MacShane. You say that as recently as December 2010, they wrote an article about that relationship, despite the fact that it had ended some months earlier, as I understand it.

    Are such articles appropriate?

  • I think it -- it depends entirely on the context and it seems to me that there is a difference between somebody who is in the public eye, like a politician, say, who makes, you know, what I would call traditional family values a part of his or her political platform. If somebody is saying the sanctity of marriage is very important and people shouldn't have cohabitational relationships or anything like that and they then kind of pose with their family in their election literature and so on, then I think maybe that's a different situation. But the point is that neither Dennis nor I ever kind of courted the press and invited them into our lives. Quite the opposite.

    On each of the occasions -- and this has gone on at a low level for about 20 years. I've had phonecalls and been approached by journalists and they always come in this chummy kind of way and say, "Oh, can you tell us about your relationship with so-and-so?" And I always say to them: "I'm a journalist. If I wanted to put my private life in the public domain, I could do it myself and I'd get the facts right. So why would I need you as an intermediary?" Because I always try to be fairly polite but -- and I also think -- you know, in December when I got this call, it was only a few months after I had left Dennis and I -- I don't think that the journalists who contact you realise that -- or care that you're in quite a vulnerable state, you know, that you're still processing all the feelings of a long relationship ending and it's actually not very nice.

    I was in my gym. I actually had just been running and I'd just removed all my clothes and my phone rang and I got this person from the Mail saying, you know: "Oh, Joan, we gather you and Dennis are no longer an item", and I actually thought: what a wonderful metaphor this is. You know, I'm naked before the tabloid press, and why should I be?

  • Can I ask you this? Some people might say that the press are entitled to write about the personal relationships of public figures, such as MPs or ministers, regardless of whether they make statements about the virtues of family life and so on and so forth. What would you say to that?

  • I think it's the confusion of -- the old confusion of not understanding the difference between what interests the public and what's in the public interest. I think that private life has become a commodity and there are lots and lots of -- I mean, I wrote a whole book about secular ethics and morality and I think there are -- adults lead their lives in lots of different ways now.

    For example, I think that the legalisation of civil partnerships for gay and lesbian people is a great advance, and I also think that marriage should be available to them, so I think adults lead their lives in quite a sophisticated way now and they don't use one model, and yet the tabloid press seems to sort of live in a kind of 1950s world where everyone's supposed to get married, stay married, and if anything happens outside that, then it's a story.

  • Can I ask you about two articles you referred to in your statement. The first is an article from the Mail on Sunday on 19 June 2005. This is an article which you should have in your exhibits. The headline is "Blair's secretly divorced Mr Europe and the feminist who believes marriage is redundant".

    Let's just deal, first of all, with that one. That's obviously the one that was written confirming that your relationship was happening. "Blair's secretly divorced Mr Europe" -- was Mr MacShane secretly divorced?

  • I didn't know you could be secretly divorced. I thought you had to go to court and that it was listed and so on. I think there is a quite interesting confusion there between secret and private. I think Dennis probably -- I don't want to speak for him, but I think he probably regarded his divorce as a private matter and didn't go around button-holing journalists and saying, "Oh, did you know, I just got divorced", but I can't see how it was secret.

  • The other article is the article you just mentioned, the one where you were contacted whilst you were in the gym and asked about your relationship, which had by then ended. Can I ask you this question: did you complain about either of those articles at the time?

  • No, it never even crossed my mind.

  • Why did it not cross your mind?

  • Oh, because I -- I've seen too many versions of press regulation in this country, the Press Council and then the current PCC, and I don't think that they are adequate bodies to deal with this kind of problem, and by the time -- by the time you complain to them, the article's out there anyway and all your friends have read it, so you're not going to get much in the way of redress.

  • I have been asked to put one other question to you, and it's about an article you wrote in the Evening Standard on 5 December 2001. I hope there's a copy in front of you and I think it's been handed out this morning to those who are present here.

  • This appears to be -- I'll paraphrase it -- an article that you wrote in 2001 about Elizabeth Hurley and her relationship with a gentleman called Steve Bing. I'm not going to paraphrase the entire thing but you obviously discuss the issue that was occurring between the two parties at that time and set out at the end some views.

    I've been asked to ask you this: you wrote about Elizabeth Hurley and Steve Bing. You wrote about their private life. If, as you say, the tabloids have become overzealous about reporting on people's private lives, why do you yourself write articles about celebrities' private lives?

  • Because I've been writing, since the 1990s, about the mistake I think that celebrities make of putting too much of their private life in the public domain. And of course, I didn't doorstep them, I didn't ring them up, I didn't ask them about their private life. They had put that in the public domain. If you read the article, what I'm saying in it is this is a dangerous thing to do. I mean, I've said the same thing about the late Princess Diana. It goes back to something I was saying earlier, that people think they can put their private life in the public domain and still control what's said about them.

    What worries me is that given the underlying misogyny of the tabloids that somebody like -- at the time, Elizabeth Hurley was pregnant and I thought that she was in a very vulnerable state and there's such a kind of underlying misogyny in the media that I thought it was actually quite a dangerous track she was on. If you look, you will see that I talk about the kind of underlying unease that there is in our culture of women who are beautiful and who base their careers on their appearance, and the danger that they lose their reputation, to use an old-fashioned word, and so I'm always incredibly happy when I get a chance to smuggle feminist ideas into the popular press.

  • Thank you very much indeed. A few final questions. You've explained in your statement that you have considerable experience fighting for press freedom across the world. You've told us about that. In light of your experience, can I ask you this: you don't deal with it in your statement but I want to know whether you have any views on the current system of regulation. Does it work and do you have any views on what you would like to propose?

  • No, I don't think it does work. I'm very opposed to any idea of state regulation and I'm completely opposed to the idea of licensing of journalists. I think broadly there are two things that need to happen. One is about regulation, the other is about culture. In terms of regulation, I think that there needs to be a kind of successor body to the PCC which isn't dominated by editors, which has more representation from outside.

    I think that there ought to be things like -- I think it ought to be if -- if newspapers don't take part in it, then I think they should lose their VAT exemption. So there should be a sort of carrot and a stick for them taking part in it.

    I think that there ought to be a much faster right of reply. I think it should also take in mediation in other situations like, you know, where libel might be involved and so on. I think it needs to be a much more complex and capable body.

    But on top of that, I think what needs to happen is a change in culture, and I think that we do have a tabloid culture which I think is almost infantile in its attitude to sex and private life. My impression is that tabloid hacks go around like children who have just discovered the astonishing information that their parents had sex and they can't resist peeking around the door and hope that they might see it, and the rest of us actually get on and live our lives, and I think that obsession with sex and private life has become remorseless and pitiless in terms of what it does to not just celebrities and crime victims, but just ordinary people.

  • Thank you very much. Is there anything that you would like to add? I don't have any more questions.

  • I have a couple.

    You've identified on a number of occasions the ethics of what you've called the tabloid press, but is there or should there be any difference to the ethical considerations which are put into the work of reporters by section of the media?

  • No. I don't think there should, and I think that's a real problem. When I first started out as a journalist, I wasn't particularly aware of any codes of ethics, but I knew why I'd become a journalist. I mean, you know, in a kind of young, idealistic way, I wanted to change the world, and I thought that at times it might be necessary to break the law. I mean, during the Yorkshire Ripper investigation, I was threatened with an Official Secrets Act prosecution, which didn't actually happen, but I think the two things have diverged much too far, and it should be possible to have, you know, a vibrant tabloid press which does the kind of things that, say, the Daily Mirror did a few decades ago when the tabloids saw themselves as crusading papers, but I think that's not something they see themselves as doing particularly any more, so there is a separation which I think is very damaging.

    A lot of the time people like me who write for what I was talking about earlier as the serious or the broadsheet press, I feel like a different breed from the ethics -- the people who work on tabloid papers.

  • The second question is this: you've seen the material the police assembled from the Mulcaire notebooks. Do you have any sense of whether you were being targeted because of you or because you were adjunct to Mr MacShane?

  • I think the latter. My kind of guess is that his daughter's death made his profile much, much higher and so they got interested in him, and once they got interested in him, they got interested in me, so I suppose I was kind of collateral damage.

  • Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much.

  • Thank you very much indeed.

    Sir, I don't know if we need a short break before the next witness just to allow this witness --

  • Yes, I think that's sensible. I'm perfectly content just to let people have a break as and when, and I'll say the same to witnesses who are coming. This is not always an entirely pleasant ordeal. Thank you.

  • (A short break)

  • The next witness is Mr Graham Shear, please.