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Mary Riddell

Guy Black: in the eye of the hurricane

British Journalism Review
Vol. 14, No. 1, 2003, pages 7-16

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Mary Riddell is a columnist with The Observer and an interviewer for the Daily Mail.

Contents - Vol 14, No. 1, 2003

Editorial - How do we balance privacy with freedom? 3

Mary Riddell - Inside the Press Complaints Commission 7

Matthew Engel - The country where newspaper journalism is dying 17

Close-up on Iraq

Jon Swain - War doesn't belong to the generals 23

Philip Jacobson - Hacks dodging the flak 30

David Hellier - Life with Desmond the meddler 35

Brian McNair - The changing face of news: what a difference a decade makes 42

Jon Silverman - The shaming in naming 49

Media training

Peter Cole - Escaping from the time-warp 54

Don Berry - Teaching in the Third World 61

Russell Miller - Sauce of the apprentice 65

Ali Phillips - A question of degree 71

Mark Brayne on the meaning and trauma of war 77

Julian Petley on impartial digital broadcasting and on news, old and new 81
Bill Hagerty on precious memories of war 86

  Guy Black is on a diet. No alcohol, and, in place of convivial lunches, an unvaried procession of the prawn cocktail salads he buys from Boots. This austere regime tied in neatly with Black's other mission for the early months of 2003. Late last December, the director of the Press Complaints Commission discovered that the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee had launched an inquiry into privacy and media intrusion. Black's response to this “rather awkward Christmas present” was to compile a 230-page submission. Amassing the case for the defence was, he says, “a very healthy thing to do; a bit like going on a New Year detox”.

A different metaphor preoccupies an inquiry fixated, apparently, on the gargantuan excesses of the last-chance saloon. Gerald Kaufman's committee will, Black believes, demand measures that would, if implemented, kill off self-regulation and, by extension, a free press. Its aim, he says, is to make the Press Complaints Commission accountable to the new broadcasting superregulator. “I suspect the committee's conclusion will be: Put it under Ofcom. Make it accountable. Make it more transparent. Change it in some way. It's almost the same old debate under a more sexy guise.”

Thirteen years after the Calcutt committee headed off statutory regulation, the spectre of Pravda looms afresh. As Black says: “Statutory control is, I think, rather a nice name for government control. That would be the end of a free press.” Whatever Kaufman threatens, the Government has consistently professed itself opposed to ending self-regulation. Nonetheless, it would be dangerous to suspect Guy Black of shroud waving. The more salient question, given the welter of crises besieging the press, is which shroud to wave first.

“There are times when the signals are at red,” he says. “They are now. There is a conjunction of things that spells danger: a Communications Bill © Mary Riddell; 0956-4748 [2003/03] 14:1; 7-16; 033800; and possible moves to bring the PCC under Ofcom. Besides the Kaufman inquiry, there's the unresolved issue with the Lord Chancellor over witness payments and his plans [wrong, in Black's argument] to legislate to outlaw them. There is the Douglas and Zeta-Jones show trial [impending when we met]. That combination of things is a very nasty set of circumstances. I think it presents the most lethal cocktail of challenges since the death of the Princess of Wales.”

He could go on. Hounding of asylum seekers and trial by media of suspects in cases ranging from Soham to the ricin cottage industry of North London have shown how ugly the power of the press can be. Cheriegate raised new questions of intrusion. The judicial system sways in its interpretation, under the Human Rights Act, of how much privacy celebrity accords. Tabloid and broadsheet camps bicker at one other and the PCC. Then there are the internal tensions. Over the last few months, the commission has lost its chairman, Lord Wakeham, to the Enron scandal, and faced charges of an over-cosy relationship with royalty.

Guy Black is in the eye of whatever hurricane blows. The world he inhabits is, by any standards, incestuous. Mark Bolland, his partner and predecessor at the helm of the PCC, was, until recently, deputy private secretary to the Prince of Wales. Both have been on holiday with Rebekah Wade, The Sun editor, and her husband. Such bonds have left Black open to criticism from the disgruntled, the suspicious and the homophobic. They have tested his best qualities: charm, intelligence, diplomacy and ant-like networking skills. They have also left him, at 38, more battered than he might care to show. This is the first interview he has given since he took up his post in 1996, and there is some sense that it could also be his valediction. It has been a long seven years.

Controls by the back door

We start with the most recent threat. Clearly, Black is worried about the select committee, even though both Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, and Patricia Hewitt at the DTI, have resisted the Ofcom option. “The minute you place the PCC under Ofcom, self-regulation is dead,” he says. “And if self-regulation dies, there isn't a PCC. Why would the newspaper industry keep maintaining a body which simply subjected it to statutory controls by the back door? I wouldn't. Producing a court of appeal above the commission would make our job impossible. It's philosophically wrong and impractical. But that hasn't stopped some politicians from arguing [for it]. I don't see that it will stop the select committee either.”

Does he think that Tony Blair, bruised by a robust press, might secretly welcome more constraints? “I don't think the relationship [with newspapers] should ever be good. If it is, you're not doing your job properly, or you have the bizarrely cosy relationship the German Chancellor finds himself in, where there is no scrutiny. The relationship should be a stressful one. That is a symptom of how healthy the free press and the democracy is. Probably, in their bones, most politicians would like to do something to control the press and know they can't.” Blair, he implies, is no exception.

But even if Parliamentary repressors can be seen off, there is still the judiciary to consider. Black was alarmed by the courts' early sympathy for celebrities such as Jamie Theakston, Gary Flitcroft and Naomi Campbell, who sought to claim privacy as their human right. “Appalling. The idea that you should have a law just for the rich and glamorous is anathema.” He is more sanguine now, in the light of reversals in the higher courts, but still cautious. “Celebrities are not queuing down the Strand to have a go at newspapers, but yes, that could change.”

Some argue that a judge-made privacy law is already forged. Black disagrees, although he concedes that judges have “been pushing that way for years on the back of the law of confidence.” But, as he says, the Human Rights Act has also bought clarity, especially in deterring celebrities seeking gagging orders. “It's hard to see where an individual could get an injunction on a privacy matter. That is very important ...Some of the biggest scandals – Archer, Aitken, Hamilton – all started with matters of privacy.”

Whatever concern Black might have about the courts seems the minor worry. The measure of his anxiety about the select committee might be gauged by his eagerness – unusual in so prominent and public a figure – to pre-empt the findings of an inquiry likely to report in May. If the commission were put under Ofcom's wing, would Black resign? The answer is yes. “I don't think it's going to happen, but there are big questions for the industry if, under some strange set of circumstances, it did. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to be part of that. It would be like returning to the dark ages.”

Down at a rather shaken PCC, they prefer to think in terms of a new dawn. On March 31, Professor Robert Pinker, the acting chairman who stepped in after Lord Wakeham's hasty exit, will hand over to Sir Christopher Meyer, formerly ambassador to Washington and, like Guy Black, a graduate of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Black's deputy went there too. So, by coincidence, Salisbury Square will house what must be the largest cluster of Peterhouse historians to be found beyond a claretswigging high table.

Black, who took a first and, as his CV notes, won the Sir Herbert Butterfield Prize for History, came from a different habitat. He was born in Upminster, Essex, at the terminus of the District Line, where his father, and his grandfather before him, owned a small shoe shop. Black, a direct-grant school pupil and the first in his family to go to university, excelled at classics and played the piano, organ, clarinet and trumpet, almost to professional level. There is a non-identical twin brother, Tim, a company reports designer who “has inherited the tall, thin genes”, and two sisters. “They all breed. I have an array of nephews and nieces. Last year I became a great uncle at the tender age of 37.”

When Black, the outsider from a humble background, first arrived at Cambridge, he had never spent a night away from home and the grandeur of the college amazed and terrified him. Maybe the process of adaptation taught him his chameleon skills. Black, though no longer as fluent in Greek as he would wish, can read Socrates and The Sun with equal ease and apparent relish. His manner is convivial and his acquaintances legion, but his real alliances seem few and extraordinarily close.

Frightening star chamber

From university, he moved into merchant banking, which he hated, and then to Tory politics. For a time he served as a councillor in Brentwood, but first he got a job at the Conservative Party's research department. In the run-up to the 1987 election, he had to deliver a morning briefing to Margaret Thatcher and her star chamber; an experience so frightening that he “would rather have dental surgery without an anaesthetic than go through that again.” Even so, John Wakeham, then Energy Secretary, talent-spotted Black and appointed him his special adviser. That relationship was to become the most central of Black's working life.

He was at the energy department when, in 1990, he was introduced to Mark Bolland, with whom he now lives. “I met him at a lobbyist's party, in the days when lobbyists still had parties. He was working for the Advertising Standards Authority.” Bolland subsequently moved to become director of the Press Complaints Commission and the different threads of Black's life began to inter-weave. John Wakeham took over as PCC chairman, and, in 1996, Bolland moved on to St James's Palace and his role as the spin-doctoring alchemist who would launch Camilla Parker Bowles as a queen-in-waiting. Black, who was working in PR for Lowe Bell was recruited, or more accurately conscripted, to replace him. “When Mark told him [Lord Wakeham] that he was leaving to work for the Prince of Wales, Wakeham said: ‘Well, I'll have to have Guy. Please sort it out'.”

Did Black not think that the labyrinthine nature of this transfer of power would store up problems for the future? “Yes. It was an issue of great concern to me at the time. I almost decided not to take the job. There was nothing improper about it. But you are right; in such a highly unusual situation, there was always going to be some trouble.” The most notorious example hinges on the News of the World's revelation that Prince Harry smoked cannabis; a disclosure thought to be a stitch-up between the newspaper and a Prince of Wales lauded in the coverage for his good sense and humanity.

For the first time, Black confirms that horse-trading did take place. “I think there was. That is what professional PRs do, week in, week out. Mark is, and always has been, a genius at dealing with these things, and he got on with it. People who work for celebrities or people in the public eye have become rather adept at using the [PCC] code to minimise damage [to their clients]. That is almost certainly what happened in this set of circumstances. Nothing to do with me, but quite right that it should be so.”

But Black was also implicated. “A huge amount of myth has grown up. At the time I felt aggrieved by the coverage, partly because what I was supposed to have done was the exact opposite of what I did. Stephen Lamport [Charles's private secretary] realised immediately they couldn't object to a story relating to the third in line to the throne and drugs. There was the inevitable hue and cry about intrusion, and I was asked by the Press Association if it was open season on Prince Harry. I said there was no complaint, but the same rules continued to apply. That somehow got transmogrified into my saying it was a matter of public interest, which I never did. What I was actually saying to anyone planning an intrusive follow-up was: Don't.

“I got a huge amount of flak for doing my job; protecting a child. I was somehow accused of endorsing this matter, and I felt slightly badly done by.” Did he know about the exclusive before it ran? “I may have known about it a day before publication, but there was no question of interference, or trying to stop it, or any of those things.” The Bolland and Black household maintains, Black says, “a Chinese wall on these matters. Actually, I long ago got bored rigid with the comings and goings of the Royal Family.” If there is an unusually acerbic tinge to this remark, one can see why.

The tenth anniversary party of the Press Complaints Commission, held at Somerset House, featured an array of royalty unseen outside the Trooping The Colour. Prince Charles, Prince William and Camilla Parker Bowles all turned out for their first joint public appearance at a function criticised by some for its hubristic overtones. Guy Black now regrets the overload of Windsors; the result, he says, of a “cock-up”. “Anyone who looks at the life of Mussolini will realise that history is full of cock-ups. The way the party turned out was a set of accidental chances rather than any plan. Lord Wakeham thought it would be nice to invite the Prince of Wales. Prince William, who was about to go to university, thought it a good opportunity to thank the press for its restraint. He said: ‘Can I come along as well?' And we said yes, of course. You don't turn down people in those circumstances. Camilla Parker Bowles, who was a friend of Lord Wakeham's through horseracing, was already on the guest list and had accepted. The three came together in a unique set of circumstances – entirely fortuitously rather than through deliberate strategy. It rather transformed the event, but you can't start uninviting people.

“The question you rightly pose is: Was it hubris? Nemesis follows hubris, so I hope not too much. I do regret the way it was portrayed at the time, which had a very bad impact on the public perception of the PCC as a body that is only interested in members of the Royal Family and celebrities. We are not. We are the opposite; a body geared to ordinary people, but still the image grew. The party did produce acres of newsprint, which would have cost us millions. That was the one positive thing that came out of it. At least people knew we existed.” But there was, in the end, an unconnected nemesis. Some months later, Lord Wakeham, genial host to the great and the good, was gone. Although there was no evidence of wrongdoing on his part, Wakeham's role as a non-executive director serving on the audit committee of Enron, the accountancy firm ruined by a multimillion pound fraud, forced his departure from the PCC.

“He is a very private person and does not share these matters with many people,” Black says. “But he expects that, given the speed at which the American legal system works, these issues will be raging for years. I think it will be ten to 15 years before it's settled, and that produces a whole set of complex issues for John Wakeham to manage. He fell on his sword to protect the reputation of the commission – a very noble thing to do.” Surely, in a matter that focused on probity, Lord Wakeham could hardly have done less? “Exactly...he went very quickly, with none of the faffing around you often see in public figures involved in scandals.” Taking his £156,000 salary with him, I say, but Black is not to be drawn. “That is a contractual matter for him and the newspaper industry. I shan't comment on it.”

Black remains loyal to his old mentor, who, he trusts, will remain a close friend. “He was hugely successful in building the authority of the commission. The key moment was what happened after the death of the Princess of Wales, when he grabbed the industry by the scruff of its neck and told it that it must toughen its code. He was a great force for good.”

Personal mission

The commission Wakeham left behind is, in Guy Black's admittedly partial view, a glowing advertisement for self-regulation. Black's aim, in observance of the PCC remit, is to provide customer satisfaction rather than evangelise press freedom, (although the two seem ineluctably linked). Complaints, down to 2,700 last year after a 36 per cent rise in 2001, normally vary between 2,500 and 3,000. Of these, only a tiny number go to adjudication. “I've made it a personal mission to inculcate among editors a spirit of conciliation, so that if something has gone wrong, it is put right quickly. When I came here eight years ago, getting quick corrections and apologies was like getting blood from a stone. Now there has been a sea change.”

Cases that are adjudicated include victimless matters, such as the Daily Mail's payment to Louise Woodward, the nanny convicted of manslaughter, and those where “the editor needs to feel the heat”, irrespective of whatever remedy he or she has taken. The PCC has, Black likes to think, evolved its own “case law” on celebrity privacy, under which editors know better where reasonable boundaries lie. But newspapers are far from homogeneous in aim. Who, in a climate of disquiet, will adjudicate between the tabloid freedom fighters and the broadsheet editors who may be more amenable to legal sanction? In Black's view, this rift is greatly overblown. “The free press, like democracy, has rough edges. Tensions are always bound to arise in a system like this. I understand where the concerns from some editors come from and regret any suggestion of a divergence of view between broadsheets and tabloids. The industry should be united.”

Why, I ask, is the turnover of editors on the council so sluggish? And why, among the seven non-lay members, is there no editor of a national broadsheet daily? On the first point, Black cites “the excellent appointment of Roger Alton” [editor of The Observer], who joined in January. On the second, he says: “I think this is more accident than design. Daily newspaper editors can find it quite difficult to make meetings, and so I am not sure how willing all of them would be.” This, as Black must know, is a partial answer. Paul Dacre, a long-serving member, cannot be accused of having a surplus of spare time.

It seems possible that the broadsheet/tabloid split is deepening, particularly in the light of the criticism of asylum seekers, promulgated in The Sun and elsewhere and decried by more liberal opponents as racist. Black says that the commission has new structures in place and urges vulnerable minorities, from refugees to the trans-gender community, to complain. Then there is the question of trial-by-tabloid and the release, notably in the Soham murders and the ricin terror allegations, of information that may prejudice a fair trial. Black is robust. The police must stop leaking, and newspapers that overstep the mark should be prosecuted for contempt. “The police have to look afresh at the way they interact with the media. There are laws relating to contempt. They are used very sparingly. Perhaps they should be deployed now in certain cases.”

So the Attorney General should look more carefully at potential breaches? “I think that would be very sensible. There are ways of dealing with the unedifying spectacle of people being tried by newspapers and they should be deployed. It would probably have rather a cleansing and salutary effect. But there are substantial powers available to the courts, and perhaps it's time to re-examine them.”

On witness payments, the Lord Chancellor has given the PCC one last chance to come up with a self-regulatory solution before introducing the blanket ban that Black deplores. “I am by nature a libertarian, and you need to demonstrate good reason to legislate in any field of human conduct. I do not think the case has been made. The criminal offence proposed by the Lord Chancellor wouldn't have stopped payments in the Gary Glitter case, or in that of Rose West, or [Peter] Sutcliffe. It might have done so in the case of Brady and Hindley, but there was no evidence that justice was derailed. Two cases in 40 years is not a good reason to legislate.”

However tough and impartial, Black is an industry insider too. In particular, he has been criticised for spending a holiday with Rebekah Wade, then News of the World editor, along with the actor Ross Kemp, Wade's husband, and Bolland. “I have never commented on what I get up to in my private time. But it is well known that I am good friends with Rebekah and her husband. He and I were born around the corner from one another. I can well understand the angst that causes in some quarters. You talked earlier about storing up trouble, and this was always going to be an issue. But you can't just cease friendships forged in a previous life.” Beside, he says, an industry network is “a vital part of conciliation and conflict resolution. My friendship with Rebekah fits into that category. There are times when I have to have blunt conversations with people, and you may well surmise the [former] editor of the News of the World is one of them.

“Under statutory regulation, people would say: ‘Bugger off '. Editors never do. The decision-making body is the PCC, of which I am a servant. There can never be a question of favouritism because I am not responsible for the actual decision. No one ever said that any decision on the News of the World was wrong. If they had, that would have really worried me.”

There are other anxieties. The privacy problem has not gone away, even though complaints on that issue comprise a mere 14 per cent of the PCC's total. The fact that most concern local newspapers does not, as Black says, “lend itself to a privacy action”. Nor does global communication. “The Internet blows a great hole in the censors' ship. They are living in the world before the World Wide Web.”

A bit of Blitzkrieg

But more personal matters also weigh on Guy Black, who has seen his own privacy more battered than that of most celebrity complainants. The sniping over his friendship with Wade happened around the time of the Queen Mother's death, and he draws a curious comparison. “There were all those wonderful images of her at the time of the Blitz. Now I know what it's like to look the East End in the face. I now appear in front of people with problems with the media and look them in the face. I have also had a bit of a Blitzkrieg.”

Afterwards, I wonder whether he delivered this remark with a twist of irony, but I can recall none. It seems an odd comment for such a clever and self-deprecating man; much more pompous than his normal tone, and redolent of hurt. How, you wonder, did he deal with those critics whose interest in his high-profile relationship with Mark Bolland verged on homophobia? “I have broad shoulders; the most important characteristic anyone doing this job can have. I am in the unenviable position of being unable to strike back at any attacks that are made by any newspaper or columnist. Voluntary regulation works only if relationships are harmonious across the industry. On a lot of occasions, I just have to bite my lip and get on with it. The only point I make is that these sort of things come from very narrow, defined and predictable quarters.”

How long will he stay? One rumour suggests he may be on his way soon, and he virtually confirms it. Though Black is circumspect, it is clear that he sees the end. “I can't imagine a more fascinating job. There are times when it drives me mad and I want to beat my fists on the desk and other times when I derive huge pleasure from it. By this time next year, I will be approaching eight years in the job; an extremely strenuous one that can really grind you down. I've never set a time limit, but eight years is a long time, especially in such a stressful [post]. I certainly haven't made the decision. But maybe a new challenge is good for me at that point.”

I doubt if Guy Black, a careful thinker, has run out of ideas. It seems more likely that he, for all his diplomatic skills, sees no ground for compromise. If the select committee is as intemperate as he fears, then maybe the PCC will have to submit to changes. What might those be? Black says he is eager to improve the system where appropriate, but the only example he offers is a new out-of-hours hotline for harassment complainants.

“I wouldn't want to speculate about what might be given in certain circumstances. But a lot of what some individuals want would strike so strongly at the philosophical heart of self-regulation that you could never give in on it. You can't give in on privacy laws, or fines for compensation, or the fundamental concept that you need a complaint to launch an inquiry. I don't want us to become a politicians' complaints commission where we start raising our own complaints voluntarily because a public figure is in trouble with the media again.”

What lies ahead for his eventual successor, and more immediately, for Christopher Meyer, the incoming chairman? Kaufman's wreckers, the Lord Chancellor's intransigence and the schisms in a press facing, once again, grave threats to its freedom. Guy Black hopes that Meyer can “rebuild the solidarity of the industry”. But the enemies of self-regulation are mustering, and the dangers mount. The fight back does not sound easy.