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

  • MS CAMILLA JANE WRIGHT (affirmed).

  • Ms Wright, please state your full name to the Inquiry.

  • I'm Camilla Jane Wright.

  • You should find behind tab 1 of the bundle you have in front of you your witness statement to the Inquiry?

  • Can you confirm that the contents of that statement are true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

  • I'm going to touch first of all on your career history before we come on to look at the role of Popbitch. At paragraph 5 of your statement, you explain that after university you gained expertise in business and the third sector, and then you started to write for economic and financial magazines. You then started to write on a freelance basis on popular culture issues and then you co-founded Popbitch in the year 2000, and since 2004 you have been full-time publisher and editor.

  • You explain that you also write for magazines, tabloids and broadsheets on a freelance basis, offering comment on the media and on popular culture?

  • Can I ask now about Popbitch itself, please. You explain the role of Popbitch and what it does in paragraph 6 of your statement, but can I summarise it in this way: it's a website and its content really comprises two main elements: a weekly newsletter, which is sent to those who have subscribed to Popbitch by email, and you have around 350,000 subscribers --

  • -- who receive the email on a weekly basis. And that newsletter is also published on the website?

  • And then you have a message board, where registered users can post and discuss various topics?

  • We have a full website where content relevant to us is posted and part of that is a message board or forum.

  • Okay. Can I ask you firstly about the newsletter briefly. As for the content of the newsletter, you explained to us that this is news about popular culture, politics, sports, celebrities, the entertainment industry and the media. There are also links to videos, reviews and so on.

  • There's also a joke at the end?

  • And the newsletter is text based. You explain to us that you made a conscious decision from the outset not to have paparazzi-type photographs of celebrities in the newsletter or on the website; is that right?

  • As for who the newsletter is aimed at, you explain in paragraph 7 that it's aimed at a time poor subscriber base who nonetheless want to keep up with the world and the content is designed to be light-hearted, humorous and entertaining?

  • We look at it as a ten-minute entertainment in a working week.

  • You say you now have 350,000 subscribers to the newsletter. How did it start out?

  • We started out just basically putting together stories for friends from the media and entertainment industry. We would gather together some funny stories, put them together, email them to friends. We kind of started it because the world of entertainment is very exciting, we all -- many of us love it, but it's very controlled. The entertainment industry controls what you write about it a lot. It's very PR-driven. Working freelance for magazines, you very much were stopped from writing things that you wanted to write, just interesting things, nothing against the law or anything.

  • "Controlled" is not the word that's been used to describe it in the course of the last few months in this Inquiry, so you're providing me with a slightly different take on it.

  • Well, I think so. There's a very, very big PR industry, which I think can act as gatekeepers to what is said about celebrities, famous people, and very much they like to tell magazines and newspapers what can be written. I'm sure -- I think the people from Hello! and OK! last week said to you that 70 to 80 per cent of what goes in the magazines is placed there by the agents and the managers and the PRs of celebrities.

    So if you want to write about people, you have to be very careful, in a commercial sense, what's written. If you approach somebody whose publicist maybe represents 50 others, if you don't write what they like, they don't like you to talk to their other clients. If perhaps you want to say something about somebody who is the brand ambassador for a big brand, you have to be careful that they don't pull their advertising. So there are commercial concerns that the mainstream media face every day when writing about this world. And that's maybe a slightly different perspective from the one you've had.

  • You were just telling us how you came to set up Popbitch and how it all started. You explained that when you were freelancing you found that the world of celebrity was very controlled, so how did that lead you on to Popbitch?

  • It's very cheap to send out emails. It's not expensive to set up a website. You can -- and we started to send out information to friends. People then asked to subscribe to it, so we set up a very simple mechanism to do that, and then over time more and more people wanted to subscribe to it, which adds to your costs, but now we have a system that can send out emails to 350,000 people very easily.

    The content has changed as we've gone along. We've broadened it to anything that people are interested in in popular culture. On one side is the stories behind the stories, what's going on in the media that covers popular culture. I guess, similar to Street of Shame in Private Eye, but we look at the celebrity media, and also the light-hearted details, jokes about people and films in any aspect of popular culture.

  • I was going to ask about paragraph 8 of your statement. You explain that the idea was to reference the old-style Hollywood magazines which popularised the publication of insider information, and that you try to act in the style of something like a Private Eye for the celebrity world. Would that be a comparison you're happy to make --

  • -- between you and, say, a publication like Private Eye?

  • Parts of it works in a similar way, yes.

  • You go on to say that Popbitch doesn't just cover the stars of popular culture, but looks behind the scenes at areas missed by the popular media, plus the stories behind the stories and why certain stories got published and others didn't. You look at the hypocritical gap between how those in the public eye seek to be portrayed and how they really act.

    That leads me neatly on to issues of standards and the public interest. I'm going to ask you in a moment whether you consider the stories that you publish in your newsletter to be or to have a public interest in a moment, but first of all it may be instructive to examine an example or two of the types of stories that you run in the newsletter.

    Not in the bundle, but what I've done is printed out the latest version of the newsletter. Do you have "For Chuck's Sake"?

  • Yes, I only printed out part of it. Can I check whether you have it? If not, can I pass a copy?

    We'll wait until the technician has it, so she can show it on screen.

  • I just want to examine the sort of format, first of all. Right at the top, under the headline with a name, there's a kind of advertising or promotional feature?

  • Then there are some quotations, and then under the main heading "Popbitch" there is a story about Mr Kris Humphries, former husband of Kim Kardashian, do you see that?

  • I don't know if that's visible on the screen --

  • Perfect. This is a story about Kris Humphries who was playing at Madison Square Gardens just before Christmas. He came on court to play, whereupon he was promptly and rather violently booed by the crowd. He was then taken off shortly afterwards and the crowd began chanting, "We want Kris, we want Kris". Why? So that he would come back on and they could boo him some more.

    You say:

    "If there is a more concise allegory for the role of celebrities in the 21st century we have yet to hear it."

    Just explain to us just by using the example how you would source a story like that?

  • This story came from somebody I know very well who was at the game, who at the time relayed what happened to us. We checked that he was playing there, everything seemed to match. We added the second paragraph because I guess what Popbitch does, it's trying to entertain but it's also trying to inform. We were just trying to show that by taking an example of a story that was going on now that nobody else had perhaps covered, that this is what celebrities are almost used for in society. They're there for our fun, but also they take -- it can get a bit darker, and they're there for people to joke at. So that's where the story came from, and that was the point of putting it in.

  • All right. Can I ask you about one other story on that page.

  • It's the one almost at the end. There's a final story about Joan Collins, but we'll ignore that one for the moment. The one just above that says this:

    "In the first draft of the Dr No screenplay, the writers decided that Dr No should be a monkey."

    Why did you publish a story like that?

  • I think it's an entertaining fact. It's the weird little details in popular culture that I think we as humans respond to. That came from Cubby Broccoli's biography, which has just been published. He was the producer of all the James Bond films and that just jumped out at me, that of all the things about the first Dr No film that would have possibly changed the history of all the James Bond films for us is if Dr No had been played by a monkey.

  • I don't think we need to look at any other ... I'm just trying to understand the product.

  • What I want to now do is understand the process by which you decide whether or not a story is going to feature in the newsletter. You say in your witness statement at paragraph 45 that Popbitch is a commercial product, reliant on mainstream advertisers and sponsors, and therefore it's important to have good editorial standards. Now, why? How does that follow?

  • I don't think it is good to be an inaccurate publication. I think it is good, if you are adding to the plurality of media voices out there, trying to be accurate, trying to tell true stories, perhaps stories that other people aren't doing, just to add to the breadth of knowledge of the world, is a good thing. And if you were asking people to trust you with their brand, to -- for them to put their faith in what you're writing, then you owe it to them and to yourselves to have high standards.

    We're saying that we have 350,000 subscribers who regularly read this, and therefore, if you want to put your brand to the subscribers, somewhere there's a -- you know, there is a reputable product for you to be involved with.

    We've never had an advertiser try and tell us what to write or to take anything out, so it's gone okay so far.

  • All right, so that's what you say about good editorial standards. Let me ask you now about the process. I've asked you about sources.

  • But at paragraph 11 onwards you say a lot more about the way in which material is sourced. If I can summarise it in this way, you say that the newsletter is written largely by a network of contributors --

  • It's written in our office by me and a very small team, but we largely source our stories from a network of contributors that are all around the world.

  • You say these are basically a group of about 200 to 250 trusted sources in this circle?

  • That are known to you or your closest team members. So is your evidence in that respect simply that a story will come in from one of those sources and just because of who they are and the fact that you trust them, that will be good enough, or are there any other checks?

  • It will be for some stories, but for some stories that's not enough. You would want to get a second source to check the plausibility or gain extra evidence to support it.

  • What would make you go away and check?

  • Very much depends case by case on a story. If it's from somebody who you are absolutely convinced that has foolproof knowledge, I would take it. If it's a contentious or controversial story, I would want to get somebody else to be able to back up what they're saying and try and find, if possible, some evidence to support what they're both saying.

  • You say that if the stories are not originated from one of your inner circle of trusted sources, stories can come in in a number of other ways. This is paragraph 13 onwards. Unsolicited email tips and stories, registered users of the message board, stories found by staff writers or freelance contributors and personal experience written in by readers.

  • Those examples seem to be a million miles away from trusted sources that you know well, so what process is undertaken there when stories come in through that type of source?

  • We've had some amazing stories sent in from anonymous sources that turn out to be 100 per cent true. We would start off by doing a simple check on the veracity of the information we've got. About 50 per cent of things that get sent in you can work out right away aren't true just by a couple of phone calls or a simple Google check. Maybe it's about a pop band in one country and they actually are in another country on that day. So that would be where you would start.

    You would then try and find from somebody that you do know well and somebody who is likely to know at least if this information is plausible whether or not this is true. At the same time, we would engage in an email exchange with the third person, the anonymous user. If they're willing to discuss with you how they got the story, where they got the story, a few more details, you can largely work out whether or not there's truth in it.

    From personal experiences, we tend to write them up as "X writes ...". I give it as a personal experience. These tend to be, "I met a celebrity in the bar last night, they were buying a gin and tonic". That kind of level of contentious subject-matter.

  • Does that somehow improve things? If you don't say in your newsletter simply "X celebrity was in a bar and this happened", but you say, "Someone has written in and said that X celebrity was in a bar on a particular night", does that make any conceivable difference?

  • I think people writing on the Internet and people reading on the Internet, as I think the guy from Facebook touched on earlier, is different, somehow, to reading traditional media. It's how you experience it.

    A lot of our facts and stories are the same sort of thing that could be found in a newspaper or magazine, they carry our editorial stamp, but the Internet has evolved so that it's a two-way conversation between reader and writer. I think media theorists call them a network public rather than an audience. Readers expect to be involved in shaping the stories, getting to the bottom of something. So we would put something out there saying, "Somebody told us this", expecting somebody else to actually verify it. "Actually, we have a different experience. Yes, I was in that bar as well, this is what happened."

    So a percentage of our stories work in that way. I think that's how blogs work, stories, comments. It's just it gives -- the Internet is just evolving in a slightly different way to traditional media, and I guess our product has evolved as part of the Internet, so if you are reading Popbitch, you understand what you're reading, you understand that readers are sharing their experiences with you and you can share yours back.

  • You explain later on in your statement that you never pay for tips or stories. Why is that?

  • I think if you start adding a financial inducement to somebody for information, they could give you stories that they know they shouldn't or they could hurt their jobs or they could even give you embellished information in order to get the money, and therefore taking that temptation out of people's way, we are hoping that there will be fewer of those stories that come to us.

  • All right. Do you consider yourself to be bound by the laws of the UK? Libel laws --

  • Yes, publishing in the UK, we are bound by UK media law.

  • So presumably you have to ensure that the stories are not libellous or defamatory?

  • Let's assume for a moment that you're satisfied that a particular story that has come in to you won't fall foul of libel or defamation laws and you're happy that it's accurate, so you've got to that point. I want to understand what other considerations you bear in mind before deciding whether or not to publish in your newsletter. Do you consider whether it's an invasion of that particular person's privacy, for example?

  • In an era where injunctions have been such a much-talked-about thing, that obviously has to be a consideration. I think if I could put it this way, Popbitch is an entertainment product, therefore we are trying to do no more than poke fun at people in the world of celebrity, and therefore we'd add in some extra things -- is the story funny? Is there a bit of a punchline? We get a lot of stories in which we don't print, which are things like somebody's gone to rehab, somebody's ill, somebody has cancer, or it's about their children. You could probably publish them, but they're not going to make people laugh, so we would look on that maybe as an extra defining process.

  • I'll ask you about public interest in a moment. You say that, but Popbitch famously was able to say that Victoria Beckham was pregnant, correctly say that Victoria Beckham was pregnant before any other media organisation in the UK was able to confirm that, and that's not something which just is published to make people laugh. That's an interesting titbit about --

  • -- someone's life. It could also have been said to be an invasion of Victoria Beckham's privacy to publish that before anyone else knew. In that kind of story, would you take into account the fact that the story may be an invasion of that person's privacy?

  • It was a long time ago. As far as I can remember with this story, people were talking about it quite openly; they just hadn't printed it. We printed the story. I would be I think since then much more careful about making sure that a pregnancy was beyond 12 weeks before -- in this case, this was that as well, but I would be very careful about doing that. I don't think we've actually touched on that for several years.

  • It's interesting that as you've been giving evidence you've used the words "truth", "accurate", you've there used the "12 weeks". All these terms are to be found in the PCC code.

  • Is that a code that you've considered?

  • I'm aware of the code, yes. I don't know whether -- I don't -- we're not a part of the PCC and we're not a newspaper, but I am aware of the code.

  • You don't have to be a newspaper. There are lots of magazines that are part of the PCC. I know that Mr Hislop isn't.

  • He's made that very clear and explained why. But you compare yourself to Street of Shame for popular culture, but Street of Shame carries with it sometimes some potentially defamatory material, and Mr Hislop knew exactly how many libel actions he'd been the subject of, which, as you've just identified and recognised, could hit you in just the same way.

  • You're not protected from that.

  • So I'm just wondering what the problem is that you have with something like the PCC.

  • Our self-regulation has worked for us, it's possibly been stronger than the PCC --

  • Self-regulation doesn't quite mean that. Self-regulation is the industry, the body, the collective looking at the one. What you're talking about is personal regulation, in other words your own set of rules.

  • That's all right.

    Do you consider when you are -- I'm glad I don't have to ask many of my questions, now.

    When you're deciding whether or not to publish a story in the newsletter, do you consider whether it's in the public interest to publish it, and what does the public interest mean in your view, in the context of the information that you are publishing?

  • I've said in my witness statement I think it's helpful to look at the definition of public interest I think as it stands, or at least as it seems to be looked at. It's not broad enough.

  • Is this paragraph 48 of your statement?

  • Paragraph 48. It's not fit for purpose for the culture we're in now.

  • Can we explore that a little?

  • Definitely. These days the power to shape and influence people's lives doesn't just come from politicians and policy making. The people who have possibly greater influence over the public come from a much wider pool. I would say nobody who is a public figure has that influence, and some people use it very consciously. You see film stars becoming the defining voices of the Balkans, Darfur. You have people straying into public policy areas, charities are lining up celebrities to talk to the public, fashion labels pay famous people to wear their clothes, to influence behavioural patterns in consumerism. David Beckham was the person chosen to represent Britain in our Olympic bid. It wasn't a politician.

    So how people live and behave in the wider sense of the public eye seems to have a very strong effect on the public. Just by being in the public eye is enough, and therefore I think that it would be more in the public interest to widen what should and shouldn't be known, what shouldn't be talked of, because I think there's good reason to see if there's a gap between people's private life and public life as they have this power over us.

  • I understand the argument that celebrities pervade our culture in a much wider sense than they used to, I understand that. What I want to understand from what you've just said is to what extent that means that their private life should be open to scrutiny by Popbitch or anyone else. Are you saying that anyone who is a public figure can have their private life scrutinised or should have their private life scrutinised in that way simply because of the fact that celebrity culture has evolved in the way that it has?

  • I think people will chatter about and scrutinise public figures as and when they choose to. As we heard earlier, there's the conversation on Facebook every day. If you mean should publishers do this, then it's a very difficult area, there's going to be a grey area between who's put their public life up for scrutiny and therefore where there's a gap between how they're appearing and how they're -- they are in real life matters to us.

    Does that mean that everybody has no privacy? No, I don't think so, but --

  • Where do you draw the line? Where does Popbitch draw the line?

  • It's a moving line. It's not -- there is no absolute line, I don't think. We draw the line, I would say, we look at who is making themselves influential, and if so, are they living up to it. I think beyond that it's very difficult to say where a line is, but I think that would be a good place to start.

  • Are there any celebrities that you simply would not mention on Popbitch because they are demonstrably private, they have said publicly that they do not wish their private life to be touched upon by the media? I am going to give you the example of JK Rowling, who's made it absolutely clear both publicly and in the context of litigation that she just doesn't want her private life to be discussed, put out there in the public domain. Not necessarily talking about her, you don't have to give me an example about her, but are there celebrities that you simply wouldn't publish stories about because they've said they don't want stories to be published about them?

  • I don't know if it's celebrities who have said they don't want to be talked about, I don't know if that should come into it, but there are a lot of people who live their lives beyond their talent privately, and therefore it would be very unlikely that we would either get any interesting stories about them or get new stories about them.

  • So the line actually for you is not whether they've said they want to be private but actually whether --

  • But their actions, but their actions.

  • -- but actually whether your readers would be interested and whether --

  • And that is by their action. If they don't do things which bring them -- somebody can say they want their life to be private, but live it quite publicly. If they say they want their life to be private and do so, that would be enough, I guess, we wouldn't look at writing about them.

  • Ms Wright, the answer you gave me a moment ago was that you would draw the line, really, if there were no stories around or you just didn't get the information or you thought your readers wouldn't be interested in the information, then probably you wouldn't publish the stories.

  • That's true but that's sort of the same line. As I said, we're looking at people who are culturally influential, who have put themselves up in this sense and therefore it would provide a counter point to their public face if we had stories about their private life that was different, we would put them there. If somebody was -- did not have that kind of public face, they were just writing a book, going to work as an actor, it would be -- we would have no material and therefore no desire to write about them --

  • Well, you could, couldn't you? Let's take Ms Rowling as an example. She might have a disgruntled employee who would be only too pleased to send you some material, but do you think that the mere fact -- I say "mere" without any disrespect -- that she is an acclaimed author in whom the public are interested, not because of the way that she conducts her life but because she's written some extremely successful books, that that would mean that you would default to publishing such a comment?

  • It depends. I mean, if the disgruntled employee had a very interesting story, which put different light on Ms Rowling, quite possibly. If it was just taking pictures of her in the street or something, we wouldn't remotely go there.

    I think just the fact of people in the public eye and therefore the public being interested in you means that you are -- you can't put yourself -- you can't choose when you're public and choose when you're private. Kate Middleton, she's never really uttered anything about what she buys, where she shops, and yet millions and millions of pounds of the economy are apparently dependent on people wanting to resemble Kate Middleton. There's no -- JK Rowling is an admirable woman, a single mother who wrote some of the most successful books in history. People will want to be like her.

  • So there isn't a difference between public interest and the interest of the public? There isn't a difference?

  • It depends on the material. What would you want to write about Ms Rowling? If it's that she's behaved in public badly to somebody, that would, I would say, be in the public domain. If she's done something in her private life, which has no bearing on her public life, that's her private life.

  • I was going to follow that up. I want to be absolutely fair to you Ms Wright, in the answers you're giving, that it would depend on the material. Am I right in saying that if you were to find out that Ms Rowling was nine weeks pregnant, you wouldn't publish that?

  • If you were to find out that Ms Rowling -- I don't want to keep using her as an example, but someone like Ms Rowling was --

  • If we found out, say, that she plagiarised her books, that would be information I would use. If this was something -- if she'd bought a new kitchen, I'm not terribly interested.

  • What if she'd bought a new kitchen and she was rude to the staff in the shop?

  • If it was in a public place, in the shop, yeah, that's public domain.

  • I was going to ask you a question about the code. You say you're aware of it. Does that mean you're aware of it in abstract terms or you have a copy that you read and reference when you're making decisions?

  • We have -- we take advice from media lawyers, who have at times given us aspects of the code that they think would be relevant to us.

  • So you don't have it on your desk?

  • I don't read it every day.

  • I don't read it every day.

  • From cover to cover, no, but I have read the bits where we have been told it's relevant to us. A lot of the PCC code relates to members of the public and how -- we never cover that kind of story. So those bits I would leave out.

  • Is there something about the fact that you are essentially a gossip website that means that less credence is given by readers to the story that you run than, say, if you were a national newspaper?

  • I probably should ask our readers.

  • Do you think they take what you say with a pinch of salt?

  • I would say that people look at things on the Internet slightly differently. Things are written in a tongue-in-cheek manner. You would probably take it differently than if it was written in a national newspaper.

  • Is that because of the way that you are regulated, do you think?

  • I think that's just how -- as I said earlier -- people use the Internet in a different way.

  • I need to touch on the message board very briefly. You've told us that registered users can use it to discuss whatever they want. Presumably they can post a message almost instantaneously, and you have limited control over what they're going to post. Do you control the message board in any way? Do you have moderators or anyone else who looks at the postings?

  • There are a group of, I would say, long-term users who would help shape the conversation on the message board. It's not moderated as such.

  • But if someone was to point out to you, say, a defamatory comment, do you have control to the extent that you can remove it?

  • Yes. What would happen, if somebody made a complaint, we would look at it and act upon it right away. In the witness statement I think I gave examples of when we would be very happy to take off posts.

  • I understand. I'm going to ask you now about when things go wrong. How many complaints do you receive from celebrities or those representing them each year, roughly?

  • Very few. I think we've made, to the best of my memory, five to six apologies, so that would be like one every two years.

  • Do they usually come from celebrities who are not happy with the stories you've written in the newsletter or are they complaints about the message board?

  • Probably more -- I would have to check, but probably more on the newsletter than the message board.

  • I understand. Can we turn to tab 2, please, in the bundle. There's a short report there dated 17 March 2008, which is headed:

    "Max Beesley wins apology from Popbitch. Popbitch agrees to its first ever statement in open court."

    I don't want to relate the details of this back publicly, but it's clear from this report that following a story that you published about Mr Beesley in the Popbitch newsletter, he contacted you to point out that the story was incorrect. This led to a successful libel action and you paid substantial damages to Mr Beesley and had to carry an apology to Mr Beesley. Is that an accurate summary of what happened?

  • Can you tell me what went wrong on that particular occasion and whether you have ever had to pay damages since then to any other celebrity?

  • This was a story that appeared to come from two very good sources and I wrote it in good faith, but I made a misjudgment and I have to hold my hands up and say that on this occasion this was wrong. But, no, since there there hasn't been anything.

  • Did you learn anything from that particular experience?

  • Yeah, you learn not to get things wrong. I think you also learn the value of negotiation and mediation with anybody that makes a complaint as speedily as you can.

  • Can I ask you about paragraph 30 of your statement, please. You say this:

    "Some newspapers have tried to use Popbitch to post stories that they wouldn't do themselves so that they can quote them as being on the Internet and therefore they can publish as in the public domain. I have tried to avoid Popbitch being used for this purpose."

    Can I ask you a little bit about that? First of all, "some newspapers", do you mean -- let me find a fair way of putting it. Do you mean tabloid newspapers, broadsheet newspapers or both?

  • I'm not going to ask you to give me specific examples unless you want to, but what's your understanding of why they come to you and try to persuade you to publish a story, despite the fact that they themselves have chosen not to? Is it to pass on litigation risk? Presumably they have to ask themselves the same questions as you about privacy and public interest. Why do they do this?

  • From the stories involved, I'm not sure it would be a litigation risk, but perhaps they have commercial considerations in newspapers, the subject matter might be something that their editor would not -- would be worried about. Maybe it's politically difficult for them, and therefore if something is out there on the Internet and said to be in the public domain, they could then quote that and write the story.

  • Do I understand your answer to mean that they may not -- say the story is about a particular politician, they don't want to offend that particular politician, or they may have a commercial reason for not wanting to offend someone, therefore they would ask you to publish it so they can say "It wasn't my fault, it was already out there"; is that it in a nutshell?

  • You wouldn't be far wrong.

  • How often does this happen?

  • It hasn't happened often and not for some time. I think now there are very easy ways for people to get stories on the Internet through social media.

  • Right. When you said that you've tried to avoid Popbitch being used for these purposes, does that mean you generally say no to such requests?

  • What if the information is really interesting and you did want to publish it? Would you still say no?

  • That hasn't yet happened.

  • Now, the thorny issue of regulation.

  • Obviously you're not members of the PCC. You do run this website as a business, though?

  • You do publish information, you accept all of that?

  • Perhaps I can guess the answer to this, but I want to ask whether you think sites like yours ought to be regulated other than just by having your own rules and procedures in place, but should be regulated in the same way as other outlets that publish information, such as newspapers, magazines and so on, and if not, why not?

  • Being an Internet publisher is different. We do publish in the UK, but we publish around the world, we have servers around the world, and we try and comply with local law. And therefore the same regulation for magazines and newspapers would probably be -- it may or may not be useful for us.

    In the future, whatever the Inquiry proposes I think we would look at very carefully to see whether we thought it was something that we thought would be useful for us to sign up to.

  • Have you heard any of the proposals that have been floated during the course of this Inquiry?

  • I've been watching some of the Inquiry, but if you would --

  • Have you noted anything that concerns you about some of the proposals that have been floated?

  • I've been watching it more for the press information, I think.

  • Let me give you an insight into questions I've been asking, not conclusions I've reached. But before I do, would it be fair to say that the underlying ethos of your business is rather different from that which you might think from the second part of its name? There was an article in the Independent, which quoted you and said:

    "We've been happy to prick the pomposity of some of the big stars over the years, but it was always meant to be done with love. Other sites are more cynical. If you don't love the world of celebrity and pop culture in some way, it's very easy to be nasty about it."

    Therefore would it be fair to say that what you're doing is very gently to poke a bit of fun at people and not to try and make statements or invade them in any way?

  • That would be our attempt. That's what we're aiming for.

  • I understand. And for that reason it may be that where you don't necessarily get things right, that doesn't mean to say that the person affected doesn't have a sense of humour and can live with it, which may be the difference. I'm not saying it is, I don't know. But if I just test it with a slightly different story, I rather gather from what you've said, but tell me if you agree with me, that the mere fact that somebody was a Premier League footballer, not a particularly famous one, but he played in the Premier League, wouldn't necessarily mean that if you learnt that he was having an affair, you would put it in your article?

  • Because there's nothing funny about that.

  • "Man has affair" is not necessarily a big story.

  • Yes. But some lighter story might get in, not because it really did reveal some deep hypocrisy but because it just provides a slightly different reflection, a lighter reflection?

  • Would that be fair? So when you talk about hypocrisy, we've used that word in a very, very clear, pure sense. You're using it in a slightly lighter sense?

  • That is largely true, but if the story was "Footballer who had built his whole personal brand on being married but was having an affair", that would be a story. "Footballer has affair" wouldn't be a story.

  • -- that gets us into the whole issue which you may have seen reflected in the decision in the case of Rio Ferdinand, which actually was fought out in this building, and the balancing exercise that judges have to do to decide whether the Article 8 rights to privacy --

  • -- which bind you just as much as they bind everybody else --

  • -- override the Article 10 rights of freedom of expression. That's the balance.

  • It may be that you coming into this exercise in the way that you've described, jokes among friends, suddenly an explosion of interest in that, so more readers than some of the broadsheet publications, on the basis of the number of people you're emailing out to, hasn't required you to come up to the hard decisions -- I'm sure you did in relation to the libel action, that's a rude awakening -- that are actually forming the basis of the work of the Inquiry?

  • We have to balance the 8 and 10 just like everybody else every week, otherwise we get -- we had a privacy injunction against us in 2009, which was up at the Court of Appeal last year, so this does affect us greatly, but I guess what we don't normally -- the stories we would normally look at are not the kiss-and-tell kind of stories, which I think, to at least some degree, is where the injunction versus freedom of expression battle has been fought so far.

  • The trouble about life is it hits you in so many different ways you can't articulate them all.

  • It's such a grey area, that we don't -- where that line is -- we're trying to find it as well.

  • That's the point. That's why I wonder whether you -- it's not for me to give you advice, but actually to read the code, I appreciate some of it won't touch you, but as a piece, it actually provides a window on how these issues could be solved, and that brings me to the issue that Ms Patry Hoskins was asking you about, which is how one brings everybody into a common standard. I'm not sure that there is a great difference between what you do and what newspapers do. You liken yourself to Private Eye. Private Eye is printed, you are digital. I'm not so sure I understand that there is really a difference between those two. And the question is whether it isn't sensible, and in the public interest -- you'll forgive me for using that word -- that there is a common set of standards.

    Now, applying it from your perspective, from your point of view, might lead to a slightly different result in a case because of the way you are going to tell a story and because of what you're trying to do, but that doesn't necessarily mean there shouldn't be a common standard, and if there should be, how one brings people in. To some extent you've identified that you'll see what I have to say and then make some decisions, unless I behave in such a way that you don't have a much of a decision to make --

  • -- depending on whether anybody pays any attention to what I say, and I recognise that I will produce a report which somebody will decide to act upon or not.

    In the light of all that, I'd like to know whether you think that that might be helpful, and help you manoeuvre your way, rather than having to reinvent the wheel, through these difficult issues where people with willingness to take on challenges, particularly as you get larger and larger, may be more and more prepared to do so.

    So that's the first question. I'll carry on and then you can answer all.

    The second would be whether it would be valuable to have somebody, have a body, not just a lawyer, although I don't decry lawyers, perhaps not surprisingly, but somebody with experience in the field of journalism who you can pick up the phone to and ask, "This is a bit of a call, what's your view?" You won't necessarily be bound by that, but just to have that advisory, to be alert when somebody has complained and is concerned about the risk of harassment, so that you know when that's happening, so that you're aware of it, and possibly to have an arbitral system of some sort available to you if somebody wants to make a fuss, which you can resolve without having to go to extremely expensive lawyers and indulge in the sort of litigation that it's clear, from what you've said, you have experience of.

    So that's the sort of construct that I'm thinking about. Now, whether it's made to be binding or whether it is in some sense consensual is one of the big issues that -- and you will have read on the website, if you've read any of the evidence or seen it, that editor after editor is very concerned about the principle of self-regulation, and I understand why, although I don't think it means quite how you used it in your statement.

  • But the critical thing is that everybody is involved. There can't be different people shooting off in different directions, because that doesn't lend for balance, or indeed fairness in the public interest.

    I'm not trying to sell you something which I haven't yet formulated in my mind, but I am asking you to consider, in the light of all that I've said, what you think about those ideas, because it's obvious that because of your difficulties you've had to think about them, and doubtless for the purposes of giving evidence, which is why that paragraph about public interest appears. So that's the general idea, without committing myself to anything, and without committing you to anything.

  • Everything you say is very interesting and it could well be a very useful thing for us to sign up to. With being an Internet product, it would be just as easy for us to, I guess, be published from America or something like that, and therefore perhaps not me but a lot of people on the Internet might choose to not sign up for regulation and therefore you have your problem of people coming from different areas and publishing to the UK but not being regulatable by them.

  • Unless you went to live in America and did it from there.

  • Yes. But it's -- actually I don't think it is even that on the Internet. The servers could be from America.

  • You'd have to be careful about where you're publishing. Who is the publisher.

  • Of course. But all -- I guess something to think of is how many Internet publishers are going to think of doing this, and how many are going to take the opportunity of being, I guess, a global -- a potentially global enterprise and not being part of a regulatory system.

  • Yes, I understand that, but if a journalist published for money in the UK, then it's not entirely obvious why any system which covers journals published in the UK shouldn't cover --

  • No, I understand. And it may well prove to be that this is a very useful mechanism for us to join. But, as I said, it would have to be something that we would look at down the line.

  • I've heard it's nice this time of year.

  • You've covered all my questions, so unless Ms Wright wanted to add anything, those are all my questions.

  • No. I think there is a difference, and if the article in the Independent to which I've referred is right, it may be that the nastier stories which may appear in other Internet magazines which have set up since yours will cause more concern, which only serves to underline why the rules have to cover everybody, even if in 99.9 per cent of the cases none of it would touch what you are trying to do for your audience. Does that make sense?

  • It makes sense to me. I guess the ongoing issue that we have with the Internet, and you touched upon with Facebook, is as things -- technology is constantly evolving. Who considers themselves a journalist, who considers themselves a broadcaster, who considers themselves a blogger, the world is changing as these platforms change. How you deal with that, I guess, is yet another challenge.

  • Yes. But I think that I might see there's a distinction between Facebook, where one person is communicating with their friends --

  • Or, say, somebody on Twitter amasses tens of thousands of followers.

  • Or Twitter, or Twitter -- and organisations that are in the business of selling themselves by reference to news or information. That's the difference between the pub chatter, to take the analogy that was mentioned before, and that which the state -- and I don't mean government, I say immediately, but the broad corpus, all of us has an interest in seeing is conducted on a level playing field. Whether that's achievable is the very centre of the Inquiry.

    Thank you very much indeed.

  • Thank you. That concludes the evidence for today, sir.

  • Thank you very much indeed.

  • (The hearing adjourned until 10 o'clock on 30 January 2012)