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Select committee inquiry into phonetapping story

In regulation on July 14, 2009 at 5:27 pm

The culture media and sport select committee began its evidence sessions in response to the phone tapping allegations in The Guardian. The evidence is being take as part of its inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. It was the first session attended by two new committee members: Tom Watson and Peter Ainsworth.

Committee chairman John Whittingdale informed members that: Les Hinton says he does not wish to change the evidence previously given to the committee. His original evidence was “sincere and comprehensive”.

We tweeted live from the event so a blow by blow account is available before the transcipts are published.

Tim Toulmin, the director of the PCC, was first to give evidence. He told the committee that:

  • The PCC’s concern is with the integrity of its report into subterfuge and newsgathering and to ensure the practices are not continuing
  • It will ask further questions of the Guardian and Information Commissioner if there’s any evidence it had been misled
  • It has not yet uncovered any evidence that there have been further breaches of the code. Rumours that it did go on but “absolutely does not now”
  • “Even if we introduced hanging for editors there would still be people who would criticise the PCC”.
  • The PCC has stretched the boundaries of its remit as far as possible. “We are more like an ombudsman really”, not a regulatory body
  • The PCC is set up as a mediator. Toulmin said that he had a bulging postbag of thank you letters. But it was not a legal regulator. Not set up for these sorts of inquiries.
  • A number of the committee’s questions were more a matter for the information commissioner. In particular, he suggested it was odd that the commissioner had chosen not to name the journalists who had breached others’ privacy in respect for their privacy

There were a few moments where questioning was more confrontational.

  • Adam Price asked: Will you follow up on Private Eye story that Glen Mulcaire was paid £200,000 post conviction? Toulmin replied that the PCC was not going to follow up on every tittle tattle and suggested the story was not pertinent to the report the PCC wrote at the time. Price responded that it was extraordinary to dismiss it like this. Surely central to whether there is a pattern of behaviour?
  • Paul Farrelly suggested: This narrow view of your remit is why some people want you to take a more proactive view.
  • Mike Hall said that there was a general concern that PCC has very little power.

The team from the Guardian (Alan Rusbridger, Paul Johnson and Nick Davies) were next to give evidence:

Alan Rusbridger said:

  • Self-regulation only works when newspapers are open with the PCC. For example, Associated has admitted to faults and corrected them.
  • Peta Buscombe should examine whether PCC needs to be re-constructed to undertake such investigations.
  • News International has engaged in an aggressive campaign in response with cleverly drafted denials of allegations that weren’t made
  • News International knew of involvement of other senior journalists for at least a year. Why didn’t they tell cttee or PCC?
  • Press isn’t only profession looking at issues around when it is acceptable to invade privacy: so are the secret intelligence services. Struck by David Omand recommendations in a recent ippr pamphlet

Nick Davies told the committee that:

  • One source thought News Int statement was “designed to deceive” and had now allowed Davies to provide evidence as a result
  • He had a copy of an email sent to Mulcaire, written by a NOTW reporter, which referred to Neville Thurlbeck, a senior reporter at the newspaper
  • He had a contract signed by then assistant editor Greg Miskiw with Mulcaire. In which Mulcaire had used a false name
  • The police had all this evidence so either other implicated journalists had been interviewed (in which case the NOTW statement was misleading) or they hadn’t in which case, it was a concern that the police hadn’t investigated the matter further
  • Senior reporters made requests, including Greg Miskiw who made 90 requests. 35 directed at databases. Coulson was not one of them
  • He had copies of invoices from News International to Steve Whittemore, a private investigator who specialises in blagging. Payments were clearly made by the accounts department.
  • Mulcaire submitted regular lists to the newspaper of targets of his investigations to justify his retainer.
  • News International know the identity of all senior journos commissioning illegal info becuase legal docs to Taylor also went to NI
  • There was a consistent and worrying pattern in statements made by News International to the committee and the public
  • The statement made by assistant commissioner fails to disclose the facts of the case.

The committee is expected to have two more evidence sessions before the end of the parliamentary year next week.

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