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

  • MR SIMON DAVID CHARLES WALTERS (sworn).

  • Please take a seat, Mr Walters. Make yourself comfortable. Can you give the Inquiry your full name, please.

  • Simon David Charles Walters.

  • You have provided us with a written statement dated 20 April 2012. Can you confirm, please, that that is your formal evidence to this inquiry?

  • Mr Walters, contrary to everybody's expectation over the last week, I have no intention of asking you any questions about the article in the Mail on Sunday of 17 June, but there is some nonsense I would like to deal with, if you don't mind.

    It is a suggestion that I specifically called you to ask about the article. That has been said by many people. Would you agree that must be absolute rubbish?

  • That is not the case, sir.

  • Because, just so we have elaborated it, you received a section 21 notice, I think on 5 April. On 23 April, you provided a response in a statement which, as you have just confirmed, is dated 20 April.

  • Then on 29 May, your solicitors were informed by email that the Inquiry wanted you to give oral evidence today.

  • And on 31 May, you agreed to do that.

  • And that is all before 13 June.

  • And anybody wanting to research the article that they wish to write about how I was going to call you specifically to deal with this article could easily have found those facts out by asking you, couldn't they?

  • Thank you very much.

    Now, can we just touch upon, please, your career history, first of all. This is set out at paragraph 1 of your statement. I will summarise it. You have been a journalist, you tell us, since 1974. You have also worked at the Sunday newspaper. You explain you joined the lobby in 1983 with the Sun; what role did you hold there?

  • I was lobby correspondent on the Sun.

  • You tell us you have also been political editor and deputy editor of the Sunday Express but that you have now been the political editor of the Mail on Sunday since 1999?

  • Have I accurately summarised the position?

  • Thank you. Again, given your extensive experience, can we start with the way the relationship between politicians and journalists has changed over the years you have been in political journalism, please. You deal with this topic at paragraph 7 onwards of your statement. You deal with a number of changes: first, greater transparency over the years; secondly, changes to Downing Street lobby briefings. You also look at the changes to the role of press officers and the new use of spin doctors and so on.

    I am going to take you through those in a little detail, if I can, the first of which is transparency, greater transparency. At paragraph 8, you explain that in essence, in the past, politicians were more likely to be viewed as members of the ruling class and the media was expected to know its place, but now the public expect more openness and newspapers have developed a similar approach in response, yes?

  • Others have said, Mr Walters, that in fact this new approach has now gone too far to the other extreme. The politicians are now regarded with what some would say deep cynicism and hostility and it has also been said by witnesses today, in fact, that this approach of newspapers can in some situations actually put people off going into politics; is there any validity in those assertions, in your view?

  • I don't think there is any shortage of people putting themselves forward to be Members of Parliament and it is true that there is a greater degree of transparency these days but I think that's a good and healthy thing in the main.

  • Let's just deal with them in turn. The first proposition I put to you is that politicians are now regarded in some quarters with deep cynicism and hostility; would you agree that there is any validity in that particular view?

  • I think there probably is but I think that's more to do with the expenses affair than anything else that's happened in the press. Clearly, that did have a major effect on public opinion. Aside from that, has the public's view of politicians changed greatly over the years? Probably not massively, no. I think they have probably always been fairly sceptical about politicians.

  • The second aspect I asked you about is whether this put people off going into politics. You have told us that you don't think there is any shortage of people wanting to go into politics, but can you see the argument that if politicians and, in particular, their private lives are scrutinised carefully, that might put off some people from going into politics? Can you see that argument?

  • Well, I don't know whether it has or hasn't, but there are lots of people willing to be Members of Parliament and I am not sure I would go along with that argument. As I say, I think the expenses affair had a big effect on the way the public sees politicians but I am not sure it has changed greatly in other degrees, no.

  • All right, then perhaps I can put the question in this way: do you think that newspapers -- I am not asking you to comment on your particular newspaper at this stage -- have gone too far in looking into and exposing the private lives of politicians, or is the balance right?

  • Well, you would have to give me examples of that. But, I mean -- I am sure newspapers make mistakes on occasion but I think by and large, I think the public has a right to know, broadly speaking, what politicians are doing and I think that kind of reporting can be justified in many cases. But you would need to give me specific examples.

  • I deliberately asked you the question as a general question. As a matter of general perception, do you perceive that newspapers have gone too far or do you think in general terms the balance is about right?

  • In general terms, I think the balance is about right.

  • Okay. So where would you draw the line in respect of the public interest when deciding whether or not a politician's personal life is something that should be the subject of a particular article or story?

  • Well, my editor would make that decision.

  • But I think broadly speaking you would have to bear in mind whether it had any bearing on their fitness for public office, generally speaking. That would be the general rule. But each case you would have to decide on its merits.

  • All right. So the public interest would lie in whether or not the exposure of the particular personal issue had any bearing on their public role?

  • Well, if, for example, a politician had proclaimed that they were a family man or a family woman and then you found out that the opposite was the case, then I think clearly that would be a legitimate matter to report.

  • But someone who had never made any such public proclamation would be immune from that kind of story?

  • I think you would have to judge each case on its merits.

  • Okay, all right. I'm just trying to understand the principles you would apply. All right. Before I turn to the second change that you have identified in the years that you have been in political journalism, can we look at another change that someone else has identified. That is this argument about the blurring between news and comment. You probably heard Mr Snow give evidence a moment ago about that.

  • Others have said that newspapers have done this, have blurred the line between news and comment, because it is in increasing competition with others, ie newspapers have to perform a different role in order to survive, essentially, and this is what they do; they provide more opinion, blurred in with the news that they are reporting.

  • Now, let's consider it in this way. First of all, do you accept that over the years you have been a journalist, there has been an increasing blurring of the line between straight news and comment.

  • Well, I am not sure I do. I can only talk from my personal experience.

  • I mean, I became a general news reporter when I first entered journalism after leaving school and I continue to regard myself as a news reporter. My specialism is politics but it could be any other, and I am not sure that I have ever written an opinion column. In fact, in the Mail on Sunday, we more or less had a -- I have not written any political opinion pieces. I stick to political reporting of news stories. I approach all news stories in exactly the same way: attempt to find out the facts, go to each side or all relevant parties, and to quote all sides of the story. So I regard myself very much as a news reporter and try not to get involved in political opinion or comment.

  • All right. I will come back to your own personal style and the articles that you write in a moment, perhaps. But as a matter of general perception, do you think -- I am not just asking you about your own newspaper. Do you think that the newspapers have increasingly blurred the line between news and comment, or is that simply not a fair perception?

  • It wouldn't be my view, no.

  • It is not your view. So now talking about your own personal experience. You have told me that is probably the fairest thing to ask you about. You have told us you approach stories in the same way. You research the facts, you present them -- do you consider that you present them in a particularly neutral way without any opinion or comment coming into those articles?

  • I try to write all news stories in a fair and balanced way.

  • So am I right in thinking, then, that when you write an article -- a news article, a news report -- that you would ensure or try to ensure as best you can that there is no comment or opinion within that article?

  • Well, broadly speaking, yes. But, I mean, if -- when you are writing a news story, there is an element of a story about it, and a narrative. At times, if you were simply to report what people had said and the absolutely bare bald facts, you would be left with a pretty dry story at the end of the day. So I think on occasion you do an element of interpretation. You might call it "factual inference" or something like that, but it still has to pass the test of being a fair and balanced news story.

  • All right. Are you aware that the PCC editors' code actually prohibits this blurring of news and comment?

  • That is something that factors into the decisions that you make when you are writing your articles, does it?

  • Right, okay. I am going to refer to two headlines from articles that you have written which we refer to. I have given you these. I am not going to show you the article; I am just going to read the headline, just so I can understand. The first article is from 2 October 2011, from the Mail Online -- I should make that clear. It says this, the headline:

    "At last, we get a vote on Europe as MPs are forced to decide on referendum."

    It is obviously a news article about a vote on Europe because MPs are forced to decide on referendum. Can you see that the words "at last" in that headline impute a degree of comment or opinion?

  • First of all, I write for the Mail on Sunday newspaper. I do not write for the Mail Online. So I can't answer -- I haven't seen that Mail Online article and I am not sure whether the newspaper article said the same thing. So I would much rather see it before commenting on it.

  • Of course. I can hand it to you, if you like, but it is by yourself and Brendan Carlin and that is the headline. But ignore for a moment whether or not you wrote it or whether you had any input into it at all; can you understand that by adding the words "at last", there is a degree of comment or opinion?

  • Well, having said I am not sure whether I had anything to do with that Mail Online article, I have to say that I think merely to say "At last, an EU referendum on the way" is pretty mild by way of comment.

  • Right. I note what you say. I refer now to a second headline which I have managed to not be able to find, but it is from today, a headline about Mr Cameron's speech today about welfare benefit reform. Yes? You will be aware that he has made a speech in which he has indicated that no concrete proposals have been put. He has indicated that certain changes might be made to the benefit system. The headline from the article you've written -- and I apologise; I can't find it immediately -- uses the word "feckless". It says "Mr Cameron removes benefit from the feckless under-25s"; yes? Do you remember that headline?

  • You haven't shown me this article and I don't know whether that's online or the newspaper.

  • I will endeavour to find it and we can discuss it. But again, there is no reference to the word "feckless "in Mr Cameron's speech.

    I understand you also conducted an interview with Mr Cameron set out in that article, which makes no reference to the word "feckless". Again, can you understand -- and I will show you the article in due course, in order to be fair -- that inserting the word "feckless", again, introduces a degree of comment or opinion into the article?

  • Well, I haven't written anything about his speech, because the speech was on Monday. What I have -- what I did do, I interviewed the Prime Minister and that article appeared in the paper.

  • And -- but the use of the word "feckless" -- in fact, in our article, we went out of our way to make it clear that not everyone on the housing benefit under-25 was going to be deprived of the benefit but there would be certain exceptions.

  • And in addition, in the article, there was a very strong comment from a Labour official, saying they were opposed to this and talking about the damaging effects they thought it would have. So I think we went to pretty great lengths to make a fair piece, even in the context of it being an interview with the Prime Minister. As to calling them "feckless" -- I mean, by his remarks, he repeatedly talked about irresponsible behaviour and I think for the newspaper to describe that as him talking about feckless people is not particularly unfair.

  • I think it reflects exactly what he meant.

  • I have not seen this, but this is only today. So you don't know what the headline is today?

  • Well, I write for the Mail on Sunday, sir.

  • I don't know whether you are referring to an article in the Daily Mail about his speech or something else.

  • It is an article by Mr Walters. I will find it.

  • I have just seen it. It is the Mail Online.

    Quite apart from that, I have a slightly different point. Do I gather you don't write the headlines?

  • It is now on screen, I think. Headlines are written by subeditors, normally, and I think I have been told that that is absolutely standard.

  • It is standard for subeditors to write headlines, not reporters. Yes, sir, it is.

  • And not to check them through with someone as senior as you?

  • Yes, they often do check them with a senior reporter. Yes, they do. They do.

  • I am just trying to understand it.

  • Yes, they do, sir, yes. Subeditors normally write headlines and if they think it is something controversial, they will often check it with the senior reporter who has written it. That is true.

  • Can we just agree a number of facts. This article appears with your by-line, "by Simon Walters", yes?

  • I know it's on the Mail Online website but it appears with your name on it. Forget the headline for the moment. That would suggest that you wrote the article?

  • The first line of it is:

    "Radical new welfare cuts targeting feckless couples who have children and expect to live on state handouts will be proposed by David Cameron tomorrow."

    Do you see that?

  • So the word "feckless" appears in the article as well as in the headline.

  • But you would say overall the article is a fair and balanced one and the use of words "feckless" doesn't undermine that general principle?

  • I don't think it does because it is absolutely clear that that is what the Prime Minister is referring to.

  • Thank you very much. So generally speaking, then, you don't think there is a particular problem with the blurring of news and comment in general terms and you personally don't see any problem with the way in which you write your articles. You think that there is compliance with the relevant parts of the editor's code in that respect?

  • Yes, we go to great length to comply with it, yes.

  • I guess that would mean you wouldn't propose any changes to the current system in order to ensure there is no further blurring of that line; that follows?

  • Well, I don't accept that there is an enormous blurring, not by my newspaper, no.

  • Okay. Moving on then to the second change that you have identified, please. Witness statement paragraph 15 onwards. Downing Street lobby briefings. You have explained that in the time you have been a political journalist, lobby briefings have changed considerably. They used to be very secretive, you tell us. You tell us that there was no disclosure even that they were happening at one stage. It was a very closed world as well, you also explained.

    Now a full account of briefings is place on the Number 10 website, as I understand it, and there has been greater openness.

    Then, at paragraph 18, you say:

    "There are pros and cons to this. Greater openness is welcome. But journalists are always in search of new information of interest to readers or viewers. If by making briefings public Downing Street is more cautious, journalists will go elsewhere in search of new information."

  • So actually greater transparency means, what, that actually a problem is created, in a sense, because people will want to get more exclusive information from another source; is that right?

  • That is what I mean, yes.

  • Okay. Are there any changes that you would like to see to the lobby system or do you think it works as it is?

  • Well, I think a lot of people don't really understand how the lobby works.

  • For example, I play virtually no part -- I never go to lobby briefings. The lobby briefings, their main function is for daily newspaper journalists. There are lobby briefings at one in the morning, at one in the afternoon, and it is a way of daily journalists constantly getting feedback from Downing Street or whoever on their response to the news items of the day.

    If you are writing for a Sunday newspaper that doesn't really apply. So I don't think I have been to a lobby briefing for many, many years. And the lobby -- it did used to be ridiculously secretive. Now it is very open and the briefings are all published online. I think anyone can go to the morning briefings.

    So I think it is a very big myth. There is nothing really happening at lobby briefings, other than an on-the-record briefing and a lot of journalists like me, Sunday journalists, don't go anyway.

  • So no changes that you would propose?

  • No, I don't think so. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I have heard vague suggestions of all sorts of other ideas which all sound rather cumbersome, because to be a member of the lobby really all it means is you are accredited to report from the Houses of Parliament. That is really all it means. In many ways it is self-policing, because if you misbehave or you betray confidences or you write stories that are regularly inaccurate you will soon be found out and you will not survive very long.

  • Okay. The third change you identify is the change in roll of press officers and the introduction of spin doctors?

  • You explain that the number of press spokesmen or people employed as press spokesmen or political advisers has increased. You tell us at paragraphs 21 to 22 that particularly during Mr Blair's government much energy was devoted to ensuring that all departments were "on message", you say in inverted commas:

    "... ie repeating the Downing Street line on any given issue."

    You say for a government that makes sense, because they can keep political control over what is being said. You say it could be argued that that is not in the public interest.

    The one change that you say you could do is to give back to Whitehall departments the autonomy they once had. Is that a suggestion that you would seriously put forward, or is that something you think is aspirational?

  • I think it is more aspirational, because, frankly, I think it would cause chaos in the age of 24/7 media. It is impossible to get the perfect answer to this. Governments need to have a central message, to have a coordinated response. If they are being phoned every five minutes by a newspaper or television company on a developing news story, if department A gives a different response to department B, that can cause confusion in itself.

    So therefore it is common sense to coordinate it. However, the downside of that, if it becomes completely coordinated and you have, for example, a very powerful government, it gives the person with the message, the senior press spokesperson at Downing Street, arguably too much power and influence to manipulate that message and to suppress things that might be embarrassing to the government.

  • Is that a change we just have to live with, or is there something that could be done?

  • I think it is something you have to live with. But in my experience dealing as a reporter at the sharp end of all this, it is simply a reminder that in an age of mass communication that when the message is so important that if a government gets too much power over that message, it can present a danger itself.

  • I then wish to ask you about your own relationship with politicians. You deal with this at paragraph 24 onwards of your statement. You explain that like most political journalists you entertain politicians at the company's expense on an occasional basis for lunch or tea or drinks, although by far the majority of your contacts would be just conversations or on the phone, and you explain that this is to get them to know them better and to build a relationship and vice versa.

    Now, how important is it to you, as a political journalist, to be able to have that interaction with politicians without interference, and by "interference" I mean the imposition of rules or the requirement to keep a careful note of everything that is said in such a conversation?

  • Well, it is the most important part of my job, because my job is obtaining information, reporting what is going on in government and Parliament, and for the most part that information comes from individuals: politicians or officials or others. If you want to get that kind of information you have to build a relationship of trust with people. This is simply the way of doing it, by talking to people.

  • What about socialising with politicians, do you do that, or is contact limited to occasional lunch?

  • I don't -- I prefer not to socialise out of work with politicians. The only minister who I have been personal friends with was Mo Mowlem. Since she is no longer here, I don't mind talking about it. But that was only because she showed a particular interest in my -- I had a handicapped daughter and she showed a great interest in her. So yes, she came to mine and I went to hers and she came to my daughter's funeral. But outside that I don't socialise with politicians for the most part.

  • Is that because you see inherent risks in that?

  • Yes, it is, because there are risks in it. If you become -- well, I think it is the same in any profession, really. If you -- there is -- that kind of blurring is a danger and if you become personally friendly with a politician then, of course, it is going to make it more difficult for you to report what they are up to, if they have done something that they shouldn't be doing, if you've become close personal friends. I think it is best to avoid it if you can.

  • All right. You also explain -- in fact, the way you put it is that you say that you:

    "... do not socialise with politicians or officials outside of work hours. That way risks are minimised and managed."

    When you do meet with politicians in your day-to-day interactions, what is it you think they are seeking from you? I know you have told us what you are seeking from them, information and so on --

  • Probably to promote their reputation. But I am well aware of that. If you -- they might want to tell you about some policy they have got or some other piece of information, and obviously you have to take into account what their motives might be. But there is only one yardstick that I would apply to it, and that is whether it is factual or not, whether it is publishable, and whether it should be published.

    Yes, I do -- I am aware of what their motives might or might not be, and would make an allowance for that in assessing whether or not it is worth pursuing.

  • Can I ask you about one step up, ie the relationship between proprietors and politicians, or even editors and politicians. You deal with this at paragraph 31 onwards of your statement. You explain that -- you say this, I will read it out:

    "Tony Blair's decision to court News International led to a very close relationship in which Downing Street gave privileged information to News International, and in return News International supported the Government on certain issues, for example the Iraq war."

    That is a bold statement to make; what information do you have that supports that assertion?

  • Well, I know people who were involved in that flow of information. I am not going to say who they were. But it was an open secret that Downing Street could more or less pick up the phone and dictate an article in certain News International journals. It was well known in the lobby.

  • In return for support on certain issues?

  • Well, the amount of support that they gave them in that period was pretty obvious, because it was obvious in their editorials. What other support they may or may not have given them, I am not privy to that. But I think we can work it out for yourselves.

  • I understand you don't want to name any individuals, but can you give us detail on what issues -- well, you say "News International supported the Government on certain issues, for example the Iraq war"; are there any other issues where support was offered?

  • On a broad range of policies -- not all of them, but broadly, they gave them strong support.

  • Apart from the fact this was an open secret is there any evidence or anything else that you can say to us about that?

  • All right. Paragraph 34, please, of your statement. One of the most beneficial effects of recent events, you tell us, is that politicians and media are more likely to remain at arm's length, and you say that essentially it is in the public interests for politicians and media not to be too close?

  • Do you offer any views on how that distance can be maintained, any practical arrangements that could be put in place, to ensure that people don't become too close again?

  • I think the existence of this Inquiry has probably been one of main weapons against that. But clearly the relationship between News International and the government got much too close -- it is not the case now, but it did get much too close. As to how you stop it; prevent any one media group becoming overpowerful, I suppose, and prevent any one government becoming overpowerful.

  • All right. Finally, I think -- there is two things I wanted to ask you about. The first is future regulation. You say a little about this at paragraph 39 onwards of this statement. Now, I make absolutely clear this is an optional question. You give us a number of views. You say:

    "The current system of regulating the press may be flawed."

    Now, what aspects of the current system are, in your view, flawed?

  • Well, I think I probably phrased that rather badly. I think what I meant was it is not perfect.

  • And I don't have a great overview on media regulation. I don't. My only view is that having worked at the sharp end of political journalism I am well aware of the enormous lengths that governments will go to to get their story across, sometimes manipulate, and anything that were done that gave the state any more power over that kind of press freedom I think is something that should be avoided if possible.

  • So does that mean that you take the view that although the current system isn't perfect -- I will use your new phrase, as opposed to "flawed" -- the best way of doing things is to essentially uphold the laws as they exist now?

  • Well, I am sure there are ways it could be improved. But I can't say I have my own recipe or formula to do so. All I would say is that I think going down the state road has great dangers.

  • I did say the question was optional.

    Finally, paragraph 42 onwards, please. You say:

    "The power of the Downing Street media machine was formidable in the early years of the Blair government."

    You give us an example in 2002 where you filed a report describing how Downing Street had sought a bigger role for Mr Blair in the Queen Mother's Lying in State in Westminster Hall.

    You tell us that Downing Street said that was untrue and the Prime Minister complained to the PCC. Actually then what happened was a senior official who actually had knowledge of what had happened threatened to speak publicly that the Mail on Sunday report was accurate. Downing Street relented and then the PM withdrew his complaint. You say if that hadn't happened there would have been serious consequences for your newspaper and for you professionally, even though the incident itself was of little consequence.

    I think there was something you wanted to add in respect of that story?

  • Well, it is only since it came out, when Alastair Campbell gave evidence.

  • As I say, it is essentially a relatively trivial matter. I think the reason I wanted to just address it briefly is because Mr Campbell spoke about it and because it is also a very direct experience from my point of view of this kind of interaction. It was at a time when the Downing Street press machine in 2002 -- it was at its most powerful, really, and the journals involved were the Spectator, the Standard and Mail on Sunday, owned by the Telegraph and Associated Newspapers, arguably two of the media groups who weren't necessarily taking the Downing Street line, and the Spectator and the Standard published partial reports of the incident to start with.

    Downing Street put in a complaint to the PCC and Black Rod was effectively lent on to give a semi denial of those stories which Mr Campbell referred to. Black Rod himself said in his statement to the PCC it was a very narrow denial and he said to them "Don't push this any further because I am not prepared to lie and we both know that it is fundamentally true".

    Then what happened was the Mail on Sunday investigated this story, established the true version, published it. We then had the Downing Street complain to the PCC about us and it was only because of the courage of Black Rod, who was prepared to defy them, and was prepared to go public and make a statement on the matter, saying that -- I think you have probably seen the statement. He talks about constant phone calls, sustained pressure, even on the day that the coffin arrived at Westminster Number 10 asked for a greater role for the Prime Minister.

    It was only because he was prepared to make a public statement that Downing Street backed down.

    Now, had he not done that it would have been catastrophic for all three publications, the editors and me as well, and I just think it is an example of actually the PCC was actually quite effective in actually acting as a mediator between the various sides.

  • I think I have heard a fair amount of evidence on this story, haven't I, and seen various numbers of the document.

  • Yes. I just wanted to give Mr Walters the opportunity to say what he had to say about this.

    Does that conclude what you wanted to say?

  • I didn't want to interrupt.

    Mr Walters, those are all my questions. I am very aware that I didn't manage to find the hard copy of the article relating to Mr Cameron's welfare benefit reform. I will ensure you are provided with a copy, and if it is acceptable to Lord Justice Leveson, if there is any --

  • We can deal with headlines in this way: I have been aware throughout the Inquiry that reporters don't write the headlines. I entirely understand the system. But one of the concerns that have been repeatedly expressed to me has been the discordance between careful analysis of the facts and the headlines.

    I am sure you are aware of the point, because it has been made by a large number of the witnesses who have given evidence before me. That is why I wondered and asked you specifically about a headline, that you were after all the political editor, not, as it were, a cub reporter who can leave it to their elders and betters.

    I am just wondering whether you have anything to say about this potential discordance between headlines and articles.

  • Yes, I think headlines have to be treated with extreme care, and on a big story I would normally expect to be consulted on a headline that was going on one of my stories. I think it is probably important that a senior reporter is consulted and yes, they do have to be handled very sensitively because they can give the wrong impression if not handled carefully.

  • That is the point, isn't it? Where people do make complaints it is rather odd, because you would expect that care should be taken, because the headline is what is going to grab people's attention, isn't it?

  • Headlines have to be written very carefully, yes.

  • Well, I am sure sometimes headlines are -- headlines could be improved upon. But by and large my newspaper takes great care in composing its headlines.

  • Thank you very much. Those are all the questions I had.

  • Thank you, Mr Walters. That concludes the evidence for today.

  • Thank you very much indeed. 10 o'clock tomorrow.

  • (The Inquiry adjourned until 10 o'clock the following day)