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


  • Take a seat, Mr Grice, and make yourself comfortable. Would you please give your full name to the Inquiry.

  • You provided a witness statement dated 19 April 2012; can you confirm that this is your formal evidence to the Inquiry?

  • Mr Grice, you mentioned Liverpool Echo, where I believe you were the editor.

  • The political editor.

  • And therefore it is not impossible that over 25 years ago I acted for you and your paper in connection with issues that arose in court, in the local Crown Court. I make that clear to anybody who is interested in it. It is all a very long time ago.

  • We have now touched on part of your career history. Let's go on to the rest of it, please. In the first paragraph of your statement, you explain that you have been the political editor of the Independent for the past 13 years. You were previously a political editor of the Sunday Times, where you worked for 10 years. You have been a member of the Parliamentary lobby based at Westminster for 30 years, and prior to that point, you worked on local newspapers, including the Slough Observer and the Coventry Evening Telegraph; is that correct?

  • I have quickly summarised your career. I'm going to ask you a number of questions arising from your evidence. Can I make clear right from the start that your witness statement doesn't have any page numbers or paragraph numbers so for the sake of convenience, I think we will just take it page by page so we don't get too lost in what you say.

    On that basis, can we start, please, with the changing relationships between politicians and the media over the years as you perceive it, in the last 30 plus years you have been a journalist.

    You explain in the first paragraph under your career history paragraph that the relationship has changed markedly during that time and for the worst; can you expand on that a little for us and explain what you mean?

  • Yes. I think that newspapers have been looking for a different role during that period because of the pressures of 24-hour television news, the Internet. It has all become a much quicker process, the way that news, political news is disseminated to the public -- all news, not just politics -- and so newspapers have had to seek out a new role to try and maintain their circulations. Obviously the total circulation of newspapers has been falling dramatically in the period I have worked for newspapers and they look to provide added value. They no longer want to be what you might call a newspaper of record; they want to provide more analysis, more comment. They do not want to regurgitate what their readers have already seen on the 10 o'clock news bulletins the night before. So that has changed the whole culture of newspapers and the character of the product.

  • You go on to say, just below that paragraph, that although newspapers have always espoused a political line in their editorial comment, they have now become much more partisan in your view. You explain that the dividing line between comment and news has become very blurred; in some cases, almost invisible.

    Can I ask you two related topics on that. The first is the editors' code, PCC code, doesn't allow for this blurring of comment and news, as you are probably aware. Does that make any difference when considering this issue? Do you think the fact the code says you shouldn't be doing it makes any difference whatsoever?

  • In practice, it makes very little difference I'm afraid. It is a process which has happened as a result of the technological changes I have just mentioned and frankly, whatever is written in a code, however important that is in many ways to all working journalists, it has been overtaken by events and pressures to produce a product, to try and maintain readership, and I don't think it is going to be possible or easy to turn the clock back in the way that the line between news and comment has become blurred. I think it is a fact of life.

  • As a matter of just sheer fact, can you tell us whether journalists are aware that the code prohibits this blurring?

  • I think some younger journalists might not be aware of it and I think even if they were, it would be frankly washed away in the day to day pressure of events of producing a newspaper. I think unfortunately, while it doesn't hurt to be reminded of such things in a code, it is a good example perhaps of what you can put down on paper and what is put down on paper and whether or not that has any impact and effect. Some of these issues are incredibly difficult to regulate and I think the horse has bolted on this particular one.

  • I will come on to ask you whether you think there should be any changes made in a moment. Can we look again at the practicalities. As a matter of sheer practice -- obviously you have been at the Independent and the Sunday Times and I am going to ask you about each of those. At the Independent, are there ever discussions along the lines of: "Are we being careful? Is that article blurring the lines?" Is that something that gets discussed or is it something that is just now -- the horse has bolted so far out of the stable that those discussions don't take place any more?

  • No, we do regularly have those discussions and we would regularly discuss whether to run a particular piece with a headline analysis, with a headline comment or just run it as a straight news story. So we do, on an almost daily basis, have those discussions on the Independent because obviously the way you brand a piece, the way you label it for the reader, does, at least if you are running a comment piece on a news page -- there needs to be a much clearer divide between the news pages and the comment pages. A lot of newspapers, including my own, now run pieces of analysis and comment on the news pages. But it is at least a bit fairer and a bit more honest for the readers if we headline a piece "analysis" or "comment" when it appears on the news page, rather than just have the traditional separation between: "This page is a new page, that page is a comment page", which was the traditional way.

  • Can you give us the benefit of your experience at the Sunday Times and whether or not those discussions happened there?

  • That is going back quite a long way, so there was a much clearer divide between what was a news page and what was a comments page. That is going back 13 years. So I think, even looking at today's Sunday Times, there is actually a clearer distinction. It is just the way the paper is structured. Daily newspapers like the Independent have got into the practice of putting analysis and comment pieces on news pages. The Sunday Times on that has a slightly more traditional approach. It has a comments section and a news section.

  • I said I would come back to whether anything can be done about this blurring that you have identified. I think you preferred the opinion that actually you thought the horse may well have bolted on this. Is there something practical that could be done to try to get the horse back into the stable, so to speak?

  • Well, I think the headlining, the branding that I mentioned is something to build on. I think we could sometimes be -- all newspapers could be clearer on whether we are writing a news story based on fact or whether we are just writing a news story that has got a certain slant, a certain agenda. Again, in practice, it is incredibly difficult to sort of impose some sort of rule or regulation on that, but I don't think it would be harmful for journalists to at least have the issue in the front or even the back of their minds when they are writing articles. As I say, we do, at the Independent, regularly have debates about: "Is this a news piece or should it have the word 'comment' at the top, or is it a piece of analysis?" And you could argue there is a pretty fine line between a comment piece and an analysis piece, and that is a debate we have regularly.

    But I think it is difficult to see how newspapers would ever go back to being what I would call a paper of record, if you look at the content now compared to 20, 30 years ago, because so much news is already out there in the public domain, through the Internet, through the 24-hour news channels. Newspapers have to provide a bit of icing on the cake, a bit of something different. They are not, in effect, going to publish yesterday's news; they want to offer something that is more forward looking or more analytical or more commentary.

  • If you turn to the top of page 2 of your statement, you say that you take the view, contrary to some witnesses, that newspapers still matter to politicians, not least, you say, because broadcasters often follow the paper's agenda and follow up their stories and therefore governments and political parties will devote increasing amounts of time and energy "trying to influence the coverage of politics in papers".

    I would like, again, to have the benefit of your personal experience on this. How does this seeking to influence manifest itself?

  • Well, all politicians want the best coverage in all newspapers and they spend an increasing and, some would say, inordinate amount of time trying to achieve that. We, over the years, have regularly heard people involved in politics say, "Oh, well, we are going to worry less about the headlines", but in practice they don't worry less about the headlines. They know that even if they have written off a certain newspaper and know it is never going to support them, they do worry about the impact the newspapers have on setting the agenda for the broadcasters. That is still very powerful. Even newspapers with relatively low circulations are read and discussed within the Westminster and the media village and do have a lot of influence on what the broadcasters pick up and run with on their own agenda. That is why newspapers are still very important to politicians.

  • From your own personal experience, have political parties sought to influence you in order to influence your coverage of politics in your newspaper?

  • Yes, on a daily basis.

  • Is there a particular example you could give us?

  • Well, there is a constant dialogue between political editors like myself and the officials, the spin doctors, the press officers, working for opposition and governing parties. It is literally a day to day dialogue where we are discussing stories. Sometimes I might pick up a story and would put it to them for clarification, further information. On other times, they may approach me with a story to say that politician X is going to make an important speech tomorrow and we are giving you this bit of it in advance. That is the day to day terms of trade with which we work.

  • Just moving down page 2, please, you explain that you take the view that most journalists have now sadly crossed the line between scepticism about politicians, which is healthy, you say, in a democracy, and cynicism, which is not. Now, when you say "most newspapers", do you include your own?

  • No, I think I would regard the Independent as healthily sceptical. I would say the Guardian is healthily sceptical. I would say that papers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph have become a bit too cynical about politics as a trade, as a profession.

  • You go on to say that this has caused problems and you say that in particular -- about halfway down that paragraph, you say that politicians don't deserve the deference of a bygone age but they do deserve a little more respect than they get from many newspapers. You say:

    "I fear the way politics is covered today by most newspapers will discourage some of the brightest and best people from going into politics, notably from business."

    You go on to explain:

    "This will accelerate the trend towards a political class of advisers turned MPs turned ministers with little experience of the outside world, which would not serve the public well."

    What is it about the coverage that people receive that puts people off going into politics, in your view?

  • I think that a lot of people in the business world, for example, now look at the newspapers and realise that if they were to cross the line into politics that they would be opening themselves and more importantly their families to a level of intrusion that they do not want to put their families through. In some cases, it might be about their own personal circumstances. It could even be about their financial affairs or past financial affairs. But I do know MPs who -- backbench MPs who are reluctant, for example, to become ministers, because they do not want to open up their families to the level of scrutiny, intrusion, that they fear would apply to them in today's media.

  • So that relates to the coverage of their personal life, their financial affairs and so on. Does it also touch upon the coverage of them as politicians? Is that something that you think puts off people from going into politics?

  • I think that would be a secondary factor for those people. Obviously you go into politics -- it is, to use the old cliché, a rough trade and you shouldn't go into it with their eyes closed. I think most of them would expect that the media has a role to play in scrutinising them and holding them to account, which of course it does. But I do fear that we are narrowing the base from which tomorrow's politicians come. We already have what some would describe as a political class, as I mentioned in my witness statement, with not much experience outside politics and I think that is a sad thing and a bad thing for our democracy, in the sense that it would benefit from people who had had more experience in the outside world.

  • You then go on to set out quite a large section on how important the press is and the very good things that the press have done over the years, which we don't need to read out. You go on to say:

    "However, new techniques which have been used by the press do not always see the end justify the means."

    You touch on one particular technique, which is the technique of, you say, stings or agent provocateur. Can I just clarify: here you are talking about political players being the subject of such stings, rather than the sort of Mazher Mahmood-type investigations; is that right?

  • Yes, I was talking about politics.

  • You go on to explain that some of these stings you would consider as being in the public interest and some are not. You give various examples. Let's explore one example so that we might understand the contours of the public interest in your view, and that is the Daily Telegraph Vince Cable sting, if I can call it that way. Why, in your view, was that not in the public interest? You conclude it was not in the public interest; why not?

  • I think there is a huge difference between that particular story, where two journalists posed as an MP's constituents and obtained information from him, famously his statement that he had "declared war on Rupert Murdoch", which obviously had some quite far-reaching implications -- I think there is a difference between that, which I would call an attempt to try and entrap a politician into saying something newsworthy, to a kind of undercover operation like the ones that have been carried out by the Sunday Times and Dispatches programme on lobbyists, like the one my own paper and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism did to expose lobbyists, like the recent story the Sunday Times obtained by posing as a potential donor for the Conservative Party, a story which became known as "cash for access" and resulted in the immediate resignation of the Conservative Party treasurer earlier this year.

    The difference with the Vince Cable story is that in my view, although it did produce a sensational story, it was a fishing expedition designed to obtain what could be anything from tittle-tattle to anything that would embarrass him or his party or the coalition in which he was a minister.

    I think that particular one crossed a line. It was criticised by the Press Complaints Commission, although I am not sure how many people in the wider world are aware of that, and I think PCC was right to criticise it.

  • So the difference, you would say, between the examples you have given, is that you consider the Vince Cable Telegraph situation to have been some story where they didn't have a huge amount to go on but they decided to do it in order to see if they could get a story, but in the other cases, they thought there was a story, they investigated it and yes, sure enough, the story was there?

  • Yes, there was an element of subterfuge in the stories about lobbyists and Conservative Party donations I just mentioned, which I would justify because it was the only way, frankly -- the only way to find out the bad practices that were going on was to pose as a company seeking the -- seeking an account, a contract with a lobbyist, or as a potential donor offering money to the Conservative Party and asking about how to meet ministers or the Prime Minister.

    So I think that -- it is a difficult line to draw, but I think it is possible to draw it.

  • All right. Because some might say, obviously, Mr Grice, that what the Daily Telegraph did on that occasion was uncover a series of views that it was in the public interest to know about?

  • Yes, they could argue that, and obviously that story had huge implications, some of which you have discussed at this Inquiry, and it was a very important part of that story. But I think there is a difference between exposing bad practices through, if you like, acting as an agent provocateur, to posing as a constituent of an MP in the hope of finding out something interesting.

  • All right. You then tell us about your personal dealings with politicians in two respects. The first is that you tell us that you met with politicians and editors. That is obviously at quite a high level. What are those meetings about? What is the purpose behind them?

  • The purpose was always, from the politician's point of view, to get the most favourable coverage. I can't recall any discussions that I was present at, either on the Sunday Times or the Independent, that related to the commercial business of the newspaper. Those discussions, if they did take place, were at a higher level, although I have no evidence that they did take place. Obviously there were separate meetings involving proprietors and politicians, many of which have now been well documented.

    At my level, it was always about what the party's policies were. They would be anxious, the politicians, to, in effect, sell their wares, to try to win the support of the editor, the newspaper, for a particular policy stance.

  • What about your personal interaction with politicians? How would you describe that?

  • Again, it is a day to day process. I would regularly meet politicians for lunch or dinner, or just a cup of coffee or visit to their office. Occasionally it would be an extremely casual meeting where I might bump into a minister in a committee corridor in the House of Commons and have a chat for a few minutes. So there is a whole ring of different contacts. Obviously telephone conversations as well, at the weekends, and an occasional social contact as well.

  • Is there anything inappropriate about that contact in your view? Not just your personal contact, but the day to day working of the journalist.

  • No, I think we need each other. It is, as has been described, a relationship of mutual dependency. It is not new. It has gone on for hundreds of years. Hopefully it will go on for hundreds of years. I don't see how that relationship can be easily regulated and I don't see how it can be changed. I think it could be made less chummy at the very high level, when you get to proprietors and editors. I think that has caused problems recently. But at my rather lower down the food chain level, those day to day interactions are good for the system, in that I regard my job as, frankly, trying to find out what is going on, to inform the readers. I don't regard myself as part of some cosy club at Westminster where we all have fun and the media are, so to speak, all in it together with the politicians. Our job is to shine a light on some of the decisions that politicians don't always want to talk about. Yes, most of the time they are quite happy to discuss policies and what they are up to, but an important part of the job of political journalists is to find out what they don't want to talk about and try and get to the bottom of it.

  • All right. Well, moving on from your day to day interaction with politicians to a rather more high level, perhaps, interaction. I want to ask you about the last large paragraph on the third paragraph of your statement, the one that starts:

    "What became an unhealthy relationships between press and politicians in recent years was born for a good reason."

    You say that the treatment meted out to Mr Kinnock by the tabloids in the run up to the 1992 election was personal and nasty and that Tony Blair and his colleagues vowed: never again. Then, just slipping a sentence or two, you say this:

    "Although I never witnessed such a discussion while working on the Sunday Times, I suspect that there was an understanding that Labour would not implement its previous policy of curbing cross-media ownership, in return for which Murdoch papers would not subject Labour to the Kinnock treatment."

    I understand you say you never witnessed such a discussion, but given your role at the Sunday Times at that time, what was the basis for your suspicion?

  • Well, there was a culture as the two sides got closer together and the background is quite important. There was a major industrial dispute at Wapping in 1986/87. During that period, officially at least, the Labour party was not even talking to the Murdoch papers and Murdoch paper journalists were banned from any briefings or press conferences that the Labour Party held. So the back cloth was not just difficult relations but no official relationships at all.

    I joined the Sunday Times a year after that dispute ended. One of my jobs was to cover the Labour Party and the trade unions, and so I did witness the early stages of getting back to normal business, the normal sort of transactions and discussions that any newspaper would have with any political party, and after that, as you know, it ended with the Sun literally coming out for Labour in 1997. Not many people would have thought that likely when the industrial dispute ended.

    The reason I say I suspect there was an understanding is that Labour did have a policy previously of restricting cross-media ownership, which would have affected the Murdoch empire. That policy was dropped, quietly forgotten, in the most part, and I suspect, although I have no direct evidence or was not party to any discussion of that -- I suspect there was an understanding, not a written down agreement or some grand bargain but an understanding in the "You scratch my back, I will scratch your back" culture that developed in the relationship between the Labour Party News International. It would have been very odd at a time when the Labour Party was trying to get back in the game, trying to win the support of newspapers and potentially saw the opportunity, certainly under Tony Blair's leadership, of winning the endorsement of the biggest selling daily paper -- it would have bee very odd for them to, at the same time, pursue a policy which would have had a pretty big commercial impact on the Rupert Murdoch empire.

    So at one level it was, if you like, a piece of common sense, that the Labour Party, at a time when it was trying to get more favourable treatment, more equal treatment -- the Labour Party was haunted by the treatment Neil Kinnock received as Labour leader and they were absolutely determined not to go through that again. They wanted a fair hearing. If they couldn't get the endorsement, they wanted a more level playing field; as you know, in the end they got the endorsement.

    But it would be very strange from their point of view, at the same time as seeking that endorsement or level playing field from one or more you Murdoch papers, to have pursued -- to have retained a policy which would have had a big impact on the commercial operations of the same group.

  • You have answered that question with a certain level of generality. Of course, you were at the Sunday Times in 1997 and for a couple of years thereafter. How did this understanding manifest itself, if at all, at the Sunday Times?

  • I was much more concerned in the day-to-day, week-to-week coverage. There was no sort of tablet of stone handed down from on high. It's sometimes slightly misreported, in the sense of the whole Murdoch empire supported Blair in 1997. That is not actually true. It wasn't true of my own paper, the Sunday Times, but the one that obviously has had all the attention, for good reasons, is the decision of the Sun to switch sides.

    So I wasn't told at all to be nice to the Labour Party or be positive about the Labour Party in terms of week to week reporting. Obviously there was a huge interest in what Tony Blair and the Labour Party might do if they were to win the election. They were very, very strong favourites to win the election, they were streets ahead in the opinion polls, and so there was a healthy interest in what the new government might do if Labour were to win power. But that was always about news values, news judgments, not about the political line. I was never told to be nice to the Labour Party.

  • I was going to ask you that. My next question was there was never a conversation along the lines of: "Let's start being a bit nicer to Labour"; nothing like that?

  • All right. You then go on to tell us at the bottom of page 3 that the determination of New Labour to avoid the Kinnock treatment also saw the introduction of a more ruthless approach to news management. You say, at the top of page 4, that this was led by Peter Mandelson and Mr Campbell with the full blessing of Mr Blair and Gordon Brown. Now, why do you say, first of all, as a matter of interest, "with the full blessing of Mr Blair and Mr Brown"?

  • I knew Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were relatively junior members of the Labour front bench, and so I was fully aware of their attitude to the media. It goes back to what I said about the ghosts of the Kinnock era, really. They were determined that their generation was not going to be treated in the same way by the press, and so they were both, Gordon Brown particularly, as a former journalist, both fully aware of the way the media, the newspapers, operated and they were going to not take it lying down, frankly. They were going to fight back. They were going to try and dictate terms to the newspapers. They were going to have a much more pro-active, aggressive stance with newspapers, rather than let the newspapers treat them in the way that Neil Kinnock was treated.

  • You take the view that this new approach harmed the public interest. Perhaps you don't put it that highly. You say a more even-handed approach to all newspapers would have served the public interest better. But you also go on to say that the approach has been very much copied by the Conservatives when David Cameron became their leader. In fact, you go so far as saying that he based his whole campaign to win the following general election on the New Labour play book.

    In your view, given that this whole approach doesn't serve the public interest better, is there anything that can be done about it realistically, now that it is here?

  • It is rather like the line between news and comment being blurred. If anything, the pressures on the parties and the politicians have got greater, because it all happens much more quickly now, with Twitter, with the blogs, with 24-hour news. So I fear the clock can't be turned back. They are very proactive in monitoring the media minute by minute now, not day by day, and if they feel they are not getting fair treatment, they will move very, very quickly to try and correct that, or at least get their side of the argument over.

    So in fact what was happening in the period of Mr Blair and Mr Brown was a forerunner of something that maybe would have happened with the 24-hour news with the blogs, the tweets, the Internet age, where the people in parties and the politicians have to respond or feel they have to respond even more quickly and more aggressively.

  • All right. Two final topics, Mr Grice. The first is about the parliamentary lobby system, please, and then I will come on to ask a few more questions about the future of press regulation. You deal with the parliamentary lobby system in a little detail. This is the second paragraph on the fourth page of your statement. You explain that:

    "If you close down the Parliamentary lobby system in Westminster, it would reinvent itself tomorrow."

    You explain that you have also always argued and voted for reform.

    As you yourself say in your statement, the Westminster lobby has been a target for critics. I don't know if we need to describe it in any detail, but is there anything, in your view, that could be changed about the current system, any changes that you consider to be needed at this stage?

  • Well, I think the first point to make is that a lot of changes have happened in my time at Westminster as a member of the lobby. Frankly, when I joined it 30 years ago, it was a kind of extension of the Westminster village that was much too close to the politicians. A very old and respected veteran at the time I joined, a lobby journalist, said to me: "You must preserve the mystique." If I said that to one of the younger generation of lobby members today, they would laugh at me, and quite rightly so.

    So a lot of changes have happened. It is now on the record. It is not secretive Whitehall sources that everyone in the loop knows is the Prime Minister's press secretary. We now have twice daily on the record meetings with the Prime Minister's official spokesman. The summary of that is posted on the Downing Street website and on lots of political websites.

    So it has -- some of the caricatures of the lobby are frankly out-of-date. It has reformed. I would stress also it is not a secretive club that we in the lobby hold the key to the door. We don't even decide who are our own members. It is partly a matter of having a security pass, which is totally a matter for the House of Commons authorities. It is not a secret society, as is often portrayed.

  • Mr Grice, I want to ask you a little about the future of press regulation. This is the final page of your statement. You give two very short paragraphs on this and I want to give you the opportunity to say something rather fuller if you would like to. You say:

    "It is obvious that the current system of self-regulation has failed. In my view, the public interest would be served by a much tougher independent watchdog with teeth, composed of people who are not on the payroll of newspapers. Perhaps a system of co-regulation should be considered, with self-regulation underpinned and overseen by an independent body such as Ofcom."

    You recommend the advertising industry model which have heard quite a lot about now. You then say that statutory regulation would struggle. So you don't make just an in principle objection to that; you also say it would have a practical negative effect.

    Is there anything else you would like to add to those paragraphs?

  • Well, if you tried to regulate all of it on a statutory basis, you would run the risk of repeating what I have seen happen -- various communication acts of Parliament. Even the people who put them through, the politicians who put them through Parliament, would admit on occasions they were fighting the last war or the last battle. The world is changing so -- the media world, the communications industry is changing so fast that it is incredibly difficult to keep up with it, so any piece of legislation would, I think, be very, very difficult. Nobody had heard of Twitter a couple of years ago. There will be something else that takes over from Twitter that we can't even imagine today. And obviously I know you have been debating ways of deciding what would full within the net, and what would fall outside it.

    But nobody in journalism thinks that the current system is adequate and in my view strenuous and serious and sincere efforts are being made to come up with some sort of system of independent regulation which obviously I know you are going to go on and look at in the next phase of your inquiry in great depth.

    From a journalist's perspective, there are, as you know, real fears that investigative journalism, legitimate investigative journalism, could be unwittingly curbed, restricted, by whatever new system we have, but I know that would be uppermost in your minds when you produces your proposals, and there is nobody that I know in my trade who thinks we can go on as we are. The dramatic events of recent years and the practices that have been exposed mean that a lot has to change and I think most journalists accept that and we are ready to embrace those changes.

  • Mr Grice, thank you very much. Is there anything else you would like to add or you would like to draw Lord Justice Leveson's attention to?

  • I would just make one final point about the lobby. I am not an elected officer of the lobby. We do have, you may be surprised to learn, elected officers and they would welcome perhaps the opportunity to send a written statement to the Inquiry explaining what we are and, more importantly, what we are not, just to put on the record some facts about the lobby, given some of the comments that have been made in previous hearings.

  • Well, if you pass back to the relevant officers of the lobby that they are very welcome to submit a statement. I shall, of course, consider it.

  • Thank you very much, Mr Grice.

  • Thank you very much. Thank you.

  • I think we might need just a few more minutes, sir, because the next witness is outside. Would you like to rise?

  • (A short break)

  • Sir, our next witness is Mr Webster.