Calcutt screws the news: Advocates of new press curbs have not got public interest at heart, argues Pat Chapman, 'News of the World' editor and a member of the Press Complaints Commission

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The Independent Online
It was a dark night. The Duke of Wellington emerged from the House of Lords with a Cabinet Minister and strolled through the streets to Apsley House. They were deep in discussion about some secret policy.

Unfortunately the Duke was a mite hard of hearing and was talking rather loudly. Lurking in the shadows was the olde dayes version of a tabloide hacke. Called a penny-a-liner, he didn't have the status of the parliamentary reporter. But he had ears and a notebook, and thought it was a story that should be told. He flogged the tale to an opposition newspaper and caused a sensation. Wellington is the chap who coined: 'Publish and be damned]'

The example is given in a book, The Press and its Story, by James D Symon, published in 1914, in a chapter called 'Great Feats of Journalism'. Other chapters describe the press as a great and terrible monster, large-hearted, benevolent, critical, unsparing, good friend and fearful enemy, instrument of the highest wisdom and the deepest folly.

Today the desire for secrecy is still there; so is the desire to publish. But the technology has moved on from eavesdropping to electronic eavesdropping, and instead of being lauded for a great feat of journalism the messenger/ reporter is presented as Public Enemy Number One.

Sir David Calcutt QC, whose report was published yesterday, wants to make him a criminal if he steps over a line drawn by his legal and political chums. But who would the people on his proposed statutory tribunal represent?

Yesterday's Daily Mail painted a picture of Sir David which puts him on a different planet from your average newspaper reader. He has the Times (well one would, wouldn't one?) delivered to Cambridge, where he is Master of Magdalene College. He and his friends used to hire a small Oxfordshire church and sing church music through the night, as monks do. Sorry, Butlins]

Sir David qualified at the Bar and has since become a classic Establishment figure, earning up to pounds 200,000 a year and chairing endless committees.

I met him recently at the offices of the Press Complaints Commission. I smiled sweetly, stuck out my hand and said: 'Well, you have made my life hell for the past two years. It is nice to meet you at last.' He smiled sweetly and replied: 'Well, I am going to make it hell for the next two.'

Silly me. I thought he was joking. After all, I felt I had done my bit to stick up for ordinary readers on the PCC and had slashed the number of complaints to my own paper. But it seems I had missed the point.

When we all co-operated with the PCC two years ago, we didn't realise that ordinary newspaper readers would be the last thing the Establishment was interested in.

Sir David says that the treatment of public figures such as MPs and princesses was not intended to be his principal focus but that there were a number of highly- publicised cases during the course of his review that gave him cause for concern.

These stories were not just in the tabloids, they were highly publicised by every newspaper and news magazine, television and radio. They involved Paddy Ashdown, David Mellor, the Squidgy tape and the Fergie photos. And each story had some element of public interest (as well as the well- worn cliche of 'what interests the public').

But what of the ordinary person I joined the Press Complaints Commission to defend? Sir David concludes that the PCC has failed. It certainly failed to cover up scandals about his cronies, but I vehemently reject the idea that it failed people like Ethel of Dagenham. Ordinary people like her feel so let down by their papers that, even in a fierce recession, they go out in droves and spend their hard- earned cash on them in millions every day.

Every weekday more than 13 million papers are sold, and read by 38 million people - the vast majority, of course, tabloids. And on Sunday nearly 16 million are sold, and read by nearly 47 million people.

It is ironic that this report into the press should be so dismissive of the facts. From all those millions of readers, there were 2,067 complaints to the PCC in its first 18 months. Some of these were trivial. Aliens are sending messages through newspapers. Why can't the newspapers get a favourite TV programme back on the air? Why didn't I get my bingo card? Why did they call that Chinese restaurant the Chinky?

Libel writs to the News of the World have dropped 60 per cent since the PCC began. Only nine per cent of the complaints in all of Britain's newspapers and magazines are about privacy. There is only one instance where I believe that a house was bugged: the Mellor case. The Squidgy and Camillagate tapes were picked up by scanners and no complaint was made.

In fact no direct complaint was made by any public figure in a big scandal. Presumably they felt someone else would do the dirty work for them under the Old Pals Act. That is why I was so livid this week about the letter that revealed the collusion between Palace aides and politicians which led to the tabloids being publicly denounced. I told Lord McGregor that I wouldn't accept any complaint that treated a bigwig differently from an ordinary person.

After all, it is a complaints body, and a complaint can be dealt with only by looking at evidence and justification from both sides. I suspect this led Sir David's chums into thinking of me as some little upstart who wasn't playing the Establishment game. He's right. And I think there should be a few ordinary people on the PCC.

I am told he feels I treated the PCC with contempt. Nothing is further from the truth. My colleagues up and down the country are trying to do right by the PCC and the code of conduct it judges us by.

Of course I have dropped clangers and made errors of judgement in my paper, as they do sometimes in theirs. Part of the clean-up campaign was that we all started to employ ombudsmen. In two years our News of the World ombudsman has had about six complaints, two of which were from people complaining about the Department of Social Security and asking us to sort out their problems.

Complaints to the editor are few and are dwarfed by those who thank us or tip us off about some conman or a ne'er-do-well who might be running a brothel and drug den next door.

Sir David says his proposals would not stop serious investigative reporting and that Robert Maxwell was 'amongst the most ardent of advocates of the view that the press should be left to regulate itself'. Maxwell also used Calcuttian measures to gag the press, even over public interest stories. He issued libel writs and injunctions like confetti over perfectly true stories.

Sir David should be aware that crooks like Maxwell and drug dealers and pimps and conmen do not respond to a polite knock on the door and a request to confess their sins, whether to a newspaper or to the TV tough guy Roger Cook. Sir David suggests that when told to go away, you should do so. But the initial inquiries into a public interest story are never so simple.

Tabloid papers do their best to stick up for ordinary people - after all, they are our customers. All the time my fellow editors and their staffs are trying to reduce the number of genuine complaints in cases where we have left someone distressed by our actions.

At the National Heritage Select Committee inquiry into privacy and media intrusion, one MP said something very odd. He asked if the PCC chairman, Lord McGregor, would be so 'complacent' about the falling number of News of the World complaints if they were murder statistics] I bet your average voter would rather see MPs' time given to Britain's murder statistics than all this indignation about so few newspaper complaints.

(Photograph omitted)