The man who unmakes the headlines
Published 29/11/2006 | 17:58
Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British Ambassador to the US, is in his second term of office as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, the Press watchdog organisation. He tells Laurence White why he believes self-regulation is the best way of ensuring high standards of journalism and how the PCC is winning favour from the public
What brought you from the dizzy heights of Ambassador in Washington to the PCC?
Shortly before my retirement from the diplomatic service I was approached by headhunters who wanted me to throw my hat into the ring for the PCC chairman's job. Although I had been in the diplomatic service for 36 years I had also been Press secretary to Sir Geoffrey Howe from 1984-88, when he was Foreign Secretary, and Press secretary to John Major from 1994-96. That was a tough period with Mr Major under pressure all of the time, but I enjoyed working with and briefing journalists. So, when the PCC job came along, I had some track record of dealing up close with journalists and so the job was attractive to me.
Do you enjoy the job?
I am enjoying it enormously. It has exceeded my expectations. We are at the centre of a lot of things. Having come from a civil service background, it has been attractive to me to provide a service to complainants. I have signed up for another three years, which is a measure of my interest in, and enthusiasm for, the job.
What do you think you bring to the job?
The people who approached me knew I had experience of dealing with the media. They wanted someone who was prepared to be a public advocate for self-regulation and freedom of the Press. That has been my approach to the job.
Every year there are several thousand complaints to the PCC by people who are annoyed by what they read in newspapers and magazines. What does that say about the media and the PCC?
Overall, people are using the PCC as they have never done before. Since I became chairman the number of complaints has gone up by around 40% to an annual figure of between 3,600 and 3,700. On top of that we get about 8,000 general enquiries about the media annually. We are acquiring a new role, a sort of Citizens' Advice Bureau on the media.
More editors than ever before call us seeking advice on stories they are thinking of running. The burden of work has increased significantly and business is booming.
Do you think self-regulation is the best way of controlling the Press?
I take my cue from Sir Winston Churchill, who said: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried." Self-regulation is much the same. It is not perfect and there are things we need to do to improve it further, but in comparison with the alternatives it is by far the best solution.
The alternative of government or the state regulating the Press would be obnoxious and unacceptable. As for judges regulating the media, I don't think they would want that job.
The PCC is unique. It is the only way to get the balance right between freedom of expression and responsibility in journalism.
Does the PCC work?
It does. If it didn't we would have an ever-increasing number of people coming to us. It has a number of attractive features - it doesn't cost complainants a penny; they don't need legal representation and we aim to resolve a complaint within six weeks, which is fast compared to other regulatory bodies.
If someone brings an invasion of privacy complaint to us, we can deal with it in a way that doesn't spread all the details of the person's private life into the public domain. If, on the other hand, such a complaint went to the courts, the person's entire private life would be exposed.
I am in no doubt that editors hate it when the PCC rules against them. There is a strong deterrent in having to eat humble pie by publishing our determinations, using language which is our language and which they are not allowed to edit in any manner.
From your experience is there a difference in Press standards in the UK and in the US?
There is a very big contrast between the Press in some ways. The Press in the US has one huge advantage in that Press freedom is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The Press in the UK does not enjoy that protection.
However, I find that the British Press, nationally and regionally, is more vibrant than the Press in the US. The Americans have the advantage of constitutional protection, but I don't think they use it to the maximum.
Your memoirs, published last year, caused some controversy due to your forthright views on, among other issues, the Prime Minister. The Government described the book as an "unacceptable" breach of trust. Do you think that has affected your reputation?
The Government's charges had no foundation. I am pretty confident that having stood up to quite unreasonable pressure from certain parts of the Government, people see me as independent. Indeed, I have been told so on my journeys around the UK.
The PCC needs to be, and to be seen to be, independent of outside pressures, not only from government, but also from the Press. I would hope my stance has enhanced our independence.
What are the most common complaints by the public about the Press?
In broad terms, the biggest category of complaints is about simple accuracy. The main thing people are looking for is some kind of remedy or correction.
After that come complaints about invasion of privacy, intrusion into grief or harassment.
The complaints refer equally to national and regional/local newspapers.
The PCC does not provide compensation. The vast majority of people - around 98% - who come to us lay no claim to celebrity status. They don't want money out of the system. They just want recognition of their complaints.
Around 90% of all complaints are resolved. We now resolve more complaints than ever before which is due to the increasing recognition by editors that they have to make the effort to address legitimate complaints.
In nine out of 10 cases, editors co-operate freely with us. In the other 10% of cases - probably around 50 a year - we go to the formal adjudication process which involves the full 17 members of the PCC.
Do you think the PCC has finally won the battle for self-regulation of the Press?
There are people, particularly in London, who don't like the Press and who would like a different system of regulation. When I took over as chairman of the PCC in 2003, there were a number of enemies of the PCC who advocated formal regulation of the Press.
The Communications Bill that year set up Ofcom and there were members of both Houses of Parliament who wanted to put us under Ofcom. Others wanted a Press Ombudsman.
To a large extent those suggestions have gone away. But I think of opposition to the Press as like a disease.
It has gone into remission for some time but it only needs some event to happen and those voices of opposition will come back again.
What other challenges lie ahead in the changing world of the media?
Our remit covers newspapers and magazines and also their online editions. That is a relatively young world and we are not yet sure how it will affect our volume of work.
What do you do to make the public more aware of the work of the PCC?
We take the PCC on a roadshow around the UK. I and a director, a couple of commissioners and a local editor will host an open day when the public can put forward their questions.
We also visit journalism courses, universities and schools as part of our evangelising.
I have spent most of my working life abroad and now, for the first time in my life, thanks to the PCC, I am getting to know my own country through my visits to various cities. For example, I have been in Belfast at least three times.