Feature: Mr Diplomacy speaks

Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, tells Adam Hill why he wants PROs to bring more pressure to bear on the press, and recounts his turbulent years in political comms.

If journalists cannot be trusted to regulate themselves, enlisting PROs to pressure them into doing so is the next best solution. This may seem an odd proposal. But it is something that Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission and former press secretary to then prime minister John Major, is not afraid to pursue.

‘How much do PR people know about the PCC?' Meyer asks. ‘I suspect there's a good deal of mutual ignorance here and room for some much-needed cross-fertilisation.'

The mere suggestion that more PROs should take complaints about journalists to the PCC (Meyer rather fetchingly refers to its members as journalists' ‘professional cousins'), provides the basis for an intriguing debate. Surely it would be seen as sour grapes if PR practitioners had licence to complain about how their own stories are dealt with?

Meyer leans back. ‘This is a very interesting area. I read PRWeek's interview with that paparazzi man [Darryn Lyons, boss of photo agency Big Pictures (PRWeek, 19 May)].

He used a term: "Number one in collusion."  These are very interesting words.'

Redress for PROs
Meyer talks in depth about this issue in PRWeek's accompanying podcast to this article. He insists he will treat PR professionals with ‘dispassionate equality', but claims they have as much right to feel unfairly treated by the press as anyone else.

But he also stresses that the level of redress ‘will depend on the extent to which the PRO has courted the press in the first place'. He argues that PR practitioners must work harder with editors to deal with such complaints at source.

It is an approach that reflects a PCC keen to be seen to be tackling scepticism over its ability to influence press standards. Only last month, Meyer was involved in a spat with BBC grandee John Simpson, who accused the PCC of being ineffectual. ‘I do not know which is more tedious,' Meyer says, ‘the snobbish disdain of TV reporters for print journalism, or their plum ignorance of the PCC and what it does.'

The organisation, of course, is responsible for making editors print corrections or apologies if they are deemed to have infringed the industry's code of practice. Last year, the PCC received 3,654 complaints – and saw a 41 per cent year-on-year rise in the number of cases resolved to the complainant's satisfaction. ‘Business is booming,' says Meyer with a wry smile.

Meyer knows about the risks inherent in exposing one's charges to the media. The experience of government comms seems to have left him with forthright views on what PR is all about. ‘Directors of communications or corporate affairs. These grand titles – I like press officer,' he says, perhaps wilfully ignoring the fact that these comms directors have responsibilities beyond press relations.

He continues: ‘In 19th-century warfare the cavalry was your screen in front of you, reporting back. Today PROs should be way out in front, skirmishing with hacks.'

Meyer exudes confidence with mellow, put-you-at-ease tones, but he can do hurly-burly, too. Before the PCC, Meyer was ambassador to the US. In September 2001, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he told Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell: ‘You will cut me off at the fucking knees for the rest of my fucking time in Washington.' The undiplomatic language was Meyer's way of explaining the loss of credibility he would suffer in the eyes of the US president and his senior advisers if he did not accompany Blair to a dinner with George W. Bush. ‘It had been a long day for everyone,' Meyer now reflects.

Under Major in the early 1990s, the Conservative government was in a period of prolonged disintegration – mostly due to allegations of sleaze. The PM and his press secretary were never off the back foot. But Meyer would rather the rough-and-tumble of the press pack than the ‘antiseptic and formal' lobby of today. ‘I fear that the Government, in its distaste for the Westminster lobby, has destroyed the pleasurable sides of being press secretary: the theatre and ritual.'

On the political front line
Regarding the old-style morning briefings during a political crisis – of which there were many during the Major years – he recalls: ‘You cannot survive without a bit of histrionics and play-acting. There was always a pack-leader with a good, sharp stiletto: sometimes Michael White [of The Guardian] or George Jones [The Daily Telegraph]. Only when you cross the line does spin become mendacious.'

During this time, Meyer was not everyone's cup of tea. Sir Bernard Ingham, to whom Meyer refers as ‘a kind of mentor', recalls: ‘He was irreverent, liable to do things out of the box. In a highly regulated society that would be regarded as a liability.'

Meyer's memoir, DC Confidential, attracted particular media hostility when it was published last year. ‘I think he went a bit far there and he knows it,' says Ingham. But the author refutes this. ‘Some of the more traditional members of the civil service looked askance. And there was a certain group of Labour politicians who didn't like it for political reasons. But it is entirely accepted practice for diplomats to write memoirs.'

Did it never occur to Meyer to complain to the PCC himself? ‘If you're giving pungent opinions of people and exposing a bit of yourself, you've got to be prepared to take the plaudits and the brickbats. It never occurred to me to complain.'

Not everyone is so sanguine about press coverage. Essex County Council's PR team recently complained to the PCC about the Daily Mail coverage last year of parents with learning disabilities whose children had been separated from them. The council thought the paper's articles unfounded, but the PCC did not support its case. Why?

Meyer refuses to be drawn. ‘It is impossible to do this job without being in the crosshairs of controversy. Very often the outcome can seem to be rough justice. The balance between censoring a paper and not upholding a complaint can be fine.'

‘A lot of people feel let down,' he adds. ‘But there are more who don't. We get a 60 to 65 per cent approval rating. Politicians would kill their grandmothers for that.'

Sir Christopher Meyer: the diplomat-turned-watchdog who still thinks like a politician –  albeit an irreverent one.

 

CV

2005
Publishes his controversial memoir, DC Confidential, with serialisations
in The Guardian and Daily Mail 

2003
Appointed as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission

1997
British ambassador to the US

1997
British ambassador to Germany

1994-1996
Press secretary to John Major

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