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

  • MR RUPERT LASCELLES PENNANT-REA (sworn).

  • First of all, Mr Pennant-Rea, if you would kindly give us your first name.

  • Rupert Lascelles Pennant-Rea.

  • I'm going to ask that the second of our files be provided to you from the pile to your right, because under tab 6A we will find located there your witness statement.

  • Mr Pennant-Rea, you provided from the independent national directors of Times Newspaper Holdings Limited a submission which I think was unsolicited and helpful and I'm grateful to you and your colleagues for doing so.

  • Thank you. I should emphasise this isn't my statement so much as on behalf of all of us.

  • Thank you. You're one of six independent national directors of the Times, but in terms of your own CV, you describe yourself succinctly as the chairman of the Economist group?

  • We can see the qualifications, and they're very distinguished, of your colleagues.

    Can I ask you about the circumstances in which the independent directors were set up. This was inextricably bound up, was it not, with undertakings given to the Secretary of State in 1981 when Mr Rupert Murdoch took over the Times. Is that so?

  • That's correct. The circumstances at the time were very much focused on editorial protection. The public view -- certainly the political view as expressed in the debate in the House of Commons -- was that if Rupert Murdoch got control of these two very important titles, there was a risk that their cherished independence would be lost, and the arrangement which was proposed by the government, accepted by Mr Murdoch, and which calmed the fears of many people in Parliament was the creation of independent national directors, whose specific role is there to protect the independence of the two editors.

  • Thank you. You have been an independent director since when, Mr Pennant-Rea?

  • So you can tell us about what's happened over the last six or seven years. In your view, have the independent directors been able to accord that measure of protection to the editors from proprietorial influence or not?

  • The specific powers, responsibilities, that we were allocated in 1981 highlight the approval of any candidate for the editorship. So we have had one instance since I've been a director, in the case of the Times, where the editor was leaving to go to New York and a new editor was appointed. The proposal for his appointment was put to us. We interviewed him, we spent a couple of hours satisfying ourselves that he was indeed the person who should take on the responsibility of editing the Times. So that was one very specific occasion.

    By the same token, if ever there was a proposal to dismiss an editor, that would have to be put to the national directors for their approval, or if they chose, they would say, "No, we don't think that those are reasonable grounds to dismiss them."

    Beyond that specific occasion, we've had a number of meetings, formal and informal, with the editors. We attend quarterly board meetings of Times newspapers Holdings Limited and we are constantly having to ask ourselves: have the editors got (a) the budget to do the job that they need, and (b) the culture of freedom that gives them the right to edit the newspapers in the way they want?

    I think the best test of all has been the coverage of the phone hacking scandal, and here I'm not just giving my own view but the views of a lot of people who we have asked. Do they think that the coverage in the Times and the Sunday Times of the phone hacking scandal has been comprehensive and objective and fearless? And people like Anthony Lester have, on the record, said they think it has been.

  • Can I just ask a number of follow-up questions. I think it's implicit from the first part of your answer that when consideration has been given to a new editor -- and that was Mr James Harding, in or about December 2007 -- the proposal was put to you by the proprietor; is that right?

  • It was put to us -- I mean, we heard about the proposed appointment from Les Hinton, who at the time was the chief executive of News International.

  • Was there a shortlist or was there one candidate who you would either accept or reject?

  • Did that cause you any concern, that you weren't being offered a choice? That presumably wasn't your expectation under the terms of the Secretary of State's undertaking?

  • It wasn't our expectation, but I should also perhaps add a more personal note here. I was editor of the Economist. The Economist has a system of trustees whose role is not dissimilar to that of the national directors of the Times and the Sunday Times, and in the case of my appointment, there was only one candidate put up by the board to the trustees for their consideration. I was interviewed by the trustees, who followed a very similar process. I found that perfectly satisfactory then and I found it satisfactory in the case of James Harding.

  • Thank you. Would you expect either of your editors to draw to your attention matters of concern -- this is outside matters of budgetary stringency -- by which I mean in particular excessive proprietorial influence?

  • I think I know the answer to this question: have either of them done so?

  • No, they haven't. But we ask them the question from time to time to make quite sure that on particular issues and more generally there is any sense in which they feel subjected to pressure, and that is a very important part of what we're trying to do.

  • You make it clear at page 3 -- on the internal numbering, 23515, you see your presence as the editorial equivalent of a nuclear weapon which you have the button of, on which you haven't been required ever to press.

  • Thank you. Further on in this page, you consider whether the Times model is or might be seen as an appropriate model elsewhere. You point to the particular circumstances which gave rise to the creation of independent national directors in 1981; is that right?

  • Yes. To that extent, of course, it's not a model, but the idea of trustees for particular titles, the sort that exist at the Guardian, at the Economist, I think that that could well be a model.

  • Can I ask you about one particular aspect of this, and this is (d) on page 23516, level with the lower hole punch, where you say -- and I paraphrase:

    "Financial constraints are already restricting the freedom of editors."

    I just wanted to explore with you why you say that.

  • Well, I think all editorial budgets are under some pressure, at the same time as the world is becoming a more interesting and complicated place, and if you asked any editor what their ideal configuration of their editorial staff and particularly of their overseas offices would be, they would probably give you an answer that added up to rather more than the budgets they are actually having to operate under.

  • And that is ever thus, I'm afraid.

  • The last page, two lines from the top:

    "Without wishing to exaggerate the importance of our role, we suspect that editors welcome protection against arbitrary pressure, whether that pressure comes from a powerful proprietor [well, that possibility you've already told us about], the commercial interests of advertisers, an overheated public, disgruntled colleagues or a knee-jerk government."

    I'm just wondering how, in practical terms, you're able to furnish any degree of protection to your editors from the last four factors you list there.

  • Well, in our case the answer is that's not our job, and I think it's quite important that we stick to what we were asked to do by the Secretary of State and I don't think anybody would welcome it if we were to extend or hope to -- try to extend our role. But I can see, in circumstances where you started from a different clean sheet of paper, how you could write the role of a trustee that would cover some of these points.

  • In relation to the Economist, can you just help us with that? The role of the trustees, do they cover these areas or not?

  • Well, they are there to ensure that the editor has complete independence over his recruitment policy, promotion policy and, above all then, what is put in the paper week after week. And the editor can go to the trustees on any point if he felt that there was some undue pressure being exercised on him, and not purely a proprietorial pressure. In that sense, they are a sort of sounding board, a comfort.

  • Thank you very much, Mr Pennant-Rea for your evidence. We've read the rest of your statement, of course. I just wanted to alight, as I have done, on a number of specific matters.

  • Thank you very much indeed.

  • We'll take just seven minutes.

  • (A short break)

  • Sir, the next witness is Susan Panuccio.