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

  • MR GORDON MURRAY SMART (sworn).

  • Sit down, please, and make yourself comfortable and give us your full name.

  • Mr Gordon Murray Smart.

  • Mr Smart, I see that you don't have any bundles in front of you.

  • Ah, the one that -- no.

  • We're going to make some bundles available to you, I hope, so that you can see your witness statement. If those are the right bundles, please look at file 2 underneath tab 3. You'll see first of all a witness statement dated 14 October of last year, to which you put a statement of truth. Is that correct?

  • Is that formally your main evidence, Mr Smart?

  • On Friday afternoon, you provided a second witness statement together with one exhibit, which deals with the evidence of Mr Chris Atkins. Is that also correct?

  • I think that statement is in your right hand?

  • I have that here, yes.

  • We haven't, in fact, Mr Smart, had the opportunity of a chat to discuss your evidence, so we will proceed without that benefit. But can you tell us, please, who you are in relation to the Sun newspaper?

  • I'm the showbiz editor of the Sun newspaper.

  • And you have been for how long?

  • How does that differ, if at all, from the Bizarre column? Could you clarify that?

  • I was promoted in 2009. I think it was more of a pay rise issue, really. Originally I was promoted to be the editor of the Bizarre column. I was given more responsibility in 2009.

  • Do you still, in effect, edit the Bizarre column?

  • We can see how the Bizarre column works, that there is a photograph of yourself in a banner with "Bizarre" on it. Do I have that right?

  • Can I ask you -- and this is now paragraph 4 of your statement -- to deal with how you address ethical issues. Could you tell us about that in your own words?

  • We have a daily discussion. I list stories in conference to the editor. After my staff have presented me with their stories for the day -- I have four staff on the newspaper and two online -- I make a decision about which stories I should list after questioning them about the sourcing, and then from there, possibly a discussion with other staff on the paper before making a decision about what I list at the top of my daily news list before I go into conference.

  • In terms of assessing ethical dilemmas as and when they arise, are those matters then discussed at the conference you're referring to?

  • They are, yeah. They're discussed before that. I discuss it with my colleagues on Bizarre. If I'm in any doubt, I'll discuss it further with more senior colleagues, and I'm not afraid to take advice, because there are people in the office with a lot more experience than I have.

  • We'll cover that in a moment. Do you ever take advice from the PCC directly?

  • We do, yes. We often sit in the managing editor's office and we'll call the PCC direct. If there's a story I list that raises any alarm bells that I haven't spotted, the managing editor will often mention it to me after the conference and we will have a discussion direct with the PCC, yes.

  • You say in paragraph 7 that it's important to maintain good relations with celebrities. Are we to understand by that that that usually entails giving them prior notice of any story you are minded to publish?

  • That's correct, yes, but the bigger picture as well. Something I've really tried to do in my time at the paper is to improve relations with celebrities. I think it's really important that we have a mutual trust. You have to remember that I have to spend a lot of time in their company, and it's not particularly easy if you've crossed swords and there's a bad relationship there. So I take it very seriously indeed and it's something I encourage in my staff as well.

  • You talk quite generally about the need to maintain mutual trust, but how specifically do you work towards achieving that end, Mr Smart?

  • Well, we discuss all stories with the PCC and we're respectful to people's individual right to privacy. It is a balancing act. You have to weigh it up on a daily basis and I'd like to think that most of the time we get it right. Very occasionally we will get it wrong.

  • We're going to come to specific examples of balancing later on in your statement, I know, but in paragraph 8 you deal with recent changes to procedures on cash payments. There's a new payments policy, and we've seen evidence of that in one of the bundles. Four signatures are now required before the money is paid. What, in a nutshell, was the position before that policy was introduced, Mr are smart?

  • In the past, if I had to pay cash I would normally get the news editor's signature and the managing editor's signature or possibly the editor's signature before I could pay cash.

  • Was that up to any particular amount or was it without limit?

  • All cash payments, really. Every cash payment.

  • What, under the old regime, which I know has been superseded -- what information, if any, would the editors you spoke to ask for before the payment was authorised?

  • I'd be asked about the contact and the sources of the story and I'd always reassure my line manager or the news editor about who it was.

  • Okay. Checking sources of information, Mr Smart, this is paragraph 9. You take full responsibility, you rightly say, but you regularly discuss with your staff the context of their sourcing. You make it clear that that does not entail knowing the identity of the source. Have I correctly understand understood that?

  • We have a moral obligation to protect the sources if they want to remain anonymous but I will always question them about their sources. Ultimately, it's my face at the top of the column so I do take is very seriously indeed, yes.

  • Can I just understand how this works practically? If you don't know the identity of the source, how are you able to probe to satisfy yourself that the source is reliable?

  • I'll always ask where the story's come from, if they're a regular contact, if it's from a PR, if it's from the celebrity direct, if it's somebody they haven't dealt with before, if it's a ring in, which occasionally happens -- people phone up with tips. I'll be very specific and rigorous about where that contact has come from and how they have the information.

  • So always asking about where the information has come from, has that been your consistent practice while working on the Sun newspaper?

  • That's correct, yes. Since day one, it's always been drummed into me, yeah.

  • Looking at the practice of others working on the Sun newspaper, whether it's people of equivalent status above or below you, has that also been their practice, in your view, since you've been working on the Sun newspaper?

  • I believe so, yes, and I'm hugely proud of my colleagues at the paper. I think they operate very responsibly and ethically, yeah. Good professional people.

  • Right. Then in paragraph 9 you deal with the issue of corroboration, and this is picked up again in paragraph 10. I mean, how often is it that you might publish a story without it being corroborated?

  • Very rarely, I have be honest. We have to check stories as thoroughly as possible and the best way to do that is to corroborate with different contacts. The beauty of the Sun is that I have colleagues who have better contacts in certain areas who I can rely on to help me stand stories up.

  • You deal with the sort of contacts you're referring to, whether it's people who are around the celebrity in their circle, as it were, whether it's their agents or whether it's someone within the newspaper who also knows them. Have I correctly characterised the different sort of possibilities?

  • Okay. You give some particular examples about checking of sources in paragraph 12. The first one is getting some photographs of a female pop star. You satisfied yourself then that the photographs were being offered to you in breach of copyright. Have I correctly summarised that piece of evidence?

  • Then, in (ii), a tip that a celebrity was pregnant. This is an issue which may often arise, whether it's before or after the 12-week scan. What, in a nutshell, is your policy in relation to that?

  • The PCC states very clearly that you can't write about it before the 12-week mark and it's something that we respect and take very seriously indeed, as I'm sure the editor will fill you in on later as well.

  • Thank you. Then another example in paragraph (iii). This is involving an alleged assault by a footballer on his ex-girlfriend. Once that evidence was corroborated, as it were, from the French police, you went ahead and published the story; is that right?

  • Paragraph 13 we have dealt with already, but can I deal with paragraph 14, where you deal with the concept of ethics. What do you understand by the term "ethics" in the context of newspapers, in particular your column?

  • Well, it's about the balancing act, I think, really, between the public interest and the individual's right to privacy. There often is a grey area there, but I think it's something we -- we walk that line every day and I do think we get it right more often than we get it wrong. You know, there is a PCC argument for public interest and free speech, but we also take it very seriously that people have a right to privacy.

  • Can I ask you to clarify one sentence in paragraph 14. It's the fifth line. You say that you believe there's a clear public interest in exposing truth and setting the record straight. Logically, that might suggest that the one thing which matters is whether or not a story is true, regardless of the private rights of individuals. Would you like to comment on that, please, Mr Smart?

  • Yeah, it's our job to check that the story is true. We run it by an agent. We run it by the celebrity directly. That's our first obligation, to make sure the story is correct.

  • Maybe I misunderstood it. Are you saying that that is just one consideration which you weigh up, and it may be the first consideration, whether the story is true, but having ascertained whether or not it's true, if it is true, you then go on to weigh up other public interest and also the private interests of the subject of the story; is that correct?

  • That's correct, yes. If there is hypocrisy I believe is going on then we will expose that, yes.

  • Can I ask you about hypocrisy. What do you mean by "hypocrisy", Mr Smart?

  • If you had a pop star, for example, who was seen as a role model and privately they were behaving in a way that wasn't a role model and they'd spoken publicly about, you know, a certain issue and that was clear to us that privately they weren't behaving in the way they had reported in the press, then I feel that would be an opportunity --

  • But do they have to do that? They have to have done something --

  • -- other than simply being a celebrity?

  • So it's not good enough that a celebrity might be behaving in a way which the public may not approve of, if they're not in any way setting themselves up?

  • That would be the basis for it. If they were setting themselves up, yeah.

  • But short of that, it's --

  • We write a lot of trivial stories. That's the thing. A lot of material will appear in the paper that you might argue isn't in the public interest, but there is a grey area there. And generally if it's not damaging, then I would see it as fair game to report it.

  • I think there are two possible themes which come out of that last answer. You see the difference, maybe, between someone being a role model because they have expressly articulated -- they have stated a position on an issue, and then they've acted in a way in their private life which contradicts that express statement, and someone being a role model in the looser sense. They've said nothing about any issue, but people might think, well, they occupy a certain position, therefore they ought to be behaving in a particular way. Do you see that distinction, Mr Smart?

  • Is it the policy of the Sun that it's only in the first category of case, namely someone who has expressly taken a position on a particular issue, that it would be appropriate to publish contradictory material which might relate to their private life?

  • Sorry, I don't really understand the question you're asking.

  • Is it only if the situation where someone has expressly taken a position on a particular issue --

  • That's often the case, yes.

  • But is it the policy of the Sun that even in the second case, when someone has not, as it were, taken an express position but they are, some would say, a role model, that you would nonetheless publish something relating to their private life if you felt it was necessary to expose the truth and set the record straight?

  • It's the nature of celebrity, I think, that we will write stories about people in the public eye, yes.

  • That's regardless of whether they've taken and an express position on a particular issue?

  • I would say that, yes.

  • Is this because you take the view that a lot of what you do, in your own words, is trivial and not particularly damaging?

  • Some of it is trivial, but at the same time, in my career at the Sun I've interviewed an alleged rape victim who bravely waived her right to anonymity. Last week I did an interview with a victim of domestic violence, so sometimes I write about trivial issues, sometimes I write about serious issues. I work for a mass market newspaper. My job is to provide entertainment, and in that paper I provide entertainment, but alongside that we will discuss a lot more serious issues.

  • Can I put to one side the serious issues you've rightly addressed and talk about the issues bearing on celebrity.

  • Is this your position: "Well, a lot of what we do is trivial and not particularly damaging, therefore celebrities are fair game. We can publish what we like about them regardless as to possible intrusion into their privacy"? Is that the Sun's position?

  • Free speech weighs heavily in the balance for me, yes. I think we do take it very responsibly and we act ethically and we act responsibly at all times, yes?

  • Sorry, is the answer to my question "yes" or "no"? I think it might be "yes".

  • Yes. I think it probably is, yes.

  • In paragraph 15, you deal with another particular case about a band reunited for the first time after an acrimonious split. That was a situation where you did decide to publish the story, notwithstanding the circumstances in which the photograph had been taken -- and you're quite clear about it -- by a pub barman at the wake of one of the band member's mothers. Wouldn't that be a clear case, I would gently suggest to you, of intrusion into privacy?

  • Yeah, I understand that argument wholeheartedly, and it's something I pained over at the time. Intrusion into grief is something I take very seriously indeed, you know, and I weighed that one up. The picture was taken at the wake, it was taken by a barman in the pub and the band members who were reunited agreed to pose for the picture, so they were happy to pose up for it in a public place, and I thought the detail -- the circumstances of the story might have been difficult, but overall it was a case of every cloud having a silver lining. It was a story that brought a lot of happiness to a lot of our readers, and actually, a couple of months later, in the press conference when the news was announced that the band were back together, they said exactly, that every cloud has a silver lining, there were difficult circumstances, but on the whole it was a great, great thing to happen.

    I weighed that up. One thing, as showbiz reporters now, that we have to deal with is we're accountable very quickly on Twitter. If there's an issue at all, then I know about it as soon as the newspaper hits the news stands. In that case, for example, the family involved got in touch and I was in dialogue with them, they weren't happy, and I think I showed a responsible attitude by taking their feelings on board, and I'd like to think that after they'd gone through the curve of grief, as people call it, that they realised that I'd acted responsibly in that case.

  • The conversation you had with the members of the family was after the event, wasn't it? It was after the photograph had been published? You make that clear, don't you?

  • We did put the story to them beforehand, yes, and I spoke to the PR involved and through mutual friends of the band as well, I let them know that this story would be running.

  • Yes. Can I understand what your evidence is about that? Was it made clear to you that members of the family did not want the photograph published?

  • It wasn't, no, not before publication. At the time the family happened to be in LA. These stories move very quickly as well. If I hadn't got it in the paper that night, then it would have appeared on Twitter and we would have lost the exclusive.

  • This is my last question on this topic. Didn't you feel -- or maybe, looking back on it, do you not now feel -- that there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, namely a photograph taken at the wake of one of the band member's mothers?

  • As I explained, it was a balancing act and I weighed it up and I spent a lot of time thinking about it because I was very sensitive to that issue and I think I was -- I made the right decision on that one. I really believe that.

  • One of the things that arises out of what you've just said is that in time gone past you did have rather longer to make your mind up about these issues, but if you're concerned about deadlines and Twitter and stories entering the public domain through some other route, you don't have any time at all any more?

  • We do have time. It's a combination of those things. The way we are in newspapers at the moment, those are big considerations for us now, to consider social networking, social media. We do have pressure with deadlines -- there's no escaping that -- but we do take time to consider the full implications of a story. I had a conversation with more than one person in the office about whether I was making the decision or not.

  • Out of interest, do you monitor what's on Twitter, for example?

  • You can't help not monitoring. Yes, I do, yeah. I take some of it with a pinch of salt.

  • There will be inevitably a variety of responses, but the question was whether you monitor what you read, and it probably follows from that that you do take into account what you read; is that right?

  • I absolutely do, yes.

  • Can I ask you about paragraph 18 of your first statement. This is dealing with the issue of incentives and bonuses. You say:

    "The production of exclusive and important articles for the paper is a fundamental means of building a career in news or showbiz journalism. It is an essential part of the job, rather than something extra for which we are rewarded."

    All of that may be pretty much self-evident, but does this not create a constant pressure on you, Mr Smart, to deliver, because if you don't, either you won't be promoted or, at worst, you might lose your job?

  • I think that's true, yeah. There's a huge pressure on me to deliver. There's an old analogy in the Sun newsroom about working for the Sun is like playing centre forward for Manchester United. If you don't score, then you get the hairdryer treatment and get dropped. I have to deliver exclusives. That's my job. I'd expect that pressure if I worked in the legal profession or any other business.

  • That saying about being a Premier League centre forward, that still holds in the Sun?

  • I still hear it mentioned, yes. Although I'm a Hibernian FC fan, and we're not quite as good.

  • Can I ask you about another matter, namely payment for stories. I think on the Bizarre page, or perhaps on page 2 of the Sun, there's a telephone number, where you can phone in directly if you have a story and members of the public are encouraged to do so; is that correct?

  • That's correct. On page 2 and at the top of the Bizarre column and we have our email address at the bottom of all the stories we write on news and the Twitter address appears at the top of my page as well.

  • You also make it clear that cash payments have become rarer in recent years, although presumably payments by other means, by bank transfer or whatever, those often remain the case; is that correct?

  • That's right. Almost all of my contacts are paid directly into the bank, yes.

  • Is there an issue, in your mind, about the reliability of the stories you're receiving because you're having to pay for them?

  • We always ask the questions to make sure we're comfortable with that. Ask rigorous questions.

  • How do you satisfy yourself, in circumstances where you're having to pay for the story, that you are getting a reliable story?

  • Seek corroboration, check with the PR, and often -- and in a lot of the cases now, I'll speak directly to the person involved. That's one thing I really want to point out, is that I do have a close relationship, and my staff do, with a lot of the people we write about, so it with be quite easy sometimes to get rid of the stories that don't stand up very quickly indeed.

  • You've rightly made it clear that your practice is usually to seek corroboration either from the person involved or their agent. Are you able to give a percentage, Mr Smart, as to the number of occasions or the quantity of stories in your column which in fact have been substantiated, either by direct contact with a celebrity or their agent? Is it 50 per cent, 80 per cent?

  • It's quite difficult to put a percentage on it. If you look at the column, on average I'll write ten stories a day, so over a week 60 stories, 3,000 stories a year. There's a lot of material that goes through. The lead on Bizarre, for example, and the second lead, are the most prominent stories, so we'll always make sure they're checked out, but the more trivial stories, the shorts, as we call them, we might not put calls in on them.

  • So is the issue more (a) the prominence of the story and then (b) the relative triviality of the story?

  • Yeah, that's fair to say. You have to remember my position. I'm a reporter and an editor so -- last week, for example, I wrote two front page stories, a feature, which is 1,200 words in the paper, as well as six double page spreads in the week along with my team. So there's a lot of material that passes through as well. Very busy people.

  • Were you involved at all in the Hugh Grant piece, a short piece in the Sun -- I don't think it was on the Bizarre page -- involving his visit to a London hospital on a health scare?

  • I was involved in that story, yes. It was a member of my staff who received the call about that story from an agency.

  • Yes. How was the public interest weighed up in relation to that story, Mr Smart?

  • It's the balancing act we've talked about already. We were given the tip-off from a reliable source and we put the call in to Hugh Grant's agent. He came back -- I think, from my memory, it was about two days later. They confirmed the story although they refused to comment. At the time, he'd been in the public waiting room so a lot of people had seen him, and so the story was written up that he'd turned up short of breath, as I remember, and we filed the story through to news, and at that point the backbench and the editor will make a decision about whether they want to publish when they weigh up the public interest argument there.

  • Maybe the question is more fairly directed at the editor rather than you because you did not personally weigh up the public interest in the story against the private rights of Mr Grant. Is that --

  • I don't want it to seem like I'm passing the buck. I've dealt with my member of staff about it and I've discussed the public interest issue there, in that case, because I realised it was sensitive, because I know Hugh Grant doesn't particularly like being written about in the papers. I handled it very sensitively, sent it through to the editor and allowed him to make a decision. I think it appeared on page 3 as a six-part(?) story, which would be probably the least important story on that page.

  • In your own words, Mr Smart, what was the public interest in publishing the story? Was it not entirely a private matter, namely a health issue relating to Mr Grant?

  • I understand that argument, but he is one of the most famous actors in the country and he had turned up in a public place in front of other members of the public and I think it was our duty to investigate that story because it might have been for a more serious incident, perhaps a car crash or maybe somebody had tried to mug him. We had to check it out and we did check it out. We put it to the agent.

  • But you knew that it wasn't a serious incident, fortunately. You knew that the story was only -- I say that advisedly -- a minor health scare, but I think the point I'm making is that nonetheless it was purely a private matter. True, he chose, as we all might, to go to an Accident & Emergency department, which, in a sense, is open to other members of the public, but it was entirely a private matter, wasn't it, Mr Smart?

  • I see the argument, yes, I do, and on the scale of health stories, you know, it is a very small issue, but I think because he's such a famous person in the country, we have a duty to report news to our readers.

  • So is this right: it was the fact of his celebrity which tilted the balance?

  • Thank you.

    Mr Smart, in paragraph 28 of your statement, you deal with three further examples of weighing up the public interest in publication against the private interests of the individuals. If you don't mind, we'll take those as read but we're grateful for those examples and no doubt you could give us many more. These are just illustrations.

  • Can I ask you about your second statement, which deals with the evidence of Mr Chris Atkins. Can I summarise it in this way, because we've read the statement -- may I check that you've received the statement?

  • Good, thank you.

    The point is that Mr Atkins arranged for two spoof calls to be put through to the Sun. I think both of them were to the Bizarre desk. I mean, they weren't, it might be said, earth-shattering stories, but that doesn't matter. One of them related to the reading habits of one of the members of Girls Aloud, I think. She was reading one of Steven Hawkins' books. The other, I think, if I remember rightly, related to an incident with Mr Guy Ritchie and something that happened in a restaurant. But the outcome was that both of these stories ended up in the Sun, although it happened neither was true. Is that correct?

  • Well, I would disagree that they weren't true. To put it in context to start off with, we do receive a lot of crank calls. At that time in particular, Scott Mills on Radio One was ringing up regularly trying to broadcast spoof calls. Every time he did that, off the back of it, we'd receive numerous calls from teenagers trying to mimic what he had done, as well as a TV series called Facejacker, one called Phonejacker who'd ring us up regularly. Not just us; the news desk regularly received crank calls. On top of that as well, we received regular emails with misleading information.

    But in the process of checking this story, both -- my member of staff rang a PR and checked it out, even though it was quite a trivial issue, and also they informed me about the story at the time. I think I put a call in as well. The interesting thing here as well is that I know Sarah Harding personally and I know Guy Ritchie personally and the assumption was that we don't know these people. With Sarah Harding, for example, last week I was in her house and she had quite an impressive library, actually. And Guy Ritchie as well, I've got good contacts around that. Around that time, I knew he had been in the restaurant and I managed to corroborate the fact that he was drunk and misbehaving in that restaurant, so one or two paragraphs about him injuring himself juggling I thought was really trivial.

  • But in that particular incidence incorrect, I think we agree, don't we? The juggling of the cutlery part was incorrect?

  • It's such an insignificant part of the story. It was one paragraph at the bottom. Who knows? I think Mr McKenzie pointed out that there will be some issues in these stories. It's a trivial story. He injured himself in a restaurant when he was drunk.

  • It might be said, with respect to what you do, that the whole thing is trivial and therefore why publish any of it?

  • I share your frustrations and I find it incredible that we're discussing this, you know.

  • Actually, what we're discussing is the suggestion somebody deliberately made up a story and phoned you up and then it appeared in the newspaper. I don't consider that's entirely trivial. Do you?

  • No, I don't, and we take it seriously. We called the PR, we checked it out, and he said he had no issue with the story. He didn't want to ring the person, Sarah, directly about it because he said it sounds like her. He said, "It wouldn't surprise me at all if she owned a book like that", and that was a green light for me to publish. On Guy Ritchie, I checked with the restaurant. They said he was drunk and misbehaving. I didn't really want to hassle him at the time. I think he was having quite a difficult time. I didn't want to ring and ask if he'd hurt himself juggling cutlery, so --

  • So you lobbed it in, maybe?

  • We wouldn't lob it in. We place our stories, Mr Jay.

  • We know that part, Mr Smart -- I mean, I know it's slightly cheeky of me to put it in those terms but we know the bit about the juggling of cutlery was untrue, don't we?

  • You could argue that, yes.

  • You're not saying it is true, are you?

  • We don't know. Maybe I'll give Mr Richie a ring afterwards and ask what precisely --

  • It would be quite a remarkable coincidence if Mr Atkins invented a story that sounds bizarre and it happened to be true. That would be remarkable.

  • It is bizarre. That's the name of the column.

  • All right. Well, it's a mindset, isn't it?

  • Thank you. Do you have any knowledge of phone hacking at the Sun or not?

  • To the best of my knowledge, no.

  • What does that mean?

  • I have no knowledge of phone hacking at the Sun.

  • Is your evidence that phone hacking, to your personal knowledge, did not take place at the Sun?

  • Do you remember the News of the World in 2003/4?

  • I worked there for three months, yes. I was a very junior member of staff at that point.

  • The same question needs to be asked: do you have personal knowledge of phone hacking going on at the News of the World?

  • I didn't observe that, no.

  • The final point is in relation to the evidence of Charlotte Church, tab 14. On the pagination at the bottom right, the last numbers are 33142. Do you see those numbers?

  • Did you have any involvement with this story?

  • Not that I recall, no, I don't think I did. I might have been involved at some point speaking to the agent if that was 2007 --

  • -- but it's John Coles' story, so he would have handled it. He might have rung me and asked me for a number for an agent to put the story to at some point, as is often the case at the paper.

  • It's right to point out it's not your byline.

  • It's not my byline, no.

  • Okay. Thank you very much, Mr Smart.

  • Thank you. We'll now take seven minutes. Thank you.

  • (A short break)

  • Sir, the next witness is Mr Duncan Larcombe, who is under your tab 4.