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

  • Thank you for this opportunity to address you again.

    Public Inquiries in Britain are comparatively rare. They're called for at moments of crisis when something's gone drastically wrong, when normal processes have failed, where the truth is hidden, where wider issues of national importance are engaged.

    At the height of the Guardian's coverage of the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, we didn't believe there could or would ever be a public inquiry. We had seen other news organisations fight shy of what was being revealed. The police had sat on their hands. Most politicians didn't want to know and the industry regulator had turned a blind eye.

    I had been an editor for more than 15 years at this point. We had written aggressive exposes about lying Cabinet Ministers, corrupt governments, arms companies, security services, organised crime, drug dealers, religious cults and powerful multinational corporations. This was the first story where it seemed that we had strayed into an area that felt in some way forbidden. We could carry on writing it. No one would stop us. But we were on our own.

    There was talk of how a public inquiry would be the only way of getting at the truth of what had happened and why. But for obvious reasons, no one believed an inquiry was remotely possible. The Murdoch influence, power, money, dominance and reputation was such that it seemed to confer a form of immunity from scrutiny. The courage of a small number of victims of intrusion in launching civil suits was a critical factor in prising open the evidence. It took the intervention of a foreign newspaper -- the New York Times -- to make the story more difficult to avoid.

    In time, it became impossible for the police to continue to ignore the revelations in court and in the media, where, by now, other news organisations felt emboldened. And finally, the Guardian's long investigation into the story brought into public light one of the most repugnant instance of phone hacking -- the phone of a murdered teenager.

    And so the impossible did happen: a public inquiry. The hearings which began last year have been almost cinematic in their scope. They started with a close focus on the victims and gradually panned back. We have seen just a handful of the potential thousands of people who were subjected to systemic intrusion, and heard of the effect such behaviour has on individuals and families, often at moments of great trauma or personal stress.

    The gaze of the Inquiry then panned back to look at the culture of newsrooms and the behaviour of some individuals who ran those teams of journalists together with their outsourced collaborators. Inevitably, because of the risk of prejudicing any criminal proceedings, this remains an area where it feels we still know little.

    As the focus has pulled back, we have seen the police drawn into the frame and learned much about the network of close media/police relationships and something of the reasons why senior officers were so reluctant to investigate these matters.

    We have heard how the Press Complaints Commission, supposedly a regulator, was no such thing. It did not have the means, the appetite or the independence to do the job.

    Finally, there have been the politicians, where the story becomes more complex. A few backbench MPs were determined -- albeit belatedly -- to get at the truth. Parliamentary committees are limited in the weapons at their disposal, and initially at least, they made limited progress.

    It is clear that they were lied to. At least one executive from News International simply refused to appear, showing further contempt for Parliament. And we have heard how some MPs felt threatened and were acutely aware of the possible consequences of asking too many questions.

    In three years of involvement with this story, both Nick Davies and I encountered numerous examples of people who have lived, and in some cases still live, in some fear of one particular newspaper company, including those who worked for it.

    That fear was rational. As that Inquiry has begun to uncover -- although more will doubtless appear and emerge in criminal trials and in part 2 of the Inquiry -- the company, its executives and some of its journalists were capable of behaving in a quite ruthless way, employing any means, legal or criminal, to attack or monitor its targets or critics.

    The extent to which the aggression was guided or was simply the result of a lack of any meaningful corporate governance is still unknown. Many people in different walks of life believed it was a good thing to keep in with this company and a bad thing to fall out with it. That, it is now beyond doubt, was a reasonable belief.

    That belief suited News Corporation, which had ambitious plans further to increase its immense and unique dominance of media in this country.

    We have heard how the former editor of the News of the World -- in disregard of all normal protocols -- ended up, relatively unvetted, at the heart of Downing Street. How the BSkyB bid was launched within weeks of David Cameron becoming Prime Minister. And this Inquiry has laid bare the literally thousands of covert contacts -- texts, calls, meetings, drinks, meals, emails -- that oiled the progress of the bid.

    Had that deal gone through, it would have had immense implications for Britain. I do not believe the Inquiry has fully explored the likely consequences for other news organisations and for democracy itself if News Corp had succeeded in its plan to create a really giant media company, which, despite its public protestations, was (we have learned in this Inquiry) exactly its aim.

    That bid was finally halted on the eve of a vote by Parliament. But there remains nothing in law to prevent such a thing from happening again. While the Inquiry has not had the time fully to explore the nature of competition and plurality law, it is in our view essential that its final report says something strong about the effects of dominant media power on culture, practice and ethics, and the resultant need for a meaningful and enforceable plurality framework.

    So we have welcomed the Leveson Inquiry. It has shone a sometimes uncomfortable light on all of us in the press, but also on the police, politics and regulation. The press, especially, should not complain about transparency. There has been much welcome discussion, both by the press and by others, and a movement towards finding a reformed system of regulation which would command more public confidence.

    Of course there remain many anxieties about the nature and scope of your eventual recommendations, and no clear consensus about some areas. Some news organisations, for example, see encroaching privacy laws and restrictions as the biggest threat to press freedom. Others are more concerned about the chilling effect of our libel laws on serious investigative and public interest reporting. Some see press cards as a sufficient incentive to join a regulatory system. Others find the idea protectionist and possibly unworkable in an age of social publishing. Many regional and magazine publishers feel the old system was perfectly adequate. So it is probable that there can be no perfect consensus about the shape regulation should take.

    That's healthy. It would be positively odd if a media which boasts of its plurality and variety appeared in front of you speaking with one voice on every single issue.

    So here, very briefly, are some of our own thoughts at the end of this long and exhaustive Inquiry, which we expand on in our written closing submission.

    Firstly, state licensing of the press or individual journalists was wrong when it was abolished in this country more than 300 years ago, and few people could want to see it reintroduced now, even it were legal and workable. So, as you yourself have made plain, anything that looks like direct statutory or political control is undesirable.

    But a voluntary system of regulation would hardly command public opinion and respect if one or more major publishers decided to boycott the system. The Inquiry has heard many suggestions for carrots and sticks so that the benefits of being within the fold of regulation and the disadvantages of being out would be overwhelming, and we hope that you will give serious consideration in particular to the notion that participation in a system of independent regulation would bring considerable cost and speed advantages to both sides in cases of defamation and privacy.

    Secondly, our libel laws are, it's widely agreed, bad for both claimants and defendants and are a real chill on public interest journalism. No country has a perfect solution, but few would dispute that America -- with its First Amendment and so-called Sullivan doctrine -- makes it easier for serious journalism to flourish, while, it should be noted, escaping the worst of the abuses and excesses that have been revealed by this Inquiry.

    We propose that a new regulator should have the means to deal with libel and privacy claims through an arbitral system and that this should be a pre-condition of fighting any claims through the courts.

    Thirdly, we acknowledge that creating such an arbitral system may have to involve some form of statutory basis. So, despite our fears relating to statutory licensing, we do not set ourselves against specific and narrowly defined uses of the law to create a system that may help public interest journalism as well as inspire public confidence. This, despite sharing the anxieties of colleagues who have voiced the thin end of the wedge argument about proposing the use of law in relation to regulation.

    Four. It is doubtful whether the Leveson Inquiry would have existed were it not for the willingness of people to tell the Guardian things that they were not authorised to tell us.

    The Guardian does not pay public officials for unauthorised information. We don't pay them for any kind of information. But we do seek it out and consider it the lifeblood of public interest journalism. We have watched with dismay at some attempts to persecute, if not actually prosecute, public officials who are not corrupt, have taken no money and may have been acting out of perfectly admirable motives in passing on information.

    With great respect to the present Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who has presided over determined if belated attempts to get to the bottom of phone and computer hacking, and Dame Elizabeth Filkin, we have serious concerns that people are not sufficiently recognising the difference between information which is unauthorised and that which is corrupt. If the Inquiry is to truly encourage the best practice as well as rooting out the worst, it must, we believe, recognise that distinction.

    Fifth, readers' editors. We hope that you will commend the truest form of self-regulation embodied by the idea of a fully independent readers' editor or ombudsman. At the Guardian and the Observer, any reader can bypass the editor and complain directly to an independent figure whose only interest is in establishing the accuracy and truth of our journalism.

    In our view, it's the best way to transform newsroom culture on larger newspapers, and we think that large regional newspaper groups could appoint a readers' editor to serve several smaller newspapers. The system is commonplace in the US and elsewhere and there's no reason why it wouldn't work here as well.

    Sixth, on regulation, the Guardian and Observer belonged to the PCC, despite our reservations, which we voiced at the time, about its flaws, which have been widely acknowledged. We remained within the system, despite the egregious November 2009 report on phone hacking, and we remain committed to independent regulation and would be part of the proposed reformed system of regulation proposed by Lords Hunt and Black. It is, in many ways, a great improvement on the PCC. I said at an earlier occasion: before we scrap voluntary self-regulation, perhaps we should try it. Unlike its predecessor, this does constitute a form of regulation and it is much more independent.

    That does not mean that we agree with all aspect was the proposed system. We have, for instance, reservations about the prominence of serving editors, the role of the financing bodies and the selection methods for the press representatives. As in Ireland, it might be refreshing to involve journalists who are not editors, possibly even members of the NUJ, in the Code Committee. But we recognise the progress that has been made in seeking to find a consensus for reform.

    On privacy, we, along with other broadsheet editors, have given evidence to this and other inquiries to the effect that we have ourselves not yet been unduly affected by the steps the courts have taken to recognise the balance between Articles 8 and 10 of the Human Rights Act. The language of the PCC Code of Conduct, which virtually all editors endorse, exactly mirrors that of Article 8, and the courts are obliged to take note of any professional code.

    But there remains concern among some colleagues that the courts are not the best place to resolve such issues. The challenge for a future regulator is, therefore, whether it can offer sufficient measures and redress so that the courts are in future less engaged in developing a law of privacy.

    For that to be true, the regulator must decide three things: firstly, will it follow the general jurisprudence of the courts or seek to develop its own? If the gap between those is too great, claimants and their lawyers will simply ignore the regulator, as many have tended to do in the past. Secondly, will it offer a hotline service, as the PCC did, to potential victims of intrusion in advance of publication? And thirdly, will it offer meaningful redress if a publication is found to have intruded on privacy without a public interest defence?

    We suggest that the new regulator should, as before, offer a hotline service for the public, and we envisage that the regulator would, if contacted, approach an editor in advance of publication to check whether he or she would justify any intrusion on the basis of the public interest clause of the code. If so, the regulator would not intervene, just as in libel there can be no injunctive relief where an editor says he or she will offer a defence of justification. If, subsequently, the editor didn't argue the public interest or if the regulator found there was no such defence, that could be reflected in the redress.

    Eight. More specifically on prior notification, we believe that several of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions deserve serious consideration. In particular, we endorse paragraphs 127 to 129, 134, 150 and 209, which we have attached for ease of reference. These paragraphs reject a statutory requirement to pre-notify, though the committee does suggest real consequence for editors who do not have a robust basis for failing to notify, including exemplary damages. It also endorses an arbitral arm for privacy.

    Nine, on prior consultation. We feel quite strongly that prior consultation by editors on the public interest would work counter to press freedom, although we recognise that those who favour it have the opposite intent. We do accept that gross invasions of privacy create damage that cannot be undone. That's why, through the combination of the code and the law, we must raise the bar far higher for invasions of this kind. Newspapers ought to be able to demonstrate that they had taken into account what we refer to as the Omand factors, including considerations of harm, public good, proportionality, authorisation and fishing expeditions. Editors should, in our view, be able to make their own decisions and be responsible for them.

    10. We welcome the fact that the DPP has, at the suggestion of this Inquiry, clarified the guidelines for prosecutorial discretion where a journalist or source may be facing the possibility of criminal charges. More broadly, we believe that it makes sense to achieve far greater consistency for public interest defences in the law. If an offence deserves a public interest defence, it should have one.

    11. While the Inquiry has devoted much time and care to the future shape of regulation of content, it has not, as I said, had the opportunity to take much evidence on the issue of plurality. But it seems to us highly likely, firstly, that many of the abuses uncovered by the Inquiry would never have happened had News Corp not been allowed to achieve such a remarkable domination of the media in the UK. Secondly, plurality of the media was a pre-condition of the scandal being exposed.

    There are, in other words, significant dangers to democracy in allowing media organisations to become too dominant, not least because they may, in a troubled economic climate for news, stifle or destroy the ability of others to hold them to account.

    Let me make it clear this is not just about News Corporation. It is likely there will be movement towards greater consolidation in our news media, and that proprietorial dominance will become more troublesome, as it currently threatens to do in, for instance, Australia. If we do not now learn the lessons from News Corp, we will fail to safeguard against the need for future inquiries.

    12. You have previously noted in this Inquiry the difference between the media and other sections in relation to competition and plurality. Who owns the news is different to who makes baked beans. News Corp is a company that famously uses its might to outbid and even destroy the competition. This is well-trodden ground for anyone who follows their dominance in other fields. There have been well-documented allegations of crossing lines of legality, let alone ethics: settlements in the United States over unfair trade practices and corporate espionage; in the UK, claims that a News Corp subsidiary company used a computer hacker to sabotage Sky TV's biggest rival.

    Such tactics in other wings of the business are not part of the remit of this Inquiry, even if they do illustrate salient truths about the culture, practices and ethics of that company. The problem with the news business, as we've seen, is the very real consequences for democracy: deliberately selling the Times at a loss, according to the OFT; hidden proposals to integrate news in the proposed BSkyB merger in 2010, according to the private memo of the Culture Secretary; most recently and cynically, in March 2012, reportedly launching a car trading site to target the Guardian Media Group.

    These moves, some dramatic, others the mere flick of appear giant's tail, have consequences of the kind we've seen these past few months. That is why Parliament made plurality the test, not competition. If you, like Parliament, think a plurality of voices is needed in news and that the best challenge to bad culture is more scrutiny, then this is a question which, we submit, you must tackle.

    There are, of course, other powerful media organisations in the UK, including the BBC. In our submission on plurality we set out a number of obvious questions which should help any relevant authority to judge the extent to which size or market dominance would be likely to pose a wider threat to the democratic installations and accountability.

    Sir, in closing, you have repeatedly said you don't need any lectures on the importance of press freedom, so you're not going to get one from me. You've also said that you understand the extraordinary challenging times that newspapers face as they make this transition from paper and ink to print and digital. I won't labour that point.

    You have listened to numerous voices, extracted and examined daunting volumes of evidence. Mr Jay and his team have skillfully tested that material. You have approached the issues with remarkable openness and patience and shown all witnesses great courtesy. The Inquiry process itself, through shining a light in dark places, has mirrored the purpose and product of public interest journalism at its best.

  • Thank you very much indeed, Mr Rusbridger.

  • I'm the last man, I think, sir. I think I shall be about 40 minutes, so I'm in your hands as to whether --

  • Well, you can decide what you want to do, Mr Rhodri Davies. You can start and we'll come back, or we could start a little bit earlier this afternoon. I'm entirely in your hands.

  • The vote is to start a little earlier this afternoon. I apologise if that disturbs people's lunches.

  • Right. We'll rise now and resume at 1.50 pm. Thank you very much indeed.

  • (The luncheon adjournment)

  • Yes, Mr Rhodri Davies.