Grâce à la liberté dans les communications, des groupes d’hommes de même nature pourront se réunir et fonder des communautés. Les nations seront dépassées.
Friedrich Nietzsche (Fragments posthumes XIII-883)

12 - JAN 12 - Audition Peter Hill



Robert Jay : Sir, the next witness it is Mr Peter Hill.
Peter Hill (sworn)
RJ : Mr Hill, please sit down and make yourself comfortable. Your full name please
PH :  Peter Whitehead Hill.
RJ : You've given us two witness statements. They straddle our lever arch files.
PH : Yes.
RJ : If you could look at the first file, which I think is that one there, and go to tab 21, you'll find your first statement dated 15 September of last year. I hope.
PH : Yes. Got it.
RJ : That is signed by you and has a statement of truth on it. If you go to the second file under tab 23, you'll find your second statement. Keep that one open, please.
PH : Okay.
RJ : We're going to go back to it.
PH : Yes.
RJ : Your second statement is dated 13 December 2011 and again is signed and has a statement of truth? A. Yes.
RJ : Do you follow 
me?
PH : Yes.
RJ : So this is your true evidence, is it, Mr Hill?
PH : Yes.
RJ : First of all, questions about you. You were editor of the Daily Express between December 2003 and February 20 2011; is that right? 
PH : Correct.
RJ : But before then, you worked at a number of papers, the Mirror then the Star. You became editor of the Daily Star in 1998.
PH : Yes.
RJ : And moved across to the Daily Express in December 2003; is that right?
PH : Yes. 
RJ : What are...
PH : I worked at many other newspapers than that, though, in my life. In the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday People, many local newspapers.
RJ : Thank you. Those other national newspapers you haven't mentioned, it doesn't matter, but it's right that you tell us. And it's an entree into my next question. What are the differences in culture, if any, that you've perceived between the different papers for whom you've worked?
PH : They're all extremely different. They all have a different world view, they all have a different interpretation of the news, and they're all part of the marvellous variety that there is in the British press and which contributes to I think probably the most marvellous newspaper groups in the world, because we have a great press, we have great newspapers.
RJ : Apart from differences in world view, which I think we fully understand, are there differences in what one might call organisational ethos or culture which you're able to define or not, between these different papers?
PH : In organisation, I think all newspapers are very much the same, because newspapers have existed for a very long time and they've developed certain ways of doing things, and newspaper men have gone from one organisation to another and they've taken their methods with them and I think there is a consensus in the way that newspapers are run, very much.
RJ : Thank you. May I ask you just one question about the Daily Star?
PH : Oh yes.
RJ : You made it into a very successful paper, I believe. You were editor of the year in 2002. Part of your success, is this right, was built on reality TV and reporting that, is that fair?
PH : Well, reality TV became the most important thing for red top tabloid newspapers around that time, when Big Brother was launched, and it was immensely popular and still is immensely popular all these years later. We recognised this, I think, probably more than anybody at the Daily Star at the time and we got a lot of new readers by reporting on it.
RJ : Did you persist with stories over a long period of time more than your competitors?
PH : Yes. People in the business were astonished that I splashed the front page on it 28 days on a run, but it was the right thing to do because that's what the readers wanted to read about.
RJ : This is Big Brother, is it?
PH : That was Big Brother, yes.
RJ : Okay. Paragraph 7, Mr Hill. Withdrawal from the PCC. It wasn't a decision you made, although you were editor 6 at the time. Was it a decision with which you were comfortable?
 PH : I was not comfortable with the idea that we were withdrawing from self-regulation, because I felt that self-regulation was very important. But I was comfortable with the decision to leave the PCC at that time.
RJ : For the reasons you explain; is that right? Or what were the reasons? 
PH : The reasons were many. Among them were that I think we felt that the PCC was no longer doing the job that it needed to do. There were other factors, such as in the beginning of the PCC, it was generally accepted that people who made complaints to it did not subsequently go to law, but -- that was the convention. However, that had been abandoned and people had in fact started to use PCC judgments or rulings to support legal actions, so that kind of made it also a bit pointless. We also did not really like the way that the PCC was being run at that time by various individuals.
RJ : Can you be a bit more specific? You told us earlier they were no longer doing the job it needed to do. You've told us a moment ago it was no longer being run in the right way -- I paraphrase -- by certain individuals.
PH : Yes.
RJ : Can you be more explicit?
PH : I don't want to go into the individuals.
RJ : Okay. What about no longer doing the job it needed to do? 
PH :
  I've explained to you that in the beginning it was meant to be completely self-regulatory, but it -- and that it was instead of the law. It was instead of people going to -- it was to try to stop people -- ridiculous ― having to go into ridiculously expensive court proceedings and to resolve things in a more amicable way. For a long time that did work, but in the end we got -- instead of individuals complaining, you got lots of legal firms getting involved and it all got much more legal than it had ever been. It used to be much more of a lay thing, but it became a legal thing. So whereas at one time I might well deal with complaints myself, or;the managing editor might deal with it, in the end we simply had to get the legal department to do all the complaints, because it was all legal.
Lord Justice Leveson : But could the PCC award compensation?
PH : No. No, the PCC could not award --
Lord Justice Leveson : Therefore, how could it ever stand in place of the law, which could? 
PH : It was for people who were not primarily concerned with 6 getting compensation, but wanted redress of a different sort, such as an acknowledgment that a mistake had been made and a correction in the newspaper. Because not everybody wants to have a financial settlement. 
RJ : I don't at the moment quite understand what the 11 problem is here. You have two different but complementary systems. You have the PCC, which can't award compensation but which can achieve a form of recompense in terms of an apology and an adjudication. 
PH : Yes.
RJ : And you have the civil law, which obviously is interested in compensation. Many people might not want compensation, they might only want what the PCC can offer; are we agreed?
 PH : Yes.
RJ : But if the PCC makes a decision which is to the effect that the complaint is rejected, is not the advantage then that you're unlikely to get a defamation claim or 24 a privacy claim subsequently? 
PH : Not necessarily. There was nothing to stop anyone disagreeing with the PCC and being dissatisfied with it.
RJ : Logically that must be right, but if the PCC has considered the complaint and rejected it, you would be less likely to get a legal complaint, wouldn't you?
PH : Yes, I would have thought so.
RJ : And it works the other way, that if the PCC accepts, upholds the complaint, although that can't be determinative, it gives the parties a pretty fair steer as to what might happen in a civil litigation, doesn't it?
PH : Except as I explained to you, there was a convention that people who went to the PCC -- and it was no more than a convention, but people who went to the PCC did not subsequently go to law. 
RJ : That may have been your understanding, but --
PH : Well, it was the practice.
RJ : But do you agree with me that there's nothing to stop --
PH : No.
RJ : -- a complainant going off to law? And the advantage of the system was that if the PCC upheld the adjudication, although that wouldn't be conclusive or determinative, you at the newspaper and the complainant would have a reasonable idea what the outcome might be in civil proceedings, are we agreed? 
PH : Correct.
RJ : Isn't all that an advantage rather than a disadvantage?
PH : No, because what's the point of the PCC if people are simply going to go to law anyway? Might as well just go straight there.
RJ : Okay.
PH : Stop wasting everyone's time.
RJ : I'm not going to ask you general questions about the editorship of the Daily Express, because we've covered that ground and your evidence is very similar to that of the previous witness. I'm just going to focus on a few matters before turning to the McCann case. Unless, that is, there's anything you want to say which you feel Mr Whittow has not covered in terms of the general position of the editor of the Daily Express, or you might want to contradict? 
PH : I don't know what Mr Whittow said, because I was travelling. 
RJ : Okay, my apologies. Can I ask you about private investigators, paragraph of your first statement. 
PH : Yes.
RJ : You say you were not aware of ever using a private investigator at the Daily Express.
PH : No.
RJ : To be clear, you did not become editor, as you've told us, until December 2003, and Mr Whittamore was arrested in February 2003.
PH : Right.
RJ : When did you become aware of the Information Commissioner's reports? 
PH : I'm not aware of them.
RJ : Even now? These are the reports "What price privacy?" and "What price privacy now?".
PH : No, I can't remember reading it.
RJ : Did they ever enter your radar, Mr --
PH : No, because it was never relevant to me. We never, to my knowledge, used anything of that kind. 
RJ : Because although it wasn't during your superintendence of the paper because it was beforehand, he identified a number of transactions which he thought were illegal transactions of the Daily Express, and a number of journalists. I think it was seven journalists and 20-something transactions. Wouldn't that information at least have been of interest to you? 
PH : No, because it was nothing -- I didn't follow any of those practices. The regime completely changed when I became the editor.
RJ : What changes did you bring in?
PH : Well, they were really changes in the way and the tone in which the newspaper was run.
RJ : But how did those changes, and you haven't yet been specific about them, bear, if at all, on whether or not private investigators would have been used?
PH : I would have expected the news desk to tell me if anything of that kind was going on. 
RJ : If it was going on before, it might have continued, mightn't it, and why would they tell you? 
PH : It was a completely different group of people who were involved. All those people, as far as I know, had left the organisation.
RJ : Who are the people you are referring to?
PH : I don't know. I can't remember their names, I'm sorry, it's a long time ago. 
RJ : Is it your evidence that a number of people left, and therefore, because they left, you could be sure that private investigators were no longer being used? Or is it your evidence that you have no idea at all as to whether private investigators were ever used?
PH : I have no idea.
RJ : Okay. Can I ask you about public interest issues, paragraph 27. You were asked to identify the factors you took into account in balancing the private interest of individuals against the public interest when publishing stories, and your answer is: "When making editorial decisions, I always used my long experience in the newspaper industry to weigh up the question and come up with a decision on whether to run the story." You haven't identified, though, any factors; you've merely referred to the fact, which is undoubtedly the case, that you've got a lot of experience. Are you able to assist at all as to the factors which you took into account and put into the balance?
PH : Every story's different from every other story, and you can't make rules on these matters because the line between the public interest and the interest of the public is sometimes quite vague, and you have to make a judgment on each story. And you do that on the basis of your experience and your knowledge. And discussion with your colleagues and your legal department. 
RJ : You haven't referred here to any of the principles laid down in the PCC code, have you?
 PH : Well, I take those as read.
RJ : Okay. Can I ask you some general questions about politics? We've heard from another witness that the Daily Express moved its allegiance from the Labour Party to the Conservative Party, you think, I believe, it was some time before 2005 but can't recall the exact date and the exact date is not going to matter. 
PH : No.
RJ : But it was before Mr Cameron became the leader of the opposition; is that right?
PH : Yes.
RJ : Who made that decision to switch allegiance?
PH : I made the decision.
RJ : And in your own words, why did you make that decision?
PH : Because the entire history of the Daily Express had been that of a right-of-centre newspaper. It had an enormous constituency of readers who supported that view, and I felt that it had been a huge mistake to move the newspaper to support the Labour Party, which had been done by previous editors and administrations, and it had, in fact, cost the newspaper an enormous number of readers who had abandoned it in despair. So I decided 14 that it was absolutely vital to return to its traditional constituency. 
RJ : Was that decision taken with board approval?
PH : Yes.
RJ : Did it have the support of the board or not?
PH : It had qualified support, because the chairman, Mr Desmond, was a strong supporter of Mr Blair, who was then the Prime Minister, and he was not really a – he was not a supporter of the Conservative Party, but he accepted that this was the appropriate thing to do. 
RJ : I think you're making --
PH : And the board accepted that.
RJ : Yes. I think it's clear from what you're saying that 2 the initiative came from you -- 
PH : Yes.
RJ : -- and not from the board; is that right?
PH : From me.
RJ : As for your dealings with politicians, and we're talking of those in very high office, or in opposition in like category, how often did you meet with Mr Blair, Mr Browne and Mr Cameron, for example?
PH : A couple of times a year.
RJ : Were these one-to-one meetings?
PH : Yes.
RJ : And from your perspective, what was the purpose of the meeting, if any?
PH : To exchange ideas and opinions.
RJ : Insofar as you could tell, what was the purpose from their perspective?
PH : To find out what my readers thought.
RJ : With what objective?
PH : To producing the right policies for themselves.
RJ : Was it in any sense in one case to keep you onside, or in the other cases to try and get you to change your allegiance?
PH : They never tried to get me to change my allegiance, but clearly politicians would rather you were a friend than an enemy.
RJ : Yes. Thank you. Your second statement, Mr Hill, deals with the McCanns. 
PH :Oh yes.
RJ : Of course, you've given evidence to the ParliamentarySelectCommittee about this, haven't you? 
PH : Yes, extensively.
RJ : Can I take you to that statement and refer to a number of points. At paragraph 2 -- 
PH : What --
RJ : This is in the second file under tab 23.
PH : Oh, 23. Okay. Yes, paragraph 2.
RJ : The question which was asked of you was in effect what fact checking your paper indulged in. Your answer was: "That is a very, very good question. In this particular case, as I explained to you, the Portuguese police were unable, because of the legal restrictions in Portugal, to make any official comment on the case." Then I paraphrase: they leaked things to the press and therefore checking the stories was not very easy. And then you went on to say newspapers operate at high speed, et cetera. I think the question I have is that those very circumstances, that you were dealing with leaks to the Portuguese press, together with the fact that you knew at the time that it was going to be next to impossible to verify the truth of the leaks, meant that you were running a very high risk by running these stories at all, weren't you? 
PH : Yes.
RJ : May I ask you, given that answer, why did you run that risk? 
PH : Because this was an unprecedented story that in my 50 years of experience I can't remember the like. There was an enormous clamour for information and there was enormous -- there was an enormous push for information. It was an international story, on an enormous scale, and there had not been a story involving individuals, as opposed to huge events, like that in my experience and it was not a story that you could ignore and you simply had to try to cover it as best you could.
RJ : You often published the same sort of story on the front pages, though, didn't you, sometimes on consecutive days?
PH : Of course.
RJ : Did you at any time, given your assessment of the level of risk, which was a high risk, put into account the position of the McCanns? 
PH : Of course. We published many, many, many, many stories of all kinds about the McCanns, many stories that were deeply sympathetic to them, some stories that were not. 
RJ : Yes, but the stories that were not were a little bit more than unsympathetic. Some of them went so far as accuse them of killing their child, didn't they?
PH : This is what the Portuguese police were telling us. 
Cela ne peut être vrai. Personne n'a jamais cru que les MCs avaient tué leur fille, mais qu'ils pouvaient tout au plus avoir indirectement causé sa mort.
RJ : Yes, but regardless of that, we've already covered that issue, do you accept that some of -- 
PH : You haven't covered it with me.
RJ : Just wait, Mr Hill. Do you accept that some of your stories went so far as to accuse them of killing their child?
PH : I did not accuse them of killing their child. The stories that I ran were from those who did accuse them, and they were the Portuguese police.
RJ : These stories weren't going to find their way into your newspaper unless you took the editorial decision to publish them; that's correct, isn't it?
PH : Correct.
RJ : You had a choice. You could either say, "No, the risk is too high and/or the stories are too damaging to the interests of the McCanns, I'm not going to publish them", or you might say, "I am going to publish them because there is such a clamour for information." That's correct, isn't it?
PH : I felt that the stories should be published because there was reason to believe that they might possibly be true.
RJ : So that was a sufficient basis : reason to believe that they might possibly be true, so we'll whack it in the paper. That's true, isn't it?
PH : I don't use expressions like "whack it in the paper". I find that to be a very judgmental expression.
RJ : Yes, well, I don't actually apologise for it. I'm going to carry on. At the same time, Mr Hill, you knew --
PH : The fact of the matter is that this is a public Inquiry and I do not believe that I am on trial.
RJ : I'm sorry, Mr Hill, I'm just going to carry on.
PH : But I think you are putting me on trial.
LJL : You're not on trial, Mr Hill. What we're looking at is the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
PH : Yes.
LJL : That includes the newspaper which you had the responsibility and doubtless the honour to edit for many years.
PH : Indeed.
LJL : And therefore, looking at the way in which you are conducting that responsibility is important, and in relation to the McCanns, the question does arise, given that you knew that officially the Portuguese police were not allowed to talk to the press, to what you should be doing to check up or to work on the validity of stories that were being leaked.
PH : Indeed.
RJ : And the answer is what? What did you do to check on the validity of those stories?
PH : We did the best that we could do, which was not very much.
RJ : Which was nothing, wasn't it?
PH : I'm not saying it was nothing, but we tried our best.
RJ : Okay. But against that, of course, you had another eye on the circulation figures, didn't you?
PH : One always has an eye on the circulation figures.
RJ : You told the committee, I think it's also your evidence to us, paragraph 8 of this statement, in answer to question 620: "It certainly increased the circulation of the Daily Express by many thousands on those days, without a doubt. As would any item which was of such great interest."
PH : Yes. Would you like to carry on?
RJ : Yes, of course: "It also massively increased the audiences on the BBC as their Head of News has acknowledged. It did this for all newspapers."
PH : Yes.
RJ : That merely goes to support the point: it was the view of everybody that publishing the story would increase circulation or would increase viewing figures, wouldn't it?
PH : Yes.
RJ : Was that something that you felt you could establish and did establish empirically in relation to the Daily Express's circulation figures?
PH : On many days, yes.
RJ : Because you looked at them at the time and your assessment was, on a day-to-day basis: this story must be contributing to an improvement in circulation. Was that your assessment?
PH : Yes.
RJ : But did you get the circulation figures on a daily basis or on a weekly basis? 
PH : A daily basis. That is to say, estimates on a daily basis. Because it takes some time for the actual figures to be validated.
RJ : Yes. How long does it take for the actual figures to be validated? 
PH : Perhaps a week.
RJ : And when you looked at the actual figures, did that change the picture or not?
PH : Sometimes.
RJ : We do have the data under tab 25.
PH : Yes.
RJ : For what it's worth, and this is absolutely nothing, I am not able to correlate, because I don't know when the stories were published, or discern whether there is a trend in relation to circulation. All that one can see is that on Saturdays circulation tends to be much higher; is that right? 
PH : Yes, but that's all the time.
RJ : Yes, yes.
PH : Yes.
RJ : Because what one would need is to be there on the ground at the time and with expert knowledge of all that's happening in the paper at the time, is that so? 
PH : And all that's happening everywhere else.
RJ : But your clear evidence is, is it, that circulation did go up with the McCann stories?
PH : I think so.
RJ : That must have been, therefore, a factor in your persisting with the story, was it not? 
PH : Yes.
RJ : Together, you say, with the clamour for information and the pressure for information. Is that so?
PH : Yes.
RJ : Mr Fagge gave evidence, and I just put it to you in these terms, although we have a transcript of it under tab 40, that you were obsessed with this story. Would you agree with that or not? 
PH : No.
RJ : And why not?
PH : Well, I can see, perhaps, why Mr Fagge would use that word, but Mr Fagge was not privy to my inner thoughts, he wasn't part of my inner team, and he would misunder -- I can see that he misunderstood the reasons that I used the story as many times as I did, but I've already explained to you the basis for that decision, which had gone all the way back to my time on the DailyStar when I had realised that it was -- that the readers were more -- the readers continued to be interested in the stories far longer than the journalists, and it was my policy to continue the stories and I followed it with many different stories. It started with Big Brother, it went on to Princess Diana, various other things, and that had always been my policy. It was nothing to do with an obsession, it was more to do with a method of working.
RJ : Yes. Can I just probe a little bit into that last answer. Would you accept that there's rather a difference between, on the one hand, persisting in the publication of stories relating to Big Brother, which frankly, whether they're true or not, who cares, and the --
PH : Some people cared a lot.
RJ : Well, the persistence of publication of the stories in relation to the McCanns, where some people might care extremely deeply, because whether or not they're true and whether or not they're capable of damaging people is a predominant consideration? Do you begin to see that difference? 
PH : I perfectly see the difference. On the McCanns story, the entire country had an opinion about that story, and wherever you went, whether you went to a social gathering or, as somebody said, to the supermarket, people were talking about it and they all had an opinion about it, and these were opinions, these were stronger opinions, and these opinions were informed by the information that was coming from Portugal. Now, we were not to know at the time that the Portuguese police were not behaving in a proper manner. Portugal is a civilised country, part of the European Union. We had no reason to believe that its police force was not a proper body. So, as I explained to you, there was an enormous body of opinion on both sides of this story and you couldn't stop that. There was no stopping it. 
RJ : Apart from to stop publishing it, particularly --
PH : That wouldn't have stopped it, because you couldn't -- well, as someone's explained, we now have the Internet, we have Facebook, we have Twitter, we have all these different things. Information is -- it's a free-for -- it's an information free-for-all that we live in. So whether the newspapers stopped publishing would have made no difference. In fact, it might well have made it worse. 
LJL : Was Mr Pilditch one of your reporters? 
PH : Yes.
LJL : Highly regarded?
PH : Very much.
LJL : He told me that there was a problem accessing the police because of the secrecy laws.
PH : Yes.
LJL : And he got the impression that a lot of the way that this information leaked out was thinking out loud, as a result of which he had misgivings. 
PH : What do you mean by "thinking out loud"?
LJL : I'm sorry?
PH : I don't know what you mean by "thinking out loud".
LJL : The police thinking out loud.
PH : Oh, the police thinking out loud.
LJL : Not you. And to which he said: "I discussed my misgivings with the news desk." Did you get involved in a discussion about the misgivings that your man on the ground had about this story?
PH : I'm sure I would have done.
RJ : I think it did go a bit further than that as well, that every story went up with the moniker "legal please" on it, didn't it? 
PH : I can't remember.
RJ : Mr Fagge told us in answer to one of my questions: "In the evenings, over a beer in Portugal with your colleagues, seeing this obsession played out [that was his term, not mine] on the front pages of the Express, weren't you troubled by the direction in which this was going? "Answer: Yes." Were you troubled?
PH : No.
RJ : And why not?
PH : Because I thought it was the right thing to do.
RJ : Because?
PH : Of what I've explained, that there was an enormous clamour for information and I felt that this story was something that should keep running.
RJ : When all this went wrong, and it went very wrong, with a price tag of £550,000, what, if anything, happened between you and the board?
PH : Nothing.
RJ : Was there no gentle criticism of you?
PH : There's been -- there have been hundreds of libel cases in newspapers and newspaper administrations have got to live with them.
RJ : Mm. Were your board aware that circulation was improving as a result of these stories?
PH : I'm sure they were aware of the business points of the organisation, yes.
RJ : And may that have been the reason for the absence of any criticism of you, do you think?
PH : I think editors are normally left to run their newspapers.
RJ :  Thank you, Mr Hill.
LJL : Mr Hill, thank you very much indeed.
PH : Okay.