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

  • MR IAN DAVID HISLOP (sworn).

  • Good morning, Mr Hislop. Your full name, please?

  • Thank you. There's now a signed version of your witness statement with a statement of truth dated 16 January 2012. Is that your true evidence?

  • You have been editor of Private Eye since 1986; is that right?

  • We're going to take your statement as read, but if I may alight on a number of discrete themes and then weave them together. Paragraph 10, please, first of all. You give us a thumbnail sketch, do you not, of the course of libel actions against Private Eye since the beginning of the year 2000. Is this right: there have been 40 in all, 26 withdrawn. 11 have been settled. There's been one hearing -- sorry, one hung jury, I should say, and two victories.

  • Do claims not pursued represent victories?

  • I haven't counted them as such but they probably are.

  • Mr Hislop, sources.

  • Without identifying any individuals, are you able, please, to give us an indication of the nature and range of sources who come to Private Eye with information, particularly in the context of your Street of Shame column?

  • Overall, the best sources are our readers. Private Eye operates as a sort of club where people not only buy the magazine, they write a lot of it, which is the principle we work on. Broadly, the sources come from people inside their professions, so the medical column, the column about energy, the pieces in the back, a lot of those are given by people directly involved. A lot of whistle-blowers -- and again, I've referred to that quite a lot in my evidence, a lot of people inside who feel they have a story to report.

    Street of Shame, which is, as its title suggests, two pages devoted to the malpractice of journalists in the old Fleet Street and beyond, nearly all those stories are given to us by other journalists, it being a loyal profession.

  • Thank you. Would you publish a story on the basis of only one source, Mr Hislop?

  • It depends who that one source was. In a lot of the whistle-blowing cases, for example, in the bigger hospital cases and in some of the financial cases, one source is what you have because there's only one person brave enough to tell you anything. That doesn't mean you just put it all in. We do make as thorough and as comprehensive checks as we can. But sometimes you will only have one person telling you something and in those circumstances, I would say it is legitimate to put it in.

  • You've given us a flavour there of the steps you take to ascertain whether a source is reliable. Can you tell us more about that, please?

  • Yes, well, essentially as editor, you trust your journalists and the people who work for me, I trust them to check out stories, to make sure they are accurate, not to be given stories that are pure grudge, that are not -- rubbish, that do stand up, and then with any very contentious stories, I'm sure all editors will say you will talk to them, you will talk to your lawyers, and you will say, "This is absolutely right, isn't it? The source is reliable. We will be able to stand this up."

  • How do you filter out, if that's the right way of putting it, whistle-blowers, for example, who come to you because they have a grudge or a malicious animus towards the person they're whistle-blowing on?

  • That is the skill of the journalist involved, to talk to these people to find out. Just because someone has a grudge doesn't mean it isn't true. They may well give you stories for the worst possible motives but the story may be true. What you have to do is separate the grudge from the story.

  • Now, Street of Shame. It may be a difficult question but are you able to give us some flavour of the type of stories you've published over the last ten years or so?

  • Street of Shame tends to be full of stories about journalists misbehaving. It tends to be anything from making up stories, drunkenness, stealing stories from each other, printing things that are totally and utterly untrue, promoting each other for reasons that aren't terribly ethical, sucking up to their proprietors, being told what to do by their proprietors, running stories because their proprietors insist on it, marshalling the facts towards a conclusion that they've already decided on. I'm sure I can think of some others, but I mean, that sort of thing.

  • In relation to such stories, obviously you have what the journalist, the source, might tell you and of course you're able to check that out, very often against what the newspaper has published; is that right?

  • Indeed. A lot of the stories in Street of Shame are simply on the basis of reading what a published story says and thinking: "That can't possibly be true."

  • So if you're dealing with an issue such as plagiarism, you'll want to see the piece which was plagiarised?

  • And then the underlying piece, to satisfy yourself?

  • Did Private Eye cover the phone hacking story beyond noting what Nick Davies of the Guardian was writing?

  • No, I don't think we can claim that that story was ours. We've covered it a lot since, in terms of the mechanics of the case and how the police have reacted to it and who sued and -- so I think we've done some good work there, but that story was broken by the Guardian.

  • The Inquiry has received a fair amount of evidence in relation to the Information Commissioner's investigation, Operation Motorman, into blagging. Has Private Eye covered that issue at all and what position did it take on it?

  • Two points there. Motorman we covered partly because I was involved in it. I was one of the names that -- someone had paid the detective, Whittamore, to find out all my phone numbers, and they came to see me and they said -- I mean, it's very, very good, that particular set of detective's notes, because he put who paid for it and what the numbers were. So he got my friend and family and my bank manager, which must have been dull, if they were listening to that, and I think that was it. That was the basic BT there. And they said this is going to be included in the report, but nothing came of it, no one was prosecuted, nothing happened. So I knew about that.

    In terms of blagging, I don't throw my hands up at blagging. There have been some very effective blags. For example, the Channel 4 programme where someone pretended to be a lobbyist and a number of greedy MPs and members of the House of Lords came and offered to offer their services for free. That was good. The Sunday Times cases with FIFA or with the whaling inquiry -- I think you can get a bit sot of throwing out the baby with the bathwater in terms of how journalism operates.

  • Yes, the Data Protection Act, of course, recognises a public interest defence, as you're aware. But blagging I don't think is a practice which Private Eye indulges in; is that right?

  • No. On the whole, we rely on people telling us things straight. That is Paul Foot's view of the secret of investigative journalism, is people ring you up and tell you things.

  • The practice of binnology, have you covered that?

  • Yes. Again, partly because Benjy did my bins outside the offices of Private Eye. I wrote quite a stiff note to one of my staff and decided no, I wouldn't send that, that was a bit much, so I threw it away, and then it appeared and I thought: "That's very odd." Then we put a camera up and found out Benjy was going through our bins. Mr Fayed was looking for things to print about Private Eye at the time.

  • Have you any evidence of that or is that surmise?

  • Oh ... I think the fact that it appeared in Punch, which he owned, was a give-away.

  • Thank you. I know that you've written, or Private Eye has written, pieces about the Piers Morgan diaries, about which there's been some evidence.

  • Are you able to give us a flavour of some of those pieces, please?

  • I think on the whole the Eye's view is that Piers' memory is quite selective and that he is capable of remembering things that didn't happen and that perhaps his diaries weren't written contemporaneously. There are a number of fairly glaring errors in the diaries. He has tea with the wrong Prime Minister, that sort of thing.

    As to the overall veracity of them ...

  • That may be for the Inquiry to assess.

  • Indeed, absolutely. Not for me.

  • If we move on to a separate theme, public interest. You make it clear that Private Eye has not signed up on the PCC, is not signed up to the code. But do you, in general terms, apply the principles which we see embedded in the Editors' Code?

  • Yes, I think they should be self-evident, and a lot of the evidence given to this Inquiry by people quibbling about whether it's in the code or not -- it seems to me all of the things that you have focused on are quite self-evidently against any sort of ethical practice.

  • One witness told us last week that he didn't understand what the term "ethics" means and you're telling us that ethics is self-evident. There may be some sort of mid-position here where certain things we grasp intuitively but other things in grey areas we need a system of principles and then perhaps a system of rules, always subject to exceptions, to tell us what to do. Would you not accept that?

  • The person who didn't understand what ethics was was Mr Desmond, I gather, which again, I think you shouldn't use that as a rule of thumb for everyone else. It seemed to totally bewilder him, the idea that this could have occurred to anyone. So no, I'm not in that camp, but I do think that statutory regulation is not required, and most of the heinous crimes that came up and have made such a splash in front of this Inquiry have already been illegal. Contempt of court is illegal. Phone tapping is illegal. Taking money from -- policemen taking money is illegal. All of these things don't need a code. We already have laws for them. The fact that these laws were not rigorously enforced is, again, due to the behaviour of the police, the interaction of the police and News International, and -- I mean, let's be honest about this -- the fact that our politicians have been very, very involved, in ways that I think are not sensible, with senior News International people, and I hope you'll be calling the Prime Minister and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to explain how that comes down from the top.

  • Are you saying, Mr Hislop, that the existence of legal rules, whether it's the criminal law or the civil law, is a reason for there being no need for a better regulatory system?

  • It is possible to have a better regulatory system, but my view is that we have quite a lot of regulation and most of the offences that have come up and have been so shocking -- the contempt in the murder case, the Milly Dowler, all of these things that the public have felt this is absolutely unacceptable -- well, it is unacceptable. It's illegal. It's not for me to tell you what to do, but I think any Inquiry needs to find out why none of these things were enforced.

  • They're not all criminal, but they may be tortious. They may give rise to civil liabilities.

  • But that gives rise to the very interesting question, which I'm sure we'll come onto, about the extent to which people who don't have a lot of money can afford to pursue their remedies if they are traduced or the subject of adverse articles in the press.

  • Yes. Again, I think justice should be cheaper and faster. I think there should be early resolution. I think you should be able to have a judgment on meaning far quicker than you currently get in the court. There are plenty of ways to speed up justice through the courts if you think the courts is the right way.

  • That's itself a question.

  • Because if one had some other arbitral system -- and we'll come onto it -- that could deal with those issues perhaps inquisitorially rather than the sort of jousting that we have at the moment, then that might be better for everybody.

  • It might be, but my feeling is that the Leveson Inquiry -- they didn't appoint a former editor. They didn't appoint an MP. They appointed a judge, and we end up in a courtroom talking about it. You tend to end up in court anyway.

  • You've helped us with the public interest issue. There's also the issue of intersection between public interest and private rights, which is neatly summarised -- if you look at tab 5, Mr Hislop, evidence you gave to a Select Committee on 11 October last year, page 9.

  • We can summarise what you're saying there. You want to avoid the situation you perceive to exist in France, with what you describe as a very draconian privacy law.

  • Very little about what their rulers were up to was discovered by anyone for about a decade. Then you say:

    "There are situations where sex does influence how people behave, how contracts are awarded, how promotions are made, and we may not like having to do it very much but it does sometimes have a bearing."

    So you're carving out exceptions, are you, where there is a genuine public interest in people's private lives, particularly in the realm of intimate relationships?

  • Yes. Not particularly in the realm, but I give that as an example because that's the one that always comes up and makes the most headlines. Finance was the other. The problem in France was that the contents of your own bank account were considered to be private in all situations at all times and there were cases in France where -- I mean, the minister in charge of raising taxes was paying no taxes, and one of the newspapers -- I think it was Le Canard Enchaine -- published details of his bank account and he said, "This is private. How dare you say I don't pay any tax? It's between me and the taxman." That doesn't strike me as being in the public interest.

    I mean, seriously -- I mean, the French situation is terrible. They are now catching up with about two decades of news about their -- "My goodness, he had a flat with his mistress in it." "Did he?" "He was corrupt. Let's put him on trial." "He's nearly dead!" They are incredibly slow because of this extraordinarily reluctance to look at the private lives of the people who ran them. So I think you have to look at other countries.

  • Yes. It's often difficult to look at the detail of what happens in other countries without knowing precisely what their privacy law is. Plainly, there may need to be research.

  • It's slightly out of sequence, but there's one other answer you gave to the Select Committee under tab 5 which I wish to ask you about. Page 20. Question 70 at the bottom of the page. Do you see that?

  • The chairman asked:

    "Do you buy the Richard Peppiatt argument at the Leveson seminar last week about newsrooms, particularly in tabloids, with journalists being told: 'Here is the agenda; find the story'?"

    Mr Rusbridger gave his answer, which was along the lines that it depends, but it's your answer on the next page when you say:

    "It sounded pretty right to me."

    Why were you able to give the Select Committee that answer?

  • I think anybody who reads newspapers and a lot of newspapers after a while begins to see that the stories have an agenda and that that agenda must be dictated by someone. Most famously, Private Eye finds that if the Daily Mail runs a story, at some point there will be a reference to house prices in it and whether they're going to collapse spectacularly or rise. That's the joke, but it is an observation that most of the time, if you read papers carefully, you think: "Who decided the headline and the way that story is going to go?" The editor, you would guess. In some cases, the proprietor. That is why the story has been fed in that particular way. Mr Desmond is the worst example, obviously, and he's been in court about this and he's had libel actions with Tom Bower about whether he uses his newspaper in order to pursue certain agendas and certain claims. But the Murdoch press is pretty clear, I think, in a lot of its manifestations, on what the agenda is going to be and the paper follows it.

  • Might it be said that it could sometimes be a little bit more nuanced than that, that the editor doesn't have to respond to any imposition of agenda from above because the editor intuitively understands what his or her readers want to read. They're plugged in to the mindset and viewpoint, as it were, of the readership, and it's that --

  • Yes, they're also plugged in to a phone where the proprietor shouts down it.

  • Yes, but if I could just complete the thought.

  • It's that, whether you're looking at the Daily Mail or any newspaper, which dictates the way the newspaper is going to formulate and express its story. Is that not a possibility?

  • That's certainly a possibility, but I'm not saying it's -- you know, every page of every newspaper is constantly following an agenda, but there are certain stories where they will think: "What do we want to read when this story comes up?" Look at the coverage of this Inquiry. If you read it fairly closely, you look at the papers and you think: "Why have they missed out the bits that were critical of them?" Is that being in tune with the readers, or is that because the editor is embarrassed or because the proprietor doesn't want to read it?

  • I go back to the PCC. Paragraph 11 of your statement, where you say -- the gist of it -- that there's no need for the PCC to act as intermediary or mediator. Would you not accept that acting as mediator is something the PCC does rather well?

  • I have no direct knowledge of that at all. I am told by people and people have given evidence that it works well. I haven't seen that. It hasn't worked in our cases. We either settle, think about arbitration through another way or go to court.

  • Can I just ask you about arbitration through another way.

  • How does that work?

  • You agree to -- if the two parties agree, you can agree to appoint an arbitrator and go through the courts and they decide, and you say you will stick by that decision.

  • How often does that happen with Private Eye?

  • Because, you think?

  • Two people have to agree to the settlement, and often I don't.

  • Because you trust the courts more? Is that it?

  • I would rather end up in the court because I think that's where you end up anyway.

  • I think your primary reason for not being part of the PCC is paragraph 12, that you don't believe it's an independent and impartial tribunal; is that fair?

  • Yes. I don't think the PCC has been that. I don't think it's been effective, I don't think it's been independent. There are plans to change it and Alan Rusbridger's come up with a lot of suggestions and obviously if it changes then one would have to reconsider, but essentially Private Eye spends two pages a week attacking individuals and newspapers, then to go to the PCC and find all those people are deciding on your case. You tend to think you won't get a particularly fair hearing.

  • Is it just a question of editors being heavily represented on the PCC or is it a question of editors from particular papers being represented on the PCC?

  • Over the years, Private Eye has had some issues with the number of tabloid editors on there, with particular agenda, and also the amount of influence that News International has had on the PCC.

  • I ask you this question: what would bring you back into the fold? What would have to happen to the PCC, whether it kept that name or changed its name altogether?

  • Obviously it is quite embarrassing that the only other person not in the PCC is Richard Desmond.

  • That's not a position that's obviously very comfortable, but I do stick with -- there are plenty of other regulatory bodies and codes that could have stopped that particular ownership, and indeed a lot of that conduct, so I'm not wanting to be tarred with the same brush there. I'm not saying it's not possible, and we didn't flounce out of the PCC after we'd lost, you know, vast amounts of damages or had rulings against us. It was a decision I took a long time ago in order to be separate, because I think what Private Eye does is unique and therefore I don't think we are in the same camp as them.

    Sorry, what was the question?

  • No, that's quite a big word, which I think may be right. One of my concerns I've expressed is that the press will look at doctors, they'll look at lawyers, they'll look at judges, they will keep to account politicians, government, everybody, but is there any organ of the press other than Private Eye that actually has a go at other newspapers?

  • I think it would be arrogant to say no other newspaper -- there are media sections in other newspapers, they do report about each other, but there has been a tendency --

  • The Guardian in relation to --

  • Indeed, in relation to this, and all credit to them for doing it. But on the whole, the bigger groups have tended to operate a code of: "We don't write about each other and we don't go into that sort of nit-picking detail about what stories came from where." That has tended to be what the Eye has ended up doing.

  • But doesn't that contain within it a problem, because if nobody is keeping the nose of the press to the grindstone in that way, then people might get away with rather more than they otherwise would?

  • Again, I go back -- I mean, I believe in a free press and I don't believe in a regulated press, and I think that the press should obey the law, and I think that's what the law is for. So that is where we would disagree.

    Yes, I think the press should be kept to account. It should be kept to account by the law. It should be kept to account by the people who buy the papers. I do hope you're going to call some members of the public and ask them why the bought the News of the World, what they thought they were getting.

  • I don't think we'll necessarily do it in quite that way, but there are some ways of looking at that.

  • Can I ask you about the future of press regulation and just look at some of the ideas which come through paragraph 16 and following, please, of your witness statement. The last sentence: for you, state regulation is anathema. That is right, isn't it?

  • Yes. I think if the state regulates the press, then the press no longer regulates the state, and that is an unfortunate state of affairs.

  • You see this as somewhat binary, but --

  • Are we on tab 5, sorry?

  • No, we're back to paragraph 16 of your witness statement. The last four lines:

    "If a form of voluntary self-regulation is to be contemplated, then it would have to be one to which the major newspaper publishers would be willing to subscribe ..."

    That in one sense is a tautology, isn't it, Mr Hislop?

  • If it's entirely voluntary, that would have to be the case?

  • How do you bring in those who do not wish to subscribe?

  • Again, that is my problem, and that's probably why I've ended up writing a tautology. I don't think you can have mandatory involvement because that becomes difficult. It's like forcing people to apologise or forcing people to arbitrate. You get into areas where you're basically dictating what the press can do and then it no longer becomes free.

  • But all one may be doing is compelling the press to participate in the system, which, once set up, has all the attributes you would approve of, such as it is independent, it is impartial and it is able to arbitrate speedily and cheaply on the sort of matters which trouble your newspaper. Would you accept that?

  • If that's what happens, then obviously I shall have to either eat my words or go along with it.

  • It depends what you mean by "statutory regulation" in paragraph 17. Could you define that for us, please?

  • Oh, I think that's when the state decides what you can and can't publish. Then that's dangerous. Which is where we come to prior notification and those other issues, which I don't agree with a lot of the --

  • Let us agree that no one wants a system where the state decides what the press might publish, because that, of course, would put us back in the middle ages or put us back in the position which unfortunately exists in many countries around the world. But you could have a system where a statute sets up a body, which defines what the body can done, but the body, once set up, has complete freedom to lay down standards, arbitrate on complaints, all those matters, without any question of the state entering into the operational activities of that body. Would you see that?

  • I do see that and again, that would have to be voluntary. You could not say, "You must go to arbitration here"; you can say, "You must go to court." I have a problem with that.

  • Because I think it should be the law.

  • It may be the law. The problem is in one sense you're right -- that's not a problem. In one sense you are right: there are critical laws, there are civil remedies. But in the world that we occupy, the police and all the authorities that are responsible for maintaining our regulatory regime, Information Commissioners and everything, are inundated with work and there is an argument that there are rather more egregious breaches of the law that require to be investigated before one gets to the press, and that shouldn't necessarily permit a free run for those that want to table stories unethically, inappropriately, illegally. That's the concern that I have about simply saying, "Well, there's a policeman there and they can prosecute", because there isn't a policeman on every street corner.

  • No, but there were a lot of police involved in the hacking story right the way along the line who didn't do anything, who decided nothing had happened. My view is -- I mean, we've had, what, four enquiries into press behaviour? Someone thinks it's important and is spending millions of pounds on it. That money could be used to speed things up --

  • There's absolutely no doubt that now there is a great deal of reaction to what happened last year.

  • And one of the things that I will have to look at is why it is only now rather than years past.

  • And I don't think that is lack of money. I mean, I think there are reasons the police -- and you will be looking at this -- did not investigate, reasons that News International thought it could get away with whatever it liked, because the Murdoch family was deeply embedded in our political top class. Those are the questions. I mean, if you're the editor of a Murdoch paper and you see, oh, the Prime Minister's organising a slumber party for the proprietor's wife at Chequers. Oh! Presumably that gives you unbounded confidence to do whatever you like. Or if the Prime Minister appoints an ex-News of the World editor to be his communications director, you must think: "Well, we're top of the pile. What could stop us?" I mean, that's probably more likely than questions that we don't have enough money to fight this through.

  • It's not a question of money. I think it might be rather more nuanced than that.

  • I'll just ask you about paragraph 18:

    "One important question [you say] is whether adjudication by such a regulator would be instead of adjudication through the court process."

    You take that up three lines from the top of the next page:

    "However, if the press are to be made subject to a new form of regulator (particularly if it has power to impose sanctions), then there should be a corresponding protection from additional court sanctions."

    Which court sanctions are you referring to there, the additional court sanctions?

  • I just mean you shouldn't be tried twice, as it were, for the same offence. So if this body is set up and it says, "You must pay this fine, you must do that", then they can't sue you again, and then you go to the other courts and you have to pay another fine and then repeat it. That's all.

  • You couldn't possibly be fined twice, but any other regulator or profession might very well face disciplinary proceedings within their body and be sued.

  • That's what happens to the rest of the world.

  • Right. Well, how very unfair. I hope it won't happen to us.

  • Paragraphs 19 to 21, you deal with the challenges to investigative journalism. You point out, as is obvious, in paragraph 20 that investigative journalism is extremely costly of time and money, which is difficult in the current climate. Then you say in paragraph 20:

    "Though, of course, generally speaking, printing the truth sells newspapers and a big story can result in increased circulation ..."

    Is it really the case that printing the truth sells newspapers, Mr Hislop?

  • What I mean by that is if you print things that people don't believe or turn out to be lies, then people don't buy you any more because they don't think you're credible.

  • So it's a question of tarnishing the brand, which is a risk all newspapers will be aware of; is that right?

  • Yes. Tarnishing the brand is putting it a bit low. You want to be the paper that people believe.

  • But if your thesis is right, many papers have thrived by not following that principle.

  • Yes, and again, you'd have to question the readers very carefully when you invite them in.

  • In order to do that and get a representative sample, you would obviously have to ask questions of a large number of readers to get any sensible steer on where the problem lies, but why do you think there's a problem here?

  • With the readers in particular?

  • Well, did they think everything they read was true? When they read subsequent reports saying, "Oh, no, this is rubbish", did they feel embarrassed? Did they think: "I shouldn't have bought the News of the World? Why did I read that bit? Did I enjoy that?"

  • One possible answer -- I only float this as a possibility -- is that many people bought the News of the World because it was informative, in the sense of which they might define the term, and entertaining, and that would be sufficient. Would you agree?

  • Well, that may well have been it.

  • May I move off that theme to is a separate theme, which is paragraph 22, the public interest. I think what you're arguing for here, in line perhaps with what Mr Justice Tugendhat said in one case, is the range of permissible editorial judgments is a broad and flexible public interest test which reflects a range of reasonable permissible views; is that right?

  • Yes. I mean, I know that that isn't law because he lost subsequently, but it's in the appeal court, isn't it? So it may turn out to be that what he said is accepted. Is that right?

  • Well, we can deal precisely with the state of that particular case on appeal, but my concern is perhaps the more general one, that if you give too much weight to editorial judgment within the framework of what's reasonable and what is not, that might be said to justify the publication of almost anything, because reasonable people might reasonably disagree on a particular issue. Would you accept that?

  • Yes, but I think what he's talking about in a range of definitions -- what he means is that it shouldn't be so narrow that it's impossible to justify things in grey areas. The classic case, the grey area that keeps coming up is the Sir Fred Goodwin injunction. He was having an affair with someone who was on the board of RBS. Is that his private life or is it permissible to write about that on the grounds that perhaps when you're taking major decisions involving risky financial manoeuvres, someone you're sleeping with doesn't say harshly: "You're mad" at set times. You can see I believe that there is a defence there. Other people would not. But if what he says is the range, it means that would be acceptable. It would be reasonable to make that case; it's not completely wrong. That's what I'm arguing for.

  • What you're really saying, if I put it into language that fits, is that the judge isn't an editor; the judge should decide whether a reasonable editor could reasonably reach the judgment that he or she did.

  • Yes. And in a lot of the other -- the contempt and the phone hacking, I mean, a reasonable editor would not have thought: "I must hack into a murdered girl's phone", or: "I must run a story about someone about whom there appears to be no evidence and say he's the murderer before we've started the case." Those things seem to me self-evidently unreasonable.

  • The judge, although charged with the decision as to whether it's within the judgment of the editor, can give some deference to the view of the editor in reaching the decision. That's another possibility, would you agree?

  • Can I ask you about 22.5 in your witness statement. You don't think there that the behaviour of the journalist is a relevant consideration. Your concern is more what is being printed, although the behaviour of the journalist may be relevant because of the means the journalist has deployed in order to obtain the information which is then printed. Would you accept that?

  • Yes. I was just trying to argue that saying, "Well, did you ring three times in advance, did you notify him there?" -- that sort of procedural "letter of" is less important than whether that's printed is true or not.

  • May I move to a different topic, that of prior notification, which you pick up in particular at paragraph 22.11.

  • You give the example here of a practical difficulty which arose, namely you did give prior notification to Mr Napier, he applied for an injunction, the judge refused the application but granted a temporary injunction pending an appeal, and not withstanding that appeal was expedited, it all was extremely expensive and effectively scotched the story; is that right?

  • Well, it would have scotched the story but we went with it. This was a man called Napier, who was president of the Law Society. He was reprimanded by the Law Society, his own society. That seemed to me a reasonable story to put in. He said this was confidential, it was between him and his professional organisation, the fact that he'd been reprimanded while being president. We went to a court, quite expensive, and won. They said: "No, I'm not going to grant the application but he can have a temporary injunction while we appeal." The appeal -- that was in January and the appeal didn't come on until May, so it was five months delay. We have a story. We're not allowed to run it for five months. The total joint costs of both of the parties were 350,000 by this point. If we'd lost, £350,000 just to try and put in a story. As it happens, we didn't recover all other costs, because you never do, but we won finally an appeal. So six months later we're allowed to print a story which I thought self-evidently was in the public interest.

  • Mr Hislop, aren't you there proving the point that I was trying to make to you before: inevitably, there are many, many calls upon the time of the court, and even when something is urgent, there are many, many urgent appeals, too, so it takes a long time.

  • Therefore, is there not a value in having a mechanism to resolve that sort of issue definitively -- in other words, binding on everybody -- but very quickly, so that you don't risk all that money and all that time and run the risk that you've just been talking about?

  • In that case I'm complaining about the privacy injunction in the first place, and I think that created a delay and a racking up of cost that is due to the mechanism of privacy injunctions. So you're -- what I'm saying is it was slow and it was expensive, but I'm saying the principle in the first place was wrong. He should not have been allowed to get a privacy injunction stopping us printing it.

  • Yes, and the Court of Appeal agreed with you.

  • It did. It did eventually, but we might well have not have got to the Court of Appeal. If you're suggesting a mechanism where that can be decided earlier -- but I don't see that Mr Napier would have said, "Yes, I'll agree to arbitration."

  • But it's not necessarily a matter of agreeing. If there is, at the background of a system, a requirement that that is the way you stop that sort of story, if you want to, you can't simply spin out a long set of legal proceedings in the hope that it will just go away --

  • Which it might well do.

  • I'm not suggesting Mr Napier was doing that. It's a question of speedy resolution so there it is an arbitral mechanism that people are bound by -- in other words, people have to do it -- but that it's inquisitorial and done very quickly.

  • In that case, if it had worked, obviously I'd have been for it.

  • But it's not just this case. It might be every single case where you feel: "Well, you know, I will give a prior notification", but then you run the risk of somebody trying to stop it. You need some mechanism to resolve that very quickly.

  • I can see that's an argument. The lesson I learned from that was not to give prior notification.

  • Yes, but that runs other potential risks, not perhaps in the case where you were very clear and the Court of Appeal agreed with you, but there may be cases where the balance is perhaps slightly different.

  • But mandatory prior notification, it was thrown out by Europe and it's generally assumed that this is not a runner, this will not --

  • I'm not suggesting mandatory prior notification, but every single time you have a story, you have to decide: "Am I going to prior notify or not?"

  • One of the issues is purely the delaying factor of potential litigation. There could be good reasons not to prior notify, because the story might be destroyed or something might happen to it, but it's not necessarily the very best reason that: "Well, the court system there just kill it in any event." That's the point I'm making.

  • Yes, and that's quite right. The same would apply to when we had a threatening letter from Schillings immediately -- we'd put a question to the man who ran the NHS IT system about his next employment, and he'd said, "This is a private matter", then immediately we get a threatening letter. You're saying that's a practical legal reason. The other reason is witnesses get lent on in the ensuing time. With prior notification, they disappear, documents disappear. Alan Rusbridger has given you a lot of that evidence.

  • Yes, but that's why I am thinking about some sort of mechanism that copes with the problem which you're talking about.

  • Yes, I appreciate that.

  • But, of course, doing that -- and you may have heard Mr Barber, actually he was quite interested in the concept, not least because of the concern that very, very wealthy people might be able to put a lot of money into undermining a story.

  • But that requires some sort of framework in the background to require people to participate. Otherwise most people would, but those who really have a lot of money and really have a real interest in stopping something won't.

  • No, and they will just fight it on through the court. Yes, okay.

  • You gave evidence to a Select Committee, Mr Hislop, about the NHS IT project. That was Mr Granger, wasn't it?

  • And Schillings was his solicitors. Can you just remind us what happened there?

  • The journalist in question put a number of questions to Mr Granger, and then, rather than reply to them, we had a threatening letter from his lawyers saying, "These are private and confidential matters", and again, this was the man who -- under whose -- on whose watch, under whose directorship, a vast amount of public money had been effectively wasted, something like £12 billion. You can take whatever the last estimate is on this utterly useless system which we'd been writing about for quite a long time. So we thought it was a reasonable question to find out what he was doing next: is he going back into public employ? Is he a consultant? Where has he ended up? But he said, "This is private, this is none of your business", and his lawyers sent that letter, and when they send that letter, the immediate question is: how much -- is it worth fighting this? Is it worth going on with this? How much is this going to cost? Do we need this as well as whatever else we're doing?

  • The letter itself from Schillings I think was put in evidence before the Select Committee.

  • What did Private Eye do in response to that letter? Did it publish?

  • Well, I read it out under privilege in that committee, so I didn't have to worry about any further ramifications.

  • That's not actually the purpose of the committee.

  • It's something useful the committee could do for us, I thought.

  • Is this a common phenomenon, you receiving letters of this sort which are designed obviously to have either a terrorising or a chilling effect, however you'd like to put it?

  • Yes. Privacy has become more of a problem than libel, or had become more of a problem than libel before the sort of explosion over this -- the previous summer.

  • May I ask you some different questions now. Under tab 2, you deal with the problem of the Internet under the page which says, at the top left, "evidence 197". This is the question of the blogosphere, the right-hand column. Are you with me?

  • A third of the way down.

  • Alan Rusbridger? No.

  • Right-hand side.

  • Quarter of the way down, where you say:

    "My own views on blogs is their stories become useful when they go into what they call dead wood."

    What do you mean by that?

  • I mean stories tend to get going still in Britain when they hit the newspapers rather than when they've been on the blog, when they're taken from the blogosphere and put in newspapers, because at that point they are tested, supposedly. But I think that's a good principle.

  • The point you're making is that at the moment when they're just in the blogosphere or elsewhere on the Internet, they're not tested; it's just an assertion?

  • No, it's just stuff.

  • But the very fact that a story enters a newspaper gives it a level of credence, a level of imprimatur. Would you accept that?

  • Can I ask you about your relationship with politicians? I've asked this question of other editors, of course. Do you have social interactions with politicians?

  • Yes, I occasionally meet them.

  • In a nutshell, what do you think the purpose of such interactions is, apart from social pleasure or however you want to put it?

  • Sorry, I think I've slightly misunderstood the question. I have social interaction in that I go to lunches or I meet them at parties or I see them occasionally.

  • Is it because the politicians are trying to get one over you in terms of what you might say about them, or do you have some sort of motive towards the politicians or is it simply you're meeting them socially?

  • No. I mean, I'm sure there's an agenda on both sides. I'm hoping to find out information that will be useful to me and a world -- insight into the world that they're operating in. I think they're trying to the do the same. There are -- it's a two-way trade. But I think arm's length is what you need with politicians, and that is -- I mean, they come -- we invite MPs to Private Eye lunches, I see MPs at events. I haven't been to any slumber parties with any, with my children or wife. I haven't appointed any to be on the staff of the Eye. I think a certain amount of distance is probably a good idea.

  • Yes. I imagine I know the answer to this question: is the agenda of Private Eye set or do you have any perception that it's set by the wishes of the proprietor?

  • We don't have a proprietor.

  • So the answer then is self-evident. Can I ask you finally about a couple of points in tab 11 and then tab 13.

  • Some pieces about you. The first one is in the Guardian, published in September of last year. The last page, page 5 of 5. He says, two lines down from the top of the page, about you:

    "He has a strong sense of what constitutes ethical behaviour in a good society and is not slow to castigate those in public life who fall short. It's not that he despises politicians that make him so severe on them but he holds in such high esteem what they can be at their best."

    I appreciate that's quite flattering of you.

  • But is it reasonably on point?

  • I'm not likely to say no.

  • I think it's an extraordinarily perceptive piece.

  • Fair enough. The third paragraph, about the future of Private Eye in the context the Internet -- you don't foresee Private Eye embracing the digital future? At the moment you have a rudimentary website, but you keep your key content for the magazine. Then he says:

    "He gives me [that's obviously the writer here] a brief lecture on the dangerous culture of free."

  • Can you remember what that was about?

  • I think I'd probably said something along the lines of: a generation that wants everything for free has already meant it's very difficult to make films, it's difficult to make records and now it's saying, "I want journalism for free", and I think we should try and resist it. I disagree with a number of my colleagues here, but I cannot see why journalism, which, at its best, is a terrifically noble craft, should be given away, and people who can analyse information, write well, entertainingly, informatively, should have everything they do just taken from them. I mean, if we're looking at other countries, I was hugely heartened to see Le Canard Enchaine has a website which just says literally: "Go and buy the paper." They're doing very well.

  • For those who don't know, they're your sort of analogue in France?

  • The final point, subject to points the chairman might have: in tab 13, the third page, I think there you do accept the mistake, if that's the right way of putting it, in the context of the MMR scare. Is that right, Mr Hislop?

  • Yes. Yes, absolutely. We ran a mea culpa. Phil Hammond, who is our MD, who didn't write any of the MMR material and who I should have listened to earlier, wrote a piece saying, "Private Eye got this wrong and should have stopped running it long before it did."

  • I haven't been asked to put any questions to you directly by core participants, although I have considered other material that's been put to me and I've decided not to pursue it.

  • Anything else in the bundle? No.

  • There's nothing else I'd like to ask you about but there may be some further questions.

  • There's only one rather general question: the area which is the subject of the Inquiry is clearly one which you, in your capacity as the editor of Private Eye, have been interested in for very many years. Is there anything that has happened in the course of the Inquiry, or indeed in the course of what's been generated over the last six months, that causes you to have any new views or any insights that you would like to share as to what should come out of the Inquiry?

  • My overall feeling -- after about the first two weeks of the Inquiry, I thought, well, that might be it for the press. The level of distaste from the public for the whole business of journalism seemed to be ratcheting up. The celebrities got a very good coverage, as they would do, but got a very good chance to put their side of the case, and I was very worried that for X weeks there would be nothing to say except, you know: "Why don't you just close down the lot of them? They're all utterly revolting?" And I just wanted to put in a plea for journalism and for the concept of a free press, that it is important, it isn't always very pretty, and there are things that go wrong, but I really hope that this Inquiry doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  • Yes, well, I hope you'll feel that we've given titles the opportunity to celebrate what is good about each of the titles that have come to give evidence and tried to provide some context for everybody. That is part of the reason for considering it very important that you, who have had the Street of Shame, in other words have been prepared to talk about these stories in ways that others haven't always -- sometimes have, but haven't always -- was so important.

  • All right, thank you very much.

  • May we press on with the next witness. It's Mr Thomas Mockridge.