Leveson Inquiry: Jeremy Paxman Gives Evidence On Press Ethics (LIVE)

Huffington Post UK  |  By Posted: Updated: 23/05/2012 13:48

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Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman and political journalist Andrew Marr

BBC and Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman is giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry into press standards.

Earlier fellow BBC presenter Andrew Marr told the inquiry he had taken out a super injunction to prevent details of an affair being reported because the Press Complaints Commission was too weak to do anything.

Marr said that the country had looked "agog" at some of the evidence presented so far, but that the newspaper industry could be fatally injured by too much regulation.

"Without individual contacts... and a bit of wining and dining... I don't think the public would have known about the difficulties in the Brown/Blair relationship... and that was a really important story," he said.

Former Labour defence secretary Lord Reid and Tory MP Stephen Dorrell, who oversaw media policy as heritage secretary in John Major's Conservative government in the mid 1990s, were also called to give evidence on Wednesday.

The inquiry, sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice, is to hear from Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's former special adviser Adam Smith and News Corporation lobbyist Frederic Michel on Thursday.

Paxman said to Lord Justice Leveson: "Your challenge is to stop yourself becoming a total irrelevance."

Leveson replied that his intention was not to produce a document just to sit on the second shelf of journalism professors.

"As high as the second shelf, eh?" Paxman replied.

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Paxman recalls a dinner at Canary Wharf in 2002 where Piers Morgan teased Ulrika Johnson about private conversations between her and a third party.

Morgan put on a mock Swedish accent, pretending to be Sven Goran Eriksson mock Swedish accent". He said he didn't know if Morgan was repeating a conversation he had heard or had just "imagined" it.

Paxman says that Morgan then told him how mobile phones were hacked.

"Have you got a mobile phone?" Morgan apparently asked.

"I said yes."

"Have you got a security setting," Morgan asked, according to Paxman. "I didn't know what he was talking about" said Paxman.

"He then explained that the way to get into someones messages was to "go into the security settings and press 0000… and that if you didn't you were in, his words, a fool."

"It was clearly something he was familiar with."

The atmosphere in the room "struck me as close to bullying, frankly."

Other people in the room included:

"Sir Victor Blank, chairman of Trinity Mirror, Piers Morgan, the then editor of the Sunday Mirror whose name I have forgotten, Ulrika Jonsson, Philip Green."

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Paxman, continuing the quest to define various words, says he does not believe fairness is just about process.

He also rejects the depiction of the BBC as "state media" as there is a clear difference between it and Pravda.

He said: "Is there any case for government control of the news media? Er, no."

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@ dansabbagh : So Friday's witness is Jonathan Stephens, perm sec at DCMS. Did he authorise if Smith could be linkman to News Corp?

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Impartiality is "quite a difficult thing to define" Paxman said.

He said that BBC execs would tell Leveson impartiality was a "watchword" but he saw it as a "dull, mechanistic" term.

"How do you measure it?"

Fairness, by contrast, is easy to define he said.

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"My favourite definition years ago was that news was something somewhere someone didn't want you to know," Paxman said, answering his own question.

"The rest is public relations"

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Paxman said that in his view journalists should if possible keep a physical distance from their subjects - and criticised the BBC's "edifice" on Millbank near Westminster.

"I think that distorts your judgement," he said, while adding that he didn't want to criticise the people that worked there who were doing a "difficult job".

"It's a matter of geographical convenience I suppose," he said.

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Paxman is asked about whether or not he has politicians as friends.

"I do find it easier not to have politicians as personal friends."

"I do not think they're all scoundrels … or liars… But I take a general view it is easier to maintain the distance, that's all," he said.

"It's like ticks and sheep isn't it, one can't exist without the other."

He adds that "we act on behalf of the citizen", adding he doesn't wish to sound like a "prig".

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Paxman said that often on Newsnight the "really big fish" - i.e. senior ministers - lay down conditions for appearing which include not debating with anyone not of equal "rank".

He said that Newsnight once showed an empty chair on screen after a minister refused to appear.

Often ministers now say they are "not available" as opposed to unwilling to appear, he said.

When it comes to honouring conditions laid down by press officers, he said, you have to make a "judgement".

"You have to make a judgement time after time what is in the public interest," he said.

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Marr says that the thing newspapers fear most of all is having to put a "timely and proportionate" correction in their newspaper.

Lord Justice Leveson says he accepts Marr's point about the growing importance and power of blogs and online news websites.

He asks Marr about the impact of political bloggers.

Marr says a lot of bloggers are somewhere in between politicians and journalists, and some are "card-carrying party members".

"They're a new thing and an influential new thing," he says.

"The successful blogs survive via advertising... they're not so far away as they might appear."

Lord Justice Leveson describes what he sees as the hierarchy of the internet, from individual private conversations to Twitter, Facebook, blogs and newspapers.

There must be a point at which an individual blog has to come under press regulation - but what should that be, Marr says. Can it just be volume of readers?

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A new system of regulation might be like "taking away the feeding tube right at the end" for a newspaper industry which is struggling hugely to survive, Marr said.

"The bigger problem it seems to me is 'what is a newspaper'," he said.

Some websites are now as influential as any newspaper, he says - "any system of redress will have to include those as well as newspapers" he said.

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@ michaelrundle : Word of the day, thanks to Andrew Marr: "propinquity"

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"That is when a minister is really tested," Marr says of the "firestorms" in which politicians are "assailed by the pack, day after day".

"It's purging," he said.

He admits some ministers have been "hounded" out of jobs unfairly, but there are interesting cases where ministers have clung on when they "had done something wrong and should have gone".

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"All sorts of programmes have presenters," Paxman says, asserting his trade. "But I would say I was a journalist, yeah."

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Marr is about the super injunction he took out in 2008 to stop details of an alleged affair being published in the press, to protect his family's privacy, partly because a child was involved.

He chose to lift the injunction last year.

"I did not come into journalism to go around gagging journalists," he said at the time.

At the inquiry Marr said few journalists would trust the PCC for "swift redress or help".

"It's not exactly the Waffen SS," he said.

Lord Justice Leveson pulls him up on the use of language, warning that his point may be lost in his search for a colourful phrase - as it was on Marr's point about bloggers.

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@ jennie_kermode : Aw. Andrew Marr doesn't know how to pronounce 'trolling'. That's cute. #Leveson

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Marr is asked about comments he once made criticising bloggers and citizen journalists.

(He had said that bloggers were "inadequate, pimpled and single").

The comment was aimed at the "enormous amount of anger" that seemed to be "swilling around" parts of the internet, "most of it anonymous".

Now many of the most influential political voices are online, he said, citing Tim Montgomerie at ConHome and Mark Pack on the LibDem side.

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Marr is asked about an interview with Gordon Brown after which he was criticised for pushing the then-PM for details of his medical history and whether or not he took prescription drugs.

Did he go too far?

"It's not a moment in my career I look back on with enormous enthusiasm or pride," he said.

"I was barely on the Internet in those days," he said, of the reaction to the interview.

He didn't come away from the interview feeling he'd gone too far but later realised he had.

"I wouldn't ask the question again," he said.

Marr said Brown had made concessions on the economy and on bankers, and said that those headlines were totally lost in the aftermath.

"It wasn't worth it," he said. But not because it was not appropriate.

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Marr said that Lobby journalists at Westminster rely on good contacts, and have no other way to do their job except to have politicians to hand who will take their calls and give them exclusives.

"We do jump very fast to analysis and comment, almost before we've laid out the facts of the case sometimes," he said.

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Marr was asked about the influence of publishers on newspaper editors.

Recalling his time as editor of the Independent Marr said he did not feel pressure to place certain stories - except when it came to Irish rugby - but "certainly knew" what his publisher Tony O'Reilly thought.

Conrad Black, when he was editing the Daily Telegraph, "wrote long letters to his own newspapers" expressing his contempt.

That seemed "a healthier way of doing it" he said.

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"The country has been looking agog at some of the evidence to this inquiry," Marr said.

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@ BBCPeterHunt : Leveson: Marr on his book My Trade -- it's available in all good second hand bookshops. #Leveson #royal

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@ nataliepeck : Marr: Close relationships [NI/politicians], Murdoch parties + Oxfordshire get-togethers, peculiarly disheartening for press rivals. #Leveson

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News International journalists were clearly favoured by the New Labour government, Marr said.

"They were inside the tent," he said. "From the outside it felt quite cold and chilly," he added.

Murdoch's papers had an "enormously powerful position" Marr said.

"It didn't give you quite the royal flush but it gave you a very, very large segment of the media," he said.

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Asked why he thought newspapers had merged reporting and comment, Marr replied:

"[Partly because] It's very expensive… particularly if you're talking about investigative journalism."

Asked what should be done - if news and comment should be separated - he said:

"I would recoil from seeing any outside body order newspaper editors on how to arrange their pages…"

"Don't worry about that Mr Marr," Lord Justice Leveson said.

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Marr says that early newspapers were "extremely aggressive" and featured insulting comment to sell newspapers, and that after a trend towards "vanilla news and facts" the media is now moving back to its old agenda.

"That world has gone," he said. "Now what's happened is the newspapers are selling themselves more and more on political views and rousing the emotion of a reader."

"What is the USP of a newspaper? What makes it different? .. The temptation to salt and pepper the news... has become irresistible."

"It's a lost cause and there is no going back," Marr said, admitting he "mourned" for the past.

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@ gavindrake : Did Andrew Marr arrive at #Leveson in his open top car clutching the day's newspapers? And will this evidence session end with a sing-song?

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'Andrew William Stevenson Marr' has begun giving his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.

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Stephen Dorrell MP is currently giving evidence.

Andrew Marr will follow him, and Jeremy Paxman is due up in the afternoon session.

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Ahead of Jeremy Paxman's appearance at Leveson we've collected his finest moments to date into one handy post.

Take a look here.

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