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

  • (Proceedings delayed)

  • I am today handing down rulings in relation to the application made concerning Operation Motorman and in relation to costs.

    When this Inquiry was established last July, it was extremely important that it had the benefit of cross-party support and it is equally important that it conducts its work so as not to undermine the basis upon which it was established.

    Two weeks ago, the former Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, gave evidence. This week, I shall be hearing from others who are or who have been the leading politicians of the day. They come from different parties, with different political allegiances, and already there has been demonstrated intense public interest in what they will be asked and what they will have to say.

    It is vital to bear in mind that the Inquiry is grounded in the terms of reference announced when it was set up. These include:

    "1. To enquire into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, including (a) contacts and the relationships between national newspapers and politicians and the conduct of each ..."

    And 2:

    "To make recommendations ... (b) for how future concerns about press behaviour, media policy, regulation and cross-media ownership should be dealt with by all the relevant authorities, including, among others, the government; (c) as to the future conduct of relations between politicians and the press."

    The present focus is on the press and its relationship with politicians. I am specifically not concerned and am very keen to avoid inter-party politics and the politics of personality. I am simply not interested in either.

    Further, however much some might want me to investigate all manner of issues, I know that all of this week's witnesses are equally keen to ensure that the Inquiry itself remains on its correct track. That track relates not only to the undeniable importance of the role of the press in a democratic society and the ways in which the press serve the public interest, but also the privileges that are claimed as a consequence in the way in which that role is fulfilled in practice.

    It also relates to the other side of the coin, which is the extent, if at all, to which proprietors, editors and journalists have treated politics and politicians in ways that are designed to keep or have the effect of keeping the press insulated from criticism, from being held accountable by anyone, so as to ensure that there is no political will to challenge their culture, practices or ethics.

    To be more specific, the purpose of this Inquiry is not to challenge the present government or the decisions taken in the recent past, but to look at the much wider sweep of history across party political boundaries in order to discern any patterns of behaviour that could not be recognised as fitting with the open, fair and transparent decision-making that our democracy requires.

    Inevitably, as I've already explained, the way in which the BSkyB bid was addressed is a small but significant part of the story. To the extent that there are political questions that Parliament wishes to investigate, I repeat that nothing I say or do is intended to limit or prevent that investigation from taking place. I do hope, however, that it will be appreciated that this issue is merely the most recent example of interplay between politicians and the press, and that it will be recognised by everyone that failure to address the impact of press behaviour or the consequences of press interests is not confined to one government or one political party. For that reason, it remains essential that cross party support for this Inquiry is not jeopardised much.

    So far as the terms of reference are concerned, in the same way that I recognised in Module 2 that there are bound to be entirely acceptable social and professional relationships between police officers and journalists, so my aim for this module is first to recognise that there are entirely appropriate social relationships between politicians and journalists, doubtless borne of friendship and equally entirely appropriate professional relationships between politicians and journalists as the former seek to promote their policies and their message while the latter seek to ensure that politicians and their policies are held fully and properly to account. Secondly, it is also to recognise the risk that in an effort to keep the press onside, supporting promoted policies that are firmly believed to be in the public interest, rather too much attention may be paid by governments to the power that the press can exercise pursuing its own agenda, particularly where that agenda is agreed by the entire press or at least a significant powerful section of it. That might include questions relating to the provision of redress, particularly for the weakest in our society.

    In that regard, I anticipate questions will be asked about the draft criteria for a solution which has been published on the Inquiry website, not to commit any of the party leaders giving evidence but rather to hear their perspective on the problems to be addressed in relation to problems culture, practices and ethics of the press and in relation to any unintended consequences which they have spotted but I may not have considered. Nothing I say shall be taken as expressing any concluded opinion: testing ideas with witnesses is doing no more than testing ideas.

    I add only this. It may be more interesting for some to report this Inquiry by reference to the politics of personality or the impact of the evidence on current political issues. That is not my focus, and as ever, I'll be paying attention to the way in which what transpires is in fact reported. This week will not conclude the evidence for Module 3, although we will not be sitting next week, thereafter it is intended to call further witnesses from the media to deal with the relationship between the press and politicians, not least to see if, in their perception, there are issues that need to be resolved and changes made.

    We will then turn to Module 4, which concerns ways forward for the future. During the course of that module, I look forward to hearing how the industry has progressed with the plans that Lord Hunt outlined as long ago as 31 January 2012. I also look forward to considering the various other suggestions for the replacement of the PCC that have been submitted in detail to the Inquiry. It was on 17 May that I sought to provide some assistance for those intending to make submissions by publishing on the Inquiry website what are possible or potential draft criteria for an effective regulatory regime -- that is why they are called draft -- along with some key questions for Module 4, relating to public interest and press ethics. The purpose of doing so has been and remains to encourage everyone to consider the issues that I must think about and to welcome comments and suggestions.

    I repeat that I retain an open mind as to the future. All ideas will be subject to scrutiny and I have no doubt will help to inform the conclusions that I reach and the recommendations that I ultimately make.

    Thank you.

    I'm sorry for the delay in commencing the proceedings.

  • Might I raise a point, sir?

  • It's simply this. We would like to see the questions which those -- which some of the witnesses are answering in the cases where they have not quoted the questions in their witness statements. What has happened is this: most of the witnesses who have given evidence recently have been responding to Section 21 notices from the Tribunal. Most of them have chosen to set out the questions in their witness statements and then to answer them. In one or two cases, I think they have exhibited the Inquiry's notice. In either case, one can see exactly the question being answered and relate the answer to the question.

    However, there have been a handful of cases where the witnesses have chosen to answer the questions without setting them out or exhibiting them. That is no criticism at all of the witness, but it does make it very difficult for those seeking to understand in detail what their evidence is to reach a full appreciation of it.

    A particular example of this was in fact Mr Blair, whose statement has a heading, "Turning to the particular questions", which then runs on for several pages, but he doesn't set them out and he says things such as, "I do not recognise any of the quotes I have been asked about", so we don't know what they are.

  • All right, I understand that.

  • We've been in correspondence with the Inquiry about this and the answer we've received is that correspondence -- the Inquiry's correspondence with witnesses is confidential. Now, it does appear to us that that simply cannot apply in this instance, and given that the vast majority of witnesses have set out the questions their answering, there can't be anything confidential in the remaining cases.

    And there arises to a lesser extent but also with Mr Brown, whose evidence we're about to hear, so we would ask for the questions in those two matters and any others where it arises.

  • Might I just support that, please.

  • I'll think about it and come back to you at a convenient moment.

  • Very good, thank you very much. Right.

  • Sir, may I call this morning's witness, the Right Honourable Gordon Brown, please.