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Breakfast with Frost
Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Sir Christopher Meyer
BBC Breakfast with Frost interview:

Sir Christopher Meyer, Chair, PCC

18 May 2003

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: A few years ago Britain's newspaper editors were warned they were "drinking in the last chance saloon" - remember that memorable phrase. Lurid stories about famous people's private lives and increasingly intrusive coverage, particularly of the Royal Family had convinced some that it was time the press was curbed. Instead a system of self-regulation was set up under the Press Complaints Commission. When the PCC celebrated its tenth anniversary with a glittering party - flashlights everywhere, as you can see - the Prince of Wales and his sons were the guests of honour. The PCC has been instrumental in negotiating deals to safeguard their privacy in return for occasional photo opportunities. Not all newspapers are happy with these arrangements - it's been suggested that once he turns 21, Prince William may feature more commonly on those front pages. Sir Christopher Meyer has just taken over as head of the Press Complaints Commission - he used to be, of course, just 'til recently, a very successful British ambassador in Washington, and he's with us now. Good morning.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Good morning David.

DAVID FROST: Very interesting to meet and see you again in your new role. Do you think that's going to be one of the first challenges you have - what are the rules about covering Prince William when he is 21?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well I hope this is not going to be one of the first challenges, and the reason for that is my predecessor, John Wakeham, played an important role in putting together what I think is a very commonsense, robust arrangement between editors and St James's Palace, which allows some access for them to Prince William - to know what's going on in his life, take the odd photograph - and in return for which we don't get a paparazzi feeding frenzy. I think that is robust, it's commonsense, it's working while he, while the prince is at St Andrew's and my message to the two sides is keep this understanding going because it's in both your interests.

DAVID FROST: But I mean when, newspapers are going to resist, for instance when Prince William is 22 or 30, they're going to say he's a grown man and we can't have these limitations, won't they?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well there are a number of bridges to be crossed as time goes by. I think what people are interested in now is that he's able to finish his education at St Andrew's in relative tranquillity, so he can get his work done, get his degree, and what comes after that, as I say, that bridge will have to be crossed then - right now, there's a very good commonsense arrangement and it's in everybody's interest that it should continue.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of the other changes that might occur. Are there changes that you would like to institute? You've only been in the job a few weeks but are there, are there urgent things that you've got to take a look at? For instance, the issue that's just come up about editors and others paying police for information. What do you have to do in that ...?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: There is a code of practice which is not like some great stone tablet that can never be changed. It's a living, breathing thing, and since the last chance saloon, and the setting up of the Press Complaints Commission, what we've seen is this code of practice evolving all the time, refining the rules, pinning down things that need to be pinned down. So, for example, the most recent thing that we've done at the PCC is to say to editors, you don't pay witnesses in criminal trials. Very, very important. And you certainly, I'm certainly against editors doing anything which may condone practices that may indeed be criminal. So I, my message, again, is, let's look at this code of practice, keep it evolving all the time to meet the challenges of the moment. So that is going to be one of my philosophical approaches.

DAVID FROST: And do you need more teeth? That's not a personal reference, but do you need more teeth, more sanctions, more ability to fine people, more ability to arraign people?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: I think we've got very, very sharp teeth and we need to use them as and when the case arises. I don't want to have the sanction of being able to fine, because actually I think what we then get into is a totally different system, perish the thought, lawyers come pouring in, and everything will slow down and it won't be free, fair and effective as the system is now.

DAVID FROST: And do you feel that in fact there should be changes in, for instance, the fact that apologies, for instance, are always miniscule, compared with the original liable? I mean should, should there be a, maybe not exact 50/50 but should there be a change in that?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well some newspapers are very good at giving prominence to apologies, others, as you say, have them stuck away somewhere down among the sort of corset adverts of something like that. My message to editors - and I've been travelling a lot around the United Kingdom in the last few days and weeks - is to say, give prominence to apologies when you have to make them, so that people really do feel satisfied. And, incidentally, give prominence to the existence of the Press Complaints Commission, because if someone is not satisfied with an editor's response, here we are, ready to deal with the aggrieved reader.

DAVID FROST: And so do you think that the PCC has made the idea of a privacy law obsolete? Unnecessary? Or, I suppose if you failed in your task it could come back.

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well it could come back. I mean I - do you remember Churchill's dictum, and I don't know if I've got the quote exactly right - which democracy is the least efficient form of government until you compare it to all the others. My approach to self-regulation is the same. It's got its rough edges, it's got its imperfections, but by goodness me, it's better than statutory regulation or trying to do this through a law of privacy.

DAVID FROST: And we've got, and everyone can remain busy, we have here in the Independent on Sunday "ex-diplomat favourite to lead Games bid". You're going to combine that as well, you're going to - is it true

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: As ever you're the - you break the news for me. I was minding my own business on the Heathrow Express the other day, reading the Evening Standard, as one does, and I'd come to the back pages and I see that I'm being run for this job. I know almost nothing more than what is in the newspapers. Apparently I'm on a list. Well, it's a very, very appetising challenge. I do not know whether the finger of fate will point at me, and one of the things, of course, I need to know is whether I could - if the finger of fate came my way - whether I could combine this with doing my job at the PCC, to which I am devoted.

DAVID FROST: But you wouldn't - you wouldn't rule out saying yes to that

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: No, I wouldn't rule out saying yes to that, no. Let the cards fall as they will.

DAVID FROST: And you presided in Washington at the time with the transition between presidents and so on, what do you think is the major reason that, apart from your own intervention, that Tony Blair was able to continue as close a relationship with George Bush as he had with Bill Clinton? What was, I mean it's a great achievement, how did he do it?

CHRISTOPHER MEYER: Well the are two things here: there's a huge political imperative on both sides of the Atlantic for the leaders to get on together, and historically it's usually worked - not always, but usually. The other thing is, this is the intangible, the unpredictable, personal chemistry at work. I think it worked from the first minute. No nonsense, practical, get down to business chaps. No sort of flim-flam or anything like that. The President appreciated it, the Prime Minister appreciated it and they went from there, and the rest is history.

DAVID FROST: And the rest is history. Thank you very much indeed for being with us this morning, Christopher.

INTERVIEW ENDS


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