The editor of The Scotsman newspaper has said he requires the names of sources before he is willing to publish a potentially contentious story.
John McLellan told the Leveson Inquiry in to press standards that he needs to feel as confident about the credibility of a source as the journalist producing the story, before he is willing to publish it.
Speaking during the morning session of today’s proceedings – with an appointment to continue this afternoon, at 2pm, after lunch – he added there was only one occasion when he met resistance from a journalist to divulge the identity of a source, an argument that eventually ended with the journalist accepting his editor’s point of view.
In his pre-written witness statement, McLellan said: “There is an absolute requirement on the part of a reporter to divulge full details of how a story came to light if asked by the editor. The senior team are aware of this policy and it is understood the editor will need to know exactly how stories have been obtained.”
McLellan was giving evidence along with The Herald editor, Jonathan Russell, plus Mike Gilson (former editor of The Scotsman and now at the Belfast Telegraph) and Spencer Feeney, editor of the South Wales Evening Post.
Russell – whose pre-written witness statement can be read here – held a slightly different view to McLellan, based on his trust of the journalist or journalists involved. McLellan countered by saying that his trust of a journalist is likely to be reciprocated, in the full knowledge that he wouldn’t divulge a source’s identity.
All four editors said that no phone hacking had taken place at their newspapers and no public officials had been paid for information (not that sources ever asked, all contended).
All but Feeney said no minuting of editorial meetings – to create a paper trial in the event of a later inquiry – that discussed subterfuge in obtaining a story, with McLellan accepting that minuting would likely become more necessary. He did point out, however, there are different types of subterfuge, including the relatively trivial, such as secret diners.
He said: “It is true to say that custom and practice in newsrooms has been to discuss these things [subterfuge] and then get on and do it – and not to note it, not to minute it and not to maintain a paper trail.” But he recognised it was a practice that if not already changed is now changing.
All four are due to resume giving evidence in ten minutes.
Part Two …
The Scotsman has, more than once a year, decided against running a story it believes to be true, because of the possible cost of having to defend itself against a legal challenge.
The admission, from editor, John McLellan, came during the second session of an appearance by him and three colleagues – including The Herald’s editor, Jonathan Russell – at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards.
He said: “I can’t remember the specific instances, but that has happened more than once, it happens on more than an annual basis.”
Added Spencer Feeney, editor of the South Wales Evening Post: “The threat of potential cost with CFAs [Conditional Fee Agreement - most commonly of the ‘no win, no fee’ variety] clearly has a chilling effect on all newspapers and causes you to think very deeply before you decide to publishing something.”
The quartet – made up by Mike Gilson, the former Scotsman editor and now editor of the Belfast Evening Telegraph – were asked, variously, about their attitude to one or more versions of a new type of Press Complaints Commission, their relationship with local politicians, off-the-record conversations with police officers and to what extent, if at all, their proprietors interfere with their decision-making (a resounding No on that final question from all four).
Of the four, Feeney said it was his paper’s policy to publish clarifications, corrections and apologies on page three of his newspaper, thus more often than not providing greater prominence that the original, ‘offending’ article. He, like McLellan, believed he is ‘the readers' editor’, whereas The Herald has a member of staff, a senior assistant editor, responsible for handling complaints, in liaison with the editor, who is the final arbiter of what, if any, editorial is subsequently published.
At the Belfast Evening Telegraph, it has a member of staff who is quasi-independent of the paper – albeit still an employee – who is in charge of an editorial space in the paper which is his call, and his alone, at liberty to take issue with the paper.
Later, McLellan urged – reflecting a column he penned for The Scotsman on Monday – that any new body taking on the role of a Press Complaints Commission should have Scottish representation, just as the current PCC has.
There was a general discussion recognising that newspaper articles – whether true or not – are ‘out there’, more readily accessible than hitherto, because of the internet.
Gilson pointed out the forces now marshalled against newspapers finding stories, not least press officers. McLellan said there was no policy preventing his journalists speaking to any member of the public – including police officers – because that is the role of journalists.
“In some areas, press officers outnumber journalists,” said Gilson.
“For us to limit who we can and cannot talk to I think would be counter to everything that we are about,” said McLellan.