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

  • MR PAUL ASHFORD (sworn).

  • Thank you, Mr Ashford. Please make yourself comfortable. You won't need the second file, but you will need the first file. I'm going to ask you to look at tabs 15 and 16, where you'll find two witness statements. The first is dated 16 September. Do you have that one?

  • The second is dated 19 December, again of last year. Do you have that one?

  • You've signed each statement under a statement of truth, so this is your true evidence, is it?

  • Your first statement I'm going to deal with quite lightly, if I may, because most of it's uncontroversial. You explain you're the group editorial director of the Northern & Shell group of companies. You're a board member, therefore, in charge of the creative functions of Northern & Shell, which includes editorship, does it?

  • Do you have any influence over what goes in the paper, if I can ask that general question?

  • I think influence would be the right word. I might have some influence, but the editors have the ultimate decision.

  • Right. In terms of therefore the relationship between you and the editors, does your influence amount to this: a form of suggestions rather than prescriptive statements?

  • Yes, where it directly relates to editorial content as opposed to perhaps financial matters.

  • In what sort of areas might you be interested at all in the content of what goes in the paper?

  • I'm generally interested in most of the content of the papers. They're interesting papers. But in particular, I visit the editors most evenings, I see the front page, I see the stories, and I am interested in often how we got a story, if it comes as a surprise to me.

  • And that's all the papers, is it?

  • So you're occupying a sort of roving function of superintendence, looking at what's going in the paper and giving suggestions here and there both as to the feel, the content, the layout, these sort of matters? Is that a fair description?

  • I visit them once a day. I wouldn't go as far as to call it superintendence, but I'm there if need be.

  • Can I touch on one specific issue: that of private investigators. Were you aware of the Information Commissioner's two reports in 2006, Mr Ashford?

  • I have been made aware of it since. I'm not sure whether I was aware of it in 2006 or not, but I have been made aware since.

  • And approximately when were you first made aware?

  • It was very much connected with the reiteration of the phone hacking story, I suppose, last year and the year before, that we looked back.

  • Is this part of the investigation that Ms Patterson told us about, therefore?

  • It would be connected with it, yes.

  • And when you therefore read what was in the Information Commissioner's report, or were at least told about it, did that cause you any surprise or concern?

  • I was concerned to find out whether anything inappropriate had been done. In the conversations that I had with the legal department, it seemed to me that we'd effectively been using agencies as address books, as means of finding out contact information, so it seemed fairly low profile stuff, so I wasn't overly concerned when I'd had those conversations.

  • Were you aware that Mr Whittamore's company, JJ Services, was still being used by the Express as late as the year 2010?

  • I don't think it was brought to my attention on a day-to-day basis, no.

  • No, I'm sure it wasn't, but were you made aware of that as part and parcel of the Internet investigation, which started in September of last year?

  • I can't remember whether that was mentioned. I know we had used them at some time in the past, and I was made aware of that. Exactly when, I can't remember.

  • And when you were made aware of that, did that cause you any concern at all?

  • Well, we'd been -- the answer is probably no, because I was concerned about how we might have been using people and what we might have been using people to do. And the explanation that always seemed to arise out of the investigations were that we'd been using them for legitimate purposes.

  • But did you look at any of the money involved? I mean some of the sums are not insubstantial, at least to my eyes. It may be they're different to you.

  • I think compared to the kind of money you'd lay out on a major investigation for lead stories if you were in that kind of business, the sums were never very substantial.

  • Yes, but the question is whether they're more than just finding an address. More than the cost of just finding an address. That's the point. What are they doing for you is the question I'm really asking, or whether you were asking it, rather than me.

  • We were seeing invoices, we were seeing individual invoices for, you know, GBP 75, GBP 90, and we were seeing larger invoices that might go up to 1,000, but I don't think we had a way of determining whether that thousand was buying, you know, one day's search for addresses, a number of days, so there wasn't really anything to raise our concerns in the amounts.

  • But don't you think there should be a system that does allow you to have the sufficient detail so that you can decide whether or not you should be concerned?

  • Well, we always thought our systems were good, but now in the light of this, we're reviewing them.

  • And I think that's not a bad suggestion.

  • Move on, please, to your second statement and the PCC. This is under tab 16, please, Mr Ashford.

  • I want to go through this statement with some care, if I may, since it's the main reason why you're being called to give oral evidence.

    You explain under paragraph 1 that when Northern & Shell ventured into newspaper ownership in November 2000, you had really come from the outside and therefore were not part of the club, and from the outside you mean both geographically and culturally. Might you in your own words elaborate on that for us, please? What do you mean by "from the outside, both geographically and culturally"?

  • Well, geographically first. We were going into the residue of Fleet Street, although a lot of people had by then moved, but we were coming up from the Docklands into Central London, so in a sense we were not part of the Central London newspaper world. We were slightly isolated in that respect.

    Moving on to culturally, quite simply we were magazine publishers and I'm sure a lot of people in newspaper circles were disposed to look down their noses at us, so for that reason.

  • You go on to say that it seemed to you that "papers were to a greater or lesser extent colluding in a Fleet Street culture which was only partly designed to further the commercial interests of respective publishing businesses."

    What do you mean by that, please?

  • I think, among journalists, there was a sense that being a journalist was something rather special, rather apart, rather privileged, and to some extent not above the laws of established society but definitely in a special place. We didn't go into it with any such feeling. We went into it feeling we needed to do a decent job for the paper, make a decent product for the readers, and really nothing more highfalutin than that.

  • In paragraph 2 you describe or characterise the system which you believe existed when you first became involved. You say in the second line:

    "This was not self-regulation by companies so much as acquiescence to rules policed by an industry body."

    Which is your characterisation of what the PCC was doing; is that right?

  • Yes. I wanted to make that distinction, because we came into it seeing the sense in a self-regulated press, and we thought to ourselves we were able to regulate ourselves. There are a very large number of very good reasons why a newspaper would want to regulate itself, even without any industry body. We'd been used to doing that on magazines, so we knew of an Editors' Code, and we saw no reason, in principle, why a company in isolation might not apply that Editors' Code and put in its own disciplines and constraints.

    The difference was the same code was being enforced, but it was a kind of an industry body that -- it was a club.

  • Thank you. The attributes of the club obviously we fully understand in any event and I'm not going to go over those, but you were happy to, as it were, play ball and join up to this club, at least at the start; is that correct?

  • We were not entirely comfortable with our reception into the world of newspapers by our rival newspaper owners, but we could see the sense of being seen to be decent and proper people as well as in being decent and proper people, and we didn't see the sense, really, in rocking the boat.

  • Paragraph 3. Your competitors, you felt, or at least some of them, demonised the newspapers and the Express newspaper group, isn't that correct?

  • You identify one of them, the Daily Mail, which you say was conducted on a very personal level?

  • Are you referring there to personal attacks of a particular sort?

  • Maybe you don't want to go into those, but if you do, let me know.

  • I don't think I will go into them, but there were personal attacks, not only in newspapers but in mailshots to readers' homes.

  • Can you just tell us a little bit about that? Mailshots to readers' homes, what happened there? You don't have to be specific, but just give us a flavour of that.

  • This was the Daily Mail writing directly to its list of Daily Express readers and saying, "Look, your newspaper has a new proprietor", naming him and saying what they considered to be the worst things they could think of about him.

  • Okay. Paragraph 5 you touch on the McCann story. Can I deal with your attitude to the PCC's response to it? You say you found the behaviour of the PCC to be wholly hypocritical and unhelpful. Could you expand on that, both in the context of wholly hypocritical and then unhelpful?

  • I think my problem with it was the contrast between the fact that our editor, Mr Hill, was on the PCC committee, so he had total access to them and they to him throughout the period in which all the newspapers and other news organs were covering this story to a greater or lesser extent in the same way that we were, so they had total access, but there was complete silence. They didn't raise it for an extraordinary discussion. Maybe they would say it was not in their remit to do so, but every opportunity was there to do so. And it was a contrast between that inaction and after the McCanns took legal action and we apologised and gave them redress, then the chairman of the PCC took it upon himself to publicly denigrate our editor, and it was that mismatch of the two things that I, and I think other members of the board, found upsetting.

  • The other thing that you put into the equation are what's contained in PA1, which you see is the last sentence of paragraph 5. You point out that other newspapers were running similar stories; is that correct?

  • It's correct, and I believe arrangements were made with the McCanns and certainly some other newspapers that they too gave some redress.

  • What you say is correct.

    May I hand PA1 to Lord Justice Leveson, since he doesn't have it in that bundle.

  • I copied it overnight. (Handed)

  • It probably isn't in that bundle either, Mr Ashford. I wouldn't worry about it, though. I've looked at the articles and I take your point.

    The McCann settlements were, I think, in the summer of 2008, but you tell us in paragraph 7 that you didn't resign from the PCC immediately; you continued with it for a while longer, although nonetheless you felt that you'd been scapegoated; is that right?

  • Of course, it might be said, though, that the McCanns took the decision, as they were entitled to do, on the basis of advice, to sue the Daily Express primarily -- of course they sued other papers as well -- and that had nothing to do with the PCC. Would you agree with that?

  • I agree that the PCC could easily have said it was not within their remit to do anything. As I said, it was a combination of the criticism and the doing nothing that really rankled.

  • The singling out of Mr Hill by Sir Christopher Meyer at the BBC interview.

  • That was the point which you found unacceptable, did you?

  • In paragraph 9 you deal with PCC adjudications in relation to all those newspapers and magazines within the Express Group. You're dealing there, for the avoidance of doubt, only with adjudications, not with matters which are resolved in other ways, is that so?

  • Because many complaints are resolved, either on the basis of compromise or on the basis of the newspaper accepting guilt, in inverted commas, and offering recourse. Is that right?

  • Many are, indeed, and many are resolved in that way without the PCC being in the least involved from beginning to end.

  • You deal with the concept of regulation in paragraphs 10, 11 and 12. You point out that that's wrong to focus just on a regulatory body, but there are other constituents of regulation, namely the law, and that's both the civil and the criminal law, and internal systems of corporate governance, which, of course, we were addressing this morning. But you also accept that you do see a role for a press regulatory body as well; is that right?

  • Why do you think that that is so? Why is there a role for a press regulatory body?

  • I think there's a very large constraint in terms of the laws on newspapers, which goes without saying. There's a large constraint on us in terms of we really do not want to get it wrong, ever, because it affects our reputation, which translates into the future prosperity of the business, but there is an area also where you're getting a lot of commercial rivals in issues that aren't sufficiently severe to be in breach of laws, but nevertheless you need to have some level playing field to stop the commercial rivals drifting into areas of behaviour that might not be, let's say, good citizenship, to score a point off their rival.

  • So you have a body to see fair play, in which we all sign up to the same guidelines. That can avoid this happening.

  • I'm just interested in the point you make in paragraph 12 that you see a role for a press regulatory body only in areas where laws are not infringed, but can I suggest to you that there might be, indeed there is a role for such a body even in areas where laws are infringed, whether it's the criminal law or the civil law, because the purpose of a regulator is different from the purpose of civil law, participation in which is voluntary, and criminal law, which depends on the police finding the evidence to bring prosecutions. Do you see that?

  • I can see that there's a point there, and I suppose especially because complaints may well come at a point where whether or not something is in breach of a law has not been tested.

  • I think your real complaint is, and this is the last sentence of paragraph 12, it's the composition of the PCC you don't like and makes it unfit for purpose. Is that right?

  • Well, I started out with the point about sort of an industry club. Certainly, I think, a better body would be one that was isolated from the politics and the personalities of the industry, and in particular people currently serving on it and who are still serving editors, between whom there is a lot of rivalry.

  • Yes. Can I just test it in this way: if there is an adjudication on a particular paper, we all know that an editor who edits that paper and is sitting on the PCC will leave the room.

  • Is that not sufficient, it might be said, to ensure that the decision reached in the individual case will be an independent and impartial decision?

  • I feel it's a clumsy way of doing things. I'm sure everyone who is involved always did their best to see that it works, and I'm sure that it often did work, but I don't think you've lost anything if you said, "Look, let's not have serving editors, serving newspaper executives on it". They're not even necessarily the best people to judge. I know they have specialised knowledge, but it's a bit like -- I mean a musician doesn't necessarily make a good music critic.

  • Yes. Or it might be that if you have an editor leaving the room and then coming back into the room, and then they go on to decide someone else's case. That creates a sense of discomfort --

  • Yes, but if I follow your musical analogy a little bit, it's also important that the person who is making the decision knows how the music works.

  • Yes. As I have said, it's the serving editors that I proposed were less appropriate, not people with any editorial experience whatever.

  • Your proposal, I think, entails two things. It entails having retired editors to bring the requisite expertise to whatever the body is, is that right, and also you would like a lawyer or two there, or a retired lawyer, is that fair?

  • I certainly think the nature of the body lends itself to people with a legal background --

  • Yes, you don't need to bring yourself to say you want a lawyer there. I understand the point.

  • Lots of lawyers, but some other people, too.

  • And you'd maybe mix it up, as we know from experience of other regulators with lay people with experience from all walks of life, but can add their special contribution. Would that be right?

  • I think so, because it's not a specialised area. It's an area of what is good practice, what is good citizenship, what is fair and what is just. It doesn't need a specialised body of knowledge.

  • But am I right in saying, Mr Ashford, the PCC as presently constituted is a body to which Northern & Shell, for the time being, will not sign up to?

  • As presently constituted, no, but in the meantime we continue to apply the principles which the PCC also applies to our newspapers.

  • And the decision to leave in January 2011, we know that was taken at board level. You, therefore, participated in the decision, did you?

  • And did you support the decision?

  • And of the board -- perhaps I don't need to know this. Was it generally supported by the board? Obviously there had to be a majority, but was it --

  • And had this been something which had been under discussion for some time?

  • I think I made the point that we were not entirely comfortable with the PCC as a body and the way it was constituted right from the outset but we put up with it, it was doing us no harm, so we just let it carry on.

  • After 11 years in the newspaper industry, do you still feel culturally apart from the rest or not?

  • Maybe we've grown together a little bit, but I think our company is -- it still has its own identity.

  • Okay. Why do you think that is? If you want to say. If you don't, we won't press you.

  • I think there's a kind of straightforwardness about what we see are our objectives and the way we set about approaching them.

  • Can I be more explicit: is it because your competitors feel that your company has too simple and monochrome an objective: namely to make money?

  • Is it because our competitors feel that?

  • I don't want to comment on what our competitors feel. I couldn't speak for them.

  • Thank you very much. Those are all the questions I have for you, Mr Ashford.

  • Have you, Mr Ashford, given any thought to other ways in which regulation might be improved? You've identified non-editors -- serving editors, you've identified some legal and lay input, but is there anything else that you, who have clearly given some thought to the issue, would want to see in a new system, if there was to be a new system?

  • One of the points I made was that it probably was not in the PCC's remit to actually say anything during the McCann situation when everyone was publishing everything, because there had been no complaint. So maybe some mechanism that if something emerges in the press that's of that kind of profile, any body that existed perhaps ought to look at it before a complaint comes, rather than after it. And I'd have to work out what I meant by looking at it, but certainly discuss it, debate it.

  • I see. So the body ought to be capable of being proactive, not merely reactive?

  • I think that's an area that should be explored, yes.

  • What about the need for a complaint at all? Or should it just be looking to improve standards so that it can investigate areas in which it believes standards are not being maintained?

  • Well, I suppose what I'm saying is both. That it should be empowered to be proactive to some extent, where it views the press, sees something going on which seems to be -- intuitively to be amiss, and yet there's no complaint. I see no reason why it shouldn't engage with -- try and prevent a problem rather than wait till a problem surfaces. I'd still have to think of a mechanism for doing that and a way of disciplining it.

  • Yes. That raises the question whether the system can be one or should be one that allows a core constituent to leave. I appreciate the current system does and did and has, if you'll pardon the shorthand, but is that desirable in any system or mechanism that is intended to regulate something as important as the fourth estate?

  • I think if you don't allow a person to leave, then that entails a fairly draconian system of fines for non-compliance for things, because they can't get out, so what disciplinary structures are going to be in place? I think the ideal thing, if it can be achieved, is to get a body that people aren't going to want to leave, because they see that first of all it's fairly and justly constituted, and secondly, that it's trying to get them to do things that they'd actually want to do anyway, for the sake of your own reputations and the reputation of the industry.

  • But aren't you then driven by the lowest common denominator? In other words, the body is I don't say held to ransom aggressively or offensively, but merely figuratively by somebody who disagrees or doesn't accept this particular line or that particular line?

  • Yeah, I think there's a -- there's a point there. I'm trying to work out what you mean by the lowest common denominator.

  • Well, everybody has to agree, because the moment that one ceases to agree, the system collapses.

  • Yes, you're just really making the distinction between something that is voluntary and isn't voluntary. Maybe I'm being idealistic, but I believe it's possible to have something where everyone will agree, because it's in their best interests to agree.

  • And we did, for many years, even though we had misgivings, we stayed in.

  • I understand, but you've identified certain core requirements, which I understand.

  • Other people might identify other core requirements and other people yet different core requirements, and that's not necessarily easy then to achieve.

  • Yes. It's not easy, but I think there is a great benefit, if we can agree, which is the reputation of the British press is potentially enhanced by having a proper and correct body, and there's a threat in the background, if we find we can't agree, that if you can't make it work on a voluntary basis, there might be something worse waiting in the wings.

  • The snag with that, Mr Ashford, is that that's what was said some time ago. It's been tried. That's what was said at the time in 1991, 1993, all that historical Calcutt material, of which I'm sure you're aware.

  • That's true, but in all those intervening years, I don't think we're saying that the PCC, as set up then, has been an abject failure. It has failed in some respects, it's failed recently --

  • The question is whether it was ever a regulator or whether it was only a complaints or mediating system.

  • I think it -- my personal opinion would be that it did have an -- has had an influence on how newspapers were run.

  • That's slightly different. It might have had an influence, without necessarily being a regulator.

    Anyway, the next question is: one of the things that other people have said, and I'd be interested in your view, is they've spoken of the cost of litigation and the value of having some arbitral system that allows redress to be obtained for privacy or libel or other potential tort without the expense of full-blown litigation. Do you agree with that or not? You may not. I'm just interested.

  • No, I -- I apologise for saying no. I do agree with it. I think it would be very valuable, particularly because in the past few years you have had a lot of legal firms on contingencies, who are bringing cases knowing that the cost of defending them will potentially be very high, and newspapers might well settle for a few thousand pounds just not to have to have the expense and the time. So if we have a body that can take care of that kind of case, it makes sense.

  • But doesn't that require compulsory entry into it? In other words, if you want to pursue an action for, say, breach of privacy, this is the route you have to go down; you can't have both systems running in parallel, otherwise the wealthy will choose the one that will hit you financially, and the others won't?

  • I don't see how you can prevent someone from litigating at the end of the day, someone outside the press litigating against a newspaper.

  • It depends whether the remedy that's specified required -- the litigation in court requires somebody first to have gone through some other mechanism, given that nine times out of ten or 99 times out of 100, that would be sufficient.

  • I think it's an idea to look into. It just depends what the exact terms of any legislation would be.

  • I understand that. All right, thank you.

  • Thank you, Mr Ashford.

    Is this a convenient moment for our break?

  • (A short break)

  • Sir, our next and final witness for today is Mr Richard Desmond, please.