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

  • MR PAUL STAINES (sworn).

  • Please take a seat, Mr Staines.

  • Mr Staines, thank you very much indeed for participating and providing the Inquiry with the benefit of your views, which come from a very different perspective to many of the others that I have received.

  • Could you confirm your full name, please?

  • Paul DeLaire Staines.

  • Are the contents of your two witness statements true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

  • Can we concentrate on your second statement, please, where you tell us a little bit about your background and current activities?

  • Before you do, possibly I ought to make it clear and explain that following a complaint in relation to the statement that was published, I was concerned that it had come from the Inquiry for probably obvious reasons. As soon as it became clear, which it had not become clear until a day or so into it, that it had not, that was the reason that I immediately stood down my request that you attend, because the complaint had vanished. But whether you --

  • Sir, could we publish the first statement then?

  • I think by answering the question that you did, whether your statements were accurate, we are now intending to put those into the public domain.

  • And you're free, of course, to comment, although I think you probably have been.

  • Well, I haven't been free, because you put a restriction order censoring me.

  • The terms of the restriction order didn't allow me to comment on the evidence.

  • Until it was published, which it just has been.

  • You are here because you currently run the Guido Fawkes website, and you do that with Mr Cole and a cartoonist; is that right?

  • Before that, you've had one of the more diverse career histories of the witnesses before the Inquiry. You tell us that between 1986 and 1990, you worked in politics, think tanks and campaigns. Between 1989 and 1991 you organised mass attendance dance music raves. Between 1992 and 1994, you were a professional gambler. Then between 1995 and 2001, you were a derivatives broker, bond dealer, hedge fund trader in London, Hong Kong and Tokyo. You were then a litigant in a protracted commercial dispute for two years, before commencing publication of the Guido Fawkes political blog in 2004, and since then, since 2006, you've supplemented that activity by being an investment adviser to online ventures; is that correct?

  • Moving to a little detail about the Guido Fawkes website, its raison d'etre is to publish political tittle-tattle, gossip and rumour?

  • And you pride yourself in breaking news stories and your success stems from doing that time and time again, you say, until -- well, beating big news organisations to stories.

  • Yeah, I think we have a record of that. I think the BBC's Mark Thompson explained in a speech why we do beat them.

  • Your economic model is combined of advertising and story-broking, isn't it?

  • Yes. I'd say they're roughly equal, the amount of advertising revenue and the amount we get from selling stories.

  • Your current readership is what?

  • Daily: 50,000 to 100,000.

  • And at times when you are breaking big news stories, what sort of visitor rates do you attract then?

  • I think at the peak we were getting 100,000 an hour. In an average month, we would have certainly hundreds of thousands, maybe up to a million readers, or a million different browsers come to our website.

  • You operate also on Twitter. How many followers do you have?

  • In obtaining readers, how important is the role of search engines in directing computer users to your material?

  • On a day-to-day basis, I'd say between 25 and 35 per cent of the traffic comes via search engines, particularly Google. If people are searching for a story that is of the moment, you know, if they're researching for Leveson Inquiry today, then they would arrive to us via Google.

  • You tell us in addition to covering political tittle-tattle, gossip and rumour, you are increasingly commenting on and analysing the media industry.

  • Well, currently we have a situation where the media and politics are overlapping quite heavily, and we have great fun teasing some of our media rivals.

  • You say that you often publish articles about media personalities and say what others are afraid to say for career reasons. That is an issue which is of some interest to the Inquiry. Are you able to help us, from your knowledge of the industry: how prevalent are career fears for those who are considering speaking out?

  • I think there's a reluctance to damage your career prospects by writing about your rivals, when one year you might be writing for the Times, the next year you might be working for the Guardian, so people are reluctant to put their name to stories attacking rivals.

    I deal mainly with political journalists, and quite often they'll stick the knife into each other via me and won't have their fingerprints on the story.

  • How real do you think the consequences are for journalists who speak out? What I'm getting at is: are these fears, which you tell us about, subjective or is there an objective justification for them? Do journalists who speak out suffer consequences?

  • No, journalists have very thin skins and they hold a grudge, so definitely it might damage your career prospects. I think that's part of the problem this Inquiry has had with getting people to go on the record and say that at their publication there was hacking going on or blagging going on, because the only people I see come forward are people who have no longer got careers in active journalism. So people who are still in the business are reluctant to admit to what's been going on.

  • You have certainly said on the Internet that your inspirations editorially are Kelvin MacKenzie and Popbitch. Is that right?

  • That's correct. Camilla, who is the boss of Popbitch, is a friend and has given me advice over the years, and I'd say that Kelvin MacKenzie is our lodestar.

  • The nature of your work gives rise, doesn't it, to a number of stories coming your way which are single-sourced?

  • Yeah, quite often there's only one source in the room who can provide us with the information, so we have no choice. We don't rely on single-sourcing from people we don't know. There has to be some authority to that person or we have to have a level of trust built up over time. If someone came in fresh and was a single source and we couldn't verify in any way whatsoever, I'd be very reluctant to run with it.

  • What I was coming to is Mr McKenzie has become of interest because he's given evidence about "lobbing stories in" if they "felt right". I wanted to know whether, in relation to dealing with single-source stories, you follow that lodestar or whether at that point you would depart company and --

  • Depends. If it's a trivial story, you know, an amusing story that's of no consequence, I'd be willing to go with it on that basis. If it's a career-ending story or a story of great import, then I'd be very reluctant to go forward on that basis.

  • You tell us a little bit about the technological set-up of your website, and in particular the fact that your servers are in the USA. Is it right that initially you used Google to host your site and that you've since moved away from that?

  • Originally I was on Google's free Blogger system. When they became more willing to give in to legal threats, I thought it would be a good moment to switch from them to a hosting provider who was robust and would stand up for my First Amendment protections.

  • So the position now is you have a smaller, independent American entity hosting your website from the United States?

  • And I think you make no bones about it: you have done that to make it more difficult for people in this jurisdiction to challenge what you publish?

  • Partly, and partly because of the experience of Wikileaks and I just don't want all of a sudden to have the website disappear because someone's made a -- what I would view as a spurious threat.

  • You go on at the bottom of the first page of your witness statement to tell us that you've been the subject of many threatened legal actions, although none has ever succeeded in the UK courts, and you go on to say that you've repeatedly ignored injunctions and orders issued in the UK courts with no adverse consequences. I'd like to explore that in a little more detail, please, starting first with: what sort of volume of complaints do you receive from lawyers?

  • There was a period a few years ago where we would get sent To Whom It May Concern injunctions, ie we weren't named, we were informed that we weren't to report about this matter or that matter, and that died off after I wrote to a couple of the law firms saying that if they sent us that, then we would consider it on its merits, and I thought -- quite often the first I knew about these matters was receiving the To Whom It May Concern injunction, so as of about the Ryan Giggs time, I haven't received a single injunction.

  • You've been the subject of an injunction which was granted on an interim ex parte basis in Ireland, but that injunction was subsequently not made permanent.

  • I was injuncted in three jurisdictions by Zac Goldsmith and his sister, Jemima Khan. This was obviously before she became a freedom-of-information campaigner. It was done on Christmas Eve in the year it was. I was quite surprised they managed to get a High Court judge out on Christmas Eve in Dublin. I got no warning. They made undertakings to the court to produce evidence that I had got the material that they claimed I had got. The judge on that basis gave them an interim injunction. In between Christmas and January 4, when it was held over, we had communications directly through myself and Zac, and it was agreed that they would drop it, and when they came back to the court and were unable to provide any evidence, they got a judicial bollocking from an Irish High Court judge.

  • Have there been other attempts overseas to obtain injunctions against you?

  • Not that I'm aware of. I've had communications sent to me at my Irish address that have never proceeded.

  • You mentioned Ryan Giggs a moment ago. What role did you play in relation to speculation as to his identity whilst it was protected by an injunction?

  • I can't remember exactly. I think on Twitter I devised a five-a-side football team of various footballers and suggested they should play, and suggested two managers, on Twitter, who might also manage that five-a-side football team, and nothing came of it.

  • Do you know whether attempts were made to make something come of it?

  • Well, I couldn't afford the footballers for a start, but there were various threats from Schillings in the press, but nothing happened. They said they were going to contact Twitter, but there was no follow-up. If there was, I wasn't aware of it.

  • Was Mr Giggs one of the team members?

  • I don't think we need go into the others. In addition to that activity, can I take you to a couple of examples in the bundle of things you've published? Can we go first of all to tab 4 and look at a page that's right at the very back of tab 4. This concerns Wikileaks. It's a post from February 242008, entitled, "Supporting Wikileaks and freedom of speech":

    "Guido is showing Wikileaks some love with Google Juice. The IP address [then there's an IP address] is the Internet postcode for Wiki. A judge has ordered the web authorities to remove the website url address from the Internet, so this is the only way directly [to] access it now. This is where Guido uploads important documents (like that Northern Rock memo) and others they don't want you to see ..."

    Can I take it from that that what you were doing was making available to those who read your blog material which a court had ordered should be removed from the Internet?

  • Yeah, this was -- I think, if I recall correctly -- in relation to the Merrill Lynch memo, which was a document produced by Merrill Lynch concerning the prospects for Northern Rock, in which they outlined how it may result in costs to the taxpayer of £50 billion. The FT first published it online and were immediately hit with injunctions. I also got a copy of the memo. I wrote a story and took the precaution of uploading the memo, since I think it was Carter Ruck were very busy on this, on a foreign website and linked to that, and I think uploaded it in different locations around the globe as the day went on, so Carter Ruck were chasing -- or whichever law firm it was -- various hosting agencies around the world, and when that became boring, I gave it to Wikileaks.

  • So is it the reality that, however prestigious the lawyers, the modern Internet, with its global reach, is such that if someone is determined to put information out there and keep it there by reposting it, or whatever other mechanism, in practice it can be made to happen?

  • I think it's impossible for them to do anything. I would basically upload it to free hosting services after the close of business hours, so if the law firm was contacting Yahoo India, they would find no one at home and it would be up on that website until the next day at the very least.

  • So in taking this action, you were effectively deciding practically to thwart what the court was trying to achieve?

  • And you were doing that for what reason?

  • Because I think when you're considering £50 billion of the public's money, the public has a right to know what's going on, and there was no democratic reason why this should be done in secret. This was the taxpayer's money and it was a lot of money.

    Something that I think you might have overlooked is that I'm a citizen of a free republic, and since 1922 I don't have to pay attention to what a British judge orders my countrymen to do.

  • If we move to another example and look at tab 5, please, what I'm interested in is a document which is about halfway through and it relates to Mr Goodwin. It's dated 19 May 2011. At the top it says page 1 of 33 and at the bottom the date is 1 February 2012, the date on which it was printed out. It has a sticking plaster picture.

  • Good, I see you have that.

    Do you have that, sir?

  • No. Halfway through tab 5?

  • Tab 5. It has two images on it. One is a life insurance advertisement and the other is a sticking plaster crisscrossed. I think it's up on the screen now.

  • This was written after Mr Goodwin's name was in the public domain, but what you do here is repeat what you'd published beforehand. We see in italics towards the bottom of the page:

    "So there was this [then a number of asterisks] bloke who worked closely with another ***** colleague, they apparently began an adulterous affair not long after the *****ing crisis of 2008. He went to court to stop it getting out that he had been banging her. Because he is the most notorious ***** of his generation he also banned references to his profession let he be identified."

    Then afterwards you say:

    "Well, that went well for Fred, didn't it? Worth every penny ..."

    And so, although you didn't in fact name Mr Goodwin in your post, you set out something of a riddle, which many might have been able to work out?

  • Well, I mean, I think in that particular instance he had banned references to him as a banker, and so we had to play on words, yes.

  • At the top of just above the sticking plaster article, we see:

    "In March Guido told you about it, but had to adhere slightly to the courts."

    So I take it that you were on that occasion paying at least some attention to the legal status of the information?

  • If we go back now to your sources, you've told us a little bit about them already. I'm looking at the second page of your witness statement. You say that about half of your sources are personally known to you. You're able to verify the provenance to varying degrees of about another 40 per cent, and then 10 per cent or less are unknown to you and you do what you can to verify what they say, and then decide whether to publish or reject their stories.

  • We get a lot of stories coming in via email. Some of those emails don't reveal the source's name and are pseudonyms. We also have a voicemail that people can use and people leave us anonymous tips on the voicemail, and also we get documents faxed to us. With those kind of anonymous tips, we will make efforts to verify the document if we can.

  • Can I ask you now a little bit, because you deal a lot with politicians, don't you, and people moving in perhaps the Westminster village, if I put it that way: do you find that when people come forward with information they are sometimes trying to use you as a vehicle to pursue their own political agendas and to smear others?

  • I don't know about smear, but they obviously always, almost always, in fact, have an agenda. Quite often it's quite legitimate. It will be the press officers for various interests. Sometimes it is people in the same party doing down other people in that party. You know, the old saying that on the other side of the house is your opposition, but your enemy is behind you is -- applies in politics quite well.

  • To what extent do you receive information which subsequently turns out to be untrue?

  • I'd say when you're dealing with politicians, quite a lot of what they tell you is untrue, particularly their denials, which subsequently turn out to be true. Over the years we've learnt who you can trust and who you can't, and how to unspin things and detect them when they're lying. Quite often it's misdirection rather than outright blatant lying.

  • Is it right that you sometimes are fed stories by journalists in the mainstream, the old media, who are not able to get their stories into that week's edition or that day's edition and are hoping that, by feeding it to you as a blogger, the story will be kept alive until the editor can be persuaded of its merits?

  • I think that happens occasionally. There's different circumstances where it happens. Occasionally a story has been spiked. The editor for some reason doesn't want to go ahead with the story or doesn't fit their -- that newspaper's agenda, and they'll give it to us. I mean, that happens less now because I think we're seen as more -- when we were a bit of an underground publication, I think that used to happen quite often, but now most political journalists read the blog it happens less.

    The second type of story that's given to us is when parts of -- the journalist concerned couldn't get the whole story out or the editor wasn't willing to go the whole hog on a story. They'll give it to us in order to try to push the storyline further or to keep the storyline alive from one week to another week. So, for instance, a Sunday newspaper might flag up some story that they couldn't develop as fully as the journalist concerned wanted, and the editor says, "We're not going any further", but if we were to write about that story in the week, then they would say, "Look, the story is still moving, still alive, it still has the legs", as is the term used in the industry, and that might get the editor to provide resources for that journalist to continue with the story.

  • You say in your witness statement, and I'm moving now to the question of ethics, that your ethical goal is to report the truth as you see it and that that should be the ethical goal of all journalists, whatever their medium.

    Can I try and expand that and put a number of ethical matters to you? I'm doing this by reference to the PCC code. I know that you're not a member of the PCC, but an important aspect of the code is the need for accuracy. Am I right to understand that you, too, think that accuracy is of great importance to ethical journalism?

  • Of course. And if you make a mistake, your readers will lose confidence in you, your reputation will go downhill.

    I have to say I've heard a lot of testimony from other journalists saying that what people don't realise is the speed with which we have to do things, and we quite often hit stories out, you know, five minutes after we've got the basic details, and the story will be revised and amended during the day on the fly, so we'll get the details correct and hopefully the end story will be spot on. But due to the nature of how fast we move, it's not always -- the first print isn't always spot on.

  • Would it represent the position accurately to say that what you're doing is striving for accuracy rather than guaranteeing it?

  • That would be correct.

  • That's a different issue, isn't it, for those who are in print journalism, because you have the ability to change anything you've written?

  • Yeah, we can do -- pixels can be altered instantly. What I'm trying to emphasise is the nature of the speed at which we work. If you have a whole day or a whole week to consider your article, you have a chance to dot the Is and cross the Ts in a way that we don't have because we're in such a hurry, and I think some of the tabloid journalists have been saying, "We do 100 stories a day", and the editors have been saying the same thing. It's not always possible to get things exactly right at speed.

  • Privacy next. That's obviously a part of the PCC code, qualified, though, by the public interest test. Am I right to understand from your witness statement that on matters of privacy you're essentially an adherent to the American school of thought, a First Amendment man rather than a fan of privacy as it's been interpreted in the English courts?

  • Yes. I particularly don't think people in public life, people who are, you know, paid for by the taxpayers, or subject to the voters, should expect the same degree of privacy as a private citizen who has no public life can expect. These people -- their character speaks to what the voters need to know about them as politicians, so if they misbehave in their private life -- it's quite common that somebody who will lie to their wife will lie to the voters. That's an old adage that has some truth to it.

  • I can understand that, but it may be there isn't quite the difference that is sometimes portrayed, because you don't do stories about individuals outside the political spectrum. Or do you?

  • Very rarely do stories -- well, we write increasingly about journalists, but mainly it's about politicians.

  • Invariably there is a public interest angle when you have a politician.

  • That's the point. So if you're not going to go into the area, whether it's celebrity or those who have been accused of crime, all the bits and pieces that I'm sure you've heard about that I've been hearing about, you don't have to make a decision, "Is this an invasion of privacy?", because you're starting from a broadly political perspective.

  • Yeah, I'm confident that it's almost always a public interest angle. Although that's not to say that celebrities who misrepresent themselves -- it's not in my area of work, but some of the other celebrities who have been here and claimed to be victims, you know, like Hugh Grant, I think he did put himself out in public and he should expect to be scrutinised.

  • Yes, but, for example, there have been other people who have given evidence as victims who positively don't want to be in the public domain, they're not in the public domain. That issue for you wouldn't arise because you wouldn't be writing about them?

  • No, it's not something we cover.

  • Again perhaps this question needs to be put in the context to the people that you write about. I'd like to ask you about your views on the use of subterfuge. Do you regard it as necessary to get hold of stories of public interest?

  • Sometimes. I think you have to employ a degree of subterfuge. I think the PCC ruled against the Daily Telegraph recently for when they sent two reporters to record Vince Cable's views on certain matters. I think that was perfectly legitimate what they did. They got the truth out of Vince Cable. He was saying one thing in private, another thing in public, and the PCC ruled against them for using subterfuge, but they exposed Vince Cable's duplicitousness.

  • Do you ever use subterfuge or cause other people to use subterfuge?

  • We have. I've sent reporters in disguise. When UKIP had a policy of banning the burka, I send a female reporter dressed in a burka to interview the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and ask him about his worries about the Muslim Eurosceptic vote. It was I think legitimate to juxtapose him on camera with someone in a burka. It was also good fun.

  • Do you, when you decide to use subterfuge, stop and pause for thought and try and balance the invasion and deception on the one hand against the degree of public interest in the story on the other or do you just take a view and decide on whim?

  • I think broadly correct. If we think the only way we're going to get this information is by subterfuge, then we will do that. But when we're asking people on the record questions, we do identify ourselves. We don't ring up and pretend to be a constituent when we're asking to put something on the record as a public statement. It's only when we think that they are being deceptive and the only way we can discover this deception or prove this deception is by subterfuge that we'd use it.

  • I see, so you would require at least a reasonable suspicion that it was necessary that there was something going on that needed to be uncovered?

  • Yeah, and if we said, "We're from the Guido Fawkes blog, will you tell us what you really think?" I'm sure we wouldn't have any success, so we will endeavour to find out what we can.

    Quite often what we're trying to illuminate is politicians saying one thing to one set of people and another thing to another set of people. That, I think, is -- it's sometimes necessary to use underhand tactics.

  • What about phone hacking? Do you think that might ever be justified?

  • I think phone hacking is against the law, and there are criminal sanctions that were available to deal with that, and we don't need to reform the Press Complaints Commission to prosecute those kind of actions.

  • What about email hacking. Would the same apply?

  • I think the same would apply.

  • Sir, I'm about to move on to the question of complaints system, such as it is. Is that a convenient time?

  • Yes. It's not inconvenient to you to come back at 2 o'clock, is it?

  • (The luncheon adjournment)

  • Yes.

  • Thank you, sir.

    Moving on to the question of complaints, your complaints policy has the virtue of transparency in that you state, without any hesitation, that it's an arbitrary and inconsistent policy about a section of your website. It seems in practice that what you do is consider complaints on their merits, according to the merits as you see them; is that right?

  • That's right. So with Twitter and email and the comment system we have, almost hourly we get complaints, most of which we ignore, but some of them, when they're of substance or particularly when they're from the person who the story is about, we consider.

  • I wonder whether you're teasing yourself a bit, Mr Staines. It's not that you have an inconsistent policy. Your policy is consistent: if you think there's something in it, you'll look at it. However, your default position may be: 95 per cent of the time there's nothing in it.

  • Correct. So we're consistent in our arbitrary inconsistency or --

  • No, I am not so sure that's right.

  • But if you think there's something in it, you'll pay attention to it?

  • That broadly is the position.

  • The way you put it in your statement is:

    "If on reflection we think it is possibly untrue or defamatory, we take it down."

    I'm interested in your use of the word "possibly untrue". Is that meant to signal that you actually set quite a low threshold for intervention and taking a story down?

  • I think earlier on I said that there are different types of stories. There are trivial, gossipy kinds of stories that aren't going to be remembered in a few days' time, so we have a lower threshold for those, you know, checking them out. If it's a major substantive story that is going to affect, you know, the newspapers the next day, it's going to change someone's career, then we have a higher threshold.

    If someone complains about a trivial story and makes lots of trouble, then we probably don't even bother thinking about it; we'll just take it down to get them to go away.

  • Moving now from your approach to complaints to regulation more formally, you're not a member of the PCC, although I understand that you have spoken to Lord Hunt on that subject?

  • Lord Hunt is very silky in his wooing of me to join some kind of kitemark system and I don't think that's a road that I want to go down.

  • Could you explain to the Inquiry why it is that you wish to shy away from any formal regulatory body?

  • I think if you join -- if I joined any regulatory body, I would end up in a system where I'm going to have to self-censor, and I don't want to do that. I also don't want to have an editorial product that is politically correct and I don't want to have to adhere to standards that Harriet Harman would approve of.

    I don't think there are many publishers around now, not even Private Eye, who are still politically incorrect in the way that we are.

  • Would you, on that subject, have the same concern that Mr Hislop expressed to the Inquiry, namely that if you were to be the member of an industry regulatory body, you might find yourself being judged by the very people who you had been critical of or exposing in your publications?

  • Yeah, that is a very real point. I think it's ridiculous that Tina Weaver, somebody who -- from the Sunday Mirror, somebody who two journalists have told me has personally authorised and told them to hack, blag, and do all that kind of stuff, sits on not just the Press Complaints Commission, but on the Ethics Committee, the Editorial Standards Committee. She knows all the bad things that have gone on under her rule. It's ridiculous.

  • I'll be coming back to Ms Weaver in due course, but it's right that even though you stand outside the formal regulatory systems that exist in the ways that you would describe, you do in fact self-censor, at least to the point that if you think you've got it wrong, you'll take things down?

  • Well, that's pursuit of accuracy rather than censorship, and is slightly different and I distinguish the two things. If we've got it wrong, we're not censoring ourselves, we're correcting ourselves.

  • You express in your witness statement your commitment to the freedom of expression, but you would accept, wouldn't you, that the freedom of expression is a qualified right in that it doesn't give a person licence, for example, to take an extreme example, knowingly to publish false facts about somebody?

  • Well, we used to have an offence of malicious libel. I think that was a mistake to take that offence away.

    A classic example of limitations on freedom of speech is of course shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre. Obviously there are limitations and I'm not a complete absolutist, but I think us something that's been lost currently in the troubles the media are having is the need for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

  • You raise quite an interesting economic argument on the third page of your witness statement right at the bottom of the page, and you argue that any legal or technological method of censorship will have an economic cost. If I've understood you correctly, the point you're making is that as soon as this country imposes a regulatory system which goes beyond that of, say, America, with its First Amendment rights, then businesses will be attracted to the country with the less intrusive regulation if they want to publish content over new media, and that is why so much of the new media is based in America?

  • I think that's part of it. Obviously a lot of it starts in America, so she -- most of the companies start in America anyway and they have the advantage of the First Amendment protections, but you can see a situation now where countries like Sweden and Ireland are actually pushing the fact that they have a regulatory and legal environment which is favourable to social media enterprises, and Britain will be at a competitive disadvantage if we have laws that penalise the networked businesses of the future in such a way that they are responsible for what thousands of their customers do.

    So it's equivalent to making phone companies responsible for what people say on the phone, so I don't think that's a healthy or sensible way to proceed.

  • Do you approve of the model that the Irish have developed in relation to this area?

  • I think it has advantages over the direction we seem to be going. I mean, for instance, I think the woman from HuffPo mentioned that actually if we pre-moderate comments on our website, we become legally liable for them. So the perversity of the law is that if we intervene and moderate comments, then we assume some liability. If we do nothing, we're not liable. That's from a case, I think Hilton versus Cashgill(?).

  • There may be a difference to be had between a person who's held liable simply for the transmission of material and somebody who actually has editorial control of material.

  • Are you suggesting that applying a set of ethical standards to published content in the United Kingdom is going to put the United Kingdom at a competitive disadvantage?

  • If YouTube, Google become criminally liable for everything that's put on their website, it's going to be difficult for them, and I think companies like Twitter have been sued by people for stuff that was done by Twitter's customers. So I think the liability of those kind of social media networks should be very, very limited and they should have an absolute defence of, "We removed it as soon as we were informed of the problem".

  • How do you balance the need to maintain a competitive advantage against the need to protect people from the sort of media excesses that we've heard about at the start of this Inquiry, and with the need to have an ethical approach to reporting?

  • Well, those weren't social media networks hacking voicemails, et cetera. That was the traditional media. There are criminal sanctions, and there are criminal processes that are in play at this moment. So we don't need any extra regulation. We already have crimes on the statute that cover those eventualities.

  • Isn't the difficulty with placing the burden exclusively on the law enforcement agencies to deal with that sort of behaviour that they simply don't have the resources to deal with an unregulated industry, or at least, if they were to deploy the sufficient resource to deal with it, then they would be distracted from other very pressing policing concerns?

  • Just because it's difficult to enforce doesn't mean it should -- you should shift the burden of enforcement to someone else.

  • You provide in your statement your thoughts on a voluntary basis in relation to a number of issues which are of interest to the Inquiry. The first of these is on the relationships between national newspapers and politicians, and you tell us that you think that the relationship between the press and politicians is symbiotic, and there are a number of things that you tell us about the lobby system in Westminster that I would like to explore further with you.

    First of all, you say that there is effectively a lobby club with implicit rules which discourage journalists from rocking the boat too much. Could you tell us more about what in your view those implicit rules are?

  • Well, there is a phrase that's used, "lobby terms", which means -- it doesn't mean just off the record, it's beyond off the record. If a politician tells a lobby journalist on lobby terms that he believes the sky is blue and then goes on Newsnight later on to say that he believes the sky is red, the journalist cannot report that actually he's lying to the public on Newsnight. So you have not just off the record, you have journalists complicit in politicians' lying, when they could reveal the truth, but under the terms of trade that the lobby has, they can't say anything.

  • Why do journalists enter into this Faustian pact?

  • Well, it's a cartel, because the authorities in Parliament won't give you access to the parliamentary estate unless you're on the lobby list, so I have to go in to Parliament as a visitor rather than show a security pass. It makes it difficult for me to get access to the main players if I'm not part of the lobby, but I don't want to be in the lobby because I don't think it's a very healthy system.

    This is not just me saying this as an outsider. A former chairman of the lobby has said it's antiquated. It was set up in the 1870s. It isn't healthy to have politicians talking to journalists in private on terms that aren't open and transparent to the public.

  • And so what is a solution?

  • I think for a start they could televise the lobby briefings. There's nothing magical about them and I think people might find them a bit dull, but "Downing Street sources" usually means the journalist was sat in a briefing room being fed the line from the press -- the Prime Minister's spokesman. We can just put it on TV and see that.

    The access -- I think it's unhealthy full stop to have lobby terms. Journalists shouldn't accept anonymous briefing from the Prime Minister's spokesman or from other players because most of the time it's used by politicians to besmirch other politicians without getting their fingerprints on it.

  • You also talk about a trade in favours. Could you expand upon that, please?

  • It's a standard technique for press officers to give titbits to their favoured journalists. So if a journalist has written favourable stories about their principal, whether it's a minister or the Prime Minister, they will give them a titbit and give them an advantage. In that way, they bring the journalist to heel. So the lobby functions like an obedience school for journalists: if you play the game, we'll reward you; rock the boat and you won't get any access.

    There's well-documented cases of broadcast journalists having aggressive interviews with politicians and as a punishment for aggressively interviewing the politician, they are not given any access to the politicians for, you know, six months, a year, 12 months, whatever it is. So if you're a broadcaster, if you don't have interviews with the principals, you have very boring television because there's no access -- because the public only get to see your talking head rather than you interrogating the politician. So that way, because of the requirement for access and interviews, the broadcasters are brought to heel.

  • Can you give us any examples of that?

  • I think I did this in a programme for Newsnight a few years ago. Sky News had -- a junior reporter on Sky News aggressively questioned the then opposition leader, David Cameron, and David Cameron lost his temper and it was broadcast. As a result, Sky News were kept out of interviews and access for a period of months as a punishment.

  • You hold up the example of the expenses scandal as something which in your view is evidence of failure by journalists to report on wrongdoing, because you say that lobby journalists knew about the abuse of expenses long before the story became public.

  • Lobby journalists are aware of the system, and perfectly understood what was going on, but they just accepted it. The only reason that the expenses scandal came out was because Heather Brooke, a freedom of information campaigner, spent, you know, two years pursuing it through the courts until the authorities had to produce a disk, which the Daily Telegraph got hold of, but it wasn't really down to investigative journalism on the part of the Daily Telegraph, it was down to the efforts of a freedom of information campaigner.

  • What evidence do you have that lobby journalists did in fact know about the expenses scandal --

  • Well, if you read the articles they wrote after the expenses scandal broke, came out, you'll see lots of them say they knew all about it. Similarly, when Damian McBride resigned after -- you know, as a result of Smeargate, you'll read a lot of journalists writing that they knew what he was like and how he did all this vilification and how his nickname was McPoison and how they knew his methods, yet they never said it beforehand.

  • You tell us that in your experience newspapers do favours for their political allies, beyond just slanting their coverage into a favourable light. You say they will suppress the truth, rubbish political opponents and buy up stories never to be printed which might embarrass their political allies. Are you able to give us from your knowledge any examples of stories being bought up in order to bury them?

  • I can't definitively say that this was bought to bury it, but it is the case that we broke a story about William Hague sharing a hotel room with his special adviser. We also had pictures of the special adviser in a gay bar. Now, that story that we broke on I think a Thursday caused uproar, and there was trouble afoot. We took the photos to the News of the World. They bought them for £20,000 and never published them. I don't know very much but I know you don't pay £20,000 for photos not to publish.

    At the time that was happening, it was at the height of the building tension between Downing Street, Andy Coulson, and matters that were about to come out in a major way, and it's clear to me that the News of the World was in regular contact with Downing Street, and perhaps to curry favour or for whatever reasons, they chose to buy up those pictures and take them off the market.

  • Is there any possibility that the reason they didn't publish them was because of the public statement which Mr Hague put out about the story?

  • If I recall correctly, they bought the pictures after the public statement.

  • You say that in your experience investigative journalists have no respect for the Data Protection Act, even if they are aware of it. What's the evidence for that?

  • I once had a negative story about me written up by the Daily Telegraph, Gordon Rayner, I think he's been covering this, and he identified where I live in London, and I said, "How did you do that? There's no records, I'm not on the electoral roll there, I don't have any bank accounts, you couldn't get me by that", and he told me to my face that he had done a name search on the Land Registry. Now, people might not realise it, but the Land Registry is not searchable by name. You can only search that by address. You can put the postcode in or the map co-ordinates and find out who owns it. You cannot go to the Land Registry and give a name and then find out all the properties that person owns unless you know someone in the Land Registry.

    Gordon Rayner appears in the Operation Motorman records 335 times making requests to Whittamore. 185 of those have been identified as illegal, you know, getting number plates checked out. How can that be?

  • Moving now to the question of future regulation, you tell us that the public interest is best served in your view by an unregulated free press and the better enforcement of existing civil and criminal laws. Doesn't such an approach leave a gap into which victims of press misconduct, such as Christopher Jefferies or the McCanns, would still be able to fall in the future?

  • I don't see how you can avoid the necessity of going to law. I mean, we're a nation of law, so that is going to have to be the ultimate route that people go to.

    It's a problem for victims of these kind of criminal acts if they don't know about it, so I think, in the case of the Operation Motorman investigation, we have hundreds of invoices with people's names on which haven't been -- the people who were the victims of blagging and illegal data protection haven't been identified -- haven't been told --

  • If I may stop you there, that's not quite an answer to the question I was putting. If you have an unregulated free press, that still leaves a gap, doesn't it, into which people like the McCanns and Mr Jefferies could fall in the future?

  • I think it's been difficult and, you know, hard on the McCanns and Mr Jefferies, but ultimately they have managed to get reparations through legal channels. If you have -- if the victims have access to the courts, they can do that.

  • But isn't there a need to stop these abuses happening in the first place?

  • Then you'll lose the freedom of the press and I think that's a price too high to pay.

    On the Motorman position, though, the victims of Mr Whittamore don't know how they came to appear in the papers and how their private details were discovered, so I think the -- it's beholden on the Information Commissioner or the authorities, whoever it is, to inform the victims of Mr Whittamore that they have been -- had their information illegally procured on the behest of journalists.

  • Does this really work, Mr Staines? Let me just test it with you. It so happened that because of some information, I think about DVLA impropriety, the police and the Information Commissioner went into Mr Whittamore's home and then obtained this treasure trove of material. I take your point that then those who have been the subject of unlawful access, if they're told, can pursue remedies. But let's assume that Mr Whittamore had been rather less careful about his record-keeping, so that they didn't recover this treasure trove of material, yet it had all happened. Doesn't there have to be a system that keeps some semblance of attention to the way in which people can be invaded in their privacy by things like that?

    So it's not good enough to say, "Well, the criminal law can cope with it, there was all the Whittamore stuff, it was all available". That might then identify Whittamore. It wouldn't necessarily identify the person who had encouraged him -- assuming it to be the case, which I am not deciding, of course -- deliberately and illegally to break the law, and he would say, "Well, I'm not prepared to say who instructed me", or even if he was, that wouldn't necessarily be evidence.

    Don't you need a regime that actually does ensure that there are systems in place, perhaps within the press themselves, to make people careful about this type of thing?

  • I think the editors perhaps should have, you know, a legal responsibility of some kind, ie like we have a corporate manslaughter. But at the very least, with the evidence we already have of criminal behaviour by journalists, we should follow that up. We shouldn't just ignore it. We have a huge body of evidence from that investigation. 389 journalists are on the records, yet nothing is happening. Nobody is pursuing them. Instead -- I presume this Inquiry has those records. If this Inquiry doesn't act as a catalyst for criminal prosecution for those journalists who have invaded people's privacy, on an industrial scale, I think you have failed.

  • Well, I think it's quite difficult to now say, nine years on, that this or that should happen, and that the resources that are available to protect information and data should be devoted to this operation nine years ago. That something perhaps should have happened nine years ago is a different issue and I recognise that and one of the things I'm thinking about, obviously, is what's gone wrong with all that, that's within my terms of reference.

    So I'm not prepared to define failure as not prosecuting people for what they may or may not have done ten years ago.

  • I'm not aware -- I bow to your superior knowledge, but is there a statute of limitations on those crimes?

  • With respect, Mr Staines, that's not quite the point. There may or may not be. But even if there isn't, there's a question of proof of not merely the title but the name of the journalist doing whatever he's supposed to have done. There's also an evidential issue about the acceptability of simply an entry of a name in a book as demonstrating the fact. So it's an enormous exercise. As indeed is actually happening in relation to the investigations which we heard about yesterday, Weeting, Elveden, Tuleta. These are enormous police operations.

  • Bus it seems to me the proper place to test this is in the courts. So if you don't inform the alleged or possible victims that their names are on these records that arose from Operation Motorman, then we're not going to get that tested in court.

  • That may indeed be happening, but --

  • We have manifest prima facie evidence of crimes. It shouldn't be ignored.

  • There are lots of things that people can accuse me of doing, but ignoring it isn't one of them.

  • Can we go now to page 5 of your statement, bottom hole punch, where you draw the Inquiry's attention to a real difficulty with the domestic regulatory scheme. You say:

    "The reality of convergence and cross-border broadcasting via the Internet of all forms of content will mean that any regulatory regime will be porous."

    Do you mean by that that these days any of us can log on, sitting here in London, read a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch the television using sources from all over the world?

  • Yeah, without limit. You know, I can watch French TV, American TV on my phone, never mind via terrestrial broadcasters or satellite broadcasters. So I don't see, unless we're going to have some kind of global Ofcom, how you can have a regulatory regime that's going to have the same standards all over the world.

  • Dealing now very briefly with some of the articles you've published about phone hacking, first of all Ms Weaver. I don't want you to reveal any sources not already in the public domain, and I simply ask you this question which I'd like you to answer succinctly, please: does your evidence go any further than what you have already posted on your blog or not?

  • If I have -- if -- I can't be quite certain from memory. If on the blog I have said that journalists have told me that they were told by Ms Weaver to spin a phone, then that's what I'm attesting to now.

  • And exactly the same question in relation to Mr Morgan and again --

  • I don't think it's necessary to do that.

  • No, Mr Morgan is circumstantial from his books.

  • What we've published about Mr Morgan we have derived from his own writing.

  • A question I've been asked to put to you from somebody else, it's about how you obtained the draft of Alastair Campbell's witness statement to this Inquiry, and the question is: do you know how your source obtained it?

  • I don't know the exact mechanics how my source obtained it, but I think -- my source was a journalist, I think I say that in my first witness statement, and I believe that he obtained it from another journalist.

  • My final question in relation to the story which has become known as Smeargate, exposing the activities of certain Labour Party activists, you came into possession of some emails which were the evidence for the story. I don't want you to name your source, but do you know how your source obtained those emails?

  • First of all, no one has ever suggested that that story wasn't in the public interest. Like every other media organisation, we're not going to reveal our sources or speculate as to how the source came about the information.

  • Thank you very much. Those were all my questions.

  • I have one question only, Mr Staines. You said rather early in your evidence that journalists have thin skins, people are reluctant to say what's going on, and that's one of the reasons why journalists don't write about other journalists and other papers, because they may want to go and work there. Do you think that's the four corners of it or do you think, as somebody else has said to me, that there is an unwritten rule that the papers really don't talk about each other?

  • I think that's true, that the papers don't like talking about each other, and my direct competitors in the papers are probably the diary columns and there's an understanding amongst us that we don't do each other over, so it applies to everyone. It's just normal in any trade.

  • Thank you very much indeed.

  • The next witness is Mr Keir Starmer, please.