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

  • MR ANDREW WILLIAM STEVENSON MARR (affirmed).

  • Please sit down. First of all, could you state -- you already have, but could you state again your full name to the Inquiry, please?

  • Andrew William Stevenson Marr.

  • You should find behind tab 1 of the bundle in front of you your witness statement. My version is unsigned and undated. Could you, please, confirm that the contents of it are true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

  • And that it forms your formal evidence to this Inquiry?

  • Mr Marr, thank you very much for responding. I'm very conscious that you're entitled to say that at least in the recent past you work in a different medium responsible for different people, to different people. That's absolutely right and it's actually why you're here. Thank you.

  • I'd like to draw the Inquiry's attention to paragraph C of your introduction to the witness statement, where you make it clear that the views expressed in this statement are entirely your own and not those of the BBC.

  • That is absolutely right.

  • I'm going to start with a brief summary of your career history. If we look at your response to question 1, you explain that you do currently work for the BBC. You have spent the bulk of the last 25 years reporting or commentating on politics. You explain that you've been a political correspondent or editor at Westminster for the Scotsman, the Independent, the Economist, a political commentator for the Observer and the Express, political editor of the BBC from 2000 to 2005, and you host the Sunday morning Andrew Marr Show, which generally features prominent politicians being interviewed on current topics.

    You explain therefore that most of your contact with politicians has therefore been of a straightforward reporting nature rather than from any proprietorial or commercial angle?

  • Can I add this to your career history: you're the author of a book called "My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism" published in 2004.

    Have you seen a copy of that, sir?

  • I've seen it. I don't have it here.

  • I will refer to some sections, but I'll read them aloud and make sure you're provided with a copy.

  • In your book and in your witness statement, Mr Marr, you advance various arguments and express certain views which are of interest to this Inquiry. I'd like to start with an analysis of some of those articles. I'm going to start, please, with "My Trade", which includes a chapter within it entitled "The dirty art of political journalism", and it's at pages 117 onwards. Do you have a copy of it with you?

  • I have a copy of the relevant chapter.

  • I've given all my copies away.

  • But I'm sure it's still available, Mr Marr.

  • In all good second-hand book shops, sir.

  • We have a copy of the relevant extracts.

  • I'd be very grateful, thank you. It's not depriving you?

  • No, we have one to share.

  • Thank you. Forgive the breach of copyright, Mr Marr.

  • The first issue I'd like to touch on is the issue of separation between news and comment. At pages 143 onwards of "My Trade", you appear to endorse Mr Alastair Campbell's view that to a large extent news and comment has now become fused. If we look under the heading "Bent and twisted journalism" on page 143, do you have that?

  • There's a sentence which starts:

    "Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former spin doctor, argued in 2001 that because London was one of the world's most competitive media marketplaces in which there's frankly not that much news around most days, the commentators were taking over. The separation of news and comment has effectively gone in most newspapers. News is now largely comment and agenda in the press, and on TV and radio far more time is now given to mediated commentary by experts and far less to politicians."

    You point out that many journalists may be reluctant to listen to any analysis from Mr Campbell, but you agree nevertheless this is only a mild exaggeration of the situation.

    You go on to say that news and comment are separated, but loaded descriptions and aggressive campaigning style prose infects many news stories, and when Mr Campbell argues that the opinionating of news began in the tabloids and then migrated to the broadsheets, you take the view that he is absolutely right about that as well.

    You also say that this is something that's simply nothing new. If we look at your statement, I'm going to refer to the page numbers in the bottom right-hand side of each -- do you have those? The number should say 1299.

  • On the statement, no. Mine is unnumbered, I'm afraid.

  • All right. It will then be the response to question 2f.

  • For everyone who has a number, it's MOD and then 1299.

  • At the bottom of that page you explain that there's been a move away from strict news reporting to more campaigning or politically-edged reporting and you explain further down that paragraph:

    "... there has been a blurring between reporting and commentary, led by papers which like the Daily Mail have been the most successfully commercially."

    But it's not just limited to the Daily Mail. You explain that "papers on the centre-left like the Guardian and Independent try to rouse their readers too". Overall anyway you say that you would argue that "the plain-vanilla, straight-news model was a historical anomaly"?

  • And you simply say we may be reverting to type --

  • Is this view that you expressed in 2004 in "My Trade" that news and comment have now become fused a view that you still hold? You wrote that book some eight years ago.

  • Yes, a lot has changed since I wrote the book, but I think this part hasn't changed, if I can put it that way. If you look back at early newspapers, right up to sort of mid-Victorian times, you will find extremely aggressive, scabrous, sometimes insulting commentary and journalism all the way through them, and that is clearly partly what sold them.

    We then went through a long period where there was more and more emphasis on journalism becoming some kind of quasi profession, where the job was to give people what I've called plain-vanilla news and fact. When I came into the trade, that was still very clear. I started as a Parliamentary correspondent, literally taking down in shorthand what politicians were saying in the House of Commons and that would then be almost without any further comment put into a full page on the Scotsman newspaper every day. And every Scottish MP expected, if they said anything in the House of Commons of any significance, that they would read it the next day in the Scotsman.

    That world has gone. That was a particular kind of reporting, but I think if you look at newspapers in the late 1970, early 1980s, broadsheet newspapers, you will find page after page after page of completely dry factual reporting of what people have said and what has happened, and I think if you looked at the Telegraph's report of an event and the Guardian's report, you would find them remarkably similar, and I don't think that would happen -- that's quite the case now.

  • Now I think what's happened is the newspapers are selling themselves more and more on political -- their political views and rousing the emotion of the reader. Why would you pick up a newspaper when you can get all the facts, you can get what happened in Parliament, you can read official documents and so on online if you choose to? What is the so-called USP of the newspaper? What makes it different? It gets you somehow emotionally engaged and interested in the news, and the temptation therefore to salt and pepper the news more and more strongly has been irresistible.

  • Is it a good or a bad thing in your view?

  • I mourn for the old clear distinction between news and comment, but I'm very old fashioned in that, I'm sure, and I certainly think it's a lost cause and there's no going back.

  • What about paragraph 1(iii) of the Editors' Code of Practice? I appreciate that doesn't bite upon you any more.

  • "The press, while free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact."

  • An interesting but relatively easily evadable aspiration. For instance, I can report, if I was a reporter working for almost any newspaper, I can report on a court event or a Parliamentary event. The words I use, the words I report, will be accurate. The account of where it happened and what was said may be accurate. But the choice -- the way I balance that story and push that story will almost certainly be with an idea in my head about what these viewers -- these readers, rather, are going to want. The Independent and the Daily Express going to the same event may produce stories which are factually correct and well reported, but have very, very different emotional or political implications.

  • Do you think there should be a clearer distinction? I appreciate you say you think you're old-fashioned.

  • You think the position is now irreversible, but should there be a clearer distinction between the two? Is there anything that could be done to achieve that?

  • I fear this is a lost cause. I don't think much can be done. I, as a reader, as a consumer, I want to know what is factual, old-fashioned straight reporting. I want that, I like it, I value it. It's very expensive, a lot of it, particularly if you're talking about investigative journalism, but -- and it's much easier these days to pay a column to fill the space sometimes than to have teams of unruly reporters who may be spending beyond their budgets and so on, but I do regret that and I much enjoyed the days when you would turn to certain newspapers and get an absolutely plain-vanilla account with no whiff of political influence on it.

  • Some witnesses giving evidence to this Inquiry have actually come and said that there should be an absolutely clear distinction between the two. You're not one of those, from what you said?

  • I would recoil from seeing any outside body order newspaper editors about how to arrange their pages or staff their papers. I think that would be oppressive.

  • Don't worry about that, Mr Marr.

  • Moving on in "My Trade" to page 161, please, I want to ask you -- this is where you discuss whether or not certain political journalists were favoured because they work for a particular news organisation.

  • You are discussing here New Labour. If you look at the second substantive paragraph on that page, it starts "As trust crumbled ...", 161.

  • You're here discussing New Labour and in the beginning of that paragraph you discuss bullying of junior reporters, which isn't relevant, but about two-thirds of the way down the page you explain:

    "Political correspondents have a certain esprit de corps alongside their professional rivalry and the cynical way in which some were favoured because they worked for Rupert Murdoch while others were sneered at because they worked for Conrad Black disgusted many who worked for neither."

  • Is it your evidence to this Inquiry that New Labour may have favoured some political journalists because they worked for Rupert Murdoch or his newspapers?

  • Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that a decision was taken that it was very important to keep the Murdoch papers, so far as was possible -- it wasn't always possible -- on side and to have a close relationship with their leading journalists and their leading reporters. They were inside of the tent, if you like, as were some Labour friendly newspapers too, while papers like the Daily Telegraph were indeed kept at arm's length, made to feel unwelcome. From time to time their correspondents like George Owens would be mocked during lobby briefings. There was very much an attempt, I felt, to divide this core -- this group of journalists into the favoured ones, the ones who were sort of part of the project, almost, and the ones who were off in the wilderness.

  • You pick up on this in your statement. It's in response to question 2b(iv).

  • And for those who have numbers in the bottom right-hand corner, it's 1298. Under the heading "Selectivity and discrimination -- as between titles on the one hand, and as between political parties on the other", do you see that?

  • You explain:

    "There is always a hierarchy of media contacts. For a Conservative minister, contacts at the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, the Spectator ..." et cetera, are particularly valuable, and you explain it's valuable to the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Then you say this:

    "Throughout the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments, the Murdoch stable was always perceived by its rivals to have a privileged position."

  • I think you have explained what the privileged position was. Why do you think this was?

  • I think it was because News International at its height had a very, very powerful position in the television world as well as the newspaper world. They had not only the traditionally most respected broadsheet newspaper -- it's not a broadsheet any more -- the Times; they had the huge-selling Sun and then they were doing the same thing in the Sunday market as well with the News of the World and the Sunday Times. That was an enormously powerful position to hold.

    Therefore, particularly for a Labour government or a New Labour government who felt that they would sort of automatically get the Mirror, the Guardian and some of the time the Independent, to have all of those papers as well didn't give you quite the royal flush but it gave you a very, very large segment of the media, and so that, I'm sure, from the Labour point of view was something well worth doing, and if that meant ensuring that from time to time the political editors of some of those papers were getting exciting exclusives, were being told what was really going on ahead of other papers -- a price well worth paying.

  • Do you think it's because News International were prepared to change allegiance, whereas the Mirror was never going to change allegiance and the Telegraph was never going to change allegiance?

  • I certainly think the fact that they had come across was absolutely crucial. There would have been no point in New Labour being helpful if News International were hostile. I have no evidence that there was a sort of darker or dirtier deal being done than the fact --

  • Let's not get into deals, implied or express. That becomes difficult. But just an understanding in the sense that -- an appreciation of what's going on rather than anything else.

  • Yes, absolutely. I mean, I felt that -- from the outside, it felt quite cold and chilly sometimes not to be part of that group, and I feel that what happened is that Rupert Murdoch decided he was going to support Tony Blair when Tony Blair looked like being a winner, and he has a propensity to support winners, and from the government's point of view, having that great swathe, as I say, of media influence onside was extremely helpful.

  • You also say in your statement in the bottom paragraph on that page that this was also maybe because Mr Murdoch was ready to use papers such as the Sun to "intervene aggressively". What do you mean by that?

  • If we take a specific issue, because it's what -- we often talk in generalities. I vividly remember when I was editing the Independent, a pro-European newspaper, and Mr Blair would be constantly saying how pro-European he was, he had a problem with the Sun because the Sun was vehemently sceptic, generally on Europe but particularly on the subject of the euro. One might say they were thoroughly vindicated in that. Nonetheless, what happened was that there was clearly a lot of work going on about how to reconcile a pro-European Prime Minister with a Eurosceptical newspaper, and so Tony Blair wrote an article saying -- I think it was on St George's Day in the Sun saying that he was determined to slay the dragon of Eurofederalism and so on. I can remember phoning up in an irate state Alastair Campbell and saying what's going on and being laughed at: for goodness sake, you know exactly what's going on.

    The fact that these papers did hold strong views, every right to, meant that New Labour had to be constantly looking at what they were saying and finding ways to adjust.

  • You say this was throughout the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments, the Murdoch stable was always perceived by its rivals to have a privileged position. Does that mean that since the end of the Blair era the position has changed, or would you say that that has continued?

  • I think the country has been looking agog at some of the evidence to this Inquiry. If that's an answer, I don't know. Clearly, if parties and meetings and so on are evidence of a continued close relationship, if the position of people like Mr Coulson is evidence of a continued relationship, then that evidence is out there in the public domain.

  • I think the question was really whether they continued to have a privileged position?

  • A privileged position? Difficult, in fact impossible for me to say. I'm now out of the lobby and Parliamentary reporting game, so I don't know quite what's been going on.

  • Still on "My Trade", you consider the relationship between proprietors and journalists at pages 240 onwards and you say this, I'll just quote you one line. You say:

    "Editors are creatures of the proprietors and that defines the relationship before anything else."

  • I think that's true. I think that's true of all editors.

  • Do you continue to hold that view?

  • Editors can stand against proprietors and can be independent-minded, but I think no editor is unaware of the proprietor's view, and no editor who irritates and disappoints a proprietor for very long will carry on being an editor for very long. I'm not making a point about the Murdoch empire so-called in particular, I think this is a general thing.

    I had in my brief time in -- brief and inglorious time as an editor an enormously forgiving, relaxed and arm's length proprietor in Tony O'Reilly, but even then I was aware of what he thought.

  • Did that affect your decisions or the stories that you put in the paper?

  • I think luckily, except for the matter of Irish rugby, we thought alike so it didn't -- and I think to be fair of course proprietors are going to choose editors whose opinions are likely to chime with their own. Very few proprietors, who are losing, many of them, a great deal of money, in addition to the loss of money are going to want to see a paper coming out with issues they disagree with day by day.

    One of the few examples actually, I know he's a discredited figure in many ways these days, but Conrad Black, when he was editing the Daily Telegraph, rather than sort of arm-twisting his editors behind the scenes or shouting at them on the phone, wrote long letters to his own newspapers expressing his contempt and anger about the way that they'd reported something. That seemed to me to be a much healthier way of doing it.

  • I think you wanted to say a word or two about the difference between journalists and their relationships with politicians and proprietors and their relationships with politicians.

  • Well, I have noticed that of course the Inquiry is very interested in the social web of relationships between journalists, some of whom, not all of them, but some of whom have quite a lot of influence, and politicians, and how that has developed. I just wanted to say that I feel there is an absolutely crucial distinction between proprietors, with or without editors at the time, getting together with politicians, where there is some sort of suspicion that there is regulatory or other discussions to be had on the one hand, and the day-to-day job of story-getting political journalists having contacts with politicians on the other hand.

    If you come into -- and I'm sure it's the same now as it was when I went there -- if you come into the House of Commons or the Parliamentary reporting gallery and you're told that your job is to get stories that nobody else has got, one of the things you absolutely have to have is decent contacts with politicians. I had to be able to phone up at least two people who would take my phone call and tell me what had happened in Cabinet when I was a senior political reporter. Many of the stories that I got I couldn't possibly have had if I didn't have a sort of certain element of a trusting relationship with politicians who were prepared to talk to me, and therefore I hope it's understood that those kind of relationships may be different in kind from some of the sort of partying between proprietors and ministers.

  • I understand the point you're making entirely, Mr Marr. And I wouldn't want the interest in the social web, as you describe it, of relationships to be misunderstood. There's nothing prurient about my concern.

  • And I'm very keen to make that clear. What I am interested in, because the terms of reference require me to consider it, is the contact and conduct of each in relation to the other --

  • -- because of the way in which it might impact on the conduct -- culture, practice and ethics of the press.

  • It's really only that that I am concerned with, but in the same way that I would not want to discourage journalists from speaking to neighbourhood police officers about what's going on in their locality and learning about crime, so nothing that I am doing is intended to prevent the very important discourse that is essential between those in politics and those in journalism, the former to get their message across and the latter to challenge them and then to put it across. I wouldn't want that to be misunderstood at all. I hope it isn't.

  • That leads us neatly on to the power of political journalists, of course.

  • At page 186 onwards of your book, you explicitly address the question of whether political journalists have in fact now acquired too much power and you conclude that they have. Let me find the section.

  • You note that there's now been a shift and that it used to be that journalists would call up politicians and try and court them, but now you say the politicians call them up and invite them to lunch or to parties and not the other way around. Do you still -- actually, before I ask the question, if you turn over to page 188, you conclude this:

    "We have become too powerful, too much the interpreters, using our talents as communicators to crowd them out. On paper we mock them more than ever before and report them less than ever before. On television and radio, we commentators are edging them out ever more carelessly."

    Do you still hold that view now?

  • I ask you simply because the book was written some time ago.

  • It was written nine years ago and that certainly felt to be the case then. There was -- it was not just in this country. There was an American commentator at that time who said, "We used to hang around outside politicians' houses while they dined, and then we dined with them and now we dine on them". I think you could see something of the same happening here, but I do think this is one of the areas perhaps where there is good news. I think that interestingly, partly as a result of the great flushing out and the crisis caused by the expenses scandal, political authority in the House of Commons is higher than it was when I wrote this book, and I think that for all the commercial reasons and the arrival of the Internet and many other factors, I think the status of even the leading journalists is a bit lower. So this is an area where I think there has been a sort of natural correction of the system, as it were.

  • "On paper we mock them more than ever before and report them less than ever before."

    Is there still an element of that?

  • There is an element of truth on that still, that's absolutely right. We don't have those pages and pages of Parliamentary report and we do jump very, very fast to analysis and comment, almost before we've laid out the facts of the case, sometimes.

  • On the issue of whether political journalists do go too far, that leads me on to the questions that you famously put to Gordon Brown when he was Prime Minister in 2009. If you look behind tab 4, you'll find all the relevant articles about that.

  • In a nutshell, for those who don't remember that particular occasion, in September 2009, in a live TV interview broadcast from the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, you asked Gordon Brown a number of questions about his medical history. The exact exchange is reported on the second and third pages of the Guardian news article there. Do you see that?

  • First of all, you preface it by referring to the fact that an American President would need to disclose his full medical history and then you say this:

    "Let me ask you something else everybody has been talking about, a lot of people. A lot of people use prescription pain killers and pills to help them get through. Are you one of those?"

    He says:

    "No. I think this is the sort of questioning that is --"

    Then he's interrupted. You say:

    "It's a fair question, I think."

    And then he says -- he finishes his sentence:

    "-- is all to often entering the lexicon of British politics."

    He then discusses the fact that he's had serious problems with his eyesight. You refer back to the first question about prescription painkillers and pills by saying, "What about my other question?" and he says "I've answered your other question" and then goes on to discuss again the problems with his eyesight.

    This line of questioning drew some serious criticism at the time.

  • I should make absolutely clear that both during the interview, as I've read out, and thereafter, Mr Brown denied that he did take prescription drugs or pills in this way.

    The comments about this at the time were essentially that this was a form of mockery, as you have described in your book, that it was repeating claims that had been made initially on a sort of right wing blog and that it tested the limits of legitimate inquiry. Is this, Mr Marr, in your view an example of political journalists going too far, having too much power, being able to ask questions which simply go too far?

  • It's not a moment in my career that I look back on with enormous enthusiasm or pride. However, I would like to say a little bit about the context in which this question was asked.

  • First of all, I hadn't read any blogs about it or seen anything on the Internet about it, and was barely on the Internet in those days. I had seen references to this in, I think, two newspapers. One of them was the Independent, and I suspect another one was the Telegraph. And in the party conference bubble, people were talking about it quite a lot, so I discussed it with my editor, Barney Jones.

    There were two other parts to this which I think are relevant. I mentioned the American presidency questions because I'd just interviewed David Owen, Lord Owen, who produced a book arguing very eloquently that we had a right to know much more about the medical history of our leading political figures than we do at the moment and he gave lots of examples ranging right from the sort of post-war years to very recent ones where people had had things wrong with them.

    But the third and probably most important factor was that there were a huge number of stories coming out of Number 10, Number 11 at the time, about intemperate behaviour, if I can put it like that, things being smashed, enormous arguments and so on, and in the context of all of that, I thought a single question, without a follow-up, was reasonable. Plenty of other people took another view. Gordon Brown himself said in the course of that exchange, "You might be right to ask them", that's these sort of questions, and after the interview he seemed perfectly relaxed and relatively cheerful.

    So I hadn't -- I didn't come away from that interview feeling that I had sort of broken a terrible taboo. It was only an hour or two later that it appeared that I had.

  • I think my question was: was it going too far? I appreciate you've set out the context, but with the benefit of hindsight, having looked back it at now --

  • With the benefit of hindsight would I ask the question again? No, I wouldn't.

  • Mainly because I felt we had got some very, very good, important, useful mainstream political information or stories out of that interview. Mr Brown had made some big concessions on his handling of the economy and he'd made some very serious-sounding threats about bankers' bonuses and I had thought and assumed that those were the headlines that were going on come out of the interview, and I greatly regret the fact that it was all about the pills question, so I felt I'd lost an opportunity. It wasn't worth it, if I can put it that way.

  • So when you say that you wouldn't have asked the question it's not because it was inappropriate?

  • My initial question was whether this was an example of political journalists having too much power and going too far. You would say in this context --

  • Pushing at the edges but I think it was legitimate under the circumstances.

  • You say that information didn't come from a blog, you'd read it in various newspapers. While on the issue of blogs, can we look at the articles behind tab 3 of the bundle, and your comments made about bloggers.

    The first article is an article from the Guardian, 11 October 2010. And it reports you as dismissing bloggers as "inadequate, pimpled and single" and citizen journalism as "the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night".

    There are also a number of quotes in that article from Nick Robinson, who previously had criticised the tone and quality of online debate.

    Let me ask you this. Is that comment about bloggers being "inadequate, pimpled and single" and the comments about citizen journalism, is this a comment about the tone and quality of some of the online debate, or is it a more fundamental criticism of bloggers as being detrimental to the good name of journalism?

  • I should say first of all it's partly a symptom of my deadly weakness for a vivid phrase. It was a comment really aimed at the enormous amount of anger and vituperation that seemed to me to be swilling around parts of the Internet, most of it anonymous. I was probably a bit out of date even if I was saying that. Now, you know, you look around and a lot of the most influential highly respected political commentators aren't newspaper journalists, actually, they are bloggers. I'm thinking of people like Tim Montgomery on Conservativehome or Mr Pack on the Liberal website or there's plenty more on the Labour side, and they have become a very, very important, very influential part of the process.

    So I wouldn't want to say -- I don't know how many of them are pimpled or inadequate or single, but I wouldn't really want to go for them in that way. I'm more, I think in today's terms, talking about people who are posting, that is anonymously posting comments outside politics. It's often called trolling, I'm not sure what the phrase is, but I think the world has moved on since I said that.

  • You mean the people who post comments on other people's --

  • Yes. I think, if I may say, the crucial thing is anonymity. You know, in newspapers, if you write an angry letter to a newspaper, you have to give your name and address, and rightly so, and I think the fact that so much of the web is anonymous has encouraged an extreme form of vituperative comment which I deprecate.

  • Let me ask you now to turn back to your statement and your response to question 9, please. For those of us who have page numbers it's page 1303 in the bottom right-hand corner. You're being asked here about what influence the media have on the content or timing of the formulation of a party's or a government's media policies and if we look at the bottom of the paragraph which contains your answer, you say this:

    "I have always believed privacy law is something for Parliament to take a clear stand on."

    First of all, let me just ask you: does this simply mean that you consider it better for Parliament to legislate or not legislate on such a topic than for the courts and judges to develop the law themselves; is that essentially what you're saying?

  • Yes. A Parliamentary decision, whatever it might be, I'm a sort of Parliamentary extremist in that sense. I think it's -- you know, on a matter which is so difficult and there's so much that is sensitive and argued about, Parliament is the proper place for a decision and any discussion.

  • You probably heard Mr Straw -- you may not have done -- explain that actually that's precisely what they in reality did when they passed the Human Rights Act. They were conscious of the consequences and, as it were, to try and define the boundaries felt, for good reason or bad, and it's absolutely not for me to say which that is, that the judges would be the best place to fill in the gaps.

  • I think -- I do understand that, sir, and I think many people would say that given what has happened and given how controversial this whole area of privacy law has been, nonetheless -- and despite the fact that there was a discussion during the legislation, the human rights legislation -- it would be a good thing for Parliament to go back and look at it again, and of course there has been a Parliamentary inquiry of both houses on this subject as well.

  • One of the most controversial areas has been the issue of superinjunctions.

  • It's a matter of public record that you in 2008 secured a superinjunction. That was revealed by you in April 2011, as I understand it. We have no interest in the facts of that. Just in case there's anyone who isn't entirely familiar with what a superinjunction is, someone who may have not read a newspaper in the last few years, it's obviously an injunction which not only prohibits the media from reporting the facts of a story or the people involved, but also prohibits any reporting of the very fact that the injunction has been obtained.

  • And that's the type of injunction you obtained in 2008?

  • You've spoken publicly about your reasons for wanting to obtain the injunction and that's fine. As I say, we don't want to know about the facts of that. But what I want to understand is, as someone who felt the need to resort to the courts in this way, and one of the facts that's in the public domain is that a child was involved, why did you take the decision to go to the courts? The PCC has a code, which in theory at least should protect you and any minor child from publishing stories of this nature. Why did you take the decision that you did?

  • I think, putting to one side whether it was the right decision to take or not, I think very few journalists in any position would go themselves to the PCC if they were looking for swift redress or help, frankly. I think there is a perception with a great deal of legitimacy that the PCC simply isn't strong enough, isn't fast enough, isn't powerful enough and isn't going to give the kind of redress or protection that you'd want.

  • Why did you take that view?

  • Because I'd looked at the operation of the PCC over many years, as an editor, as a journalist and all the rest of it. Though it's had no doubt many, many fine chairmen, it's not exactly the Waffen-SS. It's not something that most newspapers are much frightened of.

  • We're getting back into your phrases again, Mr Marr.

  • Sorry, sorry, no more phrases.

  • I don't mind them, but because you're making a very serious point, and it's a very important point, I wouldn't want it to be lost in the language. That's not a criticism, but you understand the point I'm making.

  • As I say, you may be someone who holds strong views about whether or not the courts should be developing the law of privacy, you may or may not hold views about whether superinjunctions are a good or bad thing, but necessarily you still made the decision to go to the courts in this way.

  • Did you feel that you had any alternative to doing it?

  • I could have not gone to the courts and let the story come out. That was the obvious alternative. For various reasons at the time I thought it was worth going the other way. As I understand it, and I may be wrong about this, the super bit of the superinjunction was a reaction entirely to so-called jigsaw identification where X has got the injunction and here's a picture of X and Y and Z and the reader can put two and two together instantly and in those circumstances it was felt in the Family Division that there was no effective right of privacy or it was crumbling almost immediately and that was why it was created, but certainly this was intended to damp things down, and it felt more like flaring them up, which was why in the end it was right to get rid of it.

  • You might have read -- Mr Flitcroft gave evidence to me last year on the same general subject.

  • One of the publications which challenged the injunction was Private Eye, of course, who don't sign up to the PCC. Was that a factor that influenced your decision in going to court rather than going down the route of the PCC?

  • No. Private Eye came to this much later, and I had felt, clearly wrongly, that I had been as helpful as I possibly could to them, but not helpful enough.

  • I turn back to your response to question 9, witness statement page 1303. You say this at the end of the paragraph:

    "Public funding of defamation and privacy cases should be limited to a very few particularly serious examples where claimants are effectively penniless."

    Why do you take that view, Mr Marr?

  • Because I think that if it was -- if defamation and indeed privacy cases became a way of -- an easy way of redress for very large numbers of people, you would get large, large numbers of people piling in, you would get legals piling in and all the rest it, and it just seems to me in a time of relative austerity that the public would not want that to be a large drain on public resources.

  • Doesn't it just mean that it becomes the premise of the very rich?

  • Well, it depends what happens to these laws and how they're changed.

  • So you agree with the concept that there should be some mechanism that is fast, reliable, cheap?

  • Do you have any ideas in that?

  • Sir, I think it's unfortunately my job at the BBC to criticise the Inquiry for whatever ideas it comes up with rather than offer my own.

  • Yes. I think I'll note that answer, thank you.

  • Two final subject matters I want to ask you about, Mr Marr. The first is contacts again. We touched on this briefly. If you look at your response to question 2(b) in your statement, you touched on this earlier. You were saying that developing a relationship with politicians is important as a journalist, it requires some social interaction. Previously, you say that a lot of socialising went on.

  • It's page 1297, for those who have the page, and it's the first paragraph in response to question 2b. You see that?

  • Okay, good. You say getting stories requires journalist to foster a personal relationship and you say that traditionally the relationship develops through private lunches, drinks and occasion weekend visits. In the next paragraph you say that that was less so by the 1980s but still happened. Then go on to say that in the 1990s you visited politicians' homes on only perhaps eight or nine occasions and now you're not a personal friend of any of them.

  • Is that a personal, a conscious decision that you have made?

  • No, and I mean I'm friendly with politicians, and many politicians I like and some I admire, but for me, contacts with politicians were really something that was part of my professional life. It was never easy because the time would often come when you had to in effect betray that relationship because you wrote something that was disobliging about the politicians that you'd had many, many lunches with and whose children's names you knew and all the rest of it and that would be difficult, but it seemed to me to be an essential moment when both sides understood that their professional duties were different.

    It's more that, you know, things have drifted on. I now interview politicians, hopefully asking them questions that the public would want to ask, and therefore there's no need to be, in my view, lunching or wining or dining as well.

  • You explain over the page that more socialising goes on than once did but now of course there's greater transparency. Mr Cameron, you say, is expected to reveal guest lists for meetings and so on.

  • And you say:

    "Although it makes it harder for the political recorders to get deep insights, I think this change is to be welcomed. If the public wants to know about subterranean business contacts with politicians or lobby groups they ought to know about journalistic meetings too."

    Now, is that the answer, greater transparency? Is there anything else that you would suggest?

  • I don't think there is -- I should emphasise that I perhaps didn't put that as well as I might have done. I'm really talking here about meetings between journalists and, for instance, the Prime Minister or the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think to try and create a sort of general record of all contacts between journalists and politicians would be excessive, wouldn't work.

    As I say, if you try and get them to write down all their lunches, then journalists would just have coffee with them and eventually they'll end up walking in the park together. These kind of contacts will always be made. I just think it would be impractical to have yet another great list of every journalist who's having coffee or sharing a chocolate bar or a glass of wine with every politician.

    99 per cent of the time the journalists and the politicians both understand the nature of the relationship and their own role in it, and most of the time I think the public is served by these kind of contacts because of the stories that would come out, that wouldn't otherwise come out.

  • Where do you draw the line, Mr Marr? What should be logged, what should be recorded?

  • Well, I think -- I would have thought visits to the official residence of the Prime Minister, probably the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dorneywood and the Foreign Secretary, that would be reasonable. I think the public has the right to know who is being entertained perhaps over a weekend at those great and favoured houses. I think the guest lists for dinners at Number 10, Number 11, I think that's reasonable. I wouldn't push it a great deal further than that.

  • Not further than that?

  • And not for other of the major offices of state?

  • It's not a terribly logical answer, I agree, sir, but I think once you start to push it down -- we see this in other areas too -- it quite quickly becomes a sort of general rule. If the minister -- if the Secretary of State has to have a lunch logged with him, what about the Minister of State? Will the Secretary of State simply send his political adviser? Should the political adviser's lunch be logged?

  • It depends whether somebody wants to see the spirit of what is intended and follow it, or simply find a way of getting around it, doesn't it?

  • Yes, it does, but I think in both cases, once you start a general assumption that leading politicians must have every contact with a journalist logged, recorded and published, then very swiftly it won't be leading politicians, it will be the next layer down and the layer down after that.

  • I see the problem, and of course it's not really necessarily every contact. I've said to a number of people, people are entitled to be friendly with whomsoever they wish. It's a question of the opportunity to exert influence which is not transparent to the world at large, I think.

  • I think that's right, but I think in the end, and I'm talking about the world of newspapers, which is in retreat at the moment, and things will feel very different, I think, in the online world that's coming, but in the world of newspapers, in the end the journalist very often wrote the column, wrote the commentary, wrote the news story. If the news story is untrue or inaccurate, they'd be found out, and if the commentary is biased and felt to be tilted towards one politician again and again and again, they'll certainly be found out.

    Certainly when I was a working journalist I knew pretty much or had a strong guess, reading what colleagues were writing in other newspapers, who they'd been wining and dining with, and I didn't feel -- people didn't get away with it, put it that way. People didn't sort of produce wonderful propaganda on behalf of a minister for very long before they were mocked and laughed at.

  • It's not so much producing propaganda for the minister. It's proprietors or editors seeking to or potentially seeking to identify causes without there being any Faustian pact, if I use the expression that's been much deployed.

  • Without there necessarily being anything explicit at all, but the sort of awareness of which you spoke when you were talking about what had obviously been a subterranean arrangement for the publication of an article on Europe in the Sun, that sort of point. I'm sure it will carry on, because politicians want to get their message across.

  • It's a question of what should be open and what should be transparent about that sort of thing.

  • Yes, yes. I think I come back to my original argument that in my view there ought to be a clear distinction made between proprietors and editors on the one hand and working day-to-day journalists who I'd be more concerned with on the other hand who ought to be allowed to make the contacts they need to get the stories.

  • I think I've said I understand that and agree with it.

  • Yes. If I can give an example, without individual contacts, and probably a bit of wining and dining and drinking and so on, between political journalists and politicians, I don't think the public would have known about the difficulties in the Blair/Brown relationship for years and years and years, and I think that would have been a significant absence in the public debate. That was a really important story and it came out because politicians were talking privately to journalists.

  • I understand, but of course in the same way that I agree with your distinction with proprietors and editors on the one hand and journalists on the other, of course one has to then guard against the editor saying, "Well, I can't go and push this policy, therefore you, who as it were fall under the radar, do", but there has to be an understanding on every side about what's appropriate, I suppose.

  • Indeed, sir. In the end, one can't legislate for a perfect world in this and the sense of sort of self-respect of politicians on the one hand and quite strong internal cultures in newspapers on the other hand, where they -- you know, they really care about their relationship of trust with their readers and so on, that is the best protection.

    I knew many, many very eminent political journalists who spent a great deal of time not just having a meal with a politician but endless games of golf or going on skiing trips and all the rest of it, and I am absolutely sure, in the case that I'm thinking about, that these people didn't hold back at all when it came to the story that was going to be unpleasant for the reputation of the person they'd been swinging the golf club with. You know, propinquity, if that's the word, and corruption, I think, don't always go side by side.

  • Of course, I'm thinking of rather less than corruption.

  • The final area I'd like to touch on is the influence of the media on political appointments. Question 11, you were asked what influence the media had on public and political appointments, including the tenure and termination of those appointments, and you were asked to give examples. You say this:

    "As to political and public appointments, newspapers certainly campaign against individuals, either because -- as with the recent Metropolitan Police battles -- they have taken one side against another in a factional fight, or because they have taken against an individual. A minister might have offended the editor, or ridiculed the paper, or rubbished a policy it favours ... or simply look a little vulnerable. Much of the campaigning against individuals is in the nature of a speculative hunting trip, when it is not clear whether someone is politically badly wounded or not, and papers compete to see who can bring him or her down. Once the pack groups and attacks day after day, the sheer pressure can destroy careers which would otherwise survive. This is perhaps unedifying and is certainly cruel, but greatly entertains the public ... or I suspect it does. Parliamentary performances no longer destroy careers and the party machines are slickly efficient so it might be argued that some aggressive system of testing is needed."

    Strong words.

  • First of all, in your view, is this negative coverage that someone, an individual might face actually more damaging or more important than, say, positive coverage -- I mean, as a minister, imagine you're a minister who is facing negative coverage, is that more damaging than, say -- I'm phrasing this badly. I'll start again. We've heard a lot of evidence at this Inquiry of the impact of positive coverage.

  • Support by a particular newspaper.

  • And we've heard a bit about negative coverage which particular individuals may have or a particular party may have in a particular newspaper. What would a party rather have?

  • That's -- that is hard for me to answer. I think probably the absence of the negative coverage. It is a brutal thing when a minister is being assailed by the pack, and it goes on day after day and it's relentless.

    I do think there is a case -- that is when ministers are really tested. That's when their stamina is tested, what they're made of is tested. You could argue that part of the consequence of that is the obsessive interest in headlines, media management, PR and all the rest of it that has characterised politics over the last 20 years. In other words, the fire storms have been so hot that ministers have been pushed away from thinking long-term or more deeply about policy and too much into thinking about what's going to happen on the front page of X or Y newspaper tomorrow.

  • So is it a healthy thing? Despite being unedifying and cruel, is it something which --

  • It's purging. It's purging. Well, it's difficult to tell. Every case it different, isn't it? There have been cases of ministers who perhaps have been unfairly hounded out of a particular job simply because the media noise was too much and it just became -- they became exhausted, the Prime Minister became exhausted. On the other hand, there are some equally interesting cases where a minister has clung on and fought on and it's been a long campaign against them and it turns out that the minister has done something wrong and should have gone.

    My point there is the testing, certainly at the time I was writing -- I'm less well-informed now -- wasn't so great in the House of Commons chamber as it might have been and perhaps this was a way of compensating for that.

  • Mr Marr, those are my questions. I don't know if the judge has some.

  • I have a slightly different topic to raise with you. It's one of the reasons that I was particularly interested to hear your view. Most of your professional life you've worked in print journalism, and the last years for the BBC, which is regulated very differently to the way in which print journalism is regulated. You've offered your views about the PCC, and all your views I recognise and underline are personal, not BBC's views.

  • But Ofcom provides a very different regime of regulation, and I appreciate that it requires impartiality for historical reasons to do with broadband width, I understand all that.

  • But you will have heard a number of people during the course of this Inquiry speak about the vista of regulation that is not entirely controlled by the press with absolutely horror, as if it will lead to some state intervention of a kind which is not appropriate for our society or indeed any society.

  • I would like you to share with me your experience of the two regimes in this sense. What I want to know, and please expound to such extent as you feel able to, is whether you have felt unable or less able to hold the powerful to account because you are working under an Ofcom or a BBC regime than you did feel able when you were responsible to the PCC, either as a journalist or later as an editor. I hope you don't feel that's an unfair question.

  • I think it's a devastatingly good question, if I may say so, and I'm going to struggle to answer it, but let me try.

    First of all, when it comes to my experience as a BBC journalist, I have to say that it's the BBC code of conduct and editorial code that weighs on me far more than anything else. And I've barely been aware of Ofcom, Ofcom is somewhere out there, because the BBC code is, for someone from a newspaper background, so stringent and so carefully monitored. If I do or say something inappropriate or whatever, it's the BBC that come down on me fast and heavily, not Ofcom. We don't get to the Ofcom stage, by and large.

  • Because it's not necessary, the BBC have done it?

  • The BBC have done it. I actually suspect the same is true of the other broadcasters as well, I don't know.

    Coming from a newspaper background into this BBC world felt very strange to start with, because, really, every phrase that you use, every sentence, exactly how long you talk to people for, all of that is being watched --

  • That's the impartiality bit.

  • It is, yes, the impartiality bit. And of course, you know, other requirements such as you must have more than one absolutely key source before you break a story, which I had difficulty with, because as a newspaper journalist, if I had a really good source, if I had the Home Secretary talking off the record, I would go with that, and the sense of having to go around and find another source wouldn't have -- so it was an odd transition into the world of broadcasting.

    In terms of holding the powerful to account, the worlds are so different. The only way that I could claim to do that either as political editor -- well, as political editor the way of doing that was by breaking stories, and I didn't feel that I was -- it was harder for me to break stories on the BBC, maybe because I got more access, actually, because you're slightly higher up the food chain as a political editor, you meet more people, you do get the chance to break stories. And now holding power to account just means asking people questions.

    What I would say is I think that the two ecologies are so different. If one took a Ofcom-style regulatory system and put it on top of the press at this stage, you would be introducing something that they'd never experienced before and would feel, I suspect, more oppressive and difficult than -- broadcasters have grown up in a different world.

    The other thing I'd say is that it seems to me that newspapers are in a very, very parlous state in this country now. Most of them are hollowed out, they are very short of money, they're losing large amounts of money, and none of them yet has found a plausible answer to the challenges, revenue brought by the Internet. A new system of regulation placed on top of that, you know, might be like taking away the feeding tube right at the end, or the oxygen mask.

    So those would be my worries.

  • I wasn't thinking of putting a new regime on top. I would simply be contemplating a structure whereby independent regulation could flourish and allow, for example, the sort of speedy, easy, fair, cheap access to a remedy which is no longer -- or is not available, as you yourself have found.

  • Indeed, indeed. It seems to me that the question there is twofold. The buy-in from the editors and the journalists who are going to be part of it, and their understanding of that, of the new regime. In other words, I think every newspaper culture is different, and these tend to be quite hierarchical organisations and that's how they work, and you need them to be plugged into any system, and enthusiastically and willingly so.

    But the bigger problem, it seems to me, is what is a newspaper or what is a media organisation? Because, as I said earlier on, some of the blogging sites, Conservativehome is an obvious example, are now as influential as any newspaper and that's going to become more and more so. I would have thought that any system of redress would have to include those alongside newspapers or it simply -- you know, it would be out of time.

  • I think you are absolutely right. Let me deal with your two points in turn and just investigate them for another couple of moments with you if you're happy to do so.

  • In relation to buy-in, of course, if I'm going to recommend any system, it has to be a system that everybody has to buy into.

  • It will only have a chance of working if it works for the press, it works for the public as well.

  • And it's very difficult to say, well, the press can have a trump card: we don't like this, that's the end. It requires the press to be prepared to engage in the process. Now, of course they are, in the course of the Inquiry, and indeed some editors have come along and said, "We have to have things different", but then of course what they're prepared to accept should be different is itself debatable. But there can't be a trump, otherwise --

  • -- that just won't work.

    Could you visualise, using your experience, admittedly from years ago, but at the time of Princess Diana and all the other calamities that befell the press, and you lived through Calcutt --

  • -- and all those attempts that put in a structure as not impacting adversely on the freedom of the press, if it did no more than that?

  • If it did no more than that, I would say that, as I say, I think newspapers are in a very, very weak state at the moment, most of them, and the thing that most editors fear above all is having to put a timely and proportionate apology into a newspaper. I think for many newspapers that is the form of sanction that is most painful to contemplate, rather than money or anything like that.

    I mean I am, perhaps like the Inquiry, struggling to understand exactly what such a system might actually look like and how it might work, and I accept that there is a gap between state control of the press on the one hand and free-for-all or the current system on the other, and --

  • I'm pleased you put those two phrases together.

  • Yes. Indeed. Indeed. But there is a gap. It's a difficult gap.

  • And it's a new place to build something.

  • All right. The second point you make about the Internet and blogging I entirely accept, and I'd be grateful for your view as to whether a system could work, if you have one to express, that engaged not merely the mechanism through which the news was disseminated, whether, as I think Mr Lebedev described it, dead wood, or through the ether, but those who are in the course of a trade or business of the dissemination of news, which might, of course, encapsulate some of the other blogs to which you refer.

  • I think just to complicate things further, if I may, I think what the world of the influential political blogger has done is introduced a new player into the system who isn't the full-time professional journalist with a press card working at Westminster under an editor and isn't a politician, but is somewhere between the two. A lot of these people are card carrying party members. They know their part of the system well. They have particularly strong contacts with their side. And therefore you can't treat them as old-fashioned journalists under old-fashioned journalistic codes, nor are they -- they're a new thing, and they're an influential new thing. I mean, even a lot of the papers are picking people up and using them as commentators now.

    I think the old distinction between a political player and would-be professional journalist is breaking down, and any system which is built upon the old system will quickly look out of date as well.

    Of course, the successful blogs survive by advertising, by and large, just like many newspapers, so there is -- they're not so far away as they might at first appear, and they're becoming closer.

  • That's why I talked about trade or business. I can see an enormous spectrum. On the one hand there is the text that you might send a friend, making some comment. The next layer up might be a social conversation or then you can move up to Twitter, and you have Facebook and all the various mechanisms for the dissemination of information, which then lead into blogging. Initially those who are merely commenting on affairs not for money, but they are part of the system and they're putting their views out.

  • And of course for politicians it's an opportunity to put their views out in a way that is available to all without substantial cost.

  • Yes. And any regulatory system is going to find it very hard.

  • At what point does andrewmarr.com ranting on about this or that become big enough to be brought into the regulatory system, as it were?

  • Absolutely. This is exactly what I'm trying to explore with you. And big enough might not be the test, because it can't be, well, he has 100,000 followers. It has to be something rather clearer, which is why I asked you about those that are in the course of a -- if you like, a trade or business. That's why I talk about bloggers and you picked it up immediately by saying, yes, they obtain money through advertising. So if you're doing that, the analogy that I thought of in my mind as I've thought this through is a rather prosaic piece of legislation that takes me back to an earlier life called the Trade Descriptions Act. People used to sell cars through classified ads, but as you're aware, if I sell my car through a classified ad, the Trade Descriptions Act legislation doesn't impact on me. If I'm in the course of a business of selling motorcars, then it does. And Trading Standards in the days when I was a young barrister would find the same telephone numbers advertising three or four different cars every week, and so would conclude that that particular trader was in the course of a trade or business.

    Now, I'm using that analogy to try to find a mechanism to distinguish between those who are --

  • -- simply commenting and those who are doing more and getting towards the business end of journalism. Now, does it work?

  • It is a nightmarishly difficult problem, it seems to me, but there's no doubt that once there's money to be made, then people are going to be much more, if I can put it this way, vulnerable to a system of outside scrutiny or monitoring, though albeit many of these businesses are based offshore, of course.

  • I understand that too, which adds yet further complications.

  • Well, Mr Marr, thank you very much. All I can do is ask you to remember, when you're required to criticise whatever I produce, your word "nightmarish". That's all I ask you to remember.

  • Thank you very much indeed. 2 o'clock.

  • (The luncheon adjournment)

  • Before we start, Mr Jay, I ought to say that in the light of developments and the nature of the evidence, we shall be sitting on Friday morning this week. The details will be posted on the website during the course of the afternoon.

  • Thank you. The next witness is Mr Paxman, please.