Sir Christopher Meyer: Complaints? I've had a few...
Six months on from the storm over the publication of his Washington memoirs, Sir Christopher Meyer remains defiantly in charge of the Press Complaints Commission, dismissive of those who called for his head. He talks to Ian Burrell
Monday 17 April 2006
At the height of what he refers to as the "hoo-ha" over the publication of DC Confidential, his memoirs of serving as British ambassador to Washington, Meyer was surprised to read revelations in The Observer that he had been accused of sex discrimination by a senior woman civil servant for putting a picture of a topless woman on display in the British embassy.
The cartoon picture, says Meyer, was "a mock Sun page three which had been given to me at a very large public reception by (former foreign secretary) Sir Geoffrey Howe when I left his employ in 1988". The prized image, compiled by "female staff in Geoffrey Howe's office" and accompanied by a speech bubble making an in-joke, had accompanied Meyer on his subsequent career path, sitting on his shelf in Downing Street when he was press secretary to John Major and being perched on the mantelpiece in his embassy office, where one British visitor took the view that it gave "a bad impression" to diplomats.
"The complaint never went anywhere but suddenly (several years later) the whole story appears in The Observer, just after publication of the book last November," Meyer snorts, indignant at the leak of his file. "Actually, it's probably an offence against the Data Protection Act. There's a thought..."
The story, which Meyer dismisses as "ludicrous", was part of a concerted attack on the PCC chairman, which included calls for his resignation. Several months later and the attacks, led by government ministers, have not abated. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, recently claimed that Meyer's book had "destroyed the reputation" of the PCC chairman, leaving him "ostracised" and raising "huge questions about the credibility of the Press Complaints Commission".
When reminded of the Foreign Secretary's comments, Meyer's theatrical response calls to mind the schoolgirl character in the BBC's The Catherine Tate Show with the catchphrase "Look at my face, do I look bovvered?".
The PCC chairman's version involves a voice heavy with sarcasm. "I'm destroyed. I'm a destroyed man," he says, and then goes floppy in his chair, with his head resting on his shoulder and his mouth open. Well if not destroyed, then how about ostracised?
"I tell you Ian, if this is being ostracised then just give me more. Give me more!" he says and raises up his hands. "When I read that I definitely thought 'We are living on two entirely different planets'. Whereas I may not be welcome on Planet Straw, my own planet is, as usual, in technicolour existence - that's the only way I can describe it."
Asked what he means by "technicolour", he explains: "In a curious way my life has got more active. It's stayed active on a broader front than it was when I was inside the confines of government service. I spend my life going off and talking to people about transatlantic relations, the special relationship, Anglo-US relations. I'm constantly doing this."
Sir Christopher, who is 61 and has recovered from heart surgery, is buzzing with energy having just completed a move from the old Mother Hubbard confines of 1 Salisbury Square, behind Fleet Street, to more modern premises on Holborn, near to the old Mirror Group headquarters. The page three cartoon is in storage in his holiday home in France but Meyer's new office is already decorated with other memorabilia, including gifts from former US Secretary of State Colin Powell and presidential adviser Karl Rove. On his mantelpiece Sir Christopher now has sculptures by his children and a plastic, squeaking model of George Bush, intended for dogs to chew on. It is not symbolic of the former ambassador's regard for the President, who threw a dinner for Meyer when he left Washington.
Meyer is no longer in a position to invite Condoleezza Rice round for games of tennis (as he regularly did in Washington), especially as Straw is wooing the Secretary of State with visits to Blackburn Rovers' Ewood Park stadium. (The PCC chairman notes that Rice doesn't like football. "She thinks they don't score enough goals.")
But he has been given a second stint of three years by his employers, the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof) and feels confident in rebutting Straw's suggestion that he has harmed the image of the institution he represents.
He says he spoke to "a couple of thousand people" in the wake of publication of his book. Putting on an accent of Middle England he mimics the typical reaction: "Your book's tolerably interesting, quite fun, given it to the wife, don't understand what the fuss is about." Meyer concludes that the whole affair has "not done any damage to the PCC at all".
He says: "I think we had four letters of complaint at the time the tropical storm was at its highest. I call it a tropical storm because it was intense but actually I don't think it was very long lasting or wide in its extent."
Meyer feels able to dismiss as a "tropical storm" a sustained attack by front bench ministers that would have brought others to the point of nervous breakdown because he weathered worse during his two years as a Downing Street press secretary. "You just have to sail through," he says. "If I had never been at No 10 and been with John Major on a storm-lashed vessel then maybe life would have been very difficult." The Major years were "a bit like Rorke's Drift really. Bayonets fixed!".
When Meyer took up his post three years ago he said that he noted that "all the crap's going to hit me in due course in this job", and in recent months he has been knee-deep in controversy. "It took three years for the crap to come. Suppressed for three years it came out at enormous velocity, vroom!"
Meyer might have expected nothing less after describing ministers as "pygmies" and lampooning the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott as a "mastiff with his hackles up" who talked of war in the "Balklands". Prescott responded by saying that Meyer was known in Washington as "the red-socked fop", on account of Sir Christopher's signature ankle-wear. The PCC chairman believes the criticisms of him were not merely personal but born of a resentment of a decade of newspaper criticisms of the Blair Government.
"It smelt like retribution to me," says the former Tory spin doctor. "Or attempted retribution. The attempt to link the PCC to the hoo-ha was always spurious. I don't think it was only a personal attack. I do think that within government, and this tends to happen after 10 years, there is a massive animus against newspapers. And the PCC is tarred with the same brush. When all this stuff happened, it wasn't just to try to whack me. Some of the ferocity of the attacks derived from the pent-up frustration with newspapers."
Meyer makes an exception of the beleaguered Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, whom he praises for being "very good at standing up for self-regulation". He says: "Make no bones about that. It may have at times been through gritted teeth but she has been absolutely stalwart on this."
In spite of the venomous personal attacks, the calls for his resignation and the move of office, Meyer actually claims that the PCC has entered a period of relative tranquillity, in contrast to when he started his job amid a heated debate over whether the commission should exist at all. "When I took over as chairman the atmosphere was really pretty bad. There seemed to be a war going on between the tabloids and the broadsheets. We had Gerald Kaufman's select committee examining the press and privacy and no one was quite sure how that was going to come out."
Newspaper editors, including Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of The Independent, suggested the appointment of an ombudsman to investigate PCC decisions. Debates also took place in the House of Lords over whether the commission should be placed under the remit of Ofcom. "When I came in I felt a lot of pressure," says Meyer, who claims that the argument in favour of self-regulation of the press has largely been won. "It's a calmer environment now."
Whether the press is behaving any better is not entirely clear. Just as the Home Office attributes the sharp rise in reported racially motivated offences to greater awareness of the issue, so Meyer sees the "absolute record number" of press complaints in 2005 (just over 3,600) as a good thing. "I go around the place saying business is booming and for me this is a real plus point that we are being used more and more," he says.
Complaints have gone up by 40 per cent since 2002. "I attribute this basically to visibility, advertising, evangelising. The whole visibility argument is very close to my heart. I don't think this can be seen as a catastrophic collapse in standards."
Not everyone sees it that way. Friends of the lawyer Katherine Ward, who took her life by jumping from the window of a Kensington hotel, were left deeply frustrated by the PCC's finding that publication by The Times and The Sun newspapers of pictures of the suicide did not constitute a breach of the commission's code. "We had a long and difficult debate," Meyer admits. "Having gone through all of this and been ourselves pretty disturbed by these pictures concluded within the strict terms of the code of practice and the precedent, the decision was taken that it was not a breach of the code."
He says that the subject area needs to be the subject of fresh debate among the PCC's code committee, which is chaired by News International chairman Les Hinton and includes John Witherow, editor of The Sunday Times, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, and Peter Wright, editor of The Mail on Sunday.
Meyer says: "We are clearly going to have revisit the whole issue of suicide. It comes up every year and it's contentious and not easy to deal with. There are a number of eternal dilemmas that never go away. One of them is the borderline between taste and decency on one hand and intrusion into grief on the other."
The danger that the PCC would lose relevance as celebrities led a rush to the courts to protect their privacy from press intrusion has been largely fought off, he thinks, partly due to the experiences of Naomi Campbell in suing the Daily Mirror.
Such court actions have failed to establish any principles that would encourage further legal claims, Meyer believes. "It's all over the place - it's a real mess," he says.
"It's hard to believe [the complainants] can be satisfied. Firstly because it goes on for ever. Secondly it costs them a load of money and thirdly because you go there saying my privacy has been breached and then your entire private life is turned over in public as counsel for the defence lovingly, with his carving knife, slices great gobbets of flesh off your celebrity body and exposes it to daily reporting."
But the PCC is facing other threats from overseas. Meyer had earlier suggested that the decision of the Barclay brothers, owners of the Telegraph Group, to sue The Times in a French court was a one-off. His position has changed, perhaps after The Daily Telegraph itself chose to settle a recent claim against it for £12,000 after being threatened with litigation in France, where libels are dealt with more severely.
"It's going to happen," predicts Meyer. "With people printing in continental Europe it is attractive to lawyers and judges to get in on this stuff. That's the trouble. It is alarming because it's new but is it going to develop into a real threat? I just don't know."
The director of the PCC, Tim Toulmin, has recently returned from Ireland, where he has been contributing to the debate over whether the republic should introduce its own statutory regulation of the press, a decision which could have serious consequences for the Irish editions of English-based newspapers. Meyer is following developments but currently "can't make up my mind whether this is something for our industry to worry about or not".
Christopher John Rome Meyer was born in 1944, days after his father, an RAF officer, was shot down and killed. He was educated at Lancing College and Peterhouse, Cambridge, and studied further in Bologna before entering the Foreign Office. He was posted to Moscow during the Cold War and speaks Russian.
The Washington posting, which followed stints as press secretary to John Major and spokesman for Geoffrey Howe, was the high point of his career. The day before he crossed the Atlantic he married his second wife Catherine and the couple, based in the Lutyens-designed residence, became the talk of the town and were credited with "making boring old embassy parties sexy again".
He may be living a "technicolour" life back in London but, without the dinners with the president, the tennis with secretary of state and the socialising with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, the glamour has surely faded. Interviewers have commented on his "tiny" townhouse in Chelsea and noted that he has been through a costly divorce, while his wife has spent heavily on a battle to gain access to her children.
Meyer does have working interests outside of the PCC. He is involved with a major American telecoms company, GlobeTel Communications, which is pioneering the use of wi-fi technology and internet telephony, particularly in the developing world. Sir Christopher quit as chairman of the Miami-based company in March but will stay on to chair the company's international advisory board. "When a small company is expanding fast you can't chair a board from the UK. You actually can't do it," he says. The company hopes that in his new role Sir Christopher will "maintain an important geo-political role" in the company's international initiatives. He is also a non-executive director of the British engineering company GKN.
Then there is the book, which came with a rumoured advance of £290,000. He says he was acutely aware of the need to make the book "accessible and readable", both to make money from sales and to broaden the public understanding of the role of ambassadors and diplomats. That it should have been a spicy page-turner, rather than the dusty memoir of a former civil servant, should not have been a surprise. When he took up the reins at the PCC he rejected the notion of one observer that he was an "ultimate insider", who "like all crustaceans prefers to swim in the dark". No, protested Meyer, he was "front of stage" guy who was "more inclined to shoot from the hip as not".
It is an approach that would resonate with most journalists, and the columnist Simon Jenkins, in an otherwise fairly critical review in The Sunday Times, concluded with the advice: "He tells a juicy tale. Hire him, editor."
He has pointedly said he will not write a PCC Confidential, because most of the affairs of the commission are made public, but he says: "Oh, I will write a book again. I don't know whether to write a serious book or write a novel."
Meyer claims that while ministers may have questioned his suitability as a chairman of the PCC, his relationship with editors is untainted. "I see them in the same way as before and life goes on," he says. "It hasn't made any difference."
Sir Christopher has always had a sneaking admiration for the press. When he moved to Downing Street from the Foreign Office in 1994, one profiler commented: "He likes journalists."
Thus, when he recently returned to his alma mater to address a Cambridge Union debate entitled "The Press Are More Powerful Than Politicians", he insisted on speaking against the motion. "There is an incredible inherent advantage the Government has in putting information into the public domain," says the former No 10 spin doctor. "On balance politicians and government are more powerful than the media. It is not a fashionable view but we won. I expected to lose and lose badly."
For three more years he will continue to fight for the case that the print media should be left to regulate itself. Modern newspapers no longer restrict themselves to publishing in black and white and, in Sir Christopher's eyes, the Press Complaints Commission is no mere monochrome regulatory body but a vivid contributor to his technicolour world. "It's unbelievably interesting," he says.
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