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

  • MR PETER JOHN ROBERT RIDDELL (sworn).

  • Could you confirm your full name, please?

  • Yes. My name is Peter John Robert Riddle.

  • Are the contents of your witness statement true and correct to the best of your knowledge and belief?

  • You are currently director of the Institute for Government, which is a non-partisan charity concerned with improving the effectiveness of government?

  • You have been active in the Hansard Society for about two decades and you have chaired it for the last years?

  • And since making the statement, I stepped down from chairing it about two weeks ago.

  • I see. You are a Privy Councillor?

  • Indeed. That was related to being on the Detainee Inquiry.

  • And for nearly 40 years you were a journalist, first of all between 1970 and 1991 for the Financial Times and between 1991 and the middle of 2010 for the Times?

  • Mr Riddell, thank you very much for your very helpful statement. All contributions are valuable because they provide a different window on the problems that I have to address. I am very grateful to you.

  • Your long career as a journalist has included spells -- long spells, I should say -- both as a political journalist and as a political commentator.

    Could I ask you from that extent of experience to assist the Inquiry with the difference between the two?

  • I regard "political journalist" as covering both. Essentially, from 1981 until late '88, I was political editor of the Financial Times. In other words, I ran the reporting team. That was doing political news, news coverage. For a year, one of your assessors was one of my colleagues on that team. Then, when I came back, I had nearly three years in Washington as bureau chief of FT and then I came back near the end of 1991 and essentially, between 1991 and 2010, I was a commentator.

    The distinction between the two is in one, I was an analyst, essentially, for the Times, of political developments, interpreting them, their significance, and also for a period wrote a political column on what is known as the op-ed pages, which expressed my opinion. But there is a wide range of things between -- well, a commentator is someone who is all opinion and not much fact within it, and I always regard myself more as the analytical end of that.

    That was very distinct from doing news stories which were fact-based. There are clear lines between the two, but basically on the FT, I was a news reporter and on the Times I was a commentator and analyst.

  • You have had some managerial responsibilities. While working for the Times, you were responsible for signing off expenses. Could I just pause there to ask you what the culture was when you first assumed responsibility for expenses?

  • Well, that was -- I am trying to think. It would be the kind of mid-1990s. By that time, it was very tight, mainly because of what was then Inland Revenue, now HMRC, which required full itemisation of bills. So all expenses I signed off had to have specific bills, even if you are talking about an editor of your newspaper or -- there were problems identifying tube rides when you got on to the Oyster card system. But it was very specific because that was the Inland Revenue. The Revenue would only allow those as legitimate expenses of News International if they were itemised, so they were very specific. It was, by that stage, very tight.

    Now, certainly, when I first became a journalist in 1970 there was a culture which was much more lax than that. They didn't have to be fully itemised. That was less true on the FT. The FT was fairly more on the more tightly managed proper end of the scale, as you may not be surprised, but there was certainly a culture of giving expenses out on a more generous scale. But that had changed really by, I would say, the 1990s and whilst I was signing of expenses, it was always pretty tight and expenses were sent back if they weren't with an individual docket. As I say, that is mainly because of the Revenue.

  • You touch upon the question of opinion polling within the context of budgetary responsibility. Can I ask you to go a little further and tell us about the way in which the Times approached opinion polls. When you had commissioned an opinion poll, was it the usual practice to report all of the result or to be selective in order to advance an argument one way or the other?

  • Well, what happened, I mean, we first worked with MORI, what is now called MORI, and then Populace on polling. There was a slight gap in between when we didn't do polling for budgetary reasons, but effectively those two firms. What happened is I would discuss with a senior executive of the two firms what questions had been asked -- some of the standard questions -- you would always ask about voting intention and that involves about six different questions to get a proper voting intention, and some others were kind of regular ones. Then we would add on questions and it would a dialogue between myself and the person.

    Would we report all answers? Not necessarily, mainly for space reasons. However, what we did do, certainly in the latter period, is put all the answers on the internet. What would is after the results were published -- sometimes they would be published over two or three days, mainly so we got maximum bang for our buck on that. The person concerned, say when I was working with Populace, would say, "Can we put it all on the website?" So even if there were two or three questions which weren't published, they would all be there available to see. And the reason they weren't published -- it was purely for space reasons. I mean, I took a judgment on what the story was. There would often be a dialogue with the news desk but also, crucially, Populace and MORI were members of the British Polling Council, which has very high standards about how polls are represented, partly to do with phone-in polls, phone-in things and things like that, but it has very high standards for polling.

    I was actually, for a period, on their kind of ethics panel. We had to rule on what -- the use of one poll. But in general, there were high standards about how they could be presented, if you presented a sample size, when it was done, all that. But they wouldn't all be published, entirely for space reasons, but they were accessible to readers.

    And the question -- what was very clear at that time, for example -- and this isn't always true -- is that people could see what the actual question being asked was, because often that could be distorted quite easily.

  • It is important, isn't it, that people can see the question?

  • Absolutely. On the internet, that makes it much easier. What we do -- the very interesting thing also is there are two websites which monitor all published polls. There's something called betting.com(?), which is actually a very good analyst, and then there's a UK polling report. So every time a poll was published, I would be held to account by the two guys running those: Ashley Wells(?) and Mike Swiston(?). They would hold me to account. I mean, I often had a dialogue with them, saying, "Why do you ask that question?" Totally healthy to want them holding the press to account.

  • Moving to the question of the Westminster press lobby, the Inquiry has heard conflicting opinions as to how best to move forwards with the press lobby; do you have any views one way or the other?

  • It is a very, very long time since I was actively involved at all. I mean, I seriously didn't have a lobby ticket until two years as a commentator. I wasn't involved in meetings at all --

  • Could I ask you to slow down a little bit? This is all being transcribed and it might be your speed is catching people a little bit --

  • By surprise. I will absolutely respect that, for the record.

    What was true, on the lobby -- when I started off 31 years ago, as a reporter, it was a closed system, very male dominated, and it was -- there are three things like blue and red mantle. It did have more than explicit masonic links for some of the participants involved, which I thought was rather ridiculous myself, and it was a closed world.

    That broke down during the 80s when I was in the FT, largely because of a new generation of political reporters -- which believe it or not I was one then -- and also because, at the end of the decade, 24 hours news. So the lobby as a system -- people have a lobby ticket which entitles them to have access to parts of the palace of Westminster, although it doesn't really matter very much any longer, and there are daily briefings -- there will be one in half an hour at 11 o'clock -- by the Number 10 spokesman. But a lot of that now goes on the Internet. I regard the whole lobby system as a problem of 20, 30 years ago, rather than an issue of the present.

    Because of 24-hour news, because of the internet, it is largely defunct.

  • Going forwards, do you think that the press spokesman for Number 10 ought to be a civil servant or a non-civil servant?

  • It is a bit horses for courses, that. I regard it as a very personal role in relation to the Prime Minister. What happens now when you have a civil servant spokesman and in fact a different person as director of communications, I think on the whole works quite well. You probably have to recognise that it will depend on the personality of the Prime Minister. Actually, I thought it worked quite well under Alastair Campbell in a way because that everyone knew where Alastair was coming from and who he was and what he was. But I think the current system of having a civil servant spokesman to deal with governmental matters as opposed to part matters, even though they get blurred in Number 10 obviously, is quite a good idea. 10 Downing Street is inherently a political place, so one can't be too purist about it, but I think what they have now makes sense.

  • You describe in paragraph 2 of your statement an inherent tension between politicians and political journalists. You describe it as "locked in an embrace of mutual dependence, the occasional friendship, frequent suspicion and barely hidden bitterness and scorn".

    Is that a relationship that you see as inevitable and is going to endure?

  • Some of it is inevitable because there are different interests. Politicians want to get elected, they want to prosper in their political careers. Journalists want to find out what is going on. So there is going to be tension. But equally, there is a dependency. None of this is particularly new. If you go back historically, Palmerston used to go out riding with Delane, the great 19th century editor of the Times and gave him exclusive stories which I would have loved to have had in my days as a political journalist, to treaties and everything. But equally the Times often had a go at the governments of the 1850s, as memorably recounted by Trollop.

    None of this is new so there is always going to be a tension there. The danger is when the tension gets too great or the mutual dependency gets too great.

  • That is a danger to be guarded against?

  • Yes. But it is an inherent one. I don't think you can legislate or have rules against it.

  • On the subject of Mr Delane and Trollop, you include in your witness statement at the top of page 2 an arresting quote from the book "The Warden" about a character who is a thinly disguised version of Delane, which reads:

    "He loved to listen to the loud chattering of the politicians and to think how they were all in his power, how he could smite the loudest of them were it worth his whole to raise his pen for such a purpose. He loved to watch the great men of whom he daily wrote and flatter himself that he was greater than any of them."

    Moving from the mid-19th century to the early 21st century, that raises the question of the editor's power to launch a personal attack against a politician. Do you consider that that power still exists now?

  • Yes, it does. I mean, in a sense, if you compare it with the mid-19th century, the Times then had a semi-monopoly before the taxes on newspapers were cut. But now it is much more competitive. Yes, there remains that power to have campaigns against people, absolutely. You can see it in some newspapers. They have decided they are agin someone and they put the knife into them. I don't -- you don't have to read the papers too closely to realise the Sun and Daily Mail and Daily Express at present aren't total supports of Ken Clarke as justice secretary.

  • In your experience as a political journalist, is this a manifestation of the editor's power which the politician fears most, being singled out for a personal attack?

  • I don't think it is the one they fear most. They fear it. The one they fear most is something about their personal lives. In my experience, politicians are most apprehensive about stories about their families, about infidelities or about their financial affairs. That is the one they really fear. On the whole, politicians certainly are more robust than people in business about attacks on what they do professionally, what they do in their professional life. In my experience, businessman are very, very thin-skinned.

  • You describe a recent trend of the media seeking to supplant politicians as the wielders of power whilst disavowing that they are doing that. Can you help us with how, in your opinion, the media has been trying to supplant politicians as wielders of power?

  • I would really go back to the two long periods of one party government we had, from 1979 to 1997 with the Conservatives and 1997 to 2010 with Labour, when certainly in the first two elections of those cycles of one party rule, the opposition were never really competitive. So in that sense, the opposition were not seen as effective. Certainly some papers saw themselves as the only mechanism to hold the government of the day to account. They would regard themselves as having that role. You heard it in 2001, really up to Iraq, exactly the same in the mid-1980s.

  • You describe, further down page 2 of your witness statement, your personal involvement in arranging breakfast, lunches and dinners between politicians and journalists and also you graphically describe the sorts of dinners and receptions held at party conferences. In fact, reading from close to the bottom hole punch, you describe the latter in these terms:

    "They could often be gruesome and embarrassing events at which the often naive opinions and prejudices of the newspaper executive were treated with awkward politeness by the senior politician and fawning approval by the other executives present."

    Can you help us with an example, please?

  • I didn't have to arrange these events. My colleague, Phillip Webster, who you will be hearing from later this morning, he had the luckless task of having to arrange them. I attended them. The worst example I can think of was in October 2008, at the Labour conference, when -- the only time I met James Murdoch. He came to a dinner with Alastair Darling and it was pretty gruesome for all concerned. He criticised Alastair Darling over the earlier decision which Mr Darling had taken as then trade and industry secretary, over the requiring BskyB to sell its shares in ITV. This had occurred some years before. It was a historic thing; it wasn't anything to do with what has been the subject of this inquiry.

    It was both socially inappropriate for what is normally an exchange of political gossip and fairly inappropriate otherwise. It was all just a bit embarrassing. It was a classic English embarrassment where no one knew quite to look. I don't think -- you could ask Mr Darling what he thought. I don't think you would regard it as him being under any pressure or anything. It was just a bit gauche.

  • Have you any experience --

  • Can I just emphasise: that was a total exception, because in general the events I went to nobody would behave like that, because there was a real separation -- this is a very important point to make -- between my activities as a commentator at Westminster, and indeed the reporters at Westminster, and the commercial interests of News International. There was a complete separation. This was the only occasion in my 19 years when I saw that happen. The other occasions, if they were talking about business, they would certainly not do it within my earshot at all.

  • You are getting a bit speedy again.

  • I will slow down. I will look for the flag.

  • If you see steam coming out of the shorthand writer.

  • Are you aware of any deals between politicians and newspapers about exchanging one benefit for another?

  • None I observed at all. Because -- the reason I say anything like that was kept very separate, that anything the executives, who I didn't see much of anyway, of News International, or indeed the successive editors with whom I worked -- any discussions they would have with senior politicians, they certainly wouldn't want to involve the people of Westminster in that.

    Anyway, I think most of them were not at that level. It wasn't a kind of formal tit for tat. They would express their views. You have heard that from Rupert Murdoch, you have heard it from various editor. They would express their views and the politicians would listen and things would carry on. Not to say the politicians weren't well aware of the views, but the idea of a formal deal I never observed, anyway.

  • Did you sense there was any less formal, more sophisticated communication going on between politicians and proprietors or editors which amounted to mutual back-scratching?

  • It was more -- what I observed was a kind of slightly, as I say, jarring -- say parties, party conferences, whatever -- of -- it was more social -- praising each other and all that, rather than anything more specific, which you would describe as a deal. It was more feigning interest in their views, which I didn't feel politicians seriously had. They felt they had to indulge people. I mean, they had to indulge senior editors and others, rather than necessarily taking their views seriously. There were some important exceptions. Obviously, on Europe and other issues, which I refer to later in my evidence, they would pay attention.

  • You describe a recurring circle of initial closeness between prime ministers and the media and later disillusionment, not necessarily all happening whilst they are prime minister but including their early careers and you put John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in this category and I suppose with David Cameron the story is in play so we don't know the outcome. You describe this as being unhealthy for the public interest. Could you help us with what you think would be in the public interest so far as relationship at this very senior level should be?

  • Well, what I would think is probably not country suppers in the Cotswolds. A bit more professional -- yes, they're bound to mix socially, and I certainly mixed a lot socially with politicians, but as I think I say in the evidence, you have to be -- you can't be too close that you can't be robust in criticism of someone. They have to accept your professional role is to analyse, hold to account and sometimes be quite tough, and I think it gets over-intimate. I would favour -- of course people talk to each other, and that is inherent, it is always going to happen -- but less a kind of pretence of friendship.

    I think what one saw or has seen, really, in the last two decades, has been an aspect that the newspaper executive, sometimes the editor, and the senior politician aspire to friendship. Well, those friendships invariably go sour. You don't have to do much political history to see that when people have tried to be -- and often it is the wives as much as the husband as Prime Minister -- pretend to friendship when in fact is is acquaintanceship and in fact it is a professional relationship. My view has always been that for editors, for proprietors, they should be a little more distant and treat it more professionally. Sure, they have lunches with them, sure they talk to them, but not pretend to a kind of false friendship.

  • Would you agree with me that a healthy relationship would be one in which the journalist is able robustly to hold the politician to account?

  • Absolutely. As I said -- absolutely.

  • And where the journalist reports in a way which enables the reader to make an informed choice in his or her democratic participation in society?

  • Absolutely. I mean, I always regarded my job, both -- going back to your earlier question -- as a political reporter on the FT and a commentator on the Times, as being interpreting and explaining what was happening in the political world to readers. That is my absolute function in that.

  • And to communicating important facts accurately?

  • Absolutely. Accuracy is crucial to it.

  • Moving now to the question of fact and comments and whether or not it is possible to separate the two. What has been your experience?

  • Well, obviously you can find bad examples where they have been muddled and confused. I mean, some papers run clearly as campaigning papers where the facts are subsidiary to the opinions of the papers. You can flick through the papers this morning and readily see a blurring of fact. It is very difficult to define "fact" absolutely. If you are writing 450, 500 words you don't have the space to put in every nuance and every subtlety. I don't believe you can be purist on this because of space and also it is unfolding; any journalist only knows part of what is going on, normally.

    So you are looking at the tip of the iceberg -- I am trying to avoid mixing too many metaphors here. I am not sure you can have fast-moving icebergs. But you are observing one thing at one time, observing only part of it at best, let alone if you are working for a newspaper which has a particular slant on it. So whilst I always believed in trying to separate as far as possible, often the space constraints make it quite difficult.

    When I was a commentator, it was quite clear I was a commentator. I hoped to analyse and not be over-opinionated. When I was a news reporter, I tried to present the facts, but the selection of facts inevitably is inevitably a subjective process. It is not the same as delivering a judgment for a judge or anything like that. So one has to recognise in reality -- we know the extremes, but it is going to be blurred.

  • It is inevitably the case, isn't it, that if you are writing a piece and you have a view, then you will put in those facts which you consider appropriate, which won't necessarily give a balanced account, whatever the position?

  • Absolutely. Particularly given length. I mean, I point I would stress here is length of stories and that is quite an important point in that respect.

  • If objective perfection is quite impossible to achieve, is it reasonable to expect a journalist at least to write in a way which makes as clear as possible what is a fact and what is an opinion?

  • I don't think you can semaphore these. I tended to work at one end the trade and if you had people from here, from the Sun, et cetera, the Mail or the Express, they would regard me as hopefully high minded and a bit elitist and a bit out of touch, which I probably am. So one has to be careful on that.

  • I am asking because it is obviously a part of PCC code of conduct that the two should be kept apart, the distinction made clear --

  • It is possibly like the Sermon on the Mount. Well, perhaps the Sermon on the Mount is more read than the PCC code of conduct.

  • I am not sure about that, based on the evidence I've heard.

  • Well, in some of the aspects of it, certainly.

  • Do you think that it's a helpful part of the code or do you think it really is impractical?

  • What matters is what the culture of the news desk is, and the news room. That is what matters. The PCC code sounds absolutely fine, but in practice I practically never heard it invoked by anyone I worked for. It is the culture of the news desk dealing with reporters is what matters.

  • You talk in your witness statement about the danger of journalists being too politically identified with MPs or ministers; could you expand about that and tell us a little bit more about what you mean?

  • There are two issues there. One is you can become too close. It is a danger. I, as a political journalist for a long time, got to know senior politicians very well, some socially. It has been referred to in some of your earlier evidence. I have been mentioned. You do get to know them very well, of all parties. People come to one's parties, I go to their parties and so on, and I believe that is an aspect of it. Again, you have to guard against it. Can you write about them in a way you write about other people? It is a very difficult one because political journalists are unlike a lot of other journalists, partly because people do it for longer, on the whole, and also because of the very intimacy of Westminster. In most journalism, you make an appointment to see someone and you interview them; in political journalism, you are bumping into them all the time in Westminster and therefore you will have a casual conversation. For example -- I can't remember if I put it -- yes, I did give it in the evidence -- after the 1983 election, I asked John Smith which Labour MPs I should get to know, and he said Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, of course, in that order at that time, and I did get to know them and it was hopefully interesting in the readers and well as me that I did over the period. You get to know them quite well, certainly in their rise, less so when they're at the top. And that is true of any political journalist doing their job, and you have to guard against that.

    The other one is the ideological call point. There's an ideological thing of -- perhaps I am naturally someone in the centre, in the middle, but some colleagues, perhaps increasingly so over my period as a political journalist, felt an ideological identification too.

  • In terms of keeping the relationship healthy, do we come back again simply to keeping a sufficient professional distance?

  • Yes, and also something I mention is that if the relationship did get revealed, could you defend it? A point I make later on.

  • Yes, the Private Eye test, to which we shall come.

  • Before we do that, can we look at the difference between politicians in government and politicians in opposition. You see no fundamental distinction, but if there is no fundamental distinction, there are some practical differences, aren't there? First of all, the politician in government is very much better resourced; isn't that right?

  • Also, and also cocooned by the machine much more, particularly prime ministers. Once they are in Number 10, there is the whole superstructure of spokesmen, security and so on. Again, it goes back to my point about Westminster. The opposition politician is more accessible. You are going to bump into them much more around Westminster than you can senior ministers because senior ministers are busy at their departments and are constantly charging round. It is partly a matter of access. But you are right; there is a kind of panoply around them, but the basic relationship is the same. Indeed, the successful political journalist will cultivate people in opposition, thinking they are quite likely to be in government at some stage, even if sometimes the waiting period is rather a long one.

  • When the political journalist is dealing with the cocooned politician in office -- presumably that means dealing not directly but with spokesmen and advisers -- are there any additional ethical issues for the political journalist to be aware of?

  • Not really, no. None bar the basic ones.

  • There is another feature, isn't there, of the politician in government, in that he or she will have control of information which is of intense interest to the political journalist?

  • Well, they like to think they have control. They have some control. They like to think they have control. I'm not sure some of the witnesses the Inquiry has heard from would regard themselves as having much control of information recently, partly because of the Internet, partly because -- partly because governments aren't monolithic. It is not just a coalition government, which is obviously true -- it is not monolithic; it is the opposite -- but of all governments, that you have competing ministers. So one minister is quite happy to brief against another and that is life.

    So one shouldn't assume -- unlike a company, say. A company tends to be much monolithic in structure and its presentation of its image. Governments are much less so.

  • If we take, for example, stories about new government initiatives or policies, have you ever sensed that politicians have tried to control their supply to the media, perhaps through selectively supplying them to certain favoured journalists in advance?

  • Absolutely. I mean, some of that happens. But there is an awful lot of news around. It doesn't mean there is a dearth of news in other papers. It was true that certainly when the Times was supporting New Labour, the Times was -- and other brands -- the Sun was and other papers -- were favoured with some kind of stories, but it is only a small part of the stories the paper runs.

  • Are you able to help us as to why they were so favoured?

  • They thought they would get sympathetic treatment -- I mean, you can argue -- I wouldn't say tit for tat, but there was an implicit aspect to it. It was more they would get sympathetic treatment. The other factor is -- and it's a very difficult one for a journalist -- that if you are told of a new initiative and obviously you know there is a motive behind it, they want to get the most favourable treatment they can, you are not going to say, "No, I am not going to listen to this, I am not going to take this story"; what you will do is you will say, "This is a very good story", but you will try to balance it with other information.

  • Is the selective or careful supply of government news stories to selected journalists something that was confined to a particular period in our political history or is it something that continues?

  • Well, it is perennial.

  • Moving now to the question of the influence which newspapers have, you express a scepticism about the impact which the press have on the outcome of elections, but what you say in your opinion does matter is the tone and substance of press coverage between elections, rather than during campaigns. Perhaps an example of that is you think the Sun's earlier hostility to the Major government, rather than its final backing for Labour --

  • -- as the more important.

  • No, I mean, as the Inquiry has already heard, the Sun's hostility to the Major government started pretty early on, and what was not said between Kelvin McKenzie and John Major. The gist of it was very clear; the coverage was very hostile. So when the Sun, on the eve of the election campaign came out in 1997, came out backing Tony Blair -- as much backing Tony Blair as Labour -- all the opinion poll evidence showed quite clearly that the Sun's readers had switched away from the Conservatives and in favour of Labour a long time before.

    In fact, the net effect, which you could easily measure in the polls, of the Sun's declaration of support was non-existent, because the change had already happened. It had been the earlier coverage which had been more significant. Indeed, in many respects, newspapers follow their readers, rather than lead them.

  • We may explore that in a little more detail in a short while, but can I ask you this: some newspapers have pretty obvious and fixed political perspectives; others have been known to change their support from one election to the next. Is the latter type of publication perhaps the floating voter of the newspaper world? Do they have a particular hold and power over politicians who wish to court them?

  • That is where it features in my point about being too close. I think that the politicians understandably -- I mean, both Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell have been quite frank about it. They wanted at least to neutralise the Sun and were pleased obviously when the Sun supported them, naturally, because they would rather have them on-side rather than off-side and they did court them.

    But again, I think the key point there is it wasn't -- on the whole, the papers which switched sides switch to backing winners. Anyone who has studied the history of Rupert Murdoch around the world knows he likes backing winners. Perfectly reasonably thing to do commercially, perfectly sensible commercially.

    So it is not a kind of floating voter; it is much more seeing where power is going. Again, it is virtually all following a shift in public opinion which has already occurred.

  • Turning now to what you have to say at paragraph 6 of your witness statement about how journalists and politicians should interact. You described the Private Eye test; could you explain that to us, please?

  • That goes back a long time to my period on the Financial Times when I was a financial journalist. This is way before the FSA and formal rules on that. The then editor of the Financial Times, called Freddie Fisher, remembers saying, "Just think what would happen if what you were doing and any contacts you had appeared in Private Eye. Could you defend them?" Not that they should appear, but if they did, could you defend them? I always regard that as not a bad test for life, not something should happen, but could you -- obviously, when I was a financial journalist, I was a member of the LEX column team, the financial team, and we didn't actually have very much money at the time so there were no temptations. But it was that if I was doing anything financial -- the only financial thing I was doing was a mortgage -- I should be able to defend it.

    Now, of course, there are elaborate rules under the FSA and all that. I regard that as a good test for journalists -- well, anyone in public life, actually, and I have found that even -- you know, in my relations with politicians throughout my long period as a journalist, I have tried to abide by that test.

    Of course, I would have very private conversations with them -- very private, often -- and I would meet people socially. Not that it should become public but if it did, could I say, "Well, that is okay. Why not?"

  • Does it amount to an exhortation to check the moral and professional compasses frequently?

  • I seldom thought explicitly in those terms. I think it is more basic than that; does it feel right?

  • If it comes down to very subjective questions like that, how does one imbue a culture where journalists follow that rule?

  • I just hope more of my colleagues would follow it, partly through sometimes when it is exposed and they are embarrassed -- and we have had a few bits of embarrassing evidence before this Inquiry, both for politicians and for journalists, and that public exposure is quite a corrective, actually.

  • No doubt exposure and shaming can have a corrective effect but does it require more than that? Does it require leadership from the top?

  • It requires an ethos in any organisation about how people should behave. I think that is the key, that it is quite clear how things should be handled and that ethos does affect how the staff on a newspaper should behave. I am now a chief executive director of a group of 35 people. I hope my behaviour influences that of my colleagues. Leaving aside any formal rules we have (inaudible) government, naturally people do follow what the leadership does.

  • Turning to the question of what meetings between politicians and journalists should and should not be recorded. The views you set out are that contacts between ordinary journalists and, should I say, ordinary politicians ought not to be recorded at all, but at the more senior level, where there are contacts with editors and corporate executives and ministers and civil servants, there ought not be just recording meetings in the way they are at present but going further; is that right?

  • There are two aspects. The first aspect is I think it is impractical to have every conversation between a politician and a journalist recorded and if you put down rules they would be evaded. So again, it comes back to subsequent disclosure, shaming.

    I think it is slightly different with news executives because of the possible commercial aspects to it. So I would be in favour of extending what the current government has introduced, and all credit to them for introducing it. I mean, I am in favour of extending that, because again, there are quite a lot of loopholes there, again as exposed in this inquiry.

  • Do you have any particular ideas in mind, or is it just a principal thought?

  • It is a principal thought. You could say that when there is a social meeting that should be recorded. You could extend the definitions and I would, on the whole, be for a tighter definition, rather than the current one, which is a bit narrowly based.

  • You tell us a little bit about your perception of the modern media environment at the top of page 5 of your witness statement and you say the tone of political debate has become more heated and biased against information and understanding in favour of the expression of often angry opinion. Do you think this has been good or bad for the public interest?

  • Can I preface that by one thing; that is very much associated with the rights of the Internet. I am very much in favour of the expression, freedom of expression provided by the Internet and I think it is fantastic. I think voters, citizens, are much better off than they were 20 years ago. There is much greater access, a lot of it is free access. It presents a lot of dilemmas for newspaper groups but I think it is a good thing.

    However, it has also freed the kind of ranter. So I think there is now -- and it certainly applies to newspapers as well as on the Internet -- a bias towards vigorous expression of opinion, rather than necessarily analysis. I mean, analysis and factual reporting are expensive; ranting costs nothing.

  • My question is whether --

  • Sorry, it is a bad thing.

  • -- it is a bad thing?

  • If it is a bad thing, is that something that can be remedied or is it simply past the point of no return?

  • I don't think it is actually past the point of no return. I think we are now, with the Internet, we are still in a massively evolving state, and certainly with newspapers and their response to the Internet. I think it is a matter of partly what consumers want and it is also a matter of partly a shaming process. I mean, I am very much in favour -- and I know you are hearing John Lloyd later on, who strongly takes this view as well -- of rigorous self-criticism, that when papers produce things which are clearly biased in various ways, there ought to be people -- the Internet provides a perfect opportunity for that -- who take them to task. I am in favour -- previously, there has almost been a feeling of dog doesn't bite dog. Now I think I am in favour of saying if something is manifestly nonsense, if an allegation is made about something, there ought to be something else in the broader media firmament which takes it to task.

  • Moving to the question of proprietors --

  • Just while you are talking about the internet, it is, of course, one of the great problems: that good, vibrant healthy journalism costs money, because your journalists have to investigate the stories and write them up, whereas the Internet has given everyone access, for free, to something which does actually cost money to produce. If you have any ideas in that area, I would be very interested to receive them.

  • A think a lot of other people would be very interested to receive them to. I think that the route taken by my former proprietor -- in fact, just at the time I was leaving the Times -- of charging -- you have to monetise it, to use a horrible bit of jargon. Ultimately, charging is the only route. There's no reason why journalism has to be provided freely, but when so much quality journalism is basically available free, obviously people take the free journalism.

    Ultimately, one has to move to a stage where people can make money out of the Internet. I believe absolutely that is going to happen, and whether the decision on the Times is the right time or not -- and it is different for the FT because that is a niche product and if they were to do it internationally, very successfully. But ultimately that direction is the right direction.

  • On the question of proprietors, on your long experience working for the FT and the Times, have you ever been pressured in any way whatsoever as to what you should write?

  • No. But that may be because of me. A friend of mine described me as a professor in the attic. I always have had a slightly detached role, which may be because I wasn't at the centre of the paper particularly, certainly on the Times, of writing my own commentaries, and I was never pressured op the opinion I expressed at all.

    Obviously, there is a discussion about the topic I raised. It is perfectly legitimate for editors to say, "Well, you know, we don't want you to writing about X subject for the fifth time in two weeks. Why don't you write about Y subject?" But the opinion I took was mine and the analysis I took -- and I was never under any pressure on that, and I might add, that made quite good commercial sense for the papers, at a far more elevated level than me.

    During the Iraq war, the Times, which was vigorously pro-war, had two of its most prominent columnists, Matthew Paris and Simon Jenkins, who were vigorously opposed to the war. I think that pluralism of opinion was actually a strong selling point for the Times and remains so too.

    In that respect, it is very different in the Sun or News of the World, and so on. But I was never under any pressure, certainly not in the FT and not in the Times. But that may be partly because of me.

  • Moving to the question of spin. You describe the phenomenon and give an example at paragraph 10 of your witness statement. What I would like to ask you is: do you think spin is still going on?

  • "Spin" is a word invented and will always be associated with Alastair Campbell. Spin has always existed. As a story by background, if you look, there are some wonderful books about how Queen Elizabeth I and the Stuart monarchs conveyed their image. I am sure that is actually spin. Elizabeth I's great speeches were spin.

    Now, the technology has changed, certainly. We now have -- and all that. But political leaders have always tried to influence people and they have always tried to use the media as a the method of communication. So we get worked up about the word "spin". There is a whole industry of people who have written about spin doctors. They have very, very short historical memories.

    But what's happened, which is very important, is that the technology has changed and there is 24-hour news. 24-hour news demands the instant response. I mean, a number of times in the last few weeks, I watched the proceedings from this Inquiry and underneath, on either Sky or BBC News, it has "breaking news". That requires an instant response and that breaking news phenomenon is an important difference from the past.

  • On that very subject, you say the urgency of 24-hour news can also force policy decisions or often gimmicky initiatives; is there anything that can be done about that?

  • Politicians can be a bit more robust. I would say the sensible politicians are those that pause and think. It is difficult to do. It is not easy to do. For all -- their advisers are saying, "Look, something appeared in the Today programme at 7.30. We have to have our response in by 8.00, often, to hit the headlines at 8.00", or: "Something has happened mid-morning. We have to get it right by lunchtime news."

    I think an ability to say, "We need to think about things", or -- the latest development isn't necessarily the most significant development. That is easy for me to preach; it's very hard to do in practice, very hard indeed.

    But the danger often is of instant initiatives which are self-defeating, don't actually help the politician in the long-term at all. But the long-term is frequently a long time away when you have 24-hour news.

  • You talk in your witness statement at the top of page 6 about the Euro-sceptic current in British newspapers and identify this, if I have understood you correctly, as one area where the media really has had a significant impact on government policy; is that right?

  • Yes, I think a very long-term -- it really goes back to Baroness Thatcher's Bruges speech and that development. It is also generational change too. Not to say that hasn't reflected -- I mean, you have a chicken and egg issue here. It hasn't reflected the views of readers. I certainly do not believe that any kind of prevailing Euro-sceptic current in British public opinion is the creation of the Sun or the Mail or the Telegraph. That is absurd. Britain's attitude to Europe has always been different from that of many continental countries. But it has been a reinforcing factor. It's not been not a creating factor; it has been a generally reinforcing factor over a considerable period of time.

    Above all, the really important point, it's made the politicians risk averse. If you look through the whole Blair premiership, for better or worse -- in some respects, you may regard it as better -- he was wary of joining the euro because he realised it would be a massive political battle because of the Euro-sceptic press. It was another hurdle which would have to be faced.

  • That takes us on to the extent to which newspapers do speak for their readers. You say that sometimes they do but on other occasions, the words you use are:

    "Claims to speak for their readers are humbug."

    Can you put some flesh on the bones of that assertion, please?

  • When I read either a column or a leader in the paper saying, "Our readers think this", I am very sceptical. They either judge it by totally unscientific methods, which is either volume of emails or, less often now, letters. They don't actually analyse what their readers think. Indeed, in most cases, most newspapers' opinions are formed by half a dozen people. The leaders on virtually every paper are written by half a dozen people. Most of the staff aren't involved. I was a leader writer for year on Times. I became very cynical about the process. There are half a dozen of us sitting round with our opinions. Most of the several hundred staff involved at the time weren't involved at all. It was editor and half a dozen people.

    So when editors claim to speak for their readers, they haven't analysed their readers' opinions. I would qualify that in one way: that when there is an issue coming up -- and some papers have done some really good campaigning on this, at all ends of the spectrum -- that often it is an issue of consumer complaint or whatever, which does come from the readers through. But when they claim to speak on the opinion of readers, that is where I am sceptical. It is not the actual complaints raised by readers about, say, some consumer thing -- the controversy of a fare pack, for example, that type of thing. I think they do reflect their readers' concerns and some really good campaigns have been fought on that. I don't denigrate that at all. I think a lot of really good things have happened. But what I am sceptical of is when they suddenly, in a rather Stentorian way, claim to speak for their readers.

  • On the question as to the impact the media has on public appointments, both appointments and sackings, we are all aware that there are lots of campaigns for members of the government at various times to resign, and there is no criticism of that taking place, but do you have any observations about the way in which the media goes about campaigns for the scalps of individual politicians?

  • Well, it is part of a broader issue, a blame culture, that if something goes wrong there is a demand for resignation. We see this in the debate about ministerial code, that any breach of the code is regarded as immediately a resignation matter and the sense of -- in life, lots of things going wrong. I am very struck with this now, working at the Institute for Government, where we deal with government effectiveness. If you look at virtually any project, quite a large number of them in the private sector, let alone government, will go wrong. That's what happens in business. There seems to be no awareness of this in a lot of political debate and certainly a lot of media treatment of it, so when something goes wrong it is always treated as an immense scandal and therefore someone's head must roll, when in fact what most people want is it put right.

    You could argue, for example, about what's happened over the weekend, about what's happened with, NatWest and the bank accounts. What really matters to people who have accounts there is that they have access to them. There is a later matter to find out what happened but to immediately demand resignations, as I am sure is being demanded, is the wrong way to approach it. But the media coverage on a lot of appointments is: whenever anything goes wrong the person must resign. It is hard for the politician, in the context of 24-hour news, to stand up to that and say, "Hold on, I am going to see what the overall picture is."

    There were a number of instances during the Blair era when the demand for resignation almost became self-fulfilling very quickly, that the Prime Minister felt they had to accede to the build up of pressure, throughout all the media, Parliament and so on, for a resignation, instead of saying, "This is not necessarily a resigning matter."

  • In your current work, is any thought being given to the work of special advisers, and what are your views about any guidance that should be given to them about working with the media?

  • I was very struck in the last session with the Prime Minister, the exchange Sir Brian had on special advisers. We at the Institute of Government -- we have a strand on political leadership, on -- we work with ministers, we work with opposition politicians and we work with special advisers. It is quite clear that the weakest area for induction and preparation is special advisers. The ministers -- we at the Institute have been very active in that, both in opposition, providing help and advice to understand how government works -- it is all about machinery, not policy -- and we have done a programme with opposition politicians now. But with special advisers, the politicians -- the ministers and opposition leaders have been reluctant to involve social advisers in this, partly because they are not clear who is going to be in government as a special adviser, then they are quickly appointed in government and there is no time.

    I think some of the problems which have emerged in this inquiry are the result of insufficient induction and training. We are trying to do some stuff now at least with the Government on that. We are working quite intensively on that. We wish we could have done it a little bit earlier.

    Our involvement is much more on the effectiveness side than the ethical side, which is understandably what you are concerned with in the Inquiry, but the same principle applies, because unlike ministers, most of whom have been politicians for a long time -- and they have been around, the know ethical standards -- a lot of special advisers are 24-, 25-year-olds with minimal background in the political process. They're then put into positions of considerable influence and pressure on both sides.

    So I am strongly in favour of proper induction, proper training, if possible, whilst the party is still in opposition, although that is not always easy, but certainly when they come into government, and the way I read what David Cameron is saying, he is aware of that that but there is a long way to go. We are certainly, at the Institute of Government, doing some work at present with special advisers, and we're trying to do more, mainly on the effectiveness, how they operate. But there are clearly some big problems here.

  • Actually, I am not sure there is a distinction, because they can't be effective if they don't understand the parameters in which they have to work.

  • I agree. The point being we're mainly concentrating on how -- I don't disagree with that, but our emphasis is more on understanding the government machine and so on. But I agree with you. Absolutely, it is vital they get the ethical dimension right. I am not disagreeing with that.

  • Have the Institute of Government yet put any proposals or formulated any proposals in that regard?

  • One of my colleagues gave evidence to a current inquiry going into special advisers by the Public Administration Select Committee of the Commons. Bernard Jenkins, Committee of the Commons, is currently investigating special advisers, and the gist of our evidence, which I can certainly forward to the Inquiry -- and we have done a certain amount of work on this -- is all about induction and training and how that can be strengthened. Certainly, the ethical fits into the effectiveness and I can certainly let the inquiry have that.

  • I would be grateful if you would.

  • Final from me, Mr Riddell. Looking at the concluded thoughts section of your witness statement, you say:

    "In general, politicians and the media are bound to have a close relationship, but it needs to be less cosy, more open and more robust."

    Is there anything you wish to add to what you have said already as to how we can go about achieving that in the future?

  • All I would say is it is behavioural rather than by rules. I think it is very, very difficult to have rules to do that. It has to be by behaviour, exposure. If I might describe the truth and reconciliation aspect of the current Inquiry, which is quite a big aspect of the Inquiry, by lifting up, forcing all kinds of people -- from people like me to senior editors, politicians, proprietors to explain what they have done will itself have a valuable impact. Perhaps not forever, perhaps for a time. I think people will ask their internal clock, as a good clock will ask things. Essentially, it is about personal leadership, rather than rules.

  • Is there a space at all for rules? I understand entirely what you said and there is a enormous amount of force in that observation, but is there a space for something else, and if so, what? If you don't want to answer, you certainly don't have to.

  • I think there are some rules that could be clarified. We have just mentioned special advisers.

  • That is really an off-shoot to --

  • I know. I am just thinking. For journalists, it is more the leadership given by news desks and so on, what is acceptable behaviour. When things have gone on I have observed, it has more been the ethos that has been wrong. No one refers to the PCC rules in extremis. It is partly -- for political journalist, those issues don't come up that often, actually. It is more the culture -- the classic is the story is too good to check, which I always -- infuriated me. It is a competitive environment. Young reporters want to get their stories in the paper. It is hard to get political stories in the paper, compared with a few years ago, so the story is too good to check. It is that kind of culture. That is why I say it is very much how news operations are run, what political editors do, leading teams that would make a change, rather than specific rules. I am just sceptical about what rules will actually do.

  • Well, I understand that scepticism. Mr Riddell, thank you very much indeed.

  • I am sorry I was a bit fast at the beginning. My natural enthusiasm.

  • I have no doubt.

    We will just take a few minutes, thank you.

  • (A short break)

  • Good morning, sir. The next witness is Mr Andrew Grice.

  • Good. Thank you very much.