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

  • MR CHRISTOPHER MARTIN ELLIOTT (sworn).

  • Sit down and make yourself comfortable. You should have with you your witness statement and some exhibits that you've prepared there too.

  • Could you confirm your full name to the Inquiry?

  • Yes, it's Christopher Martin Elliott.

  • The witness statement you've prepared is -- my version is not signed. Have you signed the version you have?

  • Can you confirm to the Inquiry that the contents of the statement are true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

  • I'm going to start, please, by discussing your background briefly. You explain that you are the reader's editor of the Guardian, a role that covers both print and web. You explain your career history at paragraph 3 of your statement onwards. You explain that you became managing editor of the Guardian in February 2000. In 2007, you also became a director of Guardian News and Media, but you stepped down from the board last year when you also relinquished your role as managing editor of GNM and you successfully applied to the Scott Trust for the role of readers' editor?

  • That's interesting. So it was to the Scott Trust that you went to be readers' editor, not to the editor?

  • Yes. I was interviewed by a panel of three trustees.

  • Just help me, because I've not really thought about this before: are the Trust responsible for all staff?

  • No, and the point of this is to give me this measure of independence within the Guardian. So my responsibility is to the chair of the Scott Trust and to the Trust, and I am appointed by the Trust and I can't be dismissed unless it's by a vote of the entire Trust.

  • So that gives you your absolute independence --

  • -- should you need it, from Mr Rusbridger?

  • You've anticipated my next questions.

  • I'm very sorry. I've done that before.

  • That's fine.

    You're appointed by the Scott Trust and only they can dismiss you?

  • We're going to just discuss, very briefly please, your role as readers' editor, paragraph 5 and onwards. You say that your role is set out in the terms of reference. That is in appendix A, which we'll look at in a moment. Your role is broadly to investigate and respond to readers' complaints and views about Guardian journalism in print and on the web?

  • Then you explain that a complaint may be a simple allegation of inaccuracy or it may be more complex, such as an allegation that Guardian journalists have breached the principles of journalism promulgated by CP Scott. Then you set out the essay prepared by CP Scott.

  • You go on at paragraph 6 to explain that each week you write a column that runs at the foot of the letters page in which you may report the investigation of a particular complaint or discuss a particular ethical issue, and that's an important way, you say, to demonstrate that discussing the ethics of the way that journalists works is natural and to be encouraged?

  • Could we turn to the terms of reference, appendix A.

  • That sets out in some detail your role. Could we look -- starting at the top, you collect, consider, investigate, respond to and, where appropriate, come to a conclusion about readers' comments, concerns and complaints in a prompt and timely manner. But if we look two-thirds of the way down, it says this, just by the bottom sort of hole punch, if you see that:

    "In consultation with the editor and/or the managing editor, [you] can decide whether and when a correction should be published and/or apologies tendered where deemed necessary. Insofar as any correction apology is not the subject of or may be prejudicial to a current complaint to the PCC ..."

    I don't need to read the rest of it.

  • So in terms of the remedy, the correction to the complaint or an apology, that must be done in consultation with the editor and/or managing editor?

  • No. The decision is mine, and occasionally there are differences of opinion as to whether it is an apology or an expression of regret or merely a correction or a clarification, and it is my decision when it's -- our process is being used as to which one of those should be. But of course I do consult the managing editor and the editor, and actually the journalist involved in this.

  • So you must consult with the editor, but the final decision is yours?

  • What if the editor strongly represents to you that he thinks no apology or correction should be made?

  • Well, I mean obviously you listen carefully to that, but if, in the end, you think it's the right thing to do, you can fall back on the fact that you are employed by the Trust -- I'm employed by the Trust and I actually think they're wrong and we go ahead and I do what I see fit.

  • If you move to the second-last paragraph within the terms of reference, it says this:

    "The readers' editor can refer to the external ombudsman any substantial grievances or matters whereby the Guardian's journalistic integrity has been called into question."

    What role does the external ombudsman have from any decision that you have made?

  • Well, on occasion, you carry out an investigation -- I carry out an investigation and no matter how much time one spends on it, in the end the complainant still feels that they have not been treated fairly or that my decision is wrong. If they don't want to go to the PCC, there is always the external ombudsman, and this has happened a number of times over the last 14 years, and -- I can refer it to the external ombudsman, they can ask me to refer it to the external ombudsman, and I don't think we've ever had a compelling reason not to do it once an individual has us to do this. The external ombudsman, a man called John Willis, who is -- works for the Guardian, very much externally. He's not a member of staff and he comes from a different discipline. He's actually from the discipline of television. But he's had very wide experience and he will go into it in some detail and then he will prepare a report about the way in which we've carried it out.

    Essentially, he will look at the processes, the way we've actually carried out, rather than try to reinvestigate it. What he's trying to assess is whether the readers' editor has done it fairly and competently.

  • Leave aside the terms of reference, can you turn back to your statement, please. At paragraph 7 onwards, you discuss the day-to-day workings of your office. You explain the type and number of complaints and queries dealt with and so on.

    Now, you've helpfully provided us at appendix E with an analysis of the main sorts of subjects that readers raise. I just ask you to turn that up. It's one page.

  • Yes. My bundle is arranged slightly different so I'm sorry if I'm taking a little bit longer.

  • Not at all. "Readers' editor email analysis, main subjects". Perhaps you could just talk us through this briefly?

  • Yes. There are some really basic complaints around the journalism and we -- spelling, grammar, factual errors, fairly straightforward issues of accuracy. Graphics. And then we move into things like whether a photograph was tastefully used or wrong or misleading statements or misrepresentation.

    One of the things that a lot of our readers are very hot on is the area in terms of whether we're stereotyping, the language around things like mental health, gender, et cetera. Then also things like the stigmatisation of the oppressed or misunderstood minorities, ethics, taste and decency and there's an important one around plagiarism, which are rare but potentially very damaging in a reputational way and important to get right, and children. These can take between a day or even a couple of weeks.

    We did have one particular one which took -- which my predecessor took about two months to do because there were somewhere in the region of 40 aspects to the complaint, and that was extremely difficult. So that is -- that's around the journalism.

  • Can I pause there and ask you a question about the stereotyping and stigmatisation complaints.

  • Are these the complaints by, say, groups who have a particular interest in ensuring that particularly a group of people or a particular minority is not represented in the press?

  • Yes, it can come from a group or it can come from an individual and I take each of those as seriously. For instance, around mental ill health, it's the kind of language that you use and it's -- society's changed a great deal in the last 20 years and, you know, the way in which we use the word "bonkers" for mental ill health or describe someone as "mad" in headlines or in text has completely changed, and there have been real advances in actually not stigmatising people by using that kind of language. But they occasionally slip in and it's for me to look into whether we have misused language and what we do about it: correction, apology, delete it online and go from there.

  • Sorry, I interrupted you while you were taking us through this analysis.

  • Sorry, yes. Generally there are complaints about overall editorial, the whole business of how the paper is delivered and what it means. I mean, the paper's gone through many changes over the last few years and every time that happens, people are extremely wary of change and they want to talk about it. Guardian readers in particular feel very close to their newspaper, so they feel they have a real stake in it and they want to have that conversation and I spend time trying to have that kind of conversation with them.

    Then of course, if we get letters from lawyers, I am able to deal with complaints which are presented by lawyers, providing the lawyers actually want to use our processes, but always then I would contact our in-house legal department.

    Then there are incredibly simple things that what we hope will happen will very often be dealt with by our automatic reply. People don't always know where to go if they haven't had one of their nine sections on a Saturday delivered and we give out telephone numbers in our automated reply which enable people to go straight to the right department. Otherwise, if that doesn't work for them, then we'll talk to them and let them know what it is.

    People want to pass things on to journalists who have written pieces, and one of the things which is really growing is the number of people who want to change stories that have already appeared online. We have an extensive archive -- I think we have about 1.5 million pages now -- and it's quite an issue, the number of people who say, "I co-operated in this story seven years ago, but now I'm concerned about this aspect, that aspect. Will you delete that?" That's really quite a big issue for us and that's another thing which takes up quite a lot of time.

  • How many complaints do you deal with per year?

  • Last year I think it was 26,700 emails. They're not all complaints, but they're complaints or queries. On any day of the week, we publish three or four corrections or clarifications, six days a week, in print, and since we've begun a rolling corrections for online, there can be anything from another four, five, six or seven on there, and some of these can be done within an hour and some of these take a lot longer.

  • I'll come on to corrections and clarifications and where they appear in your newspaper in a moment. Can I ask you this: a complaint's come in. You've decided that prima facie there's some merit to it. You would then approach the journalist who wrote the piece, presumably. To what extent do journalists co-operate in general?

  • Well, the readers' editor's office has been in place for 14 years now and so people are used to dealing with it, used to co-operating with it. They understand, because it's in our editorial code that both staff and freelance journalists are obliged to co-operate with the office, and overwhelmingly we get quite a lot of support. In fact, some of the errors that we've made are actually referred to us by the journalists themselves. They can see that they've made an error and they'll drop a line to us and say, "Look, I can see from my notes I've either misquoted or I've got this name wrong. We really ought to do a correction."

    So on the whole I get a great deal of support.

  • On the whole. What if the system breaks down and the journalist doesn't wish to co-operate? What's the backstop?

  • The backstop would be I would go, normally quietly, I hope without too much fuss, to their line manager and say, "Look, we've had this complaint, I think it warrants investigation but I really need to talk to X and X is being really prickly about it and feels that it's not worth it." I say, "Look, you know that we need to talk about it, so would you have a word with him?" That has happened once or twice in 18 months and on both occasions that individual has come forward and we've dealt with the matter.

  • Now assume the complaint has come in, you've spoken to the journalist and you've decided that you do want to publish a correction or clarification. You tell us that the Corrections and Clarifications column appears within the newspaper --

  • -- on the letters page.

  • It's just moved to the letters page from the leaders page.

  • Can you ensure that a correction gets equal prominence in terms of that? The correction or clarification may not refer to a piece that appeared on the letters page; it may, of course, relate to any article that's appeared in the newspaper.

  • Does anyone ever say, "Look, I'm just not happy with it appearing on the letters page; I'd like my clarification or complaint, whatever it is, to appear with equal prominence to the article I'm complaining about"?

  • Mostly that's lawyers who say that to us rather than members of the public. Their real -- mostly, readers and members of the public are just concerned to get it fixed as soon as possible. That's what they want done. The point about our Corrections and Clarifications column is that it has been there for -- the leaders and the letters page is at the heart of the newspaper, and it's well established as to that's where it is, and so overwhelmingly people are happy with that. They're very interested in whether they're going to get the lead correction or not and how that correction is going to be expressed, but they're perfectly happy that it goes there.

    Now, that's not all the time. If it's a lawyer, sometimes they'll say it should be -- there should be a front page sign-off or it should be somewhere else, but mostly people are perfectly content that it's there. We did have a bit of a boost -- it's some time ago now, but in 2002, Mr Justice Morland said he felt that it was a place of proper prominence when he was deciding a libel case in which our readers' editor's prompt and efficient work on a particular thing led to damages which would have been 30,000 reduced to 10,000, and that was a significant boost for our belief that it's in the right place and we're doing the right thing.

    If the industry, at the end of this Inquiry, feels differently about it and there is an industry standard, I think that's a debate we'd very much like to be involved in and will be perfectly happy to take part.

  • You told us briefly about your Open Door column which appears weekly at the foot of the letters page.

  • We can see an example of that at appendix D. We don't need to turn it up.

  • What does that add to your role?

  • I think it's very important in -- again, it's on the letters page so it's at the heart of the paper. It shows that we're willing not only to admit that we're wrong but to discuss why we've got things wrong. Sometimes it really is quite difficult to unravel how some things go wrong and very often it's about an awful lot of people doing a thing and things slipping through the cracks, and trying to explain that in a connection doesn't work, but in Open Door we are able to explain: "This is why we got it wrong", and very often spell out what we're going to do to change it. If we found a faulty or flawed process, that will often lead to changes. In fact, the most recent updating of our editorial code contains one or two things which had come out of errors that we'd spotted.

    Sorry, one last thing.

  • I think I also ought to say -- and this was the view of my colleague, Ian Mayes, who began the readers' editor's office. It's a signal to everyone there that a culture of discussing journalism and what goes wrong and sometimes what goes right is encouraged within the office and that's why we think it's a very useful thing.

  • I want to ask you about the section of your witness statement which starts at paragraph 21. Here you're dealing with the factors that contribute to the success and those that limit the effectiveness of the role of a readers' editor.

  • You tell us that legal costs are down significantly, 25 per cent, in paragraph 29.

  • Since the inception of the office "because we are able to offer prominent redress more quickly". Is that PCC complains, fewer libel privacy actions?

  • Actually, some time ago -- in fairness, it is some time ago since we actually did that calculation, but broadly it is fewer privacy and libel actions. Especially -- the web has really put a lot of pressure on people to want to get things fixed quickly online and for public recognition that something is wrong. If they can get that within 24, 48, 72 hours -- and I would -- I think we should do more detailed analysis than we've done, but I would say anecdotally that most of our stuff is fixed within three or four days -- then they're much happier with that than the more lengthy procedure.

    Although I think the PCC does have a lot of good people -- whatever disagreements I may have about the structure, I think it has a lot of good people -- I think that it takes a bit longer when it's a PCC complaint. That's nobody's fault. It's just you're going to external bodies.

  • In terms of other advantages, we've discussed, of course, the independence from the editor and the general culture, just accepting that making mistakes is something which you can deal with in this way. Can we move on very briefly to disadvantages? You've told us that you deal with tens of thousands of complaints, requests for clarification and other issues per year. Is it realistic, in your view, that the role can continue to provide the fast and open remedy with this number of complaints?

  • It does concern me. I would like to get to things faster. While I stand by what I said, that I think the really significant errors are dealt with -- significant errors, where everyone is happy to use our process within the readers' editor's office, are dealt with within three, four days. I do think there are some things which take longer and that's because of the volume.

    One of the things that I do is I deal with the more complicated complaints, and my colleague, Leslie Plommer, deals with the daily column and therefore the things that can be normally fixed quickly, maybe within 24 to 48 hours. Of course, some of the things that I deal with are sometimes for the larger organisations, often the more aggressive organisations, and they can be very difficult to resolve and that does take longer. It also takes you away from some other stuff that, given a clear run, you might have done a bit faster.

  • Can I pick you up on something you said? You said:

    "I'm satisfied that we'd be able to deal with the more significant errors."

  • How do you judge what is a significant error?

  • I think basically if you're dealing with life and limb -- for instance, someone says, "You've identified my daughter and you may not realise it but she was under 16", that's a significant error. If you have written a piece in which you have a set of statistics so badly wrong it renders the piece unreadable or useless or something, all those kind of things, they're the really significant errors, and they sort of -- they advertise themselves. If you have someone who wants to talk to you about the Guardian's use of the subjunctive, I'm not saying that's not a worthy subject for discussion, but it would sit behind some of those other things, and if you've been in journalism for some time, you have a feeling -- a judgment for what is more significant.

  • I understand. Finally, can I just ask your views on this issue: there's been a lukewarm response, if I can put it this way, from editors that we've asked the question of to date -- we asked the Independent editor what he thought of a readers' editor. We asked the Financial Times editor what he thought of the concept of having a readers' editor. The issue that's come back, time and time again, is the issue of cost. Do you have any views on whether or not a reader's editor is really appropriate in all newspapers and in all publications? I'm thinking, for example, of magazines, which may have a very small staff. Do you have any views on that?

  • I think that the web in particular -- I think in broad terms, if you want to build on -- build a trust with your readers, it's a very good thing and it's an important thing. I know that the CP Scott 1921 essay is brought out so often that it's dangerous -- some of the best lines have become cliches, but actually they are very good lines and a lot about that is trust and the relationship with the reader, the contract with the reader.

    So for us, it's incredibly important, if we're going to survive and move into a digital age and people are going to trust our copy, and I think that will be true of everyone who's trying to cope with an industry which, over the next three to five years, is going to diminish and consolidate and I think it's extremely important that -- I would suggest it's important for everyone to say -- you know, we no longer have this high-to-low relationship with our readers where we talk down to them, we tell them things and we allow them one or two letters in each week. Every time -- for instance, if we write about Fukushima and we get our microsieverts and our millisieverts mixed up, we have something like -- within half an hour to an hour, we'll have about ten nuclear scientists on our tail online telling us that. And people say, you know: "This really matters." People regard you -- "You are the Guardian. People take you seriously. You have to get this right."

    So I would say that for everyone who wants to survive and thrive in journalism, which is really all about -- I think it would be -- I think it important and useful.

  • I think cost is a factor, which is why I wouldn't use this as a sneaky pitch in front of so many execs to try and get more resource, and you wouldn't at this particular time, but I think (a) if you do it well you can reduce your legal costs and (b) it is so important, I do think it's a commercial decision too to do it. It's not just the right thing to do -- we happen to think it is -- but it's also a commercial decision to build that trust and use that facility.

  • Mr Elliott, those are all my questions. Was there anything that you wanted to add?

  • Let me. You've identified how many thousand communications you have.

  • What proportion of those are the more serious type?

  • It varies, but I would say I would say maybe one a day. That's an allegation. It's not necessarily something that will be well-founded.

  • No, I understand that entirely. It's not difficult to distinguish between incorrect use of apostrophes and substantial complaints about stories. So one a day I understand. This is a full-time job for you?

  • I've read with interest the reports that are annexed to Mr Rusbridger's witness statement from the external ombudsman. These are very substantial pieces of work.

  • This isn't a one-page review. The one I've just turned up runs into six very closely small typed sheets.

  • So there's a lot of effort into that. How many does he see in a year?

  • He doesn't see that many. I've only had to refer one to him so far in the 18 months or so that I've been doing it, and I would say overall he would get maybe one or two a year. But I would be prepared to ask him for advice. I mean, both those cases took up an enormous amount of time.

  • Well, it's quite clear that they did.

  • And thankfully we don't get too many on that scale.

  • You say you have one substantial complaint that you have to look at, or concern, whether valid or not -- I'm not interested in the validity of it.

  • I'm just trying to get a feel for what's going on, how many of a similar sort of complaint say, "No, I don't want to use your system, I'm going to go to the PCC"?

  • Well, in 2011 the Guardian had 31 complaints go to the PCC.

  • Around 10 involved people who were not entirely happy with my findings.

  • Seven of which were either not proceeded with by the PCC or not upheld -- it might be eight, actually -- and I think two are outstanding.

  • So that's the sort of order.

  • All right. Do you find that this process has reduced the number of people who go to a lawyer and then commence proceedings?

  • Thank you very much indeed.

  • Thank you, Mr Elliott.

  • Sir, the final witness is Mr Rusbridger.