Protector of public privacy

The new director of the Press Complaints Commission tells Ian Burrell how he plans to bring it back down to earth - and tackle its reputation for cosiness with editors
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The Independent Online

Tim Toulmin - like Greg Dyke and Gavyn Davies - wouldn't be where he is today without Andrew Gilligan. But the newly-installed director of the Press Complaints Commission, unlike the former BBC bosses, actually benefited from his involvement in a Gilligan scoop - an occasion that taught him the harsh lesson that he was not cut out for journalism and put him on the path to regulating newspapers rather than writing for them.

Having grown up in a family steeped in press tradition, Toulmin had taken a work experience post at the Cambridge Evening News while studying for a history degree at Peterhouse College. The budding reporter had surprised himself by picking up an "exclusive but dreary" story about a membership crisis at the Cambridge Union student debating society only to be told by the newspaper that he had been scooped. "They said: 'Sorry, someone's beaten you to it. They found out you were working on it'," he remembers. "I was so disheartened. I thought: 'The bastard, they've pinched my story'. Anyway, it turned out to be the famous Andrew Gilligan, who had got wind of my story and done what any self-respecting journalist would do and got his story in first. He was doing work experience as well, but he was a bit older than me."

The episode taught Toulmin a lot about journalism. "It would be stretching things a very long way to say that gave me a great passion for regulating journalists," he says. "But if there was a moment when I lost interest [in reporting], you could probably point to that in terms of realising that you have to be far quicker off the mark, you really have to get your head down and beaver away and be pretty intense about it. I thought that because I could write well I would be a good journalist. There's so much more to it than that."

That realisation must have come as a shock for a young man who had grown up as the son of a board member of United News and Media, reading copies of the UK Press Gazette left around the home and taking part in debates on the value of a press watchdog during his time in the sixth form at Repton public school. For a spell, he drifted towards a career in law, like many of his university friends, until his father came up with the idea of requesting a placement at the PCC. "I'm not a newspaper stooge. I'm someone who has been sufficiently interested in newspapers to go and have a look for myself and find something in the industry that I'm interested in. This has turned out to be it and I'm incredibly lucky that I had that break in the first place."

The "lucky break" was when the then director of the PCC Mark Bolland offered to turn the placement into a full-time post. Only eight years later, and still nearly a year short of his 30th birthday, Toulmin is sitting in the chair Bolland once occupied. To some, his promotion from within represents a preservation of the status quo, a disturbing sign of complacency in an organisation seen as being too close to the industry it regulates. Guy Black, Toulmin's predecessor and mentor, was Bolland's partner. Toulmin, Black and the current PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer are all alumni of Peterhouse, the oldest and one of the smallest of Cambridge colleges.

Excessive cosiness has been a charge previously levelled at the commission, particularly in respect of Black (now press secretary to the Conservative leader Michael Howard), who is a personal friend of Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun (and formerly of The News of the World), and of her husband Ross Kemp, the actor. Black was criticised after going on holiday with the couple, which some commentators felt was inappropriate behaviour for an independent watchdog. But Toulmin says his style will be very different. "One of the questions asked at my interview, and you can imagine why, was: 'How do you envisage your relationship with editors?' because previously there has been some criticism about the PCC being too close to some editors, which may well have been fair enough," he says. "The answer is that any system of self-regulation must have encounters with the people that are regulated. Of course I come across them, I know some of them, I don't know any of them well and don't want to get to know them personally as friends but, professionally, I know them and that's essential."

Explaining why he thinks past criticisms of relationships with editors have been "fair enough", he says the issue was repeatedly seized on by critics when the PCC made controversial decisions. "If we make a decision corporately that perhaps exonerates a particular newspaper and someone is unhappy about it they are going to point out something if they regard it as compromising for us. In one or two instances it was suggested unfairly - but perception being as important as reality and all that - that there were some undue influences coming into play because of personal relationships." Toulmin added that with a new director and a relatively new chairman in Sir Christopher the PCC was able to "move away from all that". "Neither of us has any of those sorts of relationships with editors and neither will we," he says.

Toulmin prefers a social life of hill-walking, skiing and taking the odd glass of red wine with his circle of long-standing friends from school and university who, he jokes, "give me no respect whatsoever. They're all highly successful people. They're interested in what I do, but we don't tend to talk about work much." If Toulmin had been turned down for the directorship he would, as a deputy director of four years' standing, have quit the PCC. "I think it would have been the right thing to have done," he says.

In the event, he was chosen ahead of candidates that included the former Royal Marine and Falklands War veteran Dieter Loraine, who set up an independent media watchdog in Bosnia, and Chris Hopson, former director of corporate affairs at Granada. "There was always going to be the perception with an internal candidate that it was a 'shoe-in'. I can assure you it wasn't," says Toulmin. "The interview was genuinely nerve-wracking because I realised I hadn't had a successful interview since 1992, my university entrance, so my track record wasn't good," he says.

Now. however, that he is in the post he says "there are certain things I want to change the emphasis of". He hopes that a review of the PCC code of practice - shortly to be finalised - will lead to a clampdown on newspapers that use third-party agencies to intrude on private e-mails and telephone communications. Toulmin would like the code's listening devices clause to be extended to cover e-mails and to close a "loophole" in the existing code by preventing editors from being able to hide behind the claim that they do not know where such information came from. "I hope that from now on, the onus will be on the newspaper to show that [it did not get a story] as a result of eavesdropping on people's telephone conversations or looking at private e-mails," he says. "Private agencies will always push the boundaries and we need the code to stay well ahead of that. We are about protecting the privacy of members of the public."

He is also planning a series of measures to change the image of the commission, including "rebranding" it as a UK PCC. "One of the unfortunate side-effects of the rows - that have often been personality-led - in the national press, is that people think we are this south-easterly body which is obsessed with what goes on in national newspapers. I can understand why people in Scotland think we are remote." He wants to get away from the idea that the PCC is a "celebrity body" and bring the PCC "back down to earth" to the core responsibility of representing, "ordinary members of the public." For Toulmin, the two most important areas of complaint regarding press intrusion are "death and crime". He plans to brief police family liaison officers and coroner's courts across Britain on the role of the PCC, "anticipating where we can help people before it becomes an issue."

Clearer statistics will also be published, showing among other things that discrimination complaints account for far less of the total than previously thought. Inaccuracy is the biggest driver of complaints. After his early experiences in Cambridge and his time at the PCC, Toulmin has a great deal of sympathy for the conditions under which journalists operate. "I don't know that there's any curse of increasing sloppiness. If you think about the huge number of newspaper stories that there are - the deadlines, the pressures that journalists are under - it's remarkable there aren't more complaints," he says.

He blames television for using "bestial images" of working journalists to distort the public perception of a job in the media. "It's ironic that the media is responsible for the poor impression that people have of media practicioners," he says. "It annoys me because people think that if this image of the journalist seeps into the public consciousness, people blame us. If you asked the man in the street what a tabloid reporter was they would probably think of the storyline in Coronation Street about [the serial killer] Richard Hillman where there were reporters harassing people in times of severe grief, jumping into their back gardens, taking pictures of families through their windows. It's a caricature and it really doesn't work like that. That's not to say journalists are not canny and ruthless. They have jobs to do."

The work of the PCC is being monitored by a newly formed Charter Compliance panel, chaired by former Northern Ireland civil servant Brian Cubbon, which has so far investigated five PCC rulings and concluded that in one case, the commission caused undue delay. Toulmin has written to the complainant to apologise.

But then again, it was a minor blip and in all other respects Toulmin is thoroughly relishing his new role. "It's a fascinating industry," he says. "It's hugely competitive and absolutely absorbing. I defy anyone not to be seduced by it all."