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

  • MR PHILIP GEORGE WEBSTER (sworn).

  • Mr Webster, could you give the inquiry your full name, please?

  • Phillip George Webster.

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

  • Mr Webster, thank you very much indeed for the comprehensive way which you have dealt with the questions I asked. Thank you.

  • You are currently the editor of the Times website and you were previously the political editor of the Times. You joined the Times as long ago now as 1973, initially in the House of Commons Press Gallery, and then you became a political reporter in 1981, chief political correspondent in 1986 and political editor in 1993; is that right?

  • Perhaps you could help us by distinguishing, having done both jobs, the reporter in the gallery from the reporter in the lobby?

  • Well, in those days there were more gallery reporters than lobby reporters. The gallery reporter reported the proceedings in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords. Latterly, I also covered proceedings in the European Parliament. But it was mainly the Lords and Commons. And our job then was to do a pretty straight report of what was said. You had to have very fast shorthand to do it. In those days, there were no handouts of speeches, no tapes allowed in the House of Commons, so it was a very straight reporting job.

    The lobby, in those days, was a smaller organisation. As I say in the statement, it has taken over as, I suppose, the more important or the bigger body in the press gallery, and the lobby is more about reporting what the government and opposition of the day are up to, anticipating events, a little bit of speculation here and there.

    But the balance between the two has changed completely over the years that I was in the House of Commons.

  • You have worked for no fewer than eight editors of the Times. Perhaps, therefore, you can help us as to whether you discerned any particular quality for which they were selected?

  • They were all very, very good editors. I would say that, I know, but they were all extremely good editors. They were different characters. There were people who were interested in policy than news, and there were people, for example, like Charles Wilson, who was about my fourth editor, who was a newsman to his boots. Different characters, all of them, and the list of them -- I think you would agree, they are very different people.

  • Did they all share a similar political worldview or were they different?

  • No, I think they would have been people with whom -- with whom Rupert Murdoch, the News Corporation, would have been comfortable, but they were all very different people. I don't recall all of them expressing political views. Again, Mr Wilson, particularly, I don't remember him expressing strong political views on different matters. Simon Jenkins, a completely different character to James Harding, for example, who you have already had before the Inquiry.

  • You describe as a mutual dependency between the politician and the reporter, the politician wanting to spread or his or her message and the reporter wanting a story to report. You say that during your career, you have seen an increase in confrontation between reporter and politician and a decrease in the deference evidence paid by the reporter to the politician.

    You also mention, later in your statement, a decline in the respect which has been shown by the reporter to the politician, and I gather that that is something which, on occasions, has concerned you; could you explain, please?

  • Well, there were occasions I think where the treatment of certain leaders got a little bit -- was over the top, I think. I recall newspaper treatment of Neil Kinnock, John Major, latterly of Gordon Brown, where it got too personal and in a sense I felt that was going a little bit too far. But I don't regret the passing of the age of deference at all. I remember in the late 1960s, when I joined the Times, there was a much more deferential attitude of reporters towards politicians. I am rather glad that is all gone.

    It is just in some cases I think the treatment has been just a little bit too personal at times.

  • You draw a clear distinction between deference on the one hand and the respect on the other?

  • Thinking of the lobby, do you think for the future the public interest is best served by having a civil servant giving news briefings or by a political appointee?

  • I think this current system where you have a civil servant briefing is probably the best one. All leaders, all prime ministers, need people who speak for them on their sort of political stance, their political interest. They have people to do that. They have directors of communication. I think it should be a civil servant because he is speaking for the government of the day and he is telling the world out there what the government of the day is doing. I think it has worked in the last two governments for that to happen.

  • Moving to the question of unattributable utterances by politicians to journalists, you say that that is often the way to get hold of the deeper insights from the politician; can you help us with an example, please?

  • Well, you will get more out of a politician off the record than you will on, and that is always going to be the case. Thinking back in my career, I would have done a story 10 years ago that Tony Blair was likely to move towards a referendum on the European constitution. I got that from a very senior source on the government, but I can assure you he would not have told me on the record at the time; it was such a sensitive subject. It's that -- people will tell you more off the record than on. A young reporter coming back into my office will often say, "He said this, he said that", and I would often say to him: "What did he say off the record?" I would often be more interested in what the politician had to say off the record than on.

  • By "off the record", do you mean material which can be published but just not with attribution?

  • That's right. Material that can be used.

  • Is it incumbent on the journalist to be particularly careful about checking such stories or is the reality that it is just not possible --

  • Oh no, you have to be sure about what you are writing and the biggest certainty there is that you would never use that source again if that source gave you a piece of information that turned out to be totally wrong. That was always the discipline that I would apply. I don't think I was ever badly misled, but you certainly wouldn't use the source again if he or she told you something which turned out to be wrong.

  • You describe, rather like Mr Riddell, a cycle whereby recent prime ministers -- and you name John Major and Tony Blair -- initially have very good relations with the press but eventually become disillusioned; would you add to Gordon Brown to that list?

  • Yes, I would, yes. I think in all cases they began with good relations. John Major built good relations with the press on his way to Downing Street, but he became very quickly disillusioned with the press afterwards.

  • At paragraph 9 of your witness statement, you relate to us the decrease of reporting from the parliamentary chamber and so that source of factual information about politics has obviously whithered away. But can I ask you about the volume of factual political reporting itself; has that declined or increased over the years?

  • I would say it has increased considerably over the years. The space -- certainly at the Times, we once had -- we always had, in my early days, a full page of the Times, eight columns, without an advert, devoted to gallery reporting. All of that space and more has been taken by political stories. News desks and newspapers are voracious in their appetite for political stories. It is more personality based than it was in those days gone by, but newspapers believe political stories sell.

  • If there has been an overall increase in factual information published about politics and a decrease in straight parliamentary reporting, where is all this factual information coming from?

  • It comes from all the people we would call sources around the place: civil servants, advisers, MPs, ministers. All of those people are our sources of information, as well as government departments.

  • You also tell us about the development of a class which you term the "commentariat". Can I take it there has been an increase not only in factual political reporting but also in political commentary?

  • Yes, when I talk about the commentariat, I am talking about those people who appear on the op-ed pages of the Times, the piece set aside for commentary.

    Most reporting now of political stories will have a commentary alongside it, and your previous witness, Peter Riddell, wrote the commentaries in the Times. But it was very clearly delineated on the page that this was commentary and not straight reporting. So it would say "Peter Riddell's political briefing" but it might be alongside a story by me about whatever, and Peter would be commenting on it.

    So there was a separation and as I regarded my job as the news gatherer in chief and I was very, very careful to make sure that my stories didn't contain any views or anybody else's views; they merely presented what was going on.

  • So do you think it is possible, going forwards, for newspapers conscientiously to distinguish facts from comment?

  • I think the Times is a living example of the fact that that can happen. I think it does happen now and I think it should continue to happen.

  • From your knowledge of the newspaper industry, would you like to make any comments about whether or not your competitors have been able to do the same thing?

  • Well, the Times is an independent paper. It switches between parties. It has switched between parties in recent years. But I would say that papers like the Mail and the Telegraph, which are associated with the Conservative Party, make a very strong job of reporting factually what is going on. Just occasionally, the headlines might be much more comment than the stories that appear under them. You sometimes feel with a headline that it is reflecting the view of the paper, whereas the story underneath that headline is perfectly factual. That is the only thing I would say there. I think most papers, whether they have a concern -- if a paper has a Conservative bias, that does not mean that its readers are all Conservative and the readers wouldn't like it if they felt the information was being stuffed down their throats.

  • Can I take it with your answers that you are entirely comfortable with the PCC code which contains a clause requiring separation --

  • I am happy with it, yes. I am perfectly happy with that code, yes.

  • In paragraph 13 on page 4 of your witness statement, you tell us a little bit about the cash for access story and the Sunday Times' use of subterfuge to obtain that story. Obviously, you don't work for the Sunday Times and were not directly involved in that, but can I ask you: so far as the use of subterfuge by the electronic Times is concerned, what do you think are the necessary precursors to a decision to use subterfuge?

  • You would have to go into it in considerable detail. I am sure the Sunday Times did in that case. In our series that began last week of exclusives -- the disclosures about the tax system and tax avoidance -- we too used an undercover reporter to become involved in that. I know there was a huge amount of discussion within the Times office about the way we went about our investigation, and I think provided -- you know, provided what you are after is in the public interest -- you have to believe that what you are doing is in the public interest -- such techniques are perfectly okay, and it is my hope that in the follow-up to the hacking scandal that these kinds of methods, although unusual, can still be used in the future, because clearly there is a place for them if the public interest serves that need.

  • But with prior thought, great care and --

  • Huge care. I mean, I know that we had several weeks of discussion about how to carry out that investigation at the Times and it is bearing fruit now and it has produced, I think, stories that are very much in the public interest.

  • Mr Webster, do you think that it is possible to distinguish between taking steps such as you have just outlined for stories in the public interest and being able to restrain yourself from doing similar things for stories which do not necessarily have a public interest?

  • I think it is, and I think you are on to an issue that we discussed in the Times office over recent weeks. We did not want to go on a fishing expedition, which I think is what you may be referring to. We found from our own sources certain pieces of information. We needed to check it out. The only way we could do it was to use an undercover reporter in that situation, but we didn't just send him out there and say, "Go and on talk to these -- go and pretend that you are something else in this situation."

    It was very carefully planned, the whole operation. So I would say yes, it is. I imagine the Sunday Times -- I had no involvement in the Sunday Times investigation, but I imagine that is possible.

  • Now, I appreciate that considerable thought, particularly in the present circumstances and with everything going on as it is, would be obviously given to that sort of story, but is there any reason, in your long professional experience, why proper investigative journalism should be chilled, if you like -- that is the word that is frequently used -- if there are mechanisms -- and I am not suggesting what they would be, and whether they would be in place -- that actually criticised the use of such techniques where there was no public interest?

  • No. I don't know what is going to come out of this inquiry or the joint committee's inquiry, but if there is a strong public interest defence, which of course is not available at the moment in law -- the stronger the public interest defence written into law, the better. I can't see any reason why comments of that kind should stop future investigative journalism.

  • I am not sure it needs to be written into law, because it is there already. You do it already, don't you?

  • I mean, we do it, but I think we would like a firm defence of public interest journalism.

  • Now, let me just test that with you for a moment, because doesn't that create a real risk -- because you will never disclose your sources, and I am not asking you to disclose a source. Wouldn't there then be a risk that every single time somebody had undertaken what, in truth, was a fishing expedition for something comparatively trivial, the answer would be: "Oh well, we had a source we are not prepared to name who told us A, B and C and that justified doing what we did. The fact we didn't get it was fine, but we did get something, and once we got it, then we were entitled to report it." It is almost impossible to challenge it, isn't it? Do you see the point I am making?

  • I can see the point. I think in the wake of what has happened over the last year and more, newspapers would have to take a totally responsible approach to such investigations and there would have to be an audit trail from the start of the investigation to show that it wasn't just, as you call it, a fishing expedition and it was based on information that you had received and that you wanted to prove to the reading public.

  • I understand that, but my concern is that it isn't difficult, is it, to say, "I had a very good source. I have used him 26 times before. He has been right 26 times out of 26, and this provided me with a tremendously good potential line. Don't ask me who it is; I wouldn't dream of telling." So therefore although on paper you have set up a perfectly sensible audit trail, actually, there was nothing there at all and you would never be able to get behind that. Any investigator wouldn't be able to get behind the fact that you wouldn't name your source for understandable reasons, and for good important investigative reasons. I recognise that entirely.

  • I see your point. All I would say is that I just hope that in today's climate -- and I hope it continues to be the climate -- newspapers would not do that in a misleading way. That is my hope.

  • Looking at that from a slightly different perspective, under the present system, where there is no explicit public interest defence, public interest still comes into the equation. The prosecutor has to decide that is in the public interest to mount the prosecution, the judge can stop a prosecution, and the jury are also the ultimate arbiters. So there are three layers of defence, as it were, to the properly conducted public interest story already built into the system.

  • Do you sense that that current arrangement is not working, or is your belief that it is working properly?

  • I think we have had a recent example, haven't we?

  • I think it is working. It is just my view that if there are going to be changes in the whole set-up, the whole relationship, as a result of this inquiry and others, this may be the opportunity to solidify that in law.

  • You understand the problem, that it depends entirely on the aspirations of the people who have lived through this inquiry and are concerned about what has happened in the past.

  • It may not remain so for very long. It may not, may do.

  • Moving to what you tell us about meetings between politicians and journalists, you describe the two meeting for mutual benefit and journalists hoping for a tip or a line of enquiry or a straightforward drop when meeting politicians.

    In your experience, are politicians selective about who they choose to meet and supply stories and tips to?

  • Oh, I think so. But journalists are also very selective about who they invite to lunch, I think. You would invite to lunch people you felt were in a position to perhaps tell you information, to pass on tips. I personally was quite demanding and if I didn't get anything out of the lunch it was very unlikely the politician would get another invite.

    But they too I think were careful about who they would lunch with. I was fortunate enough to work for the Times. Not many people turned the Times down, I am glad to say.

  • Do you see that as a satisfactory system going forwards or is it one that might be criticised for a lack of transparency?

  • I think it is common to all forms of journalism. I think wherever you are, whichever branch of journalism you are in, whether you are a medical journalist, an education journalist, a legal correspondent, you will meet, dine and have lunch with people in your world, you will speak to them on a non-attributable basis and stories will come out of it. I think the only difference about the political lobby is that it is based in a small space where we all have access to each other. We are in the same building for a lot of the time. But otherwise, all forms of journalism have their lobbies. Even the famous bloggers that are out there at the moment -- Guido Fawkes, he has his lobby. He has people who go to him with stories. He would never dream of revealing who they are. He would cut off his supply if he did.

  • Turning to the question of party conferences and the meals, which I think you had a hand in organising, at some of which very senior News Corp and News International executives were present, can you help us by painting a picture of the atmosphere and the nature of the conversation and what the upshot of these events --

  • We would have the meals in the evening after a hard day's work at the coal front. Very convivial and this would be the opportunity for members of the office who did not work in the lobby or House of Commons to meet politicians and for politicians to meet senior figures in the office. I found them slightly frustrating because exponentially the chances of getting material out of politicians fell the larger the group of people. But they were meant to be social occasions.

  • News International receptions -- you tell us it was high quality champagne and late night bacon sandwiches?

  • Can you tell us a bit about who was invited to these receptions and why?

  • Well, if it was the governing party, every member of the Cabinet would be invited, almost certainly most of their special advisers, senior MPs, MPs who had particular influence, chairmen of select committees. I would always be sent a list of the names that they intended to invite just to see if there was anyone I felt should be added to the list -- a contact of mine, a contact of somebody else -- that we felt should be there.

    But it was across the spectrum and at Labour Party -- when Labour was in opposition, it would be very similar. You would have the shadow Cabinet, you would have their special advisers, you would have the MPs who mattered, and you would invite people from other newspapers as well, because they tended to invite you to their parties.

  • Were there any deliberate omissions?

  • I am not aware of any blacklist of people we wouldn't have at a party, no, no.

  • From your experiences of working for a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch -- one, indeed, with a very special arrangement -- did you ever come under any pressure, directly or indirectly, to write in a particular political direction?

  • No, I didn't at all. As I said to you earlier, I regarded myself as the news gatherer in chief. The Times readership, I know a few years ago, split about 40/30/30 between the parties, so the readers of the Times expected the Times political editor to have to be impartial, fair, accurate and to tell the story as he saw it. Obviously I knew in some cases the leader line being taken by the paper, although I never did attend -- during all those years, I never attended the leader conferences that were held at the Times and every newspaper every morning to decide on an editorial line. But I would be aware.

    Sometimes my stories would sit happily alongside the leader line, but very, very often they went completely against the leader line. That was not a factor in my consideration and I was never told how to write a story with any particular slant. I would often have a discussion with the news desk about whether I had chosen the top line of the story correctly, but that wouldn't be whether it was on a particular political line; that might be whether there was a line that I had buried somewhere in the story that they wanted to lift out.

  • You describe having a number of politicians as friends, I think, largely through your sporting endeavours over the years. There is, of course, nothing wrong with having a politician as a friend if you are a political journalist, but can I ask you: how do you, in those circumstances, maintain the necessary professional distance?

  • Well, there are a handful of people that you get to know so well that certainly in my case I would consider them friends first, politicians second. But because they are friends, they would know that in any awkward situation where they were in some kind of trouble, you would have to report that as fairly and faithfully as you would, as if it was somebody you didn't even know. That was -- part of the relationship was that they totally understood that you would have to -- in the world of Westminster, friendships are known about. So there would be absolutely no point in you trying to go easy on somebody who happened to be a friend. That just didn't happen and I don't think that would happen with anybody.

  • On the topic of selectivity, which you deal with at paragraphs 25 and 26 of your witness statement, you say you watch from afar now but it is quite obvious that in recent weeks -- and of course, we are talking about when you wrote your statement back in April -- as the government has taken a knock to the polls, Downing Street or individual ministers have floated a number of stories with their traditional supporters at the Mail and Telegraph. Can you give any examples of that?

  • Certainly, as you say, that was written some time ago, but I think there were stories about welfare, about -- which, again, has come up again this weekend, but I think there were some stories that were being put out that time about cracking down on benefits, those kind of stories. There were law and order stories around at the time as well. But it was that nature of story that -- I think governments of all colours have tended to go back to their natural home when the going has got a little bit tough, and for the government a few weeks ago, it was getting quite a lot of problems from its own supporters in the press.

    So this was only my assumption. I am not there anymore, but this is how it felt to me reading it.

  • Going to ground where you have actual knowledge, as opposed to a very well-informed intuition, you tell us that there was a time when you and your colleagues were getting selective stories from the government in the early days of the New Labour administration; can you tell us a little bit more about how that worked?

  • Well, I felt -- the New Labour operation was a very professional press operation. I think they had a market for stories. There were certain stories that they thought would sit well in the Times, certain stories that would sit well in the Sun. I can't pretend that in those early days there were not some stories that did not come by me a lot more easily than others. The great pleasure came from getting the stories that nobody wanted you to have.

    But I wouldn't say that the New Labour operation handed stories solely to newspapers that were at the time friendly. They were very professional at making sure that the Mail, for example, the Express, got the law and order stories at that time. There was a market for them, and I think the New Labour operation at that time was about spreading their support as wide as they possibly could go into the Mail, Express, Sun readerships.

  • When you received these stories, did you always report them in the way that New Labour would have wished?

  • No. There were several classic examples of what -- of stories that were sent my way that ended up completely the opposite of what was intended. I remember being leaked an IMF report in the early days of the Labour Government which in its early chapter appeared to be extremely laudatory about the handling of the economy by Gordon Brown at the time he was chancellor. I know this was also leaked to the Guardian at the time. We both took it away, my colleague from the Guardian and I. When we read the report in full, in fact in the latter chapters it was deeply critical of the government and we both wrote splash stories in our newspaper which were the opposite, I think, of what the leakers intended. We both spent the evening getting a lot of angry phone calls. But we didn't move an inch.

  • Having done that, did you still receive a favourable supply of stories?

  • They certainly didn't stop talking to us. I think it was a lesson for them. I think it was a lesson for them that they realised then that these things are not going to appear exactly as you want them.

  • Paragraph 35 of your statement, you describe your own reaction to the friendships which party leaders have felt obliged to make with newspaper chiefs, saying that you find it rather demeaning. In what circumstances do you think that a party leader will no longer feel that he and she needs to make friends with senior newspaper chiefs?

  • Well, I think we are probably getting pretty close to that point now, after what we have seen in the last year, after the evidence that has been given to this Inquiry. The Inquiry has heard from a number of politicians who have lamented the fact that they possibly did get too close to proprietors. My own view is that it was totally unnecessary. I don't think it was necessary for Tony Blair to chase after (inaudible) in whenever it was, in 1995. There was absolutely no doubt at that time that support for the Conservative Government was going and that certainly the Sun would end up supporting New Labour.

    We, as reporters, had watched this, we would see this happening. We would shake our heads and we would wonder why they were bothering, because it normally always ended in tears, and we have seen that in the most recent case, we have seen it with Gordon Brown and his angry speech to the House of Commons. I mentioned John Major earlier, and Tony Blair, who courted the press, ended up calling us feral beasts. So it did all end in tears, I think.

  • Moving to the question of future regulation, you talk about the need to avoid statutory regulation; do you mean there the statutory regulation of content?

  • Yes, I would be certainly against the statutory regulation of content.

  • In terms of the regulation of standards, professional standards, as opposed to newspaper content you plainly think that there should be a new independent regulator with powers to investigate and punish wrongdoing?

  • Yes, I mean, the Times, from the outset, has called for an end to -- I think my editor called it "marking our own homework". We accept that there is a need for a stronger independent regulation. Like everyone else from the newspaper world who has been before this Inquiry, we would prefer that to happen without a statutory backdrop. But the ideas that have emerged in recent days seem to be a start along the way to getting a system of regulation of behaviour and standards in dealing with complaints. Whether it can be done without statute is a matter for Lord Justice Leveson, of course.

  • Do you see, and it is very much, obviously, an important debate, but an important feature of that is finding a mechanism which will ensure that everyone who ought to fall under the regulatory umbrella does so.

    Do you see anything objectionable in principle to having a statutory underpinning to the system to ensure that everyone is included and to confer necessary powers while the actual body itself remains independent of both the press and the government?

  • Well, I know there has been a division on that among the politicians, the senior politicians, you have had before the Inquiry. I personally would much prefer this to happen without a statutory backdrop, if that is at all possible, and if it were felt a contractual relationship, backed up by the courts, obviously, would hold.

    Clearly the newspaper industry has been trying in its recent submissions to show that that could happen. There are a lot of questions immediately raised by the most recent ones that have come into the Inquiry. But they do appear to be the newspaper industry really trying very hard to come up with a solution that does involve much tighter regulation than we have had before, more independent regulation, but possibly not enough yet, but not going down the statutory route.

  • It might be said that one of the disadvantages of a contractual system is that a party might elect not to join the contractual scheme in the first place or might choose after the fixed term expires not to renew the contractual obligation; can you offer any other mechanism short of some statutory underpinning which will guarantee the participation of all those who should fall within the scheme?

  • Well, without sounding like somebody asking for one final drink in the last-chance saloon, there could be, without putting it into a statute, an agreement of some kind, I presume, that, were this to happen, were one of the newspaper groups to pull out at any stage in the future, there would have to be a fallback at that stage to require them to take part. So you wouldn't legislate at this stage for it, but there would have to be an understanding at the end of this whole, long process that that would be the final resort should a group pull out.

  • So very much on the basis the way the Calcutt recommendations were made 20 years ago?

  • Sir, I have between five and 10 minutes left.

  • Let's carry on.

    Do you really think the political way would be there in five years' time without some enormous great disaster?

  • That is very hard to tell, and you have several times -- I have heard you hope that there could be consensus emerging among the parties over the reforms that you come to recommend.

  • Yes. The reason for that is very simple: that if everybody, that is the industry itself and those who are concerned, the public who are concerned, can find a route that actually satisfies them all, then that is the best, undeniably. The risk, of course, is that it shouldn't just be the press who think "Let's try this", whereas those who have complained about the press say "Actually, we don't think that even starts to be enough". I am not saying I am there, I am merely identifying the point. But you are well aware of that.

  • Yes, I am aware. I am also aware of all the solutions -- you have seen Lord Hunt's and the Lord Black one you saw last week. One disadvantage of them from your point of view and the politicians' point of view, it is the press solution to this problem and it may well be that public opinion demands that it is not solely a press solution to this problem.

  • I don't mind it being a press solution to the problem, provided I am satisfied that it ultimately, if I make to make a recommendation, that it deals with the concerns that the public have raised. That, to my mind, is absolutely critical. I would have thought it was critical for the press as well.

  • Because if all those who have complained about press behaviour and all the editors who have spoken accept the legitimacy of many of the complaints that have been made -- not all of them, but many of them -- but if those who have complained say that is a complete nonsense, then actually I am not sure the press would have achieved very much.

  • Do you agree with that? Do you think I am right or wrong, or what? I am interested.

  • No, I can see the dilemma. There is also the dilemma between, and you have seen it here, that you want a consensus, but there already is not a consensus on this question of whether there should be a statutory regulation. Some of those who have come before you think there should and some don't. Do you go for what you think is the very best possible solution, or do you go for the solution that you think will get through the House of Commons. So yes, there is a dilemma.

  • Thank you very much.

    Yes, Mr Barr.

  • Thank you, sir.

    In the last paragraph of your witness statement you talk about some of the sources you have for gaining information about forthcoming appointments. One of the thing you say is that Civil Service mandarins are one source of such information. You describe them as being far more indiscreet than is generally recognised and that they would let slip the names of ministers they felt were performing badly or well.

  • How common is that sort of information from civil servants?

  • I wouldn't say it is uncommon, but in all these -- the books get written about ministers briefing against each other at reshuffle time. It is absolutely true that when we came to write stories about who was going to be in the Cabinet our sources would be other ministers and our sources would be the whips who knew whether a young junior minister was doing well or not. They would keep a record of how well they were doing.

    But the way existing ministers were performing in their departments would be commented upon privately by senior civil servants, in a gossipy kind of way, but in a way that put out into the ether that a certain minister wasn't doing a great job or a certain minister was absolutely brilliantly on top of his brief.

    Sometimes I don't think it has been recognised that that is another part of the political world that has an interest in telling us how people are doing.

  • The final topic I would like to ask you about is arising from your experiences in your current position as the editor of the electronic version of the Times. First of all, the Times used a pay wall; can you tell us a little bit about what you see as the advantages of the pay wall and whether or not it is working?

  • Well, I was put in charge of the Times website after ending my stint as political editor and at the same time as we decided to charge for digital content. So within days of taking that job I have seen the number of hits on the Times website fall by literally millions. But in the two years we have built up 131,000 people who subscribe to the Times digital products. That is the website, the iPad, the iPhone.

  • In addition to those who get access because they take the paper.

  • That's right. There are 170,000 of those. So you could say that there are 300,000 people who have access to our digital products, and then you have all the people who buy the paper as well. So it has helped the Times in terms of revenue. We have reached a point where the revenue from our advertising and subscriptions now exceeds the revenue that we got from advertising only when the sites were free.

    One of the advantages of the pay wall, and reading the evidence that you have received from other digital editors, is that we do know our readers. We have their details. So those 131,000 plus the other 170,000, we do know their names. They are our subscribers, they pay money for the product. So we can pre-moderate -- one of the big things that is happening in online journalism now is the growth of comments on stories. We pre-moderate those comments because we know who they are. We see also -- because our circulation is much lower than the Mail, for example, we have enough staff to read those comments before they go out.

    I think that is a great advantage but it depends which way newspapers will go. I think the future of newspapers, from my two years, is clearly going to be digital, and one of the big things here is that much of the internet world is going to be outside the control of any PCC -- any new PCC. We, in the digital website, are already at a competitive disadvantage with all those websites -- English-speaking websites in America, Australia, whatever, who can publish things that British readers can read that we are not allowed to put in the newspaper and we are not allowed to put on our website. All those things I know you have been discussing, but that is quite a big thing to be thinking about.

  • Would you nevertheless expect the electronic version of the Times to come under the regulation of the successor to the PCC?

  • Without any doubt, yes. As will all the other newspapers that are part of the PCC's successor.

  • Would you expect to see any UK-based, commercially operated electronic news service also falling within that same regulatory system?

  • It is possible. I think the Huffington Post editor when she came before you, suggested she would sign up. I am not madly impressed by that because it does not mean that their US operation is under similar control, so readers, if they wanted to see material that was not on the UK base, they could certainly go to the US and read it there.

    Quite how many of these will sign up to the new PCC must be in huge doubt. There will be some who think that it is a kite mark of quality to be signed up to the new PCC but there will be others who regard it as a badge of honour not to be signed up to it, and they will call it a badge of freedom or something like that, I'm sure. So -- I think Guido Fawkes has already said they will not sign up to any successor body. So there is a huge issue here that will have to be covered.

  • And if you were trying to reply to the body that won't sign up, if there is a choice, would you say to them that what you are submitting to is not a regulation of content but a regulation of professional standards?

  • That would be the line I would certainly take. I mean, I cannot see -- a regulation of content, there would be no chance of them signing up to that in any case. But if they did sign up to the behavioural side of things on the basis that they would be considered akin to a British newspaper, that may be the way to approach it. But I have my doubts as to how many of them will voluntarily do it, I really do.

  • Thank you. Those are all my questions.

  • Thank you very much indeed. Thank you. 2.10 pm. Thank you.

  • (The short adjournment)

  • Good afternoon, sir. We have two witnesses this afternoon. The first witness is Mr Jon Snow.