That a sum not exceeding £26,720,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1994 for expenditure by the Department of National Heritage and the Royal Fine Arts Commission on administration.—[Mr. Brooke.]
I am grateful for this opportunity to debate the report of the National Heritage Committee on privacy and media intrusion.
During the seven months since the Select Committee began active work, it has issued five reports on varying subjects, some of which have already affected Government policy. It is now at work on its sixth inquiry into the future of the BBC. Without being conceited, I think that the Committee can claim that it has played a role in defining the character of a new and very welcome Government Department, the Department of National Heritage. The members of the Committee have established a cordial relationship with the Secretary of State, while keeping at arm's length from him and his Department—so maintaining our independent role of scrutiny.
I am happy to say that, so far, all the reports from the Select Committee have been unanimous. I want to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues for the way in which we have been able to work together. Outside the Committee, all of us are committed party politicians; when we go into the Committee Room, we leave those party differences behind and try to justify the confidence that the House has placed in us to do a job of work on behalf of the whole House.
Until I entered Parliament, I had spent most of my working life as a staff journalist—first as a member of the staff of a mass circulation national tabloid, then on a publication that liked to regard itself as an influential, intellectual weekly. I still write frequently for a variety of publications. I regard myself as a journalist, and my instinct has always been to see matters from the journalist's point of view.
While, as a politician, I have certainly had my differences with various newspapers, including recently being involved in a libel action—which I am relieved to say I won—I do not believe that politicians should whine about what newspapers say about them. We in this House volunteer to be public figures. We dish it out, so we should be ready to take it.
When I worked as Harold Wilson's political press advisor at 10 Downing street, I did my best, whenever possible, to deflect him from complaining about or to the press. I did not always succeed. I remember that formidable and wise editor of the Daily Mirror, Lee Howard, asking me to give a message from him to Harold Wilson when he was Prime Minister. The message was simple: "Stop reading the newspapers." I gave that message also to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) when he was leader of my party, although he did not invariably observe it. With respect, I offer the same message to the Prime Minister, and perhaps today would be a good day to start.
If the choice is to be between a state-licensed press and an irresponsible, even dishonest, press, my choice would be for an irresponsible press. Governments get away with too much—Governments of all parties. If members of the present Government feel bruised by their treatment by the press—and it is possible that they may—I remind them that that is nothing new, not only for former Labour Governments bu t for former Tory Governments as well.
If it was Aneurin Bevan who called the British press the most prostituted in the world; it was the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, using words provided for him by Rudyard Kipling, who talked about Tory press proprietors of the day aiming at power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages. Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook ran by-election candidates against Tory Prime Ministers and were responsible for the defeat of Tory candidates, so collisions between the press and Governments of every political persuasion are nothing new.
Our Committee did not set out with the intention of trying to wreak revenge on the press for the discomfort it had caused politicians of any party, or for its treatment of even more exalted persons than those who sit in the House of Commons or in the Chamber along the Corridor. What preoccupied our Committee was the privacy of the private individual.
While we certainly believe, and say in our report, that every individual, whether Prince or Prime Minister, should be entitled to his or her zone of privacy, we also believe that both Prince and Prime Minister, as both have recently shown, have easier access to recourse than does the private citizen. Money and influence and an ability to make contacts can often rectify a felt injury by a public figure, whether that public figure is a politician, a business man, a sports star or a member of the royal family.
Or, as my hon. Friend says, a Chancellor too.
It was the evidence of the private individuals before our Select Committee that most affected us. Many in the House, including myself, have been doorstepped, and have found it a daunting experience, with which it is extremely difficult to cope.
How much more daunting must it be, not for somebody who is in public life who encounters the press regularly, who seeks to gain advantage from encounters with the press, but for a private individual, a widow of a service man killed in Northern Ireland by terrorists, a victim of a terrorist bomb outrage, a rape victim still traumatised by her experience, who has never had contact with newspapers except as a reader of them, but who suddenly finds himself or herself harassed, a prisoner in his or her home, unable to leave without being intercepted, with the telephone ringing incessantly throughout the day and sometimes throughout the night as well?
If we here sometimes find it difficult not to say something that leaves us hot with embarrassment or even pain when we see it in print, how does a widow or a victim feel when interviewed and reported by the press? How do they feel when having dealings with their families, when meeting their neighbours, when encountering strangers who recognise them from the brief but traumatic experience of being in the public eye? How do they feel when fabricated words are put into their mouths in order that newspapers should increase their circulations? I am afraid that that has happened. One editor told us in Committee that he regretted having done such a thing in his newspaper.
Newspaper editors who came before us and gave evidence to us told us that few private individuals feel victimised by the press. They said that that was shown by the number of complaints—what they regard as the small number of complaints—that come before the Press Complaints Commission.
Our Select Committee was not at all sure that the number of complaints as reported was accurate. After all, the police report not the total number of crimes but the number of recorded crimes. Similarly, it is impossible to compute the number of people who do not complain about press treatment—not because they have nothing worth complaining about, but because they think that a complaint will get nowhere, or because they do not want to prolong, repeat or relive their trauma.
Even if the numbers are small, for each person who endures it, such treatment is a total experience. That experience—however few or however many undergo it—is, in our view, an unacceptable and intolerable experience. The Select Committee became convinced that the existing press complaints system did not satisfactorily serve the needs of such people.
We also became convinced that the use of modern technology to intercept and record private conversations, or to photograph people in private property without their knowledge, had got completely out of hand. Alleged conversations involving members of the royal family have become the focal point of such concern, although—I repeat—the protection of the royal family or politicians as such was not on our agenda.
We have studied the recently published Calcutt report, but we do not like its main conclusion. We did not believe that self-regulation—or, as we prefer to call it, voluntary regulation—of the press had been given a sufficient chance, even if, so far, that voluntary regulation has been far from perfect.
The Committee was adamant in its view that this country, or any democracy, does not need and should not have legislation dealing specifically with the press—although legislation dealing specifically with television and radio has undoubtedly led to a situation in which there are very few complaints about intrusion into privacy by the electronic media. But there is a difference, and we stated that difference in the report.
The Government must be involved in legislating for the electronic media because of the finite number of frequencies which have to be allocated for television and radio. By contrast, anyone nowadays—sometimes people with paltry funds—can found a publication, and it is part of a free society that they should be able to do so.
We believe that only laws which apply to all citizens should apply to the press. That is why we flatly ruled out any legislation to control, govern and restrict the press as such, and that is why we rejected out of hand Calcutt's proposal for a statutory tribunal. That is why, while I respect and understand the motives of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), the method proposed in his Bill was not attractive to the Committee.
We therefore looked to the press to enhance its process of voluntary regulation, and made a number of proposals to strengthen such regulation. We proposed that a new press Commission should replace the present Press Complaints Commission. We proposed that there should be a majority of lay members on the Commission, so that the press should not be seen to sit in judgment, or fail to sit in judgment, on itself.
We proposed a stronger code of practice, and that both editors' and their journalistic staff's contracts of employment should require adherence to the strengthened code of practice. We proposed that journalists should be required to identify themselves when seeking an interview, and to tell interviewees of their rights under the code. We proposed that the Press Commission should have not only the right to order the printing of corrections, but the power to order compensation and to fine.
We made it clear that, in our strong view, none of that should be instituted by statute but should be voluntary. However, we asked ourselves, what should happen if voluntary regulation failed? What if the complainant to the Press Commission is not satisfied? What if a vendetta by some newspapers against one of their number led to an unfair verdict against a newspaper?
We believed that the best way of ensuring that voluntary regulation of the press by the press was effective was to provide a statutory back-up, which, if self-regulation was effective, need never, or hardly ever, be invoked. We suggested a parliamentary ombudsman appointed by the Lord Chancellor in his judicial role.
The ombudsman would be responsible not to any Government but to Parliament. The ombudsman could not be turned to unless the process of voluntary regulation through the press Commission had been tried and found wanting. It would not be an alternative to voluntary regulation, but would be a back-up and stimulus to it. We realised that, in the very early days of the existence of such an ombudsman, there might be a considerable number of applications to him or her. However, we anticipated that, before long, the ombudsman would become the last resort.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the accuracy and eloquence with which he is stating the findings of the Select Committee. Does he agree that, in coming to the conclusions that he has just described, we were mindful of the possibility that a minority of intransigent editors might exist and that it was for that, hopefully unusual, situation that we were forced to reach those conclusions?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for adding to my remarks. He has described accurately one consideration that was in our minds at the time. We had to provide for editors and proprietors who refused to be involved in the press Commission, and the ombudsman would be available to ensure that transgressions by such newspapers or proprietors would not go uninspected.
Our hope was that voluntary regulation would work so well that the office of press ombudsman would become a sinecure. However, neither the press Commission, nor, in our view, the ombudsman, could deal to our entire satisfaction with the invasions of privacy that had come to our attention. In the United States, where we conducted extensive inquiries during a brief visit, we found that many states had protection of privacy laws. That is in a country which, as we were reminded many times every day, entrenches the freedom of the press in the first amendment to its constitution.
Therefore, we came to the conclusion that certain intrusions into individual privacy, whether by the press or by anybody else, could be prevented or remedied only by a protection of privacy Bill, the ambit of which would cover every person in the land, whether journalist or not.
We recommended that both criminal and civil offences be contained in the Bill. Those included:
obtaining and/or publishing harmful or embarrassing personal material or photographs; or
obtaining and/or publishing private information (eg. medical records) or photographs without the permission of the person concerned or, where that person is not in a position to give permission, by his next of kin; or publishing inaccurate or misleading personal information; or
violating the peace of another by intruding upon him, or persistently communicating with him.
They were the civil offences which we suggested should be created.
We also suggested a number of criminal offices which included:
placing a surveillance device on private property without the consent of the lawful occupant, with intent to obtain personal information;
—using a surveillance device (whether on private property or elsewhere) in relation to an individual who is on private property, without the consent of the individual to such use, with intent to obtain personal information about that individual;
—taking a photograph, or recording the voice, of an individual who is on private property, without his consent to the taking or recording, with intent that the individual shall be identifiable;
—publishing of a recording or an intimate photograph of an individual taken without consent;
—entering private property without the consent of the lawful occupant with intent to obtain personal information;
—the buying, selling or retention of any recording without the permission of the person on the tape; or of any material obtained through eavesdropping or use of long-range cameras where any of the parties was aware that the material was procured through illegal means or suspected it to be so obtained; and publication of any recording or material so obtained even where no financial transaction was involved".
We also recommended the further offence of the deliberate interception of calls made on mobile phones and
the enactment of a criminal offence to prohibit harassment or besetting.
We recommended that, for criminal and civil offences, there should be a public interest defence. We also recommended that, for civil actions, under our proposed protection of privacy legislation and for defamation proceedings, legal aid should be available. However, we believe that there should be a greater role for the press in a democracy. That is why we disagreed with Calcutt and said that the Commission's responsibilities must include the right to campaign for press freedom. We also believe
that, if the press are to be given greater responsibilities, they—and everyone else in the land—must be granted greater access to information, and by right.
We call on the Government to take effective action to extend the public's right of access to information, to take that action as quickly as possible, and certainly to take it no later than they implement our other recommendations. We said that our recommendations, including the right of access to information, came as a package, and that, if any of our recommendations was to be implemented, they should all be implemented.
The Committee was not starry-eyed. We knew that our report would be greeted with outrage in many quarters of the press. I read the press reports with some interest. One newspaper denounced us out of hand, while printing an alleged summary of our report. It was full of inaccuracies or, as that newspaper would certainly say if talking about any of us, full of lies. Another newspaper published a huge leading article denouncing our report without publishing a single word of the report, not even the briefest summary of it, thus giving its readers a good opportunity to make up their mind about our recommendations.
The Press Complaints Commission said that a number of our recommendations were not only wrong but impracticable. However, when the dust settled, it began implementing some of them. We recommended the setting up of a hotline for people who feared that they might be misrepresented or damaged by a potential press report. We were told that our recommendation was stupid. The Press Complaints Commission has now decided to set up what it calls a "helpline", which
members of the public may ring if they believe the code is likely to be breached in respect of their own affairs.
That is excellent.
We were worried about payment for articles and the invasion of privacy. The Press Complaints Commission has strengthened its code in both respects. We recommended a majority of lay members for the Commission. The Press Complaints Commission has decided that it will in future have an absolute majority of lay members as well as a lay chairman.
We recommended that editors and journalistic staff should be required to have observation of the code written into their contracts. That recommendation was greeted with particular indignation as utter nonsense, but now the Press Complaints Commission is recommending that employers make the code part of the journalists' contract, and that it should apply equally to editors.
This is a delicate issue, and I admire my right hon. Friend's usual thoroughness. Has he received any reaction to that recommendation from the Guild of Newspaper Editors? My constituent, Colin Mailer, was the previous president of the guild. I was invited to the guild's annual meeting. I know that it was especially concerned about how such a recommendation would be written into a contract. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will deal with that, when he winds up.
We had no direct reaction, but there have been individual reactions, some very gratifying.
We recommended that the Press Complaints Commission should be more open to third-party complaints, and it has agreed that acceptance of third-party complaints should be "appropriately and constructively exercised". We recommended training for journalists in self-regulation, and the Commission is carrying out that recommendation. We also recommended that journalists should identify themselves when seeking interviews. That recommendation was said to be especially preposterous, but the Press Complaints Commission has now endorsed it.
A further recommendation was that the code of practice should be made available in languages commonly used in this country. That, too, has been accepted, as was our recommendation that "jigsaw identification" should be prevented.
Despite the industry's initial adverse reaction to our report, it has seen the sense of much of what we proposed and has acted on it. I am delighted about that, not only because our proposals are to be implemented, but because our contention that voluntary regulation could work if given the chance is being vindicated. We look to the industry to adopt the remainder of our recommendations.
In addition—this is, in a sense, a response to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—individual newspapers have taken their own action. When we were in the United States, the Committee met the readers' representative of the Washington Post, a most formidable and impressive woman. She told us that not only did she have readers' complaints submitted to her but she was given a regular column in which she could write what ever she liked, no matter how critical of the newspaper. The material was not seen by the editor until he read it in his copy of the published newspaper. We recommended that that example be followed here.
I am delighted that the Manchester Evening News has done so. It has appointed Professor Peter Cole as a wholly independent readers' representative with his own regular column. Not only is the Manchester Evening News the most current newspaper in my constituency, but I must declare an interest in that I write regularly for it. I do not know whether the readers' representative will have to deal with any complaints about what I write in the newspaper, but, if so, I am sure that it will be done with the throughness that we can expect of Professor Cole.
The industry has acted, although it has not gone as far as we should like. I shall understand entirely if the Secretary of State is unable to tell the House of any conclusions today, but it is for the Government to act too. We hope that they will, and that they will do so in three way: by establishing the statutory press ombudsman, by enacting protection of privacy legislation and by taking action to extend the right of access to information. As I say, I do not expect a specific response in today's debate, although we look forward to a response from the Government as soon as they are in a position to reach conclusions.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the improvements that have occurred since the report was published do not invalidate the recommendations to which he has asked the Government to respond, and that, while the press has moved some way, it has not moved sufficiently far?
I agree, and I go further. I do not believe that, had our Committee not conducted its inquiry, we should have got any of those improvements. Nor do I believe that we should have achieved them had the Committee not made its other recommendations, including the proposal for a statutory ombudsman. That is why we cannot be complacent about the improvements that have been achieved so far. It is essential for the Government to enact our whole package of proposals.
Whatever the press do and whatever the Government do, the press will not be perfect, and we do not expect it to be so. Journalism is a rough old trade, and long may it continue to be so. Criticism of the press is prevalent today, but that is not new. Nothing that any hon. Member says can match the coruscating verses of the poet Humbert Wolfe, who wrote:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God, the British journalist.
But seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there's no occasion to.
We in the House of Commons do not ask for kindness towards us. Nor do we ask for kindness towards others who have power, authority or influence. We seek what was put to us during our visit to the United States by an American authority on journalism who is also a stout champion of press freedom.
Dr. Leonard Sussman, professor in journalism at New York university, told our Committee:
A new element should be added to all the older ethnical standards. Call it compassion. Many journalists argue that this is not their concern—just delivering the facts is their responsibility, they say. The public rejection of some American news reporting stems from just such criticism, however expressed in public discourse. Lack of compassion is at the base of many journalistic problems with privacy, uncouth methods and similar complaints. Failure to recognise or sympathise with the plight of news subjects can produce unsophisticated and misleading journalism.
If the outcome of the inquiry by our Select Committee is to induce the press in this country to accept that guiding principle, our work will have been worth while.
The House will be aware that the Select Committee report was unanimous. Much of the credit for that must go to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and his colleagues, but particularly to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he conducted the Committee's proceedings.
It was forbearing of many hon. Members on these Benches to be so polite to the right hon. Gentleman, who has not, throughout his long career in the House, always been polite to all of us. Indeed, he made in an otherwise extremely good book some totally scurrilous and unfortunate remarks about me. I have not re-read them recently, but if anybody tells me that they intend to read them, or have read them, I say immediately that they are inaccurate. In other words, the right hon. Gentleman can dish it out as well.
I do not have the right hon. Gentleman's journalistic experience. Even so, I am anxious that the Secretary of State understands, as I am sure he does, that when I say that the report was unanimous, I mean that every member of the Committee felt at the end of the day that a real contribution had been made and that we were expressing a view of a cross-section of hon. Members with very different political views.
That in itself is interesting, for one must wonder whether a consensus is not beginning to emerge in the House. I appreciate that there is not unanimity. Some think that no action whatever is required, although, when one thinks of this Select Committee report, of the strong support that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) got for his measure—it may not have been strong enough, but at least it was a powerful demonstration of the feelings of the House—and the approval that was given to the measure introduced earlier by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), it seems that any differences of view on the issue are emerging not between but among the parties. Not many hon. Members will disagree with much of what is said in the Select Committee's report.
The right hon. Member for Gorton went into the report in detail, so I will not delay the House by quoting from it at length. A point that must be stressed time and again is summed up in paragraph 3:
a free society requires the freedom to say or print things that are inconvenient to those in authority, whether they be members of the royal family, Ministers, Members of Parliament, local councillors, or public officials. While continual antagonism between the press and persons in authority is unnecessary, critical tension between them is an essential ingredient of a democratic society and is far preferable to collusion between the press and public figures.
I and, I fancy, every member of the Select Committee, believe that strongly. I do not know any hon. Member who wants to damage the freedom of the press, although I fear that the press will not believe that.
We were trying to deal with the issue into which the right hon. Member for Gorton went in some detail —that is the appalling situation that can confront not people with privilege, riches or power, but ordinary people who, through no fault of their own, are suddenly thrust into a situation that is of itself traumatic but in which they may also have to deal with the press and suffer intrusion into their privacy.
Anyone who reads the moving accounts of the situations described by widows of Northern Ireland soldiers will appreciate what can happen in such cases. That is unacceptable in our society. It has gone on for too long and has got worse in recent years. We must now do something about it.
Hon. Members are aware of cases where people have been treated abominably. Nobody knows the number of such cases—we are told that there are few complaints—but there is considerable evidence that most people do not want to complain. They do not want to relive the whole episode. They fear that the press will rake over everything again, so they may not make a formal complaint.
What should be done about the situation? I suggest that there must be a balance. I do not see why the privacy of ordinary people should be affected in the way that the report describes. When giving evidence, Adam Raphael said that the Select Committee had to be concerned with other than ordinary citizens. Those whose privacy was invaded were not always ordinary persons, he pointed out, and he had a point. Everyone is entitled to a zone of privacy, as the report points out.
But those most under threat are ordinary people, such as widows whose husbands are killed or die in car crashes or in similarly awful circumstances. In those cases, the people directly involved suffer, in addition to the tragedy and trauma, the attentions of the press.
We were told by an important editor, Mr. Whittam Smith, that the press were
rough, rude, brutal and sometimes nasty.
I accept that, and we expect it to continue to be so. But could complete self-regulation work in such a way that the
incidents described to us would be avoided? I think not. But should Parliament take no action and let the situation remain as it is?
There is another situation, which I am sure that all hon. Members realise exists, although I am not sure that this is realised outside the House. I refer to the ease with which conversations are bugged and photographs taken. It is almost impossible nowadays to hold a private conversation if there are people determined to listen in to it. I wonder whether the public realise that the techniques are now so sophisticated, and becoming so increasingly sophisticated, that there is a real danger to private conversations and private actions if people are determined to listen in and watch.
I believe that there can be a consensus in the House on several points—for instance, on action on surveillance devices. Surely my right hon. Friend will look at this situation. We recommend some licensing system, or something like that. Some of these devices are freely available in certain parts of our country—I will not say where—and the Government should really look at this seriously and take some action before what is already a scandal becomes a major scandal.
For instance, it should be illegal to use surveillance devices on private property. Photographing or recording people on private property, entering private property without consent—all such things should be offences.
There has to be a defence, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton rightly said. If such action is taken to prevent or detect a crime, or in cases where exposure will ensure that the public are not misled by the individual concerned, of course there is a perfectly proper public defence consideration. But, where no such defence exists, the House might well think that the time has come for some protection of privacy along the lines suggested by the right hon. Member for Gorton, as inspired at least in part by the Committee's trip to the United States.
Those are extremely important changes, which I hope that the House will agree to accept.
I also believe—although I have never been such an enthusiast about this as others are—that the Government must now go further with the right to know. Where is the White Paper promised to us by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster before the House rises? Perhaps my right hon. Friend could tell us how that is getting along, and whether we can be assured that we shall get some further information about the Government's feelings on the right to know before we rise for the summer recess.
Although I do not agree with all the mechanisms suggested by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), I certainly agree that action needs to be taken to require newspapers to be accurate. I believe that they try to be accurate, but he suggested a great deal more in his Bill, for which I voted on Second Reading, and I hope that those things will not be lost purely because his Bill has been lost.
The critical point is whether any further steps should be taken beyond the self-regulatory system that exists at the present time. The right hon. Member for Gorton said that, although some of the recommendations in the report have been criticised, some have been carried out already. Nevertheless, as I think the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) pointed out, we asked for £50 and they have given us 50p. I do not know whether that is an accurate quote, but it is about right. The House should not be under any illusion that any of the major changes that we think should be made have been made in the last few months.
Much more must be done to improve the working of the Press Complaints Commission, which I believe should be rechristened the press Commission. It should have a wider role; it should deal with third-party complaints. I am glad that it already has a hot line. That is a step forward, but there is a great deal more to be done.
The time has come for a regulatory level beyond the complaints Commission. Those who feel dissatisfied with the investigation or the outcome of their complaint should have the right, in exceptional circumstances, to go to a press ombudsman. This is not a novel idea. There is an ombudsman in a whole range of professions—if journalism is a profession—and in other walks of life. This has not caused endless difficulty or trouble, or made professions feel that they are downtrodden.
In a modern society, it is only fair that there should be a press ombudsman who can, in the last resort, investigate complaints; who has power to require publication of corrections and, in extreme circumstances, the payment of compensation, and indeed to impose a fine for persistent breaches of a code of practice.
The main efforts must be devoted to codes of practice. I am sure that the majority of the press want codes of practice, want to regulate themselves, want to enforce the codes of practice and want journalists to sign those codes. I believe that they would often take action against journalists who did not abide by the codes of practice, but that is not yet universally true.
This is an issue that will not now go away. In the past few years, the House has often expressed views about the press. I do not expect my right hon. Friend to tell us today, of course, but I hope that the Government will take on board the fact that there is very widespread feeling on both sides of the House that something more now needs to be done to protect the sort of people that I have described in the way that I have described, without posing a threat to freedom of the press in this country.
Nobody wants that. We must not be misled by what the press say we think. We know that it is not true. We know that methods can be devised along the lines of our report that would not shackle the press, but would nevertheless he a tremendous step forward.
I ask my right hon. Friend to consider this very seriously. I believe that, if the Government do not take action, this is something to which the House will return again and again until such action is taken.
One of the things that came across most clearly in our Committee's inquiries was the widespread use and growth of technology. We had a perfect example yesterday, which was a remarkable day. We had the former Chancellor of the Exchequer explaining why he had resigned, but he did not go into —and I wish that he had—how much he had suffered at the hands of the press. I am thinking particularly of the business of his credit card and what it had been used for, including the insinuation that he had used it in a sleazy area of Paddington to buy a bottle of cheap champagne and a box of cigars.
This was proved to be totally false. Why The Standard rushed this story out and got it all wrong, I do not know.
But that story went round the world in the middle of top-level financial discussions in Brussels, and the then Chancellor had to rush to the phone and deny it. That sort of thing shows what the press is coming to. I am not saying that the way a Chancellor of the Exchequer runs his credit card affairs is not of public interest; of course it is of public interest, and everyone in that position must accept that. but how was that knowledge acquired?
It is now very easy to get that sort of knowledge. The growth of technology is such that it is impossible for anybody to have any privacy at all in any situation.
There was a similar situation a couple of months earlier, when the then Secretary of State for National Heritage, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), had his private affairs splashed all across the newspapers. There is nothing new in that for politicians. What is new is that the bedroom in which he was alleged to be conducting an affair with an actress was bugged. The tape was then sold to a Sunday paper, The People, for £30,000. The story took off and was spread round the country.
We now have a disgraceful state of affairs in which it is no longer necessary to blackmail a prominent person. All that is necessary is to record the conversation and sell it to a newspaper, which will pay the virtual blackmailer the money and he will not have to go to gaol. That is the situation that has developed in the last two or three years, and it is frightening. Bugging and long-range photography have given newspapers the same power as the KGB, the Stasi, J. Edgar Hoover and anybody else throughout history who wished to have secret information at their disposal.
If the Government have that power, through MI6 or whatever, perhaps there is a case for it. But if private individuals have that power to use how and when they like, to smash people or Governments or attack royalty, making enormous profits out of the abuse of technology, there obviously have to be some curbs.
The long-range technology enabled photographs of the Duchess of York to be taken when she was sunbathing beside a bathing pool in France. Again, people said that royalty must expect such attention. I disagree. If I were to go into the ladies' lavatory and take pictures, I would be quite rightly arrested. I would be accused of invasion of privacy. I would be breaking the law and, quite rightly, I would have to appear in court.
But because a member of the royal family has stripped off and is topless besides a bathing pool on private premises—the technology is such that pictures can be taken from half a mile away—newspaper editors seem to think that that is fair game.
The Committee interviewed technology experts, who told us that photographs could be taken from almost a mile away. All that would inhibit a picture being taken is smoke or something similar in the atmosphere. The picture would be perfect and life-size. A camera could be sent up in a small aircraft over Buckingham palace. Everything could be photographed and printed, and no one could complain. No one could say a word about that.
I do not know anyone in a public position—royalty, Cabinet Ministers, whoever—can expect to do their job, or have their marriage survive, if such technological invasion of privacy is allowed to continue. The newspaper editors make the point that such stories are in the public interest and that the public want to know about the lives and the private lives of those people. They say that that is how one judges whether people are suitable for their job. There may be a case for saying that, but newspapers are using technology to invade the lives of ordinary, private people, as we heard in Committee and as other hon. Members have said.
It is distressing for a woman whose husband has been killed by the IRA two or three days before to have a pack of hounds on her doorstep, pushing their cameras right up to the windows to take pictures. We heard evidence from the woman who was falsely accused of taking letters from Princess Anne's wardrobe when she worked for the princess as a maid. The accusation was entirely false. Journalists sat outside her house and she had to sit on her stairs. She could not go to the shops and could not get any food.
When the widows of IRA victims go to their husband's funerals, photographers climb trees and invade the privacy of the service. They turn it into a sort of Hollywood funeral that one thought had gone out with Rudolph Valentino or Elvis Presley. That is not on. It is unfair to ordinary people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves pitchforked into the news. Because they are news that week, they are followed by an army of freelance journalists. The journalists are not so freelance; one editor told the Committee that a journalist could be hired for £70 a day.
All that the national newspapers in London do is telephone a freelance journalist wherever the story occurs —in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Scotland or wherever. They say, "Go down there and sit on the doorstep. Get an exclusive quote and an exclusive picture. If you cannot get one from there, go and see the mother or father." So the relatives are hounded.
One of the women whose husband was shot by the IRA said that she was convinced that it was as a result of the distress, the harassment, the phone calls right through the night and the continual attention from the press that her father died some months afterwards. The family was not left alone. The Army advised the family to make a statement and then ask the press to go away. But a month later, people were still coming to the door wanting an exclusive. Someone came who was writing a feature for a colour supplement. Someone came who was making a television film about the story. The harassment went on and on.
The brave lady who was the victim of the vicarage rape case in Fulham about five years ago, and who has since written a book about it, told the Committee what she had to go through. She could not go down the street without being recognised. The newspapers printed a photograph of her. She could be recognised by the clothes she wore. Interviews with the father were published in the newspapers. It was a dreadful form of harassment.
In my constituency last Christmas, a 14-year-old girl had a baby unbeknown to her parents. She hid the baby on a golf course. One might say that it was an appropriate thing to do at Christmas. She told her friend to tell someone where the baby was. The newspapers could not print the details because the girl was 14. But the newspapers found out where the family lived. They put offers of cash through the letterbox. They continually pestered the family.
The journalists said that they were working for The Sun. The newspaper categorically denied that anyone from The Sun was working on that story, but the jackals on the doorstep said that they were working for The Sun. They are a disgrace to their profession. They are often employed by no one. They are touts who are out to get something to sell, and they will sit on doorsteps until they do.
The Committee has recommended that there should be a code of conduct for journalists. They should be required to carry identification, so that, when innocent people wish to complain, they have the name and address of the person who wanted an interview.
How do we define public interest? It was all very well for the editors who appeared before the Committee to say that it was in the public interest to print stories about public people in the public eye, but where does one draw the line? Is a traffic warden a public official? Is a vicar's wife a public official? We said, "What about stories such as `The bonking traffic warden and the vicar's wife'?" The editors said that such people were in the public eye. That is nonsense. Such people are entitled to their privacy, just like anyone else.
What opportunity do people have to complain? They can sue for libel. Every newspaper has a top-class lawyer who peruses every word before anything is printed. Often he will tell an editor not to print something because it is libellous, but because the editor is under threat of competition and knows that his job might not be there in six months—he has about as much job security as a football manager—he takes a chance and publishes the story.
Then what can the person who is the subject of the story do? If he is Elton John or Ken Dodd, he can hire Sir George Carman or some prominent QC or libel lawyer. He may have to gamble £200,000 to win half a million. The rich can protect themselves. A rape victim or the widow of an IRA victim has no such chance. So such people go to the Press Complaints Commission.
After a long investigation, they may receive an apology at the bottom of page 9 of the newspaper. I went twice to the former Press Council and won on both occasions. The process is stretched out to deter people from pursuing it. Unless one is a professional person with access to typewriters, office equipment and so on, it is a daunting prospect.
If people receive merely an apology, they think, "Why bother?" Why should they go through the rigmarole and be forced to relive their experience? That is especially upsetting if the story is the death of a child, a horrendous murder or something similar in which they have been put under stress.
We have recommended a halfway solution. We have had a good system for many years, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of unfair dismissal compensation. If people are given a rough ride by their employer and he has sacked them unfairly, they can go to a small tribunal. People do not need to employ a lawyer. The tribunal can award £5,000 or £10,000, which will give them a good holiday or buy them a new car as some compensation for their ordeal. Why cannot we have the same for people who have suffered a great deal of harassment at the hands of the press even though the story was not libellous?
Newspapers should understand that such a system would be in their interest. Instead of having to gamble £200,000 in lawyers' costs to go to court, they could admit that they were unfair and that the family suffered. The press Commission that we recommend could award £5,000 or £10,000 to alleviate some of the problems that the family faces.
Would the hon. Gentleman include in his strictures a certain well-heeled ex-politician who lives in a castle? He has invaded the privacy of countless people, not only politicians, and has splurged stories all over the broadsheet press. I believe that £200,000 has been mentioned. Does he believe that people who are named in that fashion should also have recourse to such a complaints process?
I think that anybody should be able to. Sometimes it is not the cash—it is the fact that a person has been vindicated in some way. If one has been unfairly sacked, one may not want the job back or be too bothered about the money, but one wants an admission of unfair treatment. That remedy should be open to anybody, irrespective of whether they are high, low, famous, public figures or whoever.
It would evolve as the unfair dismissal tribunals have evolved, through building up case histories, so that they often never reach a tribunal. The lawyer who is an expert on it, or the chairman of the tribunal, will point to sufficient precedents and the employer will pay up rather than have the bad odour. I think that newspapers would do that, and it would at least be a remedy of some kind.
We cannot make any of the recommendations in our report statutory. I probably took a harder line than any other member of the Committee, because I worked for newspapers for many years and worked in Fleet street for nine years. I know how they operate. I am not trying to curb them, because in many investigations they do a good job, and I agreed with the other members of the Committee that we cannot have statutory controls. The best kind of regulation is self-regulation.
What the press needs is a highway code which its members will police themselves. Where the real highway code is concerned, I agree that very few people always keep to a 30 mph limit but not many go at 50 or 60 mph, and if they knock somebody down they will have to pay compensation; they risk being fined or having their licences endorsed. There are curbs and, generally speaking, they work. The system is not perfect, but it works.
We have recommended a highway code for the press. If they can police it themselves and make it work, no one will be happier than the politicians. If the situation continues as at present, however, a rat race based solely on circulation and newspaper profits, then sanctions will have to be brought in by Parliament, as Calcutt recommended. We have gone past the last chance saloon.
At present, understandably and perhaps advised by their lawyers, the press are reserving judgment on what we have done. They attacked us and abused us in the early stages. They came to the Committee and told us that Miss Whiplash had given them a list of her 227 clients, and that many hon. Members might be on it. It was very stupid to abuse a jury in that way, and those who did it were castigated by the rest of the press, 99 per cent. of whom would welcome something like this. They are responsible people, and would like to have this system.
Our recommendation that the Press Commission should have power to fine a newspaper may seem draconian, but it is not unusual for a professional body to do so. The Law Society can strike people off or fine them, as can other professional bodies. One leading journalist asked me for an example of circumstances in which the Press Commission would fine a newspaper.
The example that I gave was that of The Sun breaking the embargo on the Queen's Speech and printing it three days before everyone else. When the palace complained, The Sun said,
We'll see you in court, Your Majesty",
and put a picture of the Queen's look-alike on the front page. It caused a great deal of anger among other newspapers, because a good story had been pre-empted. In those circumstances, the press Commission would be right to impose a fine. The Sun backed down very quickly and paid £200,000 to a charity nominated by the palace, because it realised that it had overstepped the mark.
People may say that it is trivial to quote the football industry, but there is a club today, Barnet, which looks like going out of existence because it has been fined £50,000 by the Football League and cannot pay it. The Football League does punish players who spit at the referee or otherwise bring the game into disrepute, and it works. It would work with the press, too, if the press reacted when they felt that their industry had been brought into disrepute and their image needed improving. It is time that they began to look like responsible people and not undisciplined hooligans out for a cheap headline.
If the Minister will not tell us in his reply what he intends to do, I hope that there will be something in the Queen's Speech, and that he will perhaps have discussions in the summer with the Press Complaints Commission, as it now is, and move forward to a press Commission and probably have discussions with Calcutt as well. But what we have recommended as a Committee—I stress what the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) has said—must be an all-party business, a House of Commons matter, or it is worthless. It must carry the House and the public with it.
The genuinely serious members of the press, all of those on local newspapers who do a marvellous job, will accept what we are recommending. This is a damned good report, and it will benefit victims of the press and the public in general.
The very nature of the debate today is both remarkable and unique. The House has long awaited an opportunity to examine and debate some of the findings of Sir David Calcutt. The House showed considerable interest in and enthusiasm for the private Member's Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). I pay a warm and generous tribute to him for introducing that Bill, the greatest features of which lay in the title, which is precious beyond words—freedom and responsibility of the press. I cannot accept that any hon. Member would do other than defend press freedom, but with one voice we would say that along with that freedom must go responsibilities. That is why I was sad that the Bill did not make the progress that it deserved.
The debate is also unique because of the document I have in my hand—the report of the Select Committee on the media and their intrusion into privacy. I had the honour to serve on that Committee. I say, not in any condescending way—because that would be offensive—but with all the sincerity that I can muster, that the report reflects great credit on the Chairman, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), and then in our own way, as members of the Committee, we take our place in unanimously supporting his submission of the report.
Is that enough? No, it is not. The most important reason for the debate is that the public at large have shown such disquiet and anxiety about the performance of the press that the general feeling is that someone somewhere should be doing something about it. A few moments ago the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) carried everybody with him when he said that some things are sacred, some things are traditional and some things are part of the fabric of our society, and that the Queen's Christmas message is one of them. For it to be violated by the press in the way it was, so graphically described by the hon. Gentleman, is something that the British public will find it difficult to forget or forgive.
If there is this public disquiet, there is another reason for this debate, because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is sitting here on the Government Front Bench. I tell him, as my friend, that the people and the Committee are waiting with bated breath for the Government's decision, based on the wealth of research and evidence in the Department. There is national disquiet. No responsible, reasonable and sober critic of the press can conclude other than that the press is descending below the acceptable level that the people of this country are entitled to expect from a free and responsible press.
The dominant issue in the Calcutt report and the theme of the private Member's Bill of the hon. Member for Hammersmith comprised two questions: does the report go far enough and, as the Committee's Chairman said, what action should be taken? The House and the nation are entitled to a response from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the appropriate time. I echo all hon. Members when I say that we do not expect a decision from the Secretary of State tonight. However, we expect the issue to be a high priority in his work. He must respond, not only to the Committee but to the public.
On quiet reflection, I believe that the excellent Select Committee report rendered people one of the most valuable pieces of public service. I am not being mealy mouthed—I and other members of the Committee wrote the report, of which I am proud. I am confident that its pages contain the answers to the problems of the press industry.
What are those problems? Between January 1991 and July 1992, there were more than 2,000 complaints against the press—those are only the recorded complaints. They are listed in volume II, paragraph 35 and table 4. We want to defend the profession, but more than 1,000 of those complaints involved accuracy. Examples have been given this afternoon of articles that bore no relationship to the truth—I am being generous when I say that.
I well remember having my name dragged through the pages of local and national newspapers because of something that I had allegedly said. I stood as a simple soul, cried and said that it was not me. The newspapers printed the piece again and again, and I said that I was not involved. Finally, on the back page, under the football results, an apology was printed. The person involved was the late Mr. John Heddle, former Member of Parliament for Mid-Staffordshire.
It is outrageous that people can be treated in that way. I am not complaining because if one enters public and political life, that is one of the burdens one carries. I do not believe that any hon. Member will put his head on the pillow at night and cry about the way in which the press has treated him, as that is part and parcel of our life.
The report also reveals the action taken by the editorial staff and the Commission in trying to deal with the problem. The more evidence we received, the more sickened I became at the level of certain sections of the press. It is part of my parliamentary duties to serve on the Select Committee. The other members of the Committee and I accepted that task with honour. In doing so, I found that one of our great challenges was that we should not conduct an inquiry within our own terms of reference to protect the good and the great—to use the Chairman's phrase. We have to find the evidence among the humble and lowly of society, and see what they have to say.
We did not investigate the case of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) or my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). I would never be part of an inquiry relating to members of our gracious royal family. We did not investigate the case of my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) or the publicity surrounding the television personality, Frank Bough. However, our investigations made me more and more alarmed.
I wonder whether the general public know what we know and have the quality of the evidence that we have. It would be wrong of me to return to the ground so ably covered by my colleagues, but I shall relate one story—I do not know whether the public will be able to grasp it. Two humble, simple wives and mothers whose husbands had been killed in Northern Ireland 24 hours earlier while serving their country came before the Committee. In their time of grief and tragedy, those women were abused by the press and the media in a totally objectionable manner. Other people who had come face to face with the press while going about their daily business came before the Committee. Many of them had had their businesses and families ruined as a result.
The greatest quality that we have is our character—our nature. I almost wept when people came before the Committee and said, "My character has been destroyed —my very nature has been destroyed by the press." The wonderful House of Commons is today declaring that it will defend those people, and I shall be holding the banner of the Select Committee report to ensure that we do so.
Other recommendations have been made. I summon all my courage and tentatively suggest that all newspaper editorial boards should decree that each board member should have the Select Committee report as compulsory reading. Only then will they realise the problems that the press has inflicted on the public. My early Christmas wish this year is that they will read the report and learn what the public think about them.
There is a need for guidance and for a code of conduct, backed up by an ombudsman. If I can convey nothing else to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State today, I hope that my cry for an ombudsman will be heard by him. I am sure he will deal with the subject later.
What have I learnt that might help in this tragic situation? I want to support a free and responsible press. First, we need a complete review of the law of trespass. It is outrageous that people can trespass on and gain entry to other people's property. The answer to that lies with Parliament. We need to control photography, too. As we learned in the Committee, it is possible to place a device the size of a fountain pen in a room and record conversations from 150 yd away. That accords with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) said—
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I am sure that the whole House is delighted to hear that.
Evidence was brought to us by editor after editor, and I took it on myself to investigate the subject of payment for articles. I repeatedly asked editors who were household names whether they practised cheque book journalism. To judge from the replies, one might have thought that they operate in cathedrals, monasteries or synagogues; they all said that they would never indulge in that sort of behaviour. I told them that when I read a story in a newspaper I might form an opinion about it, but if it said at the bottom that £10,000 had been paid for the story, I might form a different opinion. There have been many cases of articles being published, whereupon three weeks later it has been revealed that £30,000 or more was paid for them—or even as much as £200,000. I think that the public are entitled to know when a fee has been paid.
The House has always been very generous to me, for which I am grateful. I conclude on a personal note. Eleven years ago, I suffered a major cardiac arrest. I found myself in a national health service hospital—God bless it—in the intensive care unit on a life support machine. I suffered, I endured and—hallelujah—I survived. On the third day, a nurse came in and said that the press were outside and wanted to photograph me. If that is the kind of press that we have, one is tempted to wash one's hands of them.
This problem can be resolved. My prayer is that the Select Committee report will be an important step in this reformation process. I believe that, with good will on the part of the press, Parliament and the public, we will get a press of which we can justly be proud. I commend the Select Committee's report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
I welcome this debate, and I am grateful to the Select Committee for making this day available for discussion of an issue that attracts widespread interest. This is a subject about which feelings run high, not least among hon. Members. It is not only in Parliament that feelings run high—they also run high in pubs, clubs and on the streets.
No one can accuse the Select Committee of failing to tackle the issue head on. Its proceedings made for gripping television, not least when the editor of The Sun was put through his paces. I congratulate the Committee on the report. In particular, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who made a typically stimulating and incisive contribution to the debate. Although, on behalf of the Labour party, I cannot accept all the report's conclusions, there is much that I can endorse.
I am also impressed by the rave notices that the Select Committee received: almost universal condemnation from the editors of Fleet street. A representative sample must be that from Peter Preston, editor of The Guardian, who said that the report
is like wearing 15 overcoats in case it rains…It just seems baffling—and if it seems baffling to editors, heaven knows how baffling it will be for the public.
If the report appeared baffling to editors of Fleet street, I am worried about their powers of comprehension.
Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times, said:
It is a busybodies' charter drawn up by busybodies for busybodies. They want to interfere with and regulate every area of newspaper production. They are out to protect themselves.
The assistant editor of The Sun said that the
reek of hypocrisy. MPs are just trying to look after themselves rather than being concerned about ordinary people.
When was the editor of The Sun ever concerned about the feelings of ordinary people?
Lord McGregor, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, said that the use of the phrase "ombudsman" was
a polite euphemism to disguise the fact that it would be direct Government interference in the press"—
but then he would.
Labour agrees with the Select Committee that the Press Complaints Commission has not worked effectively. All too often, sections of the press have disregarded basic standards of accuracy, impartiality and sensitivity in their chase for circulation. Like several hon. Members who spoke earlier, I am also a former member of the press and a member of the National Union of Journalists. The Opposition do not accept that Calcutt's notion of a statutory tribunal is the right response; nor do we believe that the press would be improved by Government appointed censors of either party. There would be enormous potential for abuse, with Government bodies intervening to dictate official versions of the truth.
The Select Committee report proposes the setting up of a voluntary press Commission with powers to instruct newspapers to pay compensation and to fine newspapers. The Committee also proposes the appointment of an ombudsman. The mind of such a figure, even though he was appointed, would be independent of the interests involved and would involve the Government in less odium than the Calcutt proposals.
The Select Committee proposals cannot simply be swept aside by generalised protests about press freedom, but we are somewhat concerned that the proposed appeal system could lead to complaints being dealt with on a protracted basis. There is an old maxim that justice delayed is justice denied, and there is a danger that the proposals for a press Commission, an ombudsman and an appeal to the High Court could introduce an overcomplicated system. Therefore, we have still to be persuaded about that.
We have always supported the proposal for a statutory right of reply which would be geared solely to the correction of factual inaccuracies. It would not involve censoring the press, and it is regrettable that some sections of the press have sought to suggest otherwise. My personal support for a right of reply is probably well known. I introduced a right of reply Bill in 1987 and a number of colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), introduced similar Bills. The Government's opposition to such a proposal calls into question their professed desire that the press should maintain the highest standards of accuracy.
The issue of privacy and its frequent invasion by the media presents the Government and the Opposition with difficult choices. Calcutt and the Select Committee support a privacy Bill. On the surface that seems fine, but in practice there are likely to be fiendishly difficult problems, not the least of which involves defining what is in the public interest. It is easy for us to say that we believe in upholding privacy for ordinary individuals and that bugging devices in people's homes and the use of long lenses are outrageous infringements of the privacy of those going about their daily business.
Some problems arise in connection with public figures, such as the royal family, Members of Parliament and leading figures in industry and commerce, because it is almost impossible to draw a clear line between the public and private lives of such people. It can be argued that the moral values that drive the private lives of such people are relevant to their public deeds. That being so, we will never be prepared to inhibit legitimate investigation of the lives of the rich and powerful. Several hon. Members have made that clear. Apart from specific legislation to deal with bugging, telephoto lenses and the like, we are not in favour of restrictive privacy laws.
I appreciate the difficulties of definition in relation to public interest and the private lives of public figures. The hon. Lady raises real and serious problems, and I should like to draw her attention to two matters. As a consequence of the adjudication in New York Times v. Sullivan in America in, I think, 1962 and subsequent case law, a sort of sliding scale has evolved. That means that there is less protection for the private life of the public figure than for the private life of an ordinary citizen. It is impossible to define satisfactorily in general terms the public interest, but over about the past 30 years, judges have been able to find practical ways to deal with the problem. Equally, defamation is not defined in the Defamation Act 1952, but the understanding of defamation in our law has been achieved cumulatively through adjudications and a growing body of jurisprudence since that date.
I am certainly aware of the situation in the United States. When I reach that issue, I shall give the hon. Gentleman some information about the situation in the rest of Europe, which is also worth noting. The privacy laws in those European countries that have them go hand in hand with rights of freedom for the press enshrined in law. Of course, such rights are not enshrined in United Kingdom law. One of my main reasons for opposing a privacy law is that it should not be introduced until rights for the press are enshrined in some way in our law.
I should like to refer to an article by an experienced newspaper editor who has certainly interested Opposition Members and, I am sure, the Government in the past few weeks. He is William Rees-Mogg, the former editor of The Times, and his article makes an interesting point about controlling the recording of private conversations. He says:
there is a strong case for making electronic eavesdropping a criminal offence, where it is not so already. All citizens are entitled to the privacy of their conversations unless they are
engaged in crime, just as they should be protected against the invasion of their privacy by intrusive photographers with telephoto lenses.
Most bugging is indeed already illegal, yet a clearer law which made prosecution easier would be desirable. But who would be most likely to fall foul of such a law? Who does most of the bugging in Britain? Undoubtedly it is the state. Newspapers, as in the David Mellor case, have occasionally used improperly obtained transcripts of telephone conversations which have been taped by private enterprise. But the state intercepts communications on an industrial scale, and has been doing so since the second world war and earlier.
We should hope, therefore, that the protection which British citizens ought to have against intrusion and espionage, by whatever means, will cover intrusions into privacy by the state, from which there is much to fear, as well as by paparazzi and tabloid journalists.
We would do well to remind ourselves of that throughout the debate.
Although we accept that both Sir David Calcutt and the Select Committee were working to a specific remit, the Government have the opportunity to view the argument about press freedom and press regulation within a broader context. It is absurd for the Government to claim that issues of press ownership are unrelated to the debate about press freedom. A pluralistic press and media are fundamental to the notion of a free and democratic society.
The past 14 years have witnessed a further increase in the concentration of press ownership. When one individual, Rupert Murdoch, can own 35 per cent. of all weekday newspaper circulation, that is, in the eyes of most people, a quite unacceptable concentration of power. There is surely no more insidious monopoly than a monopoly of opinion. We should all be concerned that Rupert Murdoch acolytes now have the temerity to argue that their boss should be allowed to take over vast tracts of British television.
Such people have no respect for democracy. They say that they want a pluralistic society, but they act in such a manner as to suggest the opposite. For them, the monopolistic control of the media is a means of achieving political power, denying the diversity of express which is essential to a free society.
When I put it to the Secretary of State during National Heritage questions on 22 February that the existing concentration of press ownership was unacceptable, he said:
we keep these matters under review and I do not believe that the adjective 'unacceptable' can be justified at this time."— [Official Report, 22 February 1993; Vol. 219, c. 668.]
If not at this time, perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us when he believes that adjective can be used and when it will be necessary to take action.
Despite recent attacks on the Government—there have been many of those in the past few days and weeks—no one should be under any illusion about the ultimate loyalty of large sections of the press. At the run-up to the next election, they will run like well-trained sheep back into the fold of the Conservative party.
Clearly, the Government will never take action to reduce the overweening power of a small number of press barons. A future Labour Government will immediately refer the whole matter of ownership and cross-ownership to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. We will look for ways of bringing more diversity to local, regional and national newspapers.
We agree with the Select Committee that greater freedom of information is an essential component of any action to regulate the press. We are totally committed to a freedom of information Act. We note that the Government oppose the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). Clearly a Government who are desperate to suppress the truth on such matters as the sale of arms to various fascist dictators around the world, the Matrix Churchill supergun affair, the real level of unemployment and the true state of public finances will be opposed to a freedom of information Act. Those who have a contempt for democracy will for ever seek to limit the spread of information and understanding.
It is essential to appreciate the context of much contemporary journalism. Journalists are put under great pressure by predominantly right-wing editors and proprietors to produce particular types of stories. Principled journalists who resist are frequently bypassed for promotion; ambitious journalists accept it as a distasteful fact of life. We agree with the Select Committee that much more emphasis should be given to the promotion of journalistic ethics and that owners and proprietors should carry the can for stories that their staff are frequently bullied into writing.
As part of its investigation, the Select Committee went to the United States to consider the experience there. As I said earlier, it is worth while in such a debate to consider how the press operates in other European countries. In a recently published report by the organisation Article 19, the International Centre against Censorship, Britain was found to have the weakest press freedom and the most over-regulated press of the 11 countries studied. Britain is the only country in the Council of Europe that has not entrenched the right to freedom of expression in its laws, either through inclusion in a constitution or by incorporating article 10 of the European convention.
We have long recognised the basic truism that there cannot be a free society without a free press. The Labour party has a long and honourable record of defending and promoting press freedom. The Government can claim no such record. In the past 14 years, they have not only underwritten an increasing concentration of press ownership but acted more directly to restrain freedom of expression.
In 1985, the Government attempted to ban the showing of "Real Lives". In 1987, they attempted to ban the Secret Society programme about Zircon. In 1988, they attempted to stop the showing of "Death on the Rock" and imposed a broadcasting ban on a number of organisations in Northern Ireland. They also sought to ban the publication of Peter Wright's book "Spycatcher" through the use of injunctions on British newspapers.
We have one of the most secretive and authoritarian Governments this century. It is outrageous for them to claim that they are the guardians of press freedom. Against that background and in the light of Labour's total commitment to a free and flourishing press, we will bring forward our legislation on press and television when we return to office, which may be sooner rather than later.
The whole House ought to act as guardians of press freedom. Until the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) spoke, there was complete unanimity in the House, just as there was complete unanimity in the Select Committee on National Heritage in the preparation of its report under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).
It is a pity that the hon. Lady strayed from the bipartisan approach that has characterised the debate. I am the first to understand that her party expects her to make an attacking speech. I hope she will forgive me if I am not drawn into retaliating in the same spirit, although I shall come back a little later to what she said.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of the absolute unanimity in the House this afternoon reflecting the absolute unanimity of the Select Committee. The only people who have spoken in the House this afternoon other than the hon. Lady were members of the Select Committee, so it should not be taken that that reflects the opinion of the entire House.
It might be premature to say that the House is absolutely unanimous, but I was not saying that, because plainly the hon. Lady was not in agreement; but the Select Committee considered different options in very great depth before reaching a unanimous conclusion.
The report has been carefully written after intensive work. It was a job assigned to the Select Committee by the House, so the House owes it to the Select Committee to study its report with an open mind and with great care before dissenting from it. I hope that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), whom I have known for many years, will do that.
I regard it as a tremendous privilege to serve on the Select Committee, which is one of the finest Select Committees of the House. Following the report that we have produced, and for the reasons that have been set out by several right hon. and hon. Members during the debate, we cannot let things stay as they are.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for National Heritage for being present to listen to the debate. I hope and believe that he will carefully consider not only the views of the Committee as expressed in the report, but the opinions put in this debate and that, before long, he will take a view on what is needed and lay proposals before the House.
The House has a duty to protect the weak against the strong. As the report says in paragraph 5:
The Committee's concern …has been mainly with the ordinary citizen who in the normal course of his or her life will never come into contact with the broadcast or written media, except as viewer, listener or reader; but who suddenly becomes of interest to the media, due often to circumstances beyond his or her control, such as becoming a crime victim or being related to the victim of a crime or terrorist act. Such people, as a result of injudicious, thoughtless or malicious reporting, can suffer additional distress at what is already a time of trauma and shock… The Committee does not believe that anyone has the right to inflict such harm on innocent persons.
I make no apology to the House for alluding again to the case of two widows of soldiers who were murdered in Northern Ireland. I should like to quote from the evidence given by those two widows to the Select Committee.
There was one particular reporter … who persisted in coming to my sister's house with cameras … we had about three or four phoning up at all times of the day or night. My husband's sister"—
that is, the sister of her husband who had just been murdered by the IRA—
was heavily pregnant, about 8 months pregnant at the time, and she was living on her own, and two men at 11.00 at night knocked on her door. She asked who they were and they said that they were friends of my husband. So naturally she opened the door and let them in. Once they were in the flat they told her they were press …She had just lost her eldest brother and she was very traumatised through that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) then asked:
Did the press ever try to represent to you that you had a duty?
The widow said:
Yes. The onus was put on us that if we did not tell the British public exactly what was going on, then we were very negligent. It was our duty to inform the public exactly what happened, so that they got the story straight.
She went on to say:
At the time you do not have much of a choice. You are in a daze anyway. You go on to automatic pilot and just say go away and put what you want to say. It is at a time when you are not fully aware of what you are doing…It takes about 12 months before you are actually aware of things that are happening around you. Obviously I did it three days after my husband died and you are just numb.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North then asked her:
How long did this intrusion persist for? Was it days or weeks?
Intensely, about three or four weeks…then it sort of petered out.
She went on to say that the journalists were:
poking cameras through the front room window …I do believe to a degree they have to report what happened, but poking their cameras through your front room window at a time when you are at your lowest ebb, the most traumatic time for me in my life, then that is an invasion of privacy…If you want to be in your own house with your family at a time when you are grieving, then it is your own private time…I was advised by the Army that if I did not do it, we would just get even more harassment. So I did it when they wanted me to. They got the photographs they wanted and I thought that would be it, but they persisted and persisted. I had them climbing trees at the graveside to get better pictures…You should be given a chance to say 'No, I do not want to do this interview. I do not want to talk about it. Please leave me along,' but you are put under intolerable pressure by the fact that if you do say no you know they are going to keep coming back and back and in the end you give in simply for a quiet life.
That is completely unacceptable. Twenty years or so ago, the House decided to stop harassment of tenants by landlords such as Rachman. It is now time that the House acted to stop the harassment of people who are in terrible trauma from the great shock of a sudden bereavement due to, say, a terrorist act, or to their daughter being raped, or some other great trauma. Those people must be protected, too. I hope that we will not delay that action for too long. It is quite wrong that it should be allowed to continue and quite wrong that anyone should seem complacent about it.
The hon. Member for Cynon Valley questioned the Commission's proposals for an ombudsman or for fines, but the Select Committee, having been round and round the subject, took the view that if there were no teeth, nothing would happen. Under what we propose, there is ample protection for members of the press who act properly and fairly.
As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) explained with such force, it is quite normal in other professions for professional bodies to be able to fine. It ought to be possible for the press Commission to do so in cases of that kind. If such fines are not possible, the Commission should be able to refer the case to a press ombudsman, as the Lord Chancellor suggested when he gave evidence to the Select Committee. The ombudsman could then endorse the fine proposed by the press Commission and, if the newspaper concerned refused to pay the fine, it would be open to the ombudsman to apply to a court of law for the fine to be sanctioned.
There is a need to alter the framework and redress the balance. It is not enough just to say that there should be a code of conduct for journalists. We proposed that, and it has some value and some uses. However, picture a journalist with a wife and children to support, anxious to make his way in his profession, under pressure from his editor to produce a newsworthy story. The editor has the sanction of that journalist's promotion and the journalist's job might even be at stake if he does not do well enough. The editor is in turn under pressure from the proprietor to boost circulation and to improve the profit of that newspaper. So all those pressures are on a journalist to get a sensational story and to trespass on the privacy of an individual to an unreasonable degree in order to do so.
Unless the framework is changed in the way proposed by the Select Committee, I cannot see how we will be able to protect people such as those two widows. I hope that the House will take the matter seriously and impartially, and will try to achieve a degree of unanimity in the belief that something needs to be done. If the House does not act in the near future, I do not think that the public will be likely to forgive or forget our failure.
I agree with the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) that there is a need for something to be done. However, I do not accept any implication that all 43 recommendations of the Select Committee either reflect the consensus of the House or are necessarily the best way in which to proceed. Having said that, I pay warm tribute to the Select Committee for a thorough piece of work. It clearly took a great deal of evidence, reflected on it carefully and approached the matter with a non-partisan spirit. Therefore, its recommendations carry weight, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, and that should be recognised by other hon. Members.
However, I am odds with at least one over-arching and core recommendation as the ultimate sanction—the establishment of a statutory ombudsman to provide back-up to the other methods recommended for self-regulation of the press. Because of that rather fundamental disagreement, I want to focus more on what I disagree with than on what I agree with.
I acknowledge, welcome and congratulate the members of the Select Committee, especially the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), on having already achieved a number of reforms. I do not think it an accident that the composition of the Press Complaints Commission has been changed or that a helpline has been established. Those important steps are a direct consequence of the quite proper pressure put on the press by the House, through its Select Committee.
Almost every hon. Member who has spoken has felt it necessary to put his hand on his heart and say that, notwithstanding the proposals in the report, he is firmly committed to the freedom of the press. That is scarcely a surprising asseveration to make in the House, but it needs to be made. Any deliberate steps taken in law to abridge that freedom would be very serious—and there are proposals in the report that would abridge that freedom.
Much has been made of the example set in the United States of America, yet it is a cornerstone of its approach to the problem that the first amendment to its constitution provides that Congress should not abridge the freedom of speech or the freedom of the press. That fundamental law, which is entrenched in the constitution, is the background against which we must judge the steps that have been taken —both through the development of the jurisprudence of the courts and the development of state legislation on privacy—if we are to understand where the priorities lie in the United States. I believe that they should lie here, as they do there, firmly on the side of the freedom of the press.
The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) spoke of her similar conclusion and said that other European countries had secured that commitment to the freedom of the press by entrenching in their domestic laws a safeguard such as that contained in article 10 of the European convention on human rights. I very much welcome the view expressed by the Labour Front Bench, because it is not so very long ago that it opposed the incorporation of the European convention in all its aspects.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) appears to be an unreconstructed opponent of incorporation and, therefore, the securing of the protection of the freedom of the press and, incidentally, due entrenchment of the rights of privacy. Although article 10 secures the freedom of the press, article 8 guarantees protection of the privacy of the family and the individual. It is that sort of balanced approach that the House and the Government must take on the issues that have given rise to this debate and to the need for legislation.
It is true that, over recent months, parts of the popular press have offended many people by the stories that they have published. The means that they have employed to get the stories and the intrusions of privacy that they have committed have in some cases shown an almost total absence of self-restraint in pursuance of higher circulation figures at all costs. However, the behaviour of some newspapers has led to the suspicion that it has been deliberately designed to test how far the press can go and its power in conflict with existing political structures and the establishment.
Some newspapers have gone so far as to say that they are prepared to test the law itself. I am thinking of The Sun, which this week flouted the law with the disclosure of the identity of a person under the age of 16 involved in an attempted rape case. That newspaper quite boldly set out what it was doing. The law covers that behaviour and no doubt the law will take its course. I do not underrate the extent to which the press, or certain sections of it, is testing the resolve of Parliament and the limits of the law.
So far, the Government's response has been restrained. The two reports by Sir David Calcutt certainly were not rushed. Neither have the Government been speedy in concluding what, if any, changes in the law are required. I commend the Secretary of State for that, because the problem is difficult—how to prevent such excesses without limiting the freedom of speech; how to uphold the freedom of expression while providing protection for victims of unjustifiable intrusion of privacy; and how to achieve a balance between the need to know and the need to protect individuals from unwarranted and cruel exposure of the sort referred to by the hon. Member for Twickenham.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman with great interest and, indeed, great sympathy. He referred to unjustifiable intrusion into people's privacy. What does he regard as justifiable intrusion, if there is such a thing? He stated his view—it is one which I share and which I shall touch on if I catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker—on how the press appears to be setting itself up in judgment on almost everything, at any time.
The hon. Gentleman referred to personal attacks. I do not want to be party political, but does he feel that the personal attacks made on my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer—and, indeed, at one stage the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party and the Leader of the Opposition—were justified?
My whole speech is an attempt to deal with the question. I hope that I can satisfy the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). Painful though some of the intrusions into privacy may be, it is open to question whether they have seriously damaged the victims of them. The censorious attitude often displayed towards public figures is not necessarily shared by the public. There have been a number of occasions recently when the press has been remarkably out of line with public thinking.
As I have said, the protection of the freedom of expression must be the cornerstone of any policy concerning the media, print or broadcast. The Calcutt report was too cautious when it addressed the current legal protection of freedom of expression. The common law does not adequately afford sufficient protection; nor are judges able adequately to take account of the provisions of the European convention on human rights.
I draw attention again to the view in the higher ranks of the judiciary—it must be recognised that it is a changing view—that the time has come to incorporate the European convention. Sir Thomas Bingham, the Master of the Rolls, expressed that view in his address to the Bar Council last autumn. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, has expressed the same view.
As I have said, the incorporation of that convention would import a law of privacy into this country and at the same time import a secure bulwark against the erosion of the freedom of the press. Perhaps it would enable a jurisprudence to develop which answered the kind of question just posed to me across the Chamber about where the boundary should be drawn.
It is probably easier for the courts to determine what is justifiable in the public interest than it is for us in the House to seek to legislate in advance to describe the precise circumstances where the public interest should be protected. In that area, I favour broad categories of definition rather than attempting a Bill, running into many clauses and subsections, to answer the sort of question raised by the hon. Member for Thanet, North. I do not believe that we as legislators can foresee the circumstances in which we would wish to intervene to curb the freedom of expression because it is an unjustified invasion of privacy.
I also think that the law should be reformed in the context of a proper examination of the whole area of information law. The assorted laws that we have in that area are in a pretty lamentable state. We have piecemeal legislation dealing with the protection of journalists' sources which is not based on a coherent or principled approach to information law. Such a review should include defamation and contempt of court, blasphemy and incitement to racial hatred, to name but a few of the matters requiring consideration.
A number of measures—this is the burden of the Select Committee's report—fall to be considered as a matter of urgency to deal with the question of intrusion and how far the rights of the press in that matter should be curbed, and how we should seek in so doing to avoid hindering the legitimate investigative role of the press.
The Select Committee identified a number of changes to the law on intrusion which mirrored the views of the Calcutt committee. It recommended that three forms of physical intrusion should be criminal offences in England and Wales—entering private property, placing a surveillance device on private property and taking a photograph or recording a voice of an individual on private property without the consent of the lawful occupant and with intent to obtain personal information with a view to its publication.
The Government accepted those proposals in principle some time ago. The Secretary of State may have something to say about where the Government stand now on those matters. I would not wish to see legislation give effect to those recommendations in the absence of some further legislative underpinning of the freedom of the press of the kind that I have mentioned. If they are practicable, those are sensible recommendations, but they are acceptable only if the general protection is provided.
Having said that, I come to the question of self-regulation and how it can be made more effective. The Select Committee proposed the ultimate sanction of a press ombudsman, established by statute, following the recommendation of the Lord Chancellor—I am not sure that it was exactly his recommendation, but he described how it might be done.
The burden of the Select Committee's report in this matter was to suggest a strengthening of self-regulation. I am wholly at one with the findings of the Select Committee. It must be right to seek to establish an effective code and system of enforcement which not only editors but proprietors are anxious to see work. Without the participation of the proprietors, the best efforts of the editors may be set at naught. For that reason, I should like to see those representatives of the proprietors who can speak with authority about their views directly represented on the new press Commission.
I have struggled long and hard to think how self-regulation could be more effective than it has so far proved to be. The Select Committee made a number of valuable suggestions, some of which have already been taken up, but, in this respect, the Committee has not gone far enough. It would be possible to give teeth to the self-regulatory proposals without establishing a statutory ombudsman or Commission.
The Commission could extract from the proprietors of the press the payment of a bond, to be deposited each year with the Commission, the amount of which would be related to the circulation of the newspapers in question. At the end of the year, the bond would be repayable with interest. In a sense, it would be a bond for good behaviour. I do not believe that that should be done by statute. The press and publishers say they want to make the self-regulatory scheme work. Let them show that they want to make it work.
The trouble that we had in the Select Committee was that any such suggestion might well be almost universally acceptable to the press, but not quite. We had to consider the worst case situation in which, for example, a tabloid newspaper editor said that he had no respect for the judiciary or Members of Parliament, but, above all, no respect for his fellow editors. In the face of that, what is to be done if a newspaper, with a circulation of some 3 million a day, says, "Take your bond and put it where the monkey puts his nuts"?
No, it is not enough. Many proprietors or editors would regard it as hostile to their interests to be seen by their readership to be prepared to stand back wholly from the standards agreed by the rest of the press; to be proclaimed as the sole newspaper to have no willingness to seek to regulate itself effectively. Given the importance of press freedom, I, at least, am prepared to give that a try. Such a step should be taken before any state intervention to extract fines—and there should be no doubt that that is the purpose of the state-appointed ombudsman.
The Committee has drawn our attention to the existence of other state-appointed—or, at least, statenominated—ombudsmen; but I do not believe that they are in pari materia, if I may use the legal jargon.
Why is a grievance felt by someone who approaches an insurance ombudsman—or any other ombudsman—less important than a grievance felt by an ordinary individual as a result of his treatment by the press? A grievance is a grievance, whoever causes it. Why should not that individual be compensated?
There are two differences between the position of the press and the position of other bodies to which the ultimate sanction is available. First, in all the other four instances mentioned in the appendix, it may prove difficult to establish the facts. If the grievance involved is to be dealt with satisfactorily, it may be necessary to consider what actually happened very carefully.
No doubt the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), along with many others, will have encountered difficult legal and insurance questions in his surgeries. In my experience, local government ombudsmen must go into considerable detail to discover what has happened before recommending an appropriate remedy. The same applies to the administration of the health service and pensions.
Secondly, in most cases involving the public interest —or the private interest, in terms of the invasion of privacy there is little to be investigated. The facts are clear: they stare us in the face. The investigative process available to an ombudsman is not necessary to establish the truth; whether what has been done was in the public interest is a matter of judgment. I do not consider it appropriate for that judgment to be made by a state-appointed official, and on that important issue of principle I differ from the Select Committee.
Having said that, I acknowledge the growing sense of public concern about intrusion. I also accept that the vast bulk of the Select Committee's recommendations make a good deal of sense: the Committee's work has highlighted areas in which the press can put its house in order to protect the public from unlicensed intrusions that are unacceptable in a civilised society. If the Government are prepared to entrench the freedom of the press as a fundamental right in our law, I will go much further towards seeking to entrench a right of privacy in the manner recommended by the Committee. Rights must be balanced: in this instance, they must be balanced through the securing of an international obligation in our domestic law.
Let me associate myself with the tributes paid to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn). The right hon. Gentleman introduced our report with authority, and his chairmanship of the Committee has been characterised by intellectual quality, civility, humour and the arts of management.
How are we to strike an appropriate balance between press freedom and the rights of the individual, especially in regard to privacy? We seek to balance the desirability of a free flow of information and opinion with the desirability of protecting vulnerable people from the invasion of their privacy, unfair and inaccurate representation, bullying, harassment and the abuse of press power. The Select Committee examined privacy in that broad context, and we have sought to base our recommendations on the principles that should apply.
I believe that every member of the Committee is deeply reluctant to see the press trammelled. We should remember, however, that the development and history of Parliament is classically about enhancing, and making effective, the rights of the ordinary citizen in the face of the abuse of power, whether the abuse has been perpetrated by would-be absolute monarchs, insensitive latter-day big Government, factory owners, landlords, the robber barons of the middle ages or the trade union, local government and press barons of the 20th century. We cannot neglect that responsibility.
Of course, a free press is itself an essential part of the protection of the citizen. That is why our report proposes an enhancement of the rights of the press—and, therefore, the rights of the public—to have access to information. We dealt with the subject briefly. It is a huge subject which warrants a whole report of its own, and in any event Parliament is already dealing with it in considering the Right to Know Bill presented by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher).
I welcome the serious consideration that the Government are devoting to the issue: we look forward to seeing the first fruits of their thinking before very long. In a mature democracy, a Government entrusted by the people with the task of acting on their behalf will treat the people with respect; a Government who do not trust the people—who patronise them—will discourage responsible attitudes in public life.
If the press is systematically excluded from knowledge of the factors that go into Government decision making, the quality of public debate is liable to suffer. Government secrecy tends to make serious, responsible debate more difficult in our democracy. In the absence of information, gossip rules. Even the quality press is driven increasingly to speculate, to dwell on the marginal and the trivial and to personalise. Governments can then hardly complain when the press does not report fairly and constructively the policy issues to which they must address themselves.
While the press should always be disposed to scepticism in relation to Governments, it should not be cynical. However, if it is systematically denied information while at the same time being manipulated by unattributable briefings and guided by politicians and those who assist them, how can the press be objective, authoritative, fair and magnanimous, as we would prefer it to be?
The improved debate that would result from freedom of information would assist Ministers: they would have more opportunities to check official advice, and more alternative advice would be available to them. They would have more chances to pre-test options at the bar of independent expertise and the bar of public opinion.
No member of the Select Committee has any illusions that there would be a damascene conversion on the part of the press in the event of the introduction of freedom of information legislation. There are other factors and temptations that may lead the press towards trivialisation, bias and taking risks with the truth. I hasten to add that the press does not universally succumb. Much of our press, for most of the time, is responsible and of high quality. But more freedom of information would lead to better possibilities for debate and decision making within our polity.
Freedom of information would enhance the status of the press. In the absence of a first amendment and of the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into our domestic law—there are powerful reasons why the convention should not be so incorporated—freedom of information would give the press a higher status and enhance its sense of responsibility. In time, the culture would improve.
We would need to fortify that process through the education of the public and of journalists. I attach importance to the recommendation in paragraph 70 of our report that the press Commission should exercise some supervisory responsibility over the training of journalists, particularly in ethics. I should like to see more and better schools of journalism in this country. We do not have any equivalent, for example, to the Columbia school of journalism. It is worth reflecting on what more could be done about that, and I hope that the Higher Education Funding Council will address itself to it.
I am glad that the teaching of media studies is increasing in our schools and that the national curriculum promotes it. Above all, those who are educated in our schools, colleges and universities need to study good literature and criticism. It is perhaps even more important today than ever that education should help to develop a common readership within our democracy, readers who are capable of distinguishing the phoney from the genuine, sloganising from reasoning, assertion from debate, propaganda from truth and rubbish from quality. We need to equip our citizens for our democracy so that they are able to exercise the appropriate discrimination when they confront the utterances of journalists and politicians.
Our recommendation that freedom of information should be increased is fundamental in our report and is of enormous potential importance to our press and the quality of our democracy.
We have also sought to balance any proposed new rights for our citizens with rights for the press. In particular, we have proposed that there should be a public interest defence that the press could plead in the event of being challenged under the legal changes that we have envisaged. Definition of the public interest is a difficult task, and I believe that it is best achieved through an accumulation of adjudication and a growing body of jurisprudence, on the part of the voluntary regulators of the press as well as the ombudsman and the courts.
One of the reasons why there has been dissatisfaction among those of us who have looked at the performance of the Press Complaints Commission is that its record on developing a body of jurisprudence has been so flimsy.
My hon. Friend referred to the difficulty of defining the public interest. Does not that become much easier when one realises that the words "public interest" are ambiguous in that they can mean either interesting to the public or to the public's benefit? When one has decided which is which, there is relatively little problem about definition.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is an important distinction which is too often ignored by members of the press.
Parliament and the press should be allies. We share an indispensable role and duty to scrutinise the Government of the day through questions, debates and commentaries. It is the job of both Parliament and the press to seek to restrain misjudgment on the part of Governments and to restrain the abuse of power. It is equally the responsibility of Parliament and the press to patrol and prevent the abuse of power elsewhere in our society.
That presents a dilemma for Parliament in its dealings with the press. A free and powerful press is a pillar of our democracy, but from time to time, because it is powerful and human, the press abuses its power. Parliament needs to satisfy itself that the scope for such abuse is curtailed to an extent consistent with the press being able to play its proper part in our policy. Parliament must also provide remedies for the aggrieved citizen—the victim of the abuse of press power.
The worst of such abuse is inaccuracy. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has been absolutely right to concentrate his attention in his Bill on the evil of inaccuracy by the press. As I explained during my speech on Second Reading of his Bill, I disagree with some of the methods that he has proposed, but I applaud his essential purposes.
Another abuse is the invasion of privacy. That was the Select Committee's starting point in its consideration of the issue of the freedom and responsibility of the press. Let us be in no doubt that there is a problem. Hon. Members who have contributed to the debate have spoken eloquently about the horrible experiences at the hands of the press of the widows of soldiers murdered by the IRA and of a victim of rape who gave evidence to the Select Committee. We also need to take immensely seriously the written evidence submitted to the Committee by Victim Support. I welcome, by the way, the extension of its network of counselling. I hope that in time Victim Support in this country will be able to achieve an extensive network of counselling, advocacy and assistance in relation to the press in support of victims of crisis as well as crime, on the same pattern as the National Organisation for Victim Assistance in the United States.
In the case studies presented to us by Victim Support, the father of a murder victim is quoted as saying:
They are trespassing on our grief.
The case studies are vivid, poignant and shocking and they represent unacceptable journalistic practice. How often can there be a true public interest in detailed reporting of personal unhappiness?
I accept that cases of abuse are not numerous and that the code of practice has gone a long way towards defining proper standards and, even now, is being further strengthened. I accept that most journalists act with restraint and responsibility and that many of them deal with sensitive and difficult matters admirably. I accept that most of the press is seriously determined to root out the abuse that exists. I acknowledge that coverage of tragedies can be therapeutic for those who have suffered from them, and it can be therapeutic for our society if such horrors are exposed and public shock, anger and grief can be expressed.
One of the problems is that the existing code of practice is contradictory. It talks about intrusions into private life and makes the public interest exceptions. However, instead of the original recommendation that that should not be done, paragraph 10—
Intrusion into grief or shock"—
admits that intrusion can take place and says simply that approaches should be
made with sympathy and discretion.
Does not that start by getting the press into trouble?
The sentiment in paragraph 9 of the Press Complaints Commission's code of practice on intrusion into grief or shock is admirable. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to observe that the code of practice promulgated by the Press Complaints Commission was, in important respects, a dilution of the code of practice originally recommended by the Calcutt committee on privacy and related matters. He will have noted the comparative texts of alternative codes given in the Select Committee's report. I am pleased that there is some recognition in the industry that the code needs strengthening and that, where there are confusions, they should be ironed out.
Abuses have occurred, even since the code was promulgated. The problem is that some members of the press are shameless and will observe no standards of civility. It is inescapable, therefore, that Parliament has a duty to strengthen the protection afforded to the citizen. I regret that the industry has reacted so negatively to our proposals. I have been worried that the Press Complaints Commission and editors have been remarkably complacement about the extent of the abuses. They have tried to rest their case on the paucity of complaints to the PCC, which is a disingenuous argument and one with which we cannot be satisfied. There was a very disturbing complacency in the evidence given by the PCC to the Calcutt review.
The Committee has approached the issue in two ways. We recommend that the law—civil and criminal—be strengthened to provide new statutory rights to privacy. It is preferable that there should be civil remedies in this field. I also believe that it is preferable that the law should be of general application and not bite discriminatingly or exclusively on the press. That part of the Calcutt review which sets out a number of recommendations for new criminal offences and qualifies each with the notion that they should be offences only when the activity had been carried out with a view to publication was surprising and unsatisfactory.
Abuses by the press need to be seen as a sub-set of wider problems. For example, harassment is perpetrated not only by reporters and photographers. There are other types of harassment such as sexual harassment, noise harassment and spying. It is therefore right that paragraph 48 of our report recommends that the tort of infringement of privacy should cover
violating the peace of another by intruding upon him, or persistently communicating with him.
We had in mind not only abuse by journalists.
The British people value privacy. We have a tradition whereby an Englishman's home is his castle. Privacy has always been important to us, but it is becoming even more important and more difficult to secure because of changing technology. Some aspects of the legal protection of privacy need to be enshrined in the criminal law. I am pleased that there has been little or no demur that bugging, the use of long-range photography and a number of activities made possible by relatively recent technology should be criminal offences. It is good, too, that the code is being modified to take account of such matters.
I am sure it is also right that there should be a criminal offence of harassment. A person who is bullied and besieged, in the aftermath of a traumatic shock, may not be in a position to take action on his or her own behalf or even to identify his or her assailant. The police should have the power to intervene directly to prevent such harassment.
It is essential that legal aid should be available to enable people of modest means to avail themselves of the remedies provided in law. There should be legal aid for privacy and libel actions. Of course, I appreciate that the cost of legal aid has been rising. The Lord Chancellor estimates that, in 1994–95, public expenditure on legal aid will be £1·4 billion. That is indeed a great deal of money, and the Lord Chancellor is right to seek to reduce the cost of legal process. However, our society is founded on the rule of law. We must protect the weakest. It is not acceptable that there should be one law available for the rich and another, or none, for the poor. Taxpayers must pay what it costs to preserve freedoms under the law which were intended to be provided for all citizens.
The press has always had to operate within a framework of law—laws relating to defamation, data protection, obscenity, contempt of court and confidence, to name but some. There is therefore no new principle involved in our argument that the press should be subject to a new law of privacy. The press itself is quick to claim the protection of the law and our traditional constitutional liberties, so it should also be willing to abide by the law and respect the legal constraints which protect and bind all of US.
The third strand in our recommendations is the strengthening of voluntary regulation. I am sure that all of us believe that it is preferable to achieve effective regulation on a voluntary basis. Is it naive to hope that we can do so? Sir David Calcutt concluded that it was naive to hope so by this stage. He believed that the bluff had at long last to be called.
We do indeed face the problem that, in the 40 or so years since the foundation of the Press Council, the industry has invariably done too little too late to put its own house in order. It is only about two years ago that it adopted a code of practice. Journalists have known that Parliament is reluctant to legislate to limit their freedoms and, in some cases, they have exploited our reluctance, which was in the interests of the preservation of a free society.
I do not share Sir David's conclusion. The PCC has been a weak vessel and some of the press are unrepentant, but I believe that the resources of voluntary regulation are not exhausted. I am encouraged, as other hon. Members have been, by the fact that since our report was published the code has been strengthened. Membership of the PCC and the appointments Commission has been modified. Steps have been taken to introduce a helpline. Some newspapers are introducing readers' representatives who have real independence. The industry is moving towards the adoption of contracts of employment which would require journalists to observe the code. Steps are also being taken to prevent jigsaw identification of crime victims.
I do not believe that there would have been such movement had the industry not felt the hot breath of regulation on its neck. The industry still needs to move further. Editors and proprietors have other issues to consider. There should be redress for grievances, and the industry should agree that the PCC should have the power to fine and require payment of compensation. Serious arguments were put to the Select Committee against such ideas. Although I respect those arguments, I do not find them persuasive.
The press wants to avoid a tribunal on the model recommended by Calcutt. It wants to keep out of the courts. But, at the same time, members of the public with justified grievances must be entitled to compensation, and scandalous offences should be disciplined under a system of voluntary regulation. The Commission should have those powers.
There have been vociferous and even hysterical reactions by the press to our recommendations. A leader in The Independent said that the proposals would amount to censorship. The Daily Mail talked of "fetters", and Ms
Patsy Chapman, the editor of the News of the World but enjoying the hospitality of the columns of The Times, wrote of "Kaufman's kangaroo court". The most extreme was Mr. Andrew Neil, the editor of The Sunday Times. He was quoted as saying that the Committee's recommendations would involve a degree of intrusion into the freedom of the press
greater than anything that existed under Nazi Germany.
Particular criticisms were vented against our recommendation that there should be an ombudsman. The more I read the press coverage of our report, the more I was persuaded that there was a very strong case for the institution of an ombudsman. The report states that we envisage the ombudsman as a "bulwark" to support voluntary regulation. The history of the Press Council and the Press Complaints Commission has been disappointing, and I believe that the successor body will need the reinforcement that an ombudsman would provide.
It is not such a terrible idea to contemplate. Since the 1960s, ombudsmen have been successfully introduced into various fields of our national life. Each field is different and, of course, the press is unique. However, it is fair to observe that it is no less important that the legal profession and legal services should be independent of politics and Government than it is that the press should be. The legal services ombudsman, statutorily created, has proved of benefit to the profession and the public.
The press ombudsman, as we envisage him, would be invoked by way of appeal by dissatisfied plaintiffs—those dissatisfied by the remedy offered them by the press Commission—or by the press. being itself dissatisfied with a judgment of the press Commission. The knowledge that such a recourse, a right of appeal, existed would usefully challenge the press Commission to make a success of its task. As we say in the report, the best test of the success of voluntary regulation by the press Commission would be that the ombudsman's role would be virtually non-existent.
Two main criticisms have been made of our recommendation of the institution of an ombudsman. There has been objection to our suggestion that he should be appointed by the Lord Chancellor. The Select Committee found it a delicate issue to decide how the ombudsman should be appointed. The case for the Lord Chancellor making the appointment is that he is a respected authority who would make the appointment in a non-political capacity. The industry is not justified in its fear that, because he was appointed by the Lord Chancellor, the ombudsman would somehow be the Government's nark.
The second question that has raised difficulties concerns the powers that the ombudsman should exercise and the basis of those powers. Other ombudsmen proceed on the basis of moral authority and suasion, whereas the press ombudsman's powers—for example, to insist on corrections, apologies, the publication of names to institutionalise shame, and to require compensation and the payment of fines—would be created by statute. But it is important to note that in our recommendations we have not suggested that the ombudsman should have independent powers of enforcement.
In the event that a ruling by the ombudsman was not observed by a newspaper, it would be necessary to apply to the High Court for remedy of the grievance. Equally, if a newspaper did not accept a ruling of the ombudsman, the newspaper could apply to the court for the discharge of that ruling. So our recommendations embody the essential character of an ombudsman rather than of a tribunal, and they are profoundly different from the Calcutt recommendations.
We have sought to provide a series of protections for the citizen and, at the same time, to enhance the rights and status of the press. The first protection for the citizen should lie in the responsibility of the individual journalist seeking to balance the obligation to provide information and to behave decently. The second defence of the citizen lies in the responsibility of the editor. We then envisage the readers' representative being brought into play. Only thereafter would we wish to see appeals made to the press Commission, and only in the event of the Commission failing to provide satisfactory remedies would the plaintiff have occasion to go to the ombudsman, and ultimately to the court.
The powers that would be vested in the press Commission by the industry—to impose fines and require compensation—would help to ensure that problems were resolved informally and early. Ms Chapman described our recommendations as
layer upon layer of red tape.
I regard them as sensible, practical, mostly familiar and readily intelligible. They are a serious attempt to provide remedies and, at the same time, to strengthen the standing of the press. I hope that the press will increasingly appreciate and accept that to be the case. Initially, the press marginalised our report as a news story and rubbished it in editorials.
The press mediate information, including the debate on this issue, to the public. It is a responsibility of the press to see that the public have a fuller and fairer opportunity than they have has so far to consider our recommendations and articulate their own response. I hope that the Government will accept our recommendations. Whatever the forthcoming White Paper and prospective legislation may contain, the Select Committee, on behalf of Parliament, will continue to attend vigilantly and regularly to these issues, which are of great and enduring importance to our democracy and culture.
When the Select Committee, on which I had the honour to serve, began its study into the press and intrusion on the privacy of the individual, I had a fair degree of scepticism about the wisdom of the task that we had set ourselves. I wondered whether we could achieve results that would prove significant for effective legislative action.
I was sceptical for several basic reasons, the first being that the press in Britain is already extensively regulated; indeed, the British press is among the most regulated in the western democracies. The legislation regulating it applies to contempt of court, official secrets, the prevention of terrorism, police and criminal evidence and the law of libel. The laws provide a battery of constraints on journalists in general and on particular types of investigative journalism.
It is obvious that some restrictions are available predominantly to the wealthy—that particularly applies to the law of libel—and do not provide an extension of freedom for the ordinary individual. Other restrictions are imposed by government agencies and, to that extent, distort democracy by adding an authoritarian element to the relationship between government and the press.
I share with the overwhelming majority of hon. Members a respect for the significance of a free press as a crucial element in our democracy. Striving for a free press in western Europe has been critical to the dismantling of autocratic regimes and their replacement with democratic ones. Even today, those seeking to impose autocratic regimes on society move rapidly, and with such force as they can muster, on radio and television stations and newspaper offices. Control of the media is crucial to autocratic politicians.
A free press developed out of 19th century ideas of classic liberalism—for example, the free press of diverging opinions and conflicting analyses of John Stuart Mill—and today it is the oligopolistic press of the late 20th century. Our problem when we talk about the press—I am not sure that we have identified the point clearly enough during the debate, so I shall spend some time on it—is that we relate differently to the various models of the press that we have in mind.
Most hon. Members who have a close relationship with the organs of information in our constituencies—in particular, the local and regional press—are aware of the generally high standards that are adopted. Most of our proposals, including the code of conduct and even the strengthened code, are regarded by most local and regional journalists, particularly those in training, as a matter of course. They say that that is how they conduct their business, and when representatives of the regional press came before the Select Committee, they pointed out that the abuses to which we alluded were foreign to their activities.
A dimension of the press not to be overlooked is the glory that we in this country can take in our quality newspapers, which bear comparison with any in the world. When I went to the United States, it was the first time that I had been engaged in a serious study of Washington and New York newspapers. I was very impressed with them and with the framework within which they operated, but I still would say that, in terms of entertainment, informative value and quality of journalism, the best newspapers in this country bear comparison with any elsewhere.
There is, however, another big category of the press to which nearly all this debate is directed—tabloid journalism. That is what we are talking about predominantly. We are talking about that element of the press that seems to be totally resistant to and contemptuous of public opinion when it goes about its business of entertaining, and occasionally informing, the nation.
That section of the press is under considerable pressures. We should recognise that they are the pressures of the major combines, the media empires that have developed at this stage of our history. Those media empires, into which entry by any free agent or competing force is exceedingly difficult, those colossal operators in the industry of newspapers, have substantial power, but they collide with each other like great dinosaurs of the past.
One of the great functions of that kind of popular journalism has almost gone. It is not greatly in the business of conveying news. Where does the ordinary member of the public get his or her news? It is predominantly from the electronic media. I was brought up in a household in which the News Chronicle was a highly valued newspaper. It was greatly appreciated because it was a popular paper which informed and carried really effective news coverage— [Interruption.] Well, hon. Members are calling out some of the more attractive features of the News Chronicle. It had, of course, its lighter side, but it was a newspaper that informed its readers; it was a serious newspaper, while having considerable popular appeal.
Why is it that today it is much more difficult for the Daily Mirror, Today, The Star or—dare I say it?—The Sun to achieve that kind of balance? The answer is straightforward: they are not largely in the business of conveying news. Television has taken that function away from them, as radio did to a degree in the past. Watching television news is the way in which people keep up to date with what is going on in the world.
The tabloid newspapers are rather more in the area of comment and entertainment. Indeed, the editor of The Sun said with great assertiveness when he appeared before the Select Committee that he is in the entertainment business, that his paper is a lively read. The problem with that is that anything goes. For many newspapers, locked into circulation wars, the kind of standards set by C. P. Scott are almost totally irrelevant to the economic exercise in which they are involved. As a consequence, we have the development of newspapers which, on occasion, exploit ordinary individuals.
We have heard today from members of the Select Committee of the extent to which there are gross and damaging intrusions into the privacy of ordinary individuals; I do not want to recall those cases, because they have been well identified. It is not politicians, not people of power, not the great, the good or even the bad, but ordinary people who get caught up in news stories.
We should all recognise—the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) referred to this—that privacy is a human right. I am not sure that we in this country are sufficiently appreciative of the fact that certain aspects of privacy are under gross invasion from technological development.
I am sure that we are all greatly relieved that parts of our shopping centres may be giving extra protection against terrorist outrage through surveillance devices. But such devices, extended right across the land, have a real danger implicit in them. After all, George Orwell's "1984" was based on the premise that technological devices would be developed that would give the authorities the opportunity for surveillance at all times. I am not seeking to deny the extensive efforts that must be made to protect our people against the terrorist outrage. I am merely saying that technological developments have an implicit danger.
There is no doubt that the members of the Select Committee were shocked when we saw the range of devices available. That which only 10 or 15 years ago belonged to the fantasy world of James Bond now seems to be purchasable at the local store for a quite modest sum. I do not think that, at the moment, members of the public can buy some of the more esoteric models, such as the tiny little camera that photographs with great accuracy, in enormous detail and from a great height, and is carried in a small model aircraft—which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) suggested could be flown by remote control over Buckingham palace. I can think of many other areas where that device might be used with even greater effect.
Indeed, views from certain cricket stumps have added to the embarrassment of English batsmen who cannot recognise a leg break, let alone cope with a camera.
Such is the intrusion on the privacy of individuals through bugging and surveillance devices and the anxiety of the nation that the case has been made in the Select Committee report for the Government to recognise that early action is necessary. Such laws should be directed not against the press, but towards restricting anyone from using those devices unless it can be shown that there is good cause, on the basis of the public interest, for such use.
There is, of course, a public interest in permitting certain use of these devices. I say nothing about the state authorities and security services, but we must be careful not to restrict investigative journalism. Some of our outstanding television programmes and journalism have been based on the justifiable use of devices against criminals, where their criminal activities would not otherwise have been revealed. Through the use of those devices and through intelligent action by journalists, those abuses have been exposed.
Did the Committee give serious consideration to the difficulty of drawing the line between what is in the public interest and what is not, even where intrusion into grief is important?
It seems that in citing the most obvious cases of where intrusion into grief was unacceptable, the Committee may have overlooked a difficulty. I recall a case in the north of Scotland many years ago. The BBC interviewed the wives of some fishermen who were Missing at sea. It was a harrowing interview to observe and many people might have said—as I did at the time—that it was tasteless and unwise. The BBC was criticised for broadcasting the interview.
But it was also clear that some of the ladies thought it right to talk of their harrowing experience to bring home to the public the appalling risks that fishermen face. Perhaps that would have rebutted any allegations that the interview was an unacceptable intrusion. It seems that a case is not always automatically clearly on one side or the other of the line.
No one underestimates the difficulties, and many of us have witnessed similar harrowing interviews on television. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that consent is everything. If the person being interviewed has consented to that interview, then, harrowing as the experience may be, that certainly justifies the action of the journalist.
In the cases before the Committee, people who wanted their privacy respected could not get away from foot-in-the-door journalists. The journalists were camped on their doorstep, would never take no for an answer and were prepared to go to almost any lengths, with endless telephone calls throughout the night and so on, in order to get their story.
These are, of course, difficult issues. There will always be an area of judgment. In one of the more extreme cases, the editor of The Sun confessed to getting one thing wrong. It was amazing that he could admit to that. He regretted publishing certain photographs of the horrors of the Hillsborough disaster, and the suggestion that, in some horrendous way, the fans had brought the disaster on themselves. The Hillsborough disaster still had to be reported to the nation in all its horror, and major lessons had to be learned from it.
There is always the difficulty of striking a balance in any disaster, and there is not the slightest doubt about that. I can reassure the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland that the Select Committee did not skate lightly over such issues— far from it. The Committee report was the product of many intensive hours of cross-examination. Great anxiety was expressed about the implications of some of the recommendations until the Committee teased the matters out.
I confess that all along I was sceptical about whether the Committee could produce a report that went effectively much beyond a strengthened code of practice. I saw the Committee's work reflected in what I thought was a more positive response from the press as we proceeded. I should like, however, to reinforce one or two points made by other members of the Committee on just how difficult it might be to rely on self-regulation alone. I hope that self-regulation is the order of the day as far as possible.
All the members of the Committee regarded the concept of the ombudsman as a last resort. They hoped that a strengthened and reasonably enforced Press Complaints Commission code of conduct would largely do the job. I shall quote from that famous occasion when the editor of The Sun graced the Committee with his presence, to the huge entertainment of the nation. He was asked—I am too modest to suggest who by—
So you are now discontinuing practices which you were conducting or certain members of your staff were conducting prior to the Press Complaints Commission development?
I think that it would be fair to say that the spotlight is on us in a way which would make us foolhardy to do anything which would attract more organised opprobrium than already exists. So, yes, we do try harder now and, yes, whether the expression is 'cleaned up our act' or not I am not sure, but certainly we do try hard to make sure that we do not get into a position where our critics can attack us. That does not mean to say we will stop publishing stories about Norman Lamont's credit card but it does mean to say that when we publish something we are 101 per cent. certain that it is 101 per cent. true.
That new development took our breath away, but it emerged from the great pressure of external forces and had nothing to do with self-motivation or self-regulation. When dealing with tabloid journalism on a national level, we must recognise the nature of the tough nut that we are seeking to crack. I do not mean by that that we are seeking to constrain tabloid journalism unfairly; but we are expecting it to have some respect for the truth and some respect for the privacy of the individual, particularly the ordinary individual.
Of course, people who take up public office or hold high positions in the land must be subject to a different kind of challenge—they ought to be. We all believe that the press has an investigative and challenging role to play, but it has no right to infringe the privacy of ordinary individuals against a generally held code of conduct on the grounds that anything goes and that freedom of the press means a licence to print almost anything.
My remarks have been fairly general because other members of the Committee have dealt with detailed aspects of our proposals. Although I was reluctant to accept the Committee's conclusions and hoped that there would be more self-regulation and less regulation by law, I say to the Secretary of State that the case is proven with regard to the development of new technological surveillance devices. They need legislative control. Also, certain sections of the press will have to come to terms with a structure that will be adequate when self-regulation fails.
Journalism is the vilest and most degrading of all trades because more affectation and hypocrisy and more subservience to the baser feelings of others are necessary for carrying it on than for any other trade from that of brothel-keeper upwards.
I declare my interest as a professional journalist. I first heard that quote from John Stuart Mill about a month ago at a lecture. He wrote it in the 19th century and, as far as I can see, not a lot has changed since. Certainly nothing has changed in the month since I first heard it to make me believe that the journalist as a breed is held in anything much higher than contempt by the British public.
I would like to pay my tribute to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and all the members of the Committee, most of whom have spoken in the debate already, for the work that they have done on their report. I thought that press coverage of the publication of the report was churlish, but it was, I suppose, to be expected. Whether or not we like all the recommendations—and perhaps some of us do not—the Committee did an extremely thorough job, both in the way in which it took its evidence and in the way in which it presented it. I would extend those congratulations to David Calcutt, his team and his report as well.
At the invitation of my local radio station, I took part in a broadcast on this subject earlier today. In theory, lined up against me was an official of the National Union of Journalists, my professional association. The interviewer asked him, boldly and straight out, why journalists reported untruths. I imagined that the representative of me and of other hon. Members who are members of the NUJ would leap to our defence, but not a bit of it. He said,
We have to, because if we didn't we'd lose our jobs, because the proprietors of the newspapers make us report untruths.
Having agreed to take part in the programme and to exercise some small criticism of the press and suggest how it might improve its practice, I found myself instead in the bizarre position of having to leap to the defence of my journalist colleagues. They have always struck me as a robust breed, well able to look after themselves. Perish the thought that a professional journalist would he browbeaten to the extent of going away and writing untruths because his lord and master told him to.
I put this thesis to Andrew Neill of The Sunday Times some time ago, when I suggested to him that the Murdoch chain of newspapers had a vendetta against the royal family, that this was an edict from the top and it was why they were doing it—because I could not think of any other reason why they should do it. The wrath of God, or at least of Neill, fell on my head. Did I seriously think that he and his colleagues were for sale like that? I do not know the answer, but he did not think so.
The NUJ representative on the programme pointed out that the journalists that I talked to were lobby correspondents. I must confess that there was a faint self-interest in this. I thought that, if I said nice things about journalists on the radio, I might be reported well. That is the way we work, is it not? All I can say to the lobby correspondents—if there are any left in the building at this time of night—is that the officials of the NUJ do not appear to regard lobby correspondents as "real" journalists. Somewhere out there is apparently another breed of journalist writing "real" stories for newspapers, and those stories are the ones that they must write, even though they are untrue, because the newspaper proprietors say they must.
So we come back to the standards of the press. As a professional journalist, I have experienced a growing sense of concern, not just over recent months but over recent years. There is not much doubt in the minds of many that the standard of written journalism has fallen. It is that concern which led to threats of action—threats of action by Calcutt, threats of action by hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) in his Bill, and threats of action by the Select Committee in its report.
What is the response of what used to be called Fleet street to these threats of action? Self-righteous indignation. We have heard the quotes from the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth). The headlines—in so far as one can call them headlines—that came out when the Select Committee published its report were universally critical. There was scarcely a word of praise, not even for the workmanship of the report itself. The only greater squeals that I heard from the press came when there was some vague suggestion that they might be faced with value added tax on newspapers. The self-righteous self-interest of the press over these issues beggars belief.
We have been discussing people in public life. Exceptionally for me, I have agreed with most of what has been said by most hon. Members but I want to take issue —courteously, I hope—with the slight hint of humbug when hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to "ordinary people", and have said that it is the interests of ordinary people that they are trying to protect.
I believe that. I too want to protect the interests of ordinary people. Like every other hon. Member I represent thousands of them. But I believe that there is a case for protecting the interests of those who are apparently un-ordinary people, people in public life. I think that they have a right to protection.
No one has said that today, because we know perfectly well that such a sentiment will not find favour with the press. It will be regarded as self-interest, and the press will suppose that, because we are trying to protect ourselves, we have something to hide. It is not quite like that.
The right hon. Member for Gorton has returned to the Chamber. I paid what I hope was a kind tribute to the work that he and his Committee had done, and I would like to repeat it for his benefit now that he is here. The only quarrel that I have with his speech was when he said that we are all politicians and that we have to dish it out and be ready to take it.
I know what he means and I agree with him. Of course we dish it out. We dish it out across the Chamber day after day. We hammer away at each other like blazes. That is the cut and thrust of politics. That is why we are in an adversarial Chamber. It is why there are two red lines on the carpet two swords' lengths apart. That conflict is the stuff of our lives, and we have to be ready to take it. We have to be ready to take it from the Opposition Benches. The Prime Minister has to take it from the Leader of the Opposition, and the Leader of the Opposition has to take it from the Prime Minister. We expect that.
But what is this "it" that we have to take? Is it the political sparring in here, is it genuine political conflict, or is it the God-given right of the press to take anybody in public life, of any standing and in any circumstances, say about them any truth or untruth and demolish them? If that is so, I do not believe that people in public life have to take "it".
The royal family has been subjected to this over the past 18 months or so in particular. No hon. Member could reasonably stand, hand on heart, and say that the royal family has never done anything worthy of criticism, that we should be totally subservient and utter no word against them, in the press or elsewhere. That would be quite wrong. On the other hand, I may be naive but there seems to me to have been a concerted effort on the part of certain sections of the media coldly and calculatedly to seek to demolish an institution that means a very great deal to a very great number of people.
I met three News International senior executives in the House recently and laid into them on the subject. They asked me why I was being difficult and having a go at them about cross-media ownership. I said that it was because I knew that was the only way that I could hurt them, as it was their Achilles heel. I said that they were hurting people of whom I was fond and I felt that I wanted to hurt them back. That may not be a noble sentiment for an hon. Member to feel, but I felt it in my guts.
One of the three News International representatives was an American, and I said that I would explain to him exactly how I felt. I said, "It is as though I come to see you, take the American flag, pee on it and burn it on the White House lawn. That is what you are doing to my royal family." I believe that, and he understood my feeling as I had translated it into language that he, as an American, could understand.
I wonder whether attacks on senior Members of Parliament are as justified as we pretend we believe them to be because we are supposed to take them. I wonder whether it is in order for someone like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) to be dragged, with his family, through the dirt, day after day and month after month until he breaks—not personally, as he is too tough for that—but politically? I shall not be party political as I am not defending merely my hon. Friends. I hope that Opposition Members understand that. Were the political ball to bounce the other way, what I am saying could apply as much to Opposition Members as to my hon. Friends.
Yesterday, I listened to a speech in the Chamber delivered by a bitter man—it saddened me enormously. He may not prove to be proud of that speech, which I did not think was dignified or fair. It was a bitter speech, and I understood why. If, day after day, not only I and my economic policies—which are fair game for the House and the press—but every detail of my private life, my credit card, the booze that I did not buy, the girl friend that I did not have, were dragged through the press while my family were trying to take O or A-levels, I would feel bitter and, ultimately, I would break. That is what happened to my right hon. friend. If the leader of Her Majesty's Government—presently a Conservative Government—is relentlessly attacked over a period, ultimately he or she will break.
There is a grave danger that we in this country will find ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent, in the position of those in the United States. Relentless exposure in the media, particularly television, but also in print journalism, creates the danger that, unless one is the archangel Gabriel, one will break. Eventually, only men and women of no calibre will stand for public office. That is why I believe that we have a duty to protect, not only ordinary people, but those in high office.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's words. He referred to the case of the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). We could seek to prevent the press expressing its opinion and drawing things out month after month. I thought that the action of the press in the case of the right hon. and learned Member for Putney was repulsive. I think that I am the only Member of Parliament, other than the Prime Minister, who declared that publicly before the right hon. and learned Member went from office when I wrote a letter to The Independent in support of him. Therefore, I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about such pressure becoming an intolerable burden.
However, would it not be better for people to say, "It does not matter—the issue relates to his private life, not his competence"? Until people are prepared to do that, we shall face the problem described by the hon. Gentleman.
I agree with part of what the hon. Gentleman said. In another country in Europe, somewhere further south, where people's private lives are treated by the public and the press in a more relaxed and, perhaps, less hypocritical and more honest fashion than in this country, it would not matter. In many respects, this country is still extremely puritanical.
Earlier in his speech the hon. Gentleman referred to the suggestion —but did not pursue it to its logical conclusion —that the fourth estate was beginning to regard itself as the Government of this country. No matter who is elected, the general media—not just the press and print journalists —engage in feeding frenzies and regurgiate their own stories.
They believe that they can not only decide what policies should be pursued—any journalist is entitled to speculate and have an opinion on a subject on which he or she is an expert—and not only who should be Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Leader of the Opposition, or leader of the Liberal party, but to make a sustained effort to bring that about.
The press will say that I am paranoid and raving mad, but I am concerned about the problem. I wonder whether we in public life will be able to sustain the job that we want to do on behalf of the ordinary people to whom so many colleagues have referred. If we have to spend all our time worrying about the subjects we are now discussing, ordinary people will Miss out on a range of issues. The Government of the day, of whatever political persuasion, will find themselves in a relentless battle against those who think that they are the real Government of the country, not the elected Government.
It is interesting how Lord Rees-Mogg, who has never been elected to anything in his life—except, possibly, a club—
I was going to say that I am about to resign from it.
We have a genuine cause for concern. The net result of what I have been saying is that the press will say that I want to gag free speech. I do not—I am a journalist, and write and broadcast on a reasonably regular basis. I enjoy doing so and have earned my living through it—not now, but I did for a long time. As far as I am aware, I have nothing personal to hide, apart from the things that most of us want to hide, like overdrafts.
However, the problem is not confined merely to people in public life. I have chosen to defend people in public life because it seems to be the one sector that has been neglected throughout the debate. When one speaks at this time in a debate, most of the good comments have been made. It is nice to be able to say something different. In a Gallup poll in The Daily Telegraph published in February, only 10 per cent. of the respondents said that they had any confidence in the press. That number is down from 32 per cent. 10 years ago—
It was published in February; perhaps the most recent figure would be different.
My friendly NUJ official says that this is due to market forces. Newspapers have become very commercial and journalists have to tell lies —they have to do what their editors want them to do. The style of newspapers has changed. It certainly has. But I am not so certain that that has to do with the big bad barons of the press, as at least one Opposition Member thinks. It might have a lot more to do with competition from the mechanical media. The hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) rightly said that most people get their news from television and radio, so newspapers are having a harder time. Why buy one at all?
Dog is eating dog: the circulation war is critical. Because of changes in working practices and the introduction of new technology, newspapers could be much more profitable now, but the competition between them is also much greater, and it would be foolish to deny that that has had some effect.
This morning on the radio, I asked my NUJ friend, who will own the newspapers if not the barons of the press. Will they be run by workers' co-operatives? He held up The Independent as a shining example. My answer was that it is not independent.
We need a free press in a free society. The free press must have the right to question the establishment, but with that freedom must go responsibility. I believe that the Press Complaints Commission has failed dismally and become discredited. If it was not before, it became discredited the day it was revealed that Lord McGregor had information about the royal family that was in the interests of the press but he failed to publish it. I cannot see how the PCC in its present form can continue.
I carefully read the Select Committee's suggestions. I am not certain that I would like an ombudsman. I certainly do not want the statutory Calcutt tribunal. But it is necessary to recreate a genuinely independent Commission that can promote a code of practice of the sort that the Select Committee annexed to its report. I should like that code of conduct incorporated in contracts of employment.
Training is the bedrock. Several hon. Members have referred to the quality of local papers. Of course we would do that, because we want to keep in well with our local papers even if we fall out with everyone else. Nevertheless, the quality of local papers is in some ways much higher than that of the national press. Standards of reporting are high because local editors usually jump up and down on trainee journalists and make certain that they get their stories right—because if they do not, people will write in to complain that their names have been spelt wrongly in a report on a local funeral. Editors can do without that sort of hassle.
I have much sympathy with the views of editors who have told me—and no doubt the Committee—that we should not pick on them: we should be pursuing the tabloids which are creating all the trouble. I do not want to pick on them. An independent Commission capable of promoting a code of practice within contracts of employment and of promoting training for young journalists would, I believe, do the job.
The Press Complaints Commission is widely regarded as the creature of the press, which owns and pays for it and effectively decides who will sit on it. At the eleventh hour, after all this fuss, the Commission has, in theory, tipped the balance in favour of lay members—but we all know that that is not enough.
We are talking about professionalism, but I strongly believe that electronic eavesdropping and telephone tapping, and trespassing on and entering peoples' property and homes—not to mention intrusive photography using long lenses—are all unacceptable in a free society.
We hear a great deal about freedom of the press; we must also protect the freedom of the individual. I hope that that will be done, not in a press Bill, but under the criminal law in the next Criminal Justice Bill. I do not want, now or ever, one law for journalists and another for everyone else.
I very much welcomed the Select Committee report, which is a thoughtful document. I have a number of reservations about it, however. It comes close after the Calcutt report and my own Bill. I believe that a new agenda is emerging from all the debates that we have had in recent years—an important agenda.
We are all in favour of some type of regulation; the questions that concern us are: what type of regulation, and how should we achieve it? I am increasingly of the view that we need to widen the debate to include electronic media. The Broadcasting Act 1990 no longer works well, not least because of technological changes. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that restrictions on television had to do in part with the limited number of frequencies. But the new technology means that there is no limit on the number of frequencies—cable television gets around all that.
What I sought to say was that as legislation is required to give the Government power to allocate frequencies, it is inevitable that that legislation should entail some form of regulation of television and radio. My hon. Friend is right to say that as we get 500 channels and as the Government find it difficult to be involved in that, so regulation of the electronic media by legislation will become more and more difficult—until, perhaps, it becomes impossible.
I am grateful. That fits in well with my argument. There are those who argue that, because of new technology, we should remove all regulation of the electronic media. But if we do, we shall run into the same sort of problems as we have with the press.
What sort of regulation should we go for? I have been making the following argument for many months because I regard it as central, even though it runs contrary to what people might expect me to say. The problem, in Britain particularly, is that the press and the media suffer from excessive regulation of the wrong type. Our type restricts good investigative journalism, but permits enormous abuses of people's rights. We must address that problem. We were warned by international bodies that we were losing some of our press freedom precisely because we had passed many laws in this century, and especially in the past 10 to 15 years, that seriously restricted press freedom. That issue is specially important.
It is not right to say, as some people have claimed from time to time, that we do not regulate the press. We have been regulating it by law for at least 100 years and the rules are in statute for anyone who cares to look at them. The press is mentioned and some of the rules protect press freedom. For example, journalists have the right in law to report some local authority committees to which the public do not have access. Press rights on Select Committees date back to legislation in the last century.
The other side of the coin is that there are restrictions on journalism and the media generally, such as the broadcasting ban on some of the groups associated with the paramilitary campaign in Northern Ireland. Every country in the world regulates its media. Britain does not have a general defence of press freedom or a freedom of information Act. The Select Committee report is right to recommend that there must be a freedom of information Act before there is any other restrictive legislation on the press. I am glad that that recommendation received all-party support.
I would go further because I have said in recent months that I should like to see not only a freedom of information Act but a general defence of press freedom. The British legal system does not normally contain such a positive defence, but I remind the House that Britain wrote most of the legislation for the European Court of Human Rights, including article 10 of the convention which deals with freedom of expression. We often say, "Don't do as we do; do as we tell you." Although others follow that advice, unfortunately we do not. If we adopted article 10 it would be much easier to adopt article 8, which deals with privacy. I have some reservations about the wording of articles 8 and 10. In many respects, article 10 is restrictive, but if it and article 8 were on the statute book, many of the problems that the debate has addressed would not be so serious.
As I have said, all countries regulate the media, but the question that arises concerns the type of regulation and how to implement it. Britain is not now as forward on the defence of press freedom as it was in the last century. I have given editors some tough times in discussions with them when I have told them that editors have been among the most weak-kneed and ineffectual in standing up for press freedom. They got wise over "Spycatcher" and on that they were good. Throughout the 1980s, I warned the press that press freedom was being seriously eroded.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton was an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on home affairs, and I was his deputy when the effects of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 were being felt. That Act allows the police to seize journalistic material. With one or two honourable exceptions, the press ignored that legislation and its impact on press freedom, which was serious.
The press ignored the prevention of terrorism legislation which required journalists to name their sources. We saw the effect of that when last year Channel 4's Box Productions was fined £75,000 and warned that if it did not name its sources on future occasions it would face a much heavier punishment. We can no longer say that we have been defending press freedom.
I think that it was a deputy editor of The Times who once said to me, "Why do you think that you can defend press freedom better than we can? We can do that ourselves." They have not and they do not. A damning criticism of the press throughout the 1980s—a period that was not good for the press generally—is that it was weak-kneed about press freedom. We need a stronger voice and that is why my Bill tries to have press freedom included on the political agenda. Obviously, the best way to do that is to have a freedom of information Act or a press freedom defence at law. I should prefer both and only the Government can provide them.
The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and some other hon. Members spoke about the way that the press attacks certain people. The hon. Gentleman gave the example of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. The difference between the tabloid, mass circulation and other media is that those papers need to attack people or organisations that are unpopular. That is because they are driven by the market. A Chancellor who was immensely popular but whose economics was badly out would not he attacked in the same way, because mass-circulation newspapers are competing with each other at the very edge and have to fight desperately for the last inch of circulation. I shall shortly come to the way in which that affects the salacious details of stories.
I became deeply concerned about press freedom abuse in the 1980s when I saw the mass circulation tabloid press attacking minority groups. I agreed with some of those groups and disagreed with others, but I am basically a democrat and I believe that democracy is not just about the majority's right to rule but about the right of minorities to be protected. A tabloid monopolistic press, in the sense that it consisted of a few powerful groups, attacked individuals and organisations who were vulnerable and often unpopular.
I have mentioned previously the people who spoke up for those who were wrongly convicted of the Birmingham and Guildford pub bombings and the Broadwater Farm offences. Some of us were convinced at the time that people had been wrongfully convicted, and those who spoke up for them were attacked. Allowing that to happen is the modern equivalent of burning a witch at the stake. Sometimes people in minority groups are bad, sometimes they are mad, and sometimes they are sad. But sometimes they are right, and the important rule of news broadcasting should be to report their views and attitudes accurately. That is one of the reasons why accuracy is so important. The Secretary of State has heard me speak about this matter many times and I commend him for sitting through yet another of my speeches.
Accurate news reporting is the oxygen of democracy and the larger and more powerful our democracies become, the more important it is not to poison that oxygen. To do so is to poison democracy.
Sometimes editors talk to us and to everyone else as if freedom of the press belonged to them and the press. It does not; nor does it belong to Ministers or Members of Parliament. It belongs to the people. The freedom of the press is a collective right and such rights are extremely important. As with all rights, they need to be balanced against others with which they may conflict.
An individual has rights too, and one of them—which is also a collective right—is the right to expect news to be reported accurately and to have an independent means of settling a dispute if it cannot be settled in the normal way. I again urge the Secretary of State to bear that in mind when formulating policy. That collective right of the freedom of the press, which is so important to each and every one of us, has to be balanced by the rights of individuals which involve accuracy.
I am not saying that privacy is not important, but it is easier to deal with. I gave the examples of article 10 and article 8 of the European Convention. Although privacy produces some pretty horrendous cases, it represents a minority of the complaints about the press. The great majority of complaints about the press are about accuracy.
The hon. Member for Thanet, North said that only 10 per cent. believe the press. One of the tragedies of the British press that people do not believe it. That is sad. Journalism should be an honourable trade. If we cannot believe what we read in the paper, something has to be seriously wrong.
We make another error of judgment about the tabloids; they are not actually bad papers. They may be bad newspapers, but they are not bad papers. They provide information that people want, in an attractive, well-produced way which makes them attractive and people buy them. In doing that, they abuse the news and often use individuals to drive up circulation and profit from it.
The hon. Gentleman is eloquently making the case for the importance of all of us as citizens having a press that is honest, accurate and decent. Does he agree that, in a system of voluntary regulation, it is important that third-party complaints should be received and scrutinised? Does he agree that the problems of inaccuracy and invasion of privacy are not confined to the tabloid press?
I agree absolutely, certainly on third-party rights. The hon. Gentleman and I have been at one for some time on that.
The hon. Gentleman says that the problems are not confined to the press. When I first drew up my Bill, I wondered whether I should restrict it to certain mass circulation newspapers and legislate for a cut-off point at a circulation of 1 million, for example. I accept that local papers tend to be much better than tabloids, but, when I thought it through, I realised that what really matters is the citizens' right to accuracy, and even the best paper can get it wrong.
Good journalists should not take it as a slight that they get it wrong. It is hard to get it right all the time when one is working against deadlines. What matters—this is where the press is its own worst enemy—is that newspapers ought to be much more ready to say, "We got it wrong," and make corrections so that people have more confidence in them. I shall return to that point in a moment.
Sir David Calcutt's report interested me considerably, but it scared the pants off me. It is far too draconian. A number of people have not recognised just how draconian it is. Paragraph 7.6 for example, refers to editors being charged with the conspiracy laws if they collude in the publication of something that has been obtained by a breach of one of those laws.
The conspiracy laws are extremely serious and contain long sentences of imprisonment running into many years. If they are to be used on editors, one can envisage sliding down the dangerous road of press regulation in such a way that editors and journalists become fearful of running difficult stories. We should not be putting them off, because they might be good investigative journalists who do a good job and protect the rights of society.
I want to emphasise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton one of my comments on the Select Committee report. I do not think that my right hon. Friend can argue that he is not recommending statutory control. He is. The ombudsman that he would appoint would have statutory powers.
I recognise that my right hon. Friend hopes that that statutory person and body would not be used because the press would reform itself. When I heard him say that for the first time some months ago, that delightful phrase sprang to my lips about the triumph of hope over experience. Because of the market-driven nature of some tabloids, I do not think they can discipline themselves in the way that he would like. Therefore, we would have statutory control.
I asked myself what are the differences between my right hon. Friend's approach and mine. There are a couple of interesting differences on that narrow point because there is a great deal of overlap between what I was trying to achieve and what appeared in the Select Committee report.
My Bill proposed that there should be a statutory committee as opposed to a statutory ombudsman. One of the differences in favour of not restricting the press by legislation was my right hon. Friend's suggestion that the complainant should be required to go first to the voluntary body and only if that fails to go on to the statutory body. That was not the case in my Bill, although I would have been quite happy to amend my Bill to make that case, as it seems a sensible approach. I am not convinced that it is necessary, but it is certainly not a bad idea.
The difference between my right hon. Friend's approach and mine is that his required an adjudication by just one person. That is one of my reservations about the ombudsman system.
My hon. Friend on the Front Bench says, "At the end of the day." If we are to have adjudication by a statutory person, in this case the ombudsman, that person is going to adjudicate on cases. If it is in statute, we must assume that it will happen.
One reason why I wanted a committee is that it is vital to balance the views of the complainant with the need for press freedom. One proposal put to me was that my committee needed to be split into two, with one half dealing with press freedom and the other half dealing with complaints. When difficult cases occurred, the two would adjudicate jointly, thus balancing the press freedom argument with the press responsibility argument. One of my reservations about the ombudsman, which, in many ways is an attractive option, is that it is one person. We have to think about that carefully, because we then come to the second difference between my right hon. Friend's approach in the Select Committee and mine.
The ombudsman has power to award compensation on any breach of the code. I carefully excluded a financial penalty until the last stage of a court case, if it got that far, except on accuracy. The press would have to correct accuracy, and if they failed to correct it or if the editor wanted to challenge it, they could go to court and only at that stage would a financial penalty become possible. The only requirement would be correction, and a financial penalty could not be imposed for any other breach of the code.
One of my anxieties about Sir David Calcutt's approach and that of the Select Committee is that, if a potential financial payment is involved, be it compensation or fine for any breach of the code, and if the code is 40, 50 or 60 clauses long, what does a good investigative journalist do? He is not only looking over his shoulder at the libel laws, which are grossly draconian and need to be reduced to protect press freedom, but has to consider the possibility of a fine or compensation for any breach of the code.
It then becomes difficult for a good investigative journalist to take risks unless—this is one way we might be able to get out of the trap—we have a strong defence of press freedom at law. That is why it is not just a matter of freedom of information, but a general defence of press freedom.
On that basis, we might be able to say that there should be compensation for any breach of the code, but there should also be a separate law which stands in its own right which, because we know the example best in the United States, as our countries are so close on these issues, is something equivalent to the first amendment. That is one way of addressing that problem.
I understand exactly what my hon. Friend has said. However, would he also take on board the fact that there is no desire among journalists or editors for any special laws to give them special positions? That is one of the main points of the report of the National Heritage Select Committee and other reports on the topic. That is why the public interest defence is so important, because it can apply not just to journalists, but to every citizen.
I understand that, but a number of cases have been quoted today—for example, the case of the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor)—and all of them would be allowed, as far as I can see, under the Select Committee approach, the Sir David Calcutt approach and most other approaches.
The public interest opt-out would enable the press to point out that a person in a senior public position had made a statement of double standards by calling for family values while breaking those values. We can go through that loop at the moment, but it is not an especially good way of doing things. We would end up having lots of laws, each one with a built-in opt-out clause in terms of public interest.
I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) to bear in mind the history of laws going back at least 100 years that are there to protect the press. We already have such laws, so why not have another, but one that becomes a measure relating to those issues, rather than trying to have strange opt-out clauses in privacy legislation and so on?
I shall address the question of the Press Complaints Commission because the frequent complaint made against me and many other hon. Members is that we have all said that the Commission has failed, but that we will not say why. I keep producing arguments to explain how it has failed, and now I shall produce another argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) said that in January, Kelvin MacKenzie gave evidence that The Sun would become 101 per cent. true.
In February, a headline appeared on the front page of The Sun in relation to the tragic murder of Jamie Bulger. It read:
Boy 12 is held for Jamie murder.
Much further down the story it quoted the police saying:
We do not hold the murderer in these cells".
The boy of 12 was being held as a witness and the police made that clear, so they cannot be blamed for making a misleading statement. That headline, which was a clear breach of the 101 per cent. rule by any standard, was never corrected—unless it has been corrected in the past week. That is a clear breach and a clear example of why we do not have confidence in the Press Complaints Commission.
I shall tell the House what has happened to me since that time. I had a debate with a number of journalists, one of whom was Bridget Rowe, who was then the editor of the Sunday Mirror. I thought that I had got the journalists on this one and I waved the headline around with gay abandon in the middle of the debate. To my amazement, not only Bridget Rowe, but one or two others started shouting at me, "Why do you keep waving that paper around?" None of them said that the headline was wrong and that it must be corrected.
It is as a result of such attitudes that we are so angry and that is why ordinary people—whatever that phrase means—are so angry about the press. There is an arrogance in the press which leads members of the press to believe that they do not have to say that anything is wrong. The headline is an example of press reporting that led me throughout the 1980s to fear for justice for individuals. The boy, who was not held for the murder at any time, was branded as the murderer.
There is another example, from the many that I have given in the past, of how the Press Complaints Commission is failing. I spoke some time later to a senior member of the Commission. He said that he was aware of the story, but that the problem was that the Commission could not find the family to complain. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) spoke about third-party complaints. During the debate in which Bridget Rowe and others were busy attacking me, I was told that it was my fault that such things went on because I had not complained. I suddenly found myself on the defensive. I thought, "Hang on, why am I on the defensive? I did not do this."
I made that point to the man from the Press Complaints Commission. I said, "It is no wonder that you cannot find that family. You do not have to have too much nous to work out from the story, even assuming that only a tiny part of it is true, that the family were homeless." That point was given away by the description of the residence in which they lived. It was also clear—I put this as neutrally as I can—that the family had many problems. They were not the sort of family who would have been able to complain easily on their own behalf or even through another person.
I made all those points to the Commissioner. He said, "How far do we go down this road?" My answer is simple. Any effective body must be proactive and not just reactive. The Commission did not need a complaint. Everyone knew within hours that the story was wrong. All that needed to happen was for the editor or someone else, perhaps a member of the Commission, to say, "This is seriously wrong. It is a headline story. It brands a child who is not a killer as a killer. You must put it right. You do not need anyone to complain to do that." My example shows why none of us has any confidence in the pathetic Press Complaints Commission, which seems more interested in finding excuses for inaction than in being proactive.
I do not expect the Commission to read every paper produced throughout the United Kingdom every day, but I expect it to keep a watching brief. The comissioners could look at certain groups of newspapers from time to time to review them. They could make it easier for people to pass on information and they could assess it. They should act on their own initiative without waiting for a family who are obviously vulnerable, someone on their behalf or a Member of Parliament who feels strongly about the issue to raise the complaint with them. They should not need that if they are to be taken seriously as an effective body.
There is another case at which hon. Members should look carefully. I do not intend to refer to it in detail because it is also sub judice. One of the cases to which I referred during my hearings was the case of the Taylor sisters who were charged with murder and found guilty. Their case is before the Appeal Court today and part of the grounds of the appeal are press inaccuracy and press distortion. I shall say no more about the case because it is before the Appeal Court.
What I will say to all hon. Members is that they should look at the case with great care. It is profoundly interesting and it shows all the dangers, to which I have referred over the years, of press freedom being abused to such an extent that people are held wrongly in custody. I think of my comments about wrongful convictions and about it being so hard to get certain newspapers to report people's comments accurately so that they could have their case heard by the rest of the public.
That point brings me to the publication of details. There are a number of examples. The hon. Member for Thanet, North spoke about attacks on the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont). One of the most important points for us to bear in mind is that, when the press report cases such as that of the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), for example, or when they report on the royal family, we should recognise that there is almost certainly a let-out in law—as suggested by the Select Committee, by Sir David Calcutt and by myself—to allow those cases to be reported. I accept that that is right.
I have a strange relationship with The Sun. At first, it published photographs of me with fangs so that I looked slightly like a vampire. When I said that The Sun was right to publish the fact that there was a relationship between Prince Charles and his partner because it had a bearing on the monarchy and therefore on the constitution, but that it was wrong to print the salacious details, it produced another photograph, the "statesmen Soley" photograph. That began to ruin my street image. There had been three attacking editorials in The Sun over the past month which had done me an immense amount of good. I should record my thanks to Mr. MacKenzie for those attacks just because he did so much for my street credibility. The important point is not that the story can be reported, but that salacious detail is published when it does not need to be.
Another example relates to a constituent of mine—the young man alleged to have committed a murder, who escaped from a holding centre. Because he is under 18, he cannot be named or photographed. The Evening Standard and The Sun both ran stories saying that it was wrong that they could not publish photographs of that young man, and then did so in breach of the law. I accept that there is sometimes a case for publishing photographs of someone under age who has not been proven guilty but is regarded as dangerous, but perhaps it should he done through the court system. However, the press was wrong to print alongside the photograph details of the crime and of those affected by it—in one case the aunt of the victim—because that puts in the minds of those who end up as jurors dealing with the case that the individual concerned is guilty of the offence.
It is the same with the sex stories about, for example, the right hon. and learned Member for Putney or the royal family. If a Minister says that he is a man of the family and a member of a party that supports family values, but does something different, or if a member of the royal family is involved, which has a bearing on the constutution, there may be a case for reporting the affairs. However, there is no case for reporting the salacious details of conversations or publishing pictures of, for example, the Duchess of York at a swimming pool. It is not necessary to report the salacious details to let the public know that someone is having an affair and that is an example of double standards or that there are implications for the monarchy.
The problem for the press is that it does not want to print a story without the salacious detail because that is what sells the newspapers, as do attacks on unpopular people such as a Chancellor of the Exchequer or a group saying that the people who were convicted of blowing up the Birmingham pub are innocent. The newspapers do not want to attack anything popular because that would affect circulation. That is the difference between the regulated electronic media, which do not have the same market competition, and the unregulated press in the tabloid, monopolistic structure where there is an interest in market share.
The Secretary of State cannot ignore the issue of ownership. We must deal with the monopolistic structure at the sharp end of the market. It is easy just to attack the journalists and editors, but they are driven by the economic policy—"You must sell the newspaper and it is the salacious detail that will sell it." When the Daily Mirror published photographs of the Duchess of York, The Sun felt that it had to produce tapes of Prince Charles. That sold the newspaper and enabled it to catch up with the Daily Mirror, whose circulation had risen because of the Duchess of York photographs. It is all about circulation wars, which is why other newspapers do not have the same problems.
I find it difficult to draft a law that would prevent the publication of salacious detail, which is why it must be done through a code of practice. It can be done through the way that I have previously suggested—and which I still think is basically right—of a statutory committee charged with the responsibility both to protect press freedom and roll back the laws that have invaded it and to balance the right of the individual.
We need to provide a statutory right to accuracy. The importance of accuracy in a reporting organisation was well highlighted in evidence to my committee—it raises a culture of accuracy which becomes entrenched in that organisation, so that editors and journalists are also required to look at the other detail of the story. That has worked well in television, which is why the regulated electronic media do better investigative journalism than the unregulated press, while tending generally—although not always—to respect people's rights. They have a culture of accuracy which spills over into other areas.
Presswise, the new organisation set up as a result of my Bill, met today for the third time. I was not able to attend, as I wanted to be here for this debate. Presswise exists to promote understanding of the press, but also to give advice, guidance and support to those who suddenly find themselves thrown into the front line before the press—the so-called ordinary person who finds himself the victim of press harassment or inaccuracy. It is similar to the victim support scheme referred to by the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon.
When I set up a committee to consider my Bill, I had many letters from people saying, "I don't want you to make my case public; I never again want to go through what the press has done to me." That is what made me aware of the need for a support and advice group for people caught in that trap and why I set up Presswise.
It would be difficult to answer that question. Today is only the third meeting of Presswise. The first two were to set up the organisation. I have had a small number of letters and telephone calls that I am forwarding to Presswise. If this debate helps to publicise Presswise, that would be advantageous. We want to make known its activities. The National Association of Victim Support Schemes, among others, is offering to help. We are also looking for money to enable it to publish its activities and do all the other things that it needs to do.
Although I initiated the group as it initially worked through me and held meetings in the House, it is essentially run by people who have been victims. The chair is Linda Townley, who was involved in the Princess Anne letters case, and the secretary is Diana Simpson, who was alleged to be the lover of the Yorkshire Ripper. Most of the others involved have also been victims. It is not for me to stay involved. I shall be supportive, but it must stand or fall on its own. I anticipate that it will stand on its own feet, but I hope that it gets the support of all those who understand the nature and extent of the problem.
The agenda is clear—we must have a clear defence of press freedom. I want that to go hand-in-hand with a Freedom of Information Act. There must be a regulatory body for the media, focusing primarily on accuracy so as to raise the culture of accuracy. There must be a high-status code operated by a high-status body. I am happy for the PCC to continue and for it to be the first point of referral, but there must be some statutory back-up, because at times it will fail and the statutory back-up will be needed, be it an ombudsman or the sort of structure that I have outlined and still prefer.
The House will understand if I do not try to match the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) in the weight or length of his contribution. I did not agree with all parts of his Bill, but through it he has done a service to the House and the country in allowing those who have suffered injustice—that is the proper word—at the hands of the media to have their point of view heard properly, not only through Presswise, about which the House will be interested to hear more as it develops, but through the hearings of the Select Committee. I join in the tributes to the Chairman of the Select Committee and to its members who have produced a fine report.
The last sentence in volume 3 on page 394 states:
The job of pruning, then, is not for government but the press itself.
Those are sensible words by Dr. Leonard Sussman, who comes not from this country but from the United States. It is useful to have the words of someone from across the Atlantic. He also says:
I believe the Calcutt recommendations for a statutory regime, listing 19 different requirements for a press complaints tribunal, moves in exactly the opposite and wrong direction. Indeed, it is far closer to the pattern now displayed in Eastern/Central Europe and Euroasia.
The Select Committee was right in saying that the statutory basis that Calcutt recommended for a tribunal is not the way in which the House or the country should proceed. I have my doubts about having any kind of statutory body. I recognise that the Select Committee proposes, in effect, an indirect ombudsman-type service which would be a last resort.
I do not want to get too far into my speech without recognising that broadcasters are not blameless. During my 18 years as a Member of Parliament, I have had no complaints from constituents about treatment by the press. I have had a complaint from a constituent about treatment by a television programme from a company that no longer has a broadcasting licence. That programme took what may have been a fact and a lot of tittle-tattle which was demonstrated later to be totally incorrect. My constituent in effect faced 50 accusations by television programme, one of which may have been accurate. He was prejudged by that television programme in a way which, if there had been a subsequent trial, would have been completely prejudicial.
I regret that people do not understand that if there is ambiguity in the way in which a story or person has been treated, or if it turns out that a broadcast programme or a press article has been wrong, the people responsible should write a letter immediately saying that they have got it wrong and asking how matters can be put right.
As we have heard from contributions made this evening, victims do not always want renewed publicity and may say that they do not want to hear any more about it or wish for only a small mention that does not refer to the original offensive broadcast or article.
I come now to some of the other evidence in the report. I do not want to spend my time again giving my views on press control. However, I would say through my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage that, if our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster still has his list of 110 controls on the press, I am still waiting for a letter spelling out those extensive controls. They were not fully listed in the Select Committee's report.
I come now to some of the points in the report that should be better known. They are part of the fruits of the process that the members of the Select Committee brought forward. The Swedish agreement between the journalists, proprietors and editors is referred to on page 321. That says that there should be an undeniable public interest before there is an invasion of privacy, not just one that can be justified at some extreme. That is the kind of standard that it would not be unfair to ask people to set.
Page 331 of the report has evidence given by the police. I have a complaint about Scotland Yard's links with the press. On an increasing number of occasions they have tipped off journalists about juicy stories. I am not necessarily complaining about the press accompanying police on particular jobs, but the relationship is too incestuous. I hope that those in charge will look back over the past few years and ask whether there has been evidence of collusion, whether for friendship, money or favours in other ways.
It is difficult for a police department to work well with the press, but those in authority should be saying that there are standards and that they do not want to see excesses. There are times when individuals become the victims of press attention after the police have tipped off the press about things that may or may not be justifiable.
Page 388 contains annexes put forward by The Sun, which follow the evidence taken by the Select Committee from the Northern Ireland widows. Some of the most impressive evidence given to the Select Committee was from those widows, and I add my thanks to them for their courage in coming to discuss what they had experienced. It is worth noting also—I am not in any balancing their experience—the written evidence that was subsequently submitted by The Sun and the journalists working for it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) referred to discussions that he had had with senior people from News International. As a result of his talking bluntly to them, two or three days later it settled the libel case that had been brought on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen. Frank criticism of newspapers to their face can have an impact. Too often, we forget about using plain English.
I suspect that an increasing number of editors are paying attention to what their readers are saying to them, and in a way that others react to them. I heard a story recently of a mature woman who wrote to the editor of a broadsheet newspaper about his attacks on a leading individual. A couple of days later, she was somewhat surprised to have him telephone her. That is the kind of response about which one normally does not hear from newspapers, and I believe that it has some impact.
Sticking with The Sun for a moment, I am impressed at the evidence given by Tom Crone, the legal manager for News International, about the reduction of libel cases in which the company is involved. Perhaps News International is offending less, or perhaps it is getting out of holes faster.
That leads me on to the libel laws. It ought to be possible to bring a libel defamation case to a small claims court, where it is possible without major legal expense—possible without any legal expense—to get people in front of an impartial decision maker and hear the case on either side. That would be the simplest way of sorting out what might even have been an unintentional ambiguity, and the fastest way of forcing people to say to their managers in the world of newspapers and broadcasting, "I am being taken to the small claims court; what shall we do?"
When newspapers get things wrong, the faster they acknowledge it the better. Here I should declare an interest: my legal fees have been paid by parts of the media on a number of occasions. It is the newspapers' delay in accepting what they know that they must eventually accept that is so frustrating, expensive and intolerable to most ordinary people, as well as people like myself; indeed, in this context I regard myself as ordinary.
On page xliii in annex 5 to the report, the Committee corrected something that it had got slightly wrong; let me turn, however, to the underlying issue. If proprietors, editors and journalists, in their various collective ways, can commit themselves in public to the standards that they believe should properly apply to themselves, it will be far easier in debate and in broadcasting to pick up the serious issues on which they go wrong. I am impressed by the large number of articles appearing in local and regional newspapers—and even in the national press—which provoke no complaints. I wish that the standard of accuracy in political reporting were as good as the standard applying to the reporting of sports results, but perhaps constant pressure will achieve that.
Many of the complaints made by Women Against Rape and others who gave evidence to the Select Committee related to The Daily Telegraph, which seems to be willing to include details that it is no longer allowed to print in regard to divorce cases. I mention that because I want to refer to Conrad Black. Let us suppose that he, Rupert Murdoch or the owners of the Mirror Group could be told on a television programme—in general, debates about the press will take place on television and radio rather than in print—"This is the standard that you said that you would set"; "you" meaning the proprietor, on behalf of the editor responsible for the work of staff journalists or freelancers. I think that, in such circumstances, their people would not overstep the line quite so often—and, if they did so, they would recognise that they had done so, say sorry and return to the side of acceptability.
Finally, let me make a point about freelancers. I do not want to speak up for Kelvin MacKenzie too much, because I have had the occasional row with him; but I believed him when he said that he now requires freelance journalists to reach the standards set for staff journalists on The Sun. The problem relates to the freelance journalist who has not yet secured a newspaper to take his story and publish it.
I encountered a freelance journalist who claimed to be working for a well-known national newspaper. When I asked for that journalist's name, it was eventually given to me; when I checked with the agency to which the story was supposed to be going, I was told that it was a Commissioned story, intended for an entirely different newspaper. When I rang the editor, he said that he had not asked for the story and would not take it. He said, "If you give me the telephone number of the agency, I will get in touch with the people there and tell them that they cannot do work for us unless they stop using such tactics."
Freelancers who work for agencies rely for most of their income on a reputation for reliability. It should be possible —in the various ways at which I have hinted, or in the ways referred to by others—to sort out more of the problems, without ever expecting to achieve the level of prior restraint at which no one ever gets anything wrong. Surely, part of the purpose of the press—the same applies to Members of Parliament—is to allow people to go out on a limb and to do or say things that appear unjustifiable at times; but they should be willing to admit when they have got it wrong.
First, let me declare an interest, which must be unique in today's debate. I am not a member of the Select Committee; however, I have a particular interest. I am now a freelance journalist, and for 23 years I was a journalist employed by the Sunday Express.
I am proud to have been a columnist, although I did many other kinds of reporting.
Inevitably, some of my comments may be greeted with, "She would say that, wouldn't she?" But, in my position as gamekeeper-cum-poacher, I can see both sides of the coin. I think that this subject is important, because I accept that, in my role as Member of Parliament, I can no longer retain the privacy that I used to have.
I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale), who feels that public people have a right to privacy. I believe that, where private lives conflict with public duties, newspapers are entirely justified in publishing the details. I do not accept, however, that they should publish the details of credit card accounts. The press should be guarantors of behaviour. There is a long list of corrupt politicians and business men in Italy, but who in the media ever wrote about them—or would not write about them? Anyway, the media did not write about them. That was a great mistake and a slur on Italy.
I hold no brief for unprofessionalism. I have always contended that good stories and scoops can be obtained through perfectly legitimate means and I also believe that they must be accurate. I support totally the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) in his endeavours to highlight the importance of accuracy. In the newsroom of the Sunday Express there used to be a slogan saying, "Make it early, make it accurate or make it up." Those days are now gone.
Time has moved on. There is a harsh competitiveness today which, combined with modern technology, gives newspapers the means to bug and probe without the subject's knowledge. That has created a nightmare scenario reminiscent of the worst of Stalin's secret service. It is a paradox that the modern technology that can be such a boon in our lives can also be such a bane. A new market of information based on modern invasive technology has now grown up and become a curse.
The press must accept responsibility. The press has enormous privileges and colossal power. I do not care for the arrogance that has been displayed in the press today, whether in the so-called quality papers or the tabloids, in their determination to dictate who runs the country. It is sordid and unacceptable. However, I would die for their right and freedom to publish as they think fit. I do not think that I have any right to censor that material, however unattractive and distasteful I may find it.
By and large, the public outcry about the excesses of recent years in the performance of the media, together with the searching debates that have taken place in the House the Select Committee's report on privacy and intrusion, the private Member's Bill of the hon. Member for Hammersmith and the Calcutt report—have all served a positive purpose. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith. He may feel that I am not always in tune with him, but I am much closer to what he is trying to achieve than he may appreciate.
A point has been made and the Press Complaints Commission has got the message. It has responded in many ways to the Select Committee's recommendations. The reality is that Fleet street is running scared. Those on Fleet street know that the writing is on the wall. The threat of legislation to control their behaviour is like a gun to the head. It makes them think very clearly. They recognise that we are serious and that we have the power to cramp their style devastatingly. It is revealing that in the Select Committee's interview with Mr. Kelvin MacKenzie, who some people thought was a braggart, he explained why he did not publish the Camilla tapes in The Sun. He said:
I could justify quite easily publishing those tapes in this country. We chose not to basically, I think, because we are in a curious cowed way at the moment in relation to the future of the press. I would not want to do anything which was going to cause us a bigger problem than we currently face".
That is a telling statement. Having made our point
It was a most telling statement, but if my hon. Friend had had the time and patience to read to us some of Mr. MacKenzie's other telling statements, it would have become clear that they told a different story.
I accept that most of that interview with the Select Committee was not gratifying. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend must accept that even Mr. MacKenzie now knows that his peer group has developed different and higher standards and that, in the end, he will have to do likewise.
We have made our point, and it must be recognised that the press is responding. I am sorry that the progress made by the PCC was barely recognised by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). Since the hideous and intrusive journalism of the last year—whether it was dealing with the royal family or my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor)—I can safely say that there has been no repeat of abuses on that scale. A start has been made, but there is still some way to go.
I am told that Fleet street editors, interestingly enough, are now turning on each other with ferocity. Survival is all. They are determined that one of their number will not make them all go down with him. I have been given vivid descriptions of almost farcical behind-the-scenes scrap-ping at the PCC. The heat is on one Sunday newspaper over its management of a complaint by the police. I am told that peer group pressure is pretty ferocious. If no satisfaction is gained, the other editors will press the chairman of the newspaper group to sack the editor involved. I am told that they plan to go even further and use editorials in their own newspapers to shame the paper in question, saying that the editor is not fit to continue in the job. They will leave no stone unturned because they now know that if they do not put their house in order, others will do it for them.
As a consequence, there are stories floating around Fleet street about the private lives of public people which will never be published. Indeed, there is a story about the close relative of a former Cabinet Minister which will never see the light of day. Five years ago, that would not have been the case—the story would have been splashed across the headlines. Editors now know the penalties.
PCC meetings now last for four or five hours, with editors wrangling and discussing complaints. It must be said that on the public platform—for example, when he met us in the House—the PCC's chairman, Lord McGregor, gave a rather academic performance. However, I am told that, in private, he can tackle his editors firmly. He has their respect, and it must be said that he, too, has learnt from his mistakes.
Sir David English, the chairman and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers, which embraces the Daily Mail group, is as tough as hell, which is just as well given his present role as chairman of the PCC's code of practice committee. He would admit that, in the past, the Press Council was not a body that inspired fear in editors. Adjudications were conveniently buried on the back pages. When I worked for the Sunday Express, I did not take very seriously the threat of being taken to the Press Council. Today, Sir David recognises that the climate has changed. If he fails to deliver self-discipline, he knows that far worse will follow by way of legislation, which would be a very blunt instrument.
Over-reaction could cripple the free press which any democratic society must sustain as the guarantor of its freedoms. I understand that the Secretary of State has recognised that fact. A poodle press would be no use at all. I therefore trust that, whatever the Government propose in the White Paper, they are clear about what precisely they are trying to achieve. We should be building on the considerable self-regulation developments that have occurred. They were, admittedly, sluggish to begin with, but positive progress has been made in the last year.
The Government should not waste resources and effort setting up more bodies, such as a press Commission, with its statutory ombudsman and different procedures and powers. It is suggested that the Commission would deal with complaints and promote the freedom of the press, but it sounds like a recipe for total disaster. There would be procedural muddles galore, and a nightmare for aggrieved citizens, who would be expected to seek help from a body designed to protect and punish the press.
I would not argue against a press ombudsman to serve as a right of appeal; that could be a timely reminder to the PCC that its code of practice must be effective. But more thought must be given to the sort of powers that such a man should have. Swingeing and draconian powers with no right of appeal would devastate the press and make matters worse.
The code of practice covers public concerns quite well. It ranges from accuracy to the opportunity to reply, from innuendo to privacy, and in that connection I cite an example of the way in which the PCC has been effective. A constituent of mine is the sister of a man who was arrested as a suspect in connection with the Wimbledon murder. It transpired that there were no charges, and eventually he was released. But during that time, that man became headline news. Everything about him was splashed across the newspapers. All his personal affairs and his lifestyle were exposed. His family was identified and their names and addresses given. It was a humiliating experience for them.
The man was then set free by the police. There were no charges. The family complained to the PCC. The biggest apology appeared in The Daily Mirror. The second biggest apology appeared in The Sun. All the newspapers said much the same, although in slightly different ways. In other words, the PCC can be effective. All that happened in only the spring of this year.
The code of practice also takes on board misrepresentation, bugging and harassment. Sir David is constantly reviewing the code and is planning to update it. For example, with regard to harassment, it is intolerable that private citizens should be chased by doorsteppers or by people telephoning. Sir David is seeking a common agreement with Fleet street editors to pull reporters back to their offices if they fail after making two or three approaches. It is not an easy task dealing with Fleet street editors, who have a pugnacity all their own. It takes considerable coaxing and bullying to bring them into line.
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no excuse for harassment. I recall that when I worked in a news desk team, somebody might say in the first instance, "No, I don't think so," and then invite me in because he wanted to get whatever it was off his chest. But I agree with my hon. Friend that if somebody says no and means no, the reporter should withdraw. Up to now, the news desk would keep the reporter there and he has to carry on trying.
The PCC is now trying to get a code of behaviour agreed by all concerned. Progress is being made. The time is coming when we shall have to consider what real sanctions the PCC might have over and above peer group pressure. Perhaps we might consider offering compensation of up to £1,000 in clear-cut cases to successful complainants, thus avoiding Mickey Mouse figures. The money would come out of a common fund set up by the PCC, which in any case is funded by a levy on the whole of the newspaper industry.
I agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith. Why should not the code of practice also include all those who work in the media and electronic broadcasting? Those shots on television of hacks outside a house are filmed by television cameras. Their invasive powers can be just as punishing. Why not go further, and extend the code to any citizen who seeks to sell material obtained by bugging, snooping or other illegitimate means? That would make it unlawful, for instance, to sell such things as the Camillagate tapes and the Squidgy tapes, thus putting the onus on both the vendor and the purchaser.
I ask the Secretary of State to accept that Fleet Street editors are not the mad dogs of war any more. Progress has been made in the last year, and it is significant that the PCC supports general legislation to deal with electronic bugging and snooping. It takes a positive line on the proposed laws on privacy—a quagmire, may I say, for definition.
I do not believe that a press Commission would serve any useful purpose. It would be far better to beef up the self-regulatory powers of the PCC, which in any case is already carrying out the proposals that have been put forward for the press Commission, particularly by having a board which is largely controlled by lay members.
There are so many thoughts to bear in mind, but I believe that we have given Fleet Street a big fright. Fleet Street knows that it can no longer continue in the way that it has in the past. The time has now come to say that it has had its chance and we want it to stiffen up its discipline. I believe that we can put more into the White paper to enable it to do that, but it would be a great tragedy if we ever went down the road of statutory control of the press, which is ultimately the guarantor of our freedom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) started her remarks by saying that she was in a minority in that she is not a member of the Select Committee. I am in an even smaller minority among those speaking in this debate, in that I am neither a member of the Select Committee nor a journalist. The reason why I want to contribute is that this is an issue about which I care very deeply.
As one who is a relative newcomer to the House, I have been impressed by the quality of the debate today. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) talked about the confrontational nature of this Chamber and how the scoring of party political points was in our lifeblood. I do not think that there has been any party political point scoring at all in this debate, and it has been improved by that fact.
I am very pleased to see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be replying this evening and that he has been present throughout the debate. He and I have worked together in the past, and I am very reassured by the fact that he will be responsible for taking the difficult and important decisions that will be required in relation to the topic that we are debating.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat) is no longer present. I was very pleased by his appointment to the Government, not only because, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), he is a fellow Essex man, but also because, in the short time that he was on the Back Benches after he returned to the House, he campaigned vigorously against the evils of Government regulation. I fully supported him in that crusade, and I hope that he will continue it in his new office, not least with respect to the subject that we are debating today.
That is not to say, of course, that the press does not require regulation. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said that he hoped that all of us who contributed would make it clear that we accepted the need for the press to be regulated. I disagree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith about a great deal —I was one of only 12 Members who voted against the Second Reading of his Bill—but on this issue I am entirely happy to take up his invitation.
I accept that the press must be regulated. The press has great power and has a duty to exercise it responsibly. A code of conduct comprising well-defined guidelines is needed. That code would inform the press and allow it to be judged against those principles. Under the original Press Council there were no guidelines and, as a result, judgments by that council often appeared to be entirely arbitrary and unpredictable. That was bad for journalists, too, because they had no yardstick against which to measure their performance.
Undoubtedly, some journalists took advantage of that and overstepped the bounds of acceptable or ethical behaviour. That resulted in the setting up of the original committee on privacy under Sir David Calcutt. The committee rightly identified the need for the code of conduct. However, the committee—I believe rightly—originally rejected the establishment of a statutory body and gave the press 18 months to set its house in order. Yet despite the establishment of the Press Complaints Commission some, including the Calcutt committee, have concluded that the press failed in that task and that there is now a need for Government intervention. I do not accept that view, first, because the existing system can be made to work, and secondly, because the consequences of a statutorily appointed body could be far more dangerous and pose a greater threat to our liberty than could any failure or flaw within the present system.
Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I served for a time as a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. At one time my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) held that position. I was in the Department when the Financial Services Act 1986 was going through the House. The Act established a system of regulation for the City and for the financial services industry. It came in the wake of some abuses, and at a time when the public were rightly demanding action to curb the behaviour of cowboys and crooks in the City. There was a great public demand for a statutory body to be created and for that body to have draconian powers enforceable in the courts.
It would have been easy to succumb to those pressures, but the Government rejected that course. Instead of creating a rigid structure operating inflexible rules, the Government felt it better to allow the City to regulate itself. Several supervisory bodies were created with flexible rules that could be applied, not only to the letter but interpreted to reflect the spirit which lay behind them.
By refraining from enshrining those rules in legislation, the Government allowed the self-regulatory organisations to adapt their rules to take account of developments in technology. The SROs had powers to tackle new abuses and close the loopholes that inevitably appeared. It was also recognised that it was in the City's own interests to make self-regulation work and be seen to work if a statutory body was to be avoided. I remain convinced that that was the correct course.
Those same arguments carry equal weight for regulation of the press today. But there is another and more powerful argument against a system of statutory regulation such as that proposed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith in his Bill and by the Calcutt review. As has been said many times in the debate, a free press is a bulwark of democracy. It is essential that the press should be able to criticise the Government and members of the Government and to feel no restraint in doing so. I suspect that anyone looking at today's newspapers would conclude that the press feels no such restraint at the moment and is taking maximum advantage of that freedom.
A statutory body appointed by the Government to rule upon what the press can and cannot print would inevitably be a restraint upon that freedom. I have every confidence that, if such an authority were to be created and its members appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage, it would be entirely objective and would not dream of using its position in any way for party political motives.
I have equal confidence that if a Labour Secretary of State were to appoint members to a body, the same would apply. but in many countries and Governments the commitment to parliamentary democratic government is less wholehearted. This country and its Parliament are rightly regarded as beacons of democracy. If we were to have Government intervention in the press here, it is an example which would be eagerly followed by those with far less worthy motives.
In its submission to the Calcutt review, the Australian Press Council said that the very motivation of its submission was
the fear that any recommendation of the Review for the statutory regulation of thhe press… would be of precedential value to governments throughout the commonwealth and beyond, in particular those where the press is less than free. This would be particularly so in those countries emerging from dictatorship, where a new legal system is not yet entrenched and where a free press is still a novelty.
I therefore remain a strong supporter of self-regulation.
After the publication of Sir David Calcutt's first report, the press responded speedily, spurred on undoubtedly by the threat that accompanied it of Government intervention. The establishment of the Press Complaints Commission within six months of the report, with the creation of the Press Standards Board of Finance to fund it and the drawing up of a detailed code of conduct to guide it, was impressive.
The Press Complaints Commission has been subjected to quite a lot of criticism in the debate, some of it justified. But I welcomed the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam in defending some of the things that the Commission has done, because I believe that it has done its best to respond to the complaints that have been made and to strengthen its code of conduct.
As hon. Members have pointed out, the Commission has already accepted a number of recommendations in the Select Committee's report, such as setting up a helpline for members of the public and changing its membership so that lay members are now in the majority. Those were specific and very sensible recommendations of the Select Committee and I think that they will lead to a substantial improvement in the self-regulatory regime. However, I hope that the Commission will also consider some further changes, some of which have also been advocated by the Select Committee.
Some of the most recent cases of press stories relating to public figures, especially members of the royal family, have rightly led to great public concern. In most cases, but by no means all, I accept the Commission's comment that a tenable case for their publication can be argued, but the manner in which some of the stories have been obtained and the way in which they have been embroidered with lurid and tendentious detail is unacceptable. I therefore regret that the Commission has not always felt able to comment and rule upon some of these aspects.
I understand that it is much more difficult for the Commission if it has not actually received a complaint from any of the parties involved, even when it has gone out of its way to invite such a complaint, but it is understandable that in some of the cases the individuals involved should not wish to complain because to do so would simply prolong their ordeal. I do not think that in these cases the Commission should then ignore the story and the issue that it raises.
On occasions the Commission has felt able to make public comment without there being a complaint from the parties involved. In particular, it quickly and quite rightly condemned the publication of the Camillagate tapes. I hope that in future it will continue to speak out in condemnation of flagrant breaches of its code of conduct without waiting first to receive complaints.
There is also a suspicion in the public mind that not all editors agree with the view expressed by the Commission in its submission to Calcutt that
a critical adjudication by the PCC is seen as a serious failure".
Instead, there is a feeling that editors in a highly competitive market and under pressure to boost circulation would regard an adverse ruling by the PCC as a small price to pay for the sale of an extra 100,000 or 200,000 copies. The Commission stated in its submission that it
does not wield and will not seek enforceable sanctions… our powers are as weak or as strong as the moral commitment accepted openly by the newspaper and periodical industry under the Government's threat of statutory intervention.
It is that moral commitment which, rightly or wrongly, some people now doubt. I hope, therefore, that the PCC will consider taking stronger powers than it has now.
Since the motivation of editors is to sell newspapers and make profits for their proprietors, I agree that the Commission should have the power to punish transgressions of its code in this area. I support the recommendation of the Select Committee that the Commission should be able to impose fines and order the payment of compensation. Indeed, I would go slightly further: in extreme cases, as an ultimate sanction, the Commission might be able to order that a newspaper that had blatantly disregarded its code should suspend publication for one edition. That would be not only financially punitive but highly visible to the public.
If the Commission followed these recommendations, it would become a body that would still command the support of the newspaper industry, but it would also possess the necessary teeth. I should hope that there would be no need for further regulation, such as the statutory ombudsman proposed by the Select Committee. While marginally preferable to the statutory Commission which some have advocated, such a post would still be in the gift of the Government and it would still carry with it the dangers that I have described.
Select Committee members who have spoken in the debate have stressed that they hope that the position will become a sinecure—that it would never require use—but there must be a danger, however small, that an ombudsman could become a state-appointed newspaper censor, and the Commission would either have to become subservient to it or irrelevant and ignored.
The Commission made several other recommendations with implications that go far beyond the press. It recommended the protection of privacy law. There is a strong case for that, but I share the view of those who have said that such a law must not simply be directed at the press. It must apply to everyone in the country and not be seen as an instrument to punish journalists.
Similarly, I should like to mention the laws of libel, which also need to be reviewed. The Prime Minister was absolutely right to initiate proceedings against the New Statesman and Society following publication of the outrageous and scurrilous story in that periodical. I am not sure, however, that it was right that the printing firm that printed the magazine—it is based in Colchester—should also have had to pay. It seems unreasonable to expect commercial printers to take responsibility for every word of every newspaper, book or magazine that they print. I hope that that will be considered when we come to look at the law in this area.
This subject generates strong feelings because it touches on one of the fundamental components of a free society. We should think carefully before doing anything to interfere with the freedom of the press. I welcome the recommendations in the Select Committee report. I do not entirely accept one or two of them, but generally they are extremely sensible and they would improve the present regime of self-regulation. I hope that when my right hon. Friend comes to make his decisions he will conclude that the regulation of the press is a matter best left to the press and that there will be no need for the Department to introduce legislation.
This speech is being made at an hour when my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) told us it is impossible for anyone to say anything new. It will be a mixture of an initial response to the Select Committee and a wind-up to the debate on behalf of the Government.
I congratulate the National Heritage Select Committee on its successful application for this estimates day debate, which gives the House another opportunity to discuss the important questions of press regulation and protection of privacy against media intrusion. Except for a moment during the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), I have had the pleasure of hearing every word of the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst), who has sat here throughout the debate without granting himself the indulgence of making a speech.
The debate has had the virtue of being wholly comprehensible to the Public Gallery. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I have found that even English-speaking foreign visitors often think our affairs here as incomprehensible as cricket; but on this occasion we have been talking about a subject which would be comprehensible in any land.
The Select Committee report was published on 24 March, much of it in direct response to Sir David Calcutt's review of press self-regulation, which he submitted to me in January. The Government welcome the Select Committee's report as a distinguished contribution to the public debate on these exceptionally difficult issues. Governments should normally seek to respond to Select Committee reports within two months, and I regret that it has not been possible to do so on this occasion.
I have written to the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Manchester Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), to apologise for this and to explain the reasons. They are, quite simply, that the political range and importance of the Committee's recommendations, many going beyond the responsibilities of my Department, made a response within the normal timetable impossible. I assured the right hon. Gentleman, as I now assure the House, that the Government will do their best to ensure that their response is published before the summer Recess.
We envisage a White Paper which, as well as responding to the Select Committee's recommendations, will set out the Government's final views on press self-regulation and report progress on those recommendations in Sir David Calcutt's review which, as I told the House in my statement on 14 January, the Government are able to accept.
Although it is not possible for me at this moment to set out the Government's final views on any of these matters, I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I have listened to the debate carefully and that the Government will take full account of the points raised when we come to take decisions. I shall pick up some of the points addressed to the Government a little later, but, before I deal with the Select Committee's report, I shall set out briefly the Government's perspective on press regulation and self-regulation.
The conflict between the freedom of the press to report and comment on matters of current interest and the rights and claims of individuals to be left alone is an old one, as students of the very vigorous press in the 18th and 19th centuries know well. But it is really only since the last war that the question whether, and if so how, the press should be regulated has become a hardy perennial.
Successive royal Commissions generally concluded that self-regulation was the best form of restraint. In this, they were following the long-established tradition of not seeking to involve the Government in restraining or controlling the content of the printed press, except in so far as the general law—whether it be the law on defamation, incitement to crime or court reporting restrictions—imposed limits. At the same time, the Commissions generally concluded that self-regulation had not been fully effective.
More recently, that was also the conclusion of the privacy committee, under Sir David Calcutt's chairmanship, and of Sir David's own review of press self-regulation, published in January. As hon. Members will know from the statement that I made to the House on 14 January, the Government accepted Sir David's conclusion that self-regulation under the Press Complaints Commission was not working properly, and urged the newspaper industry to give attention to the failings that he had identified. We also accepted the case for new criminal offences of unwarranted intrusion, and for giving consideration to four other measures bearing on privacy. But we made it clear that we would be very reluctant to accept Sir David's central recommendation for a statutory press complaints tribunal, which would be a step of considerable constitutional significance, and we reserved our position on that. That remains the position, and we will report our conclusions on the tribunal in our response to the Select Committee.
We are also considering the recommendations that the Select Committee has directed at the Government. As I have said, some of these go rather beyond my Department, but we will reply to them all in our response to the Committee. About half the Committee's recommendations are directed at the newspaper industry, which is also considering them. As hon. Members will know, both the Press Complaints Commission, and the Press Standards Board of Finance Ltd—Pressbof—which funds the Commission, issued statements on 4 May setting out their responses to some of the recommendations for better self-regulation which had been advanced by Sir David Calcutt and the Select Committee.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister welcomed those changes at the time, adding that the Government would keep a close eye on their implementation. No doubt both bodies are considering the merits of implementing the remaining recommendations. Our response to the Committee will take into account the totality of the industry's response to the recommendations contained in the two reports.
In the stimulating debate that we have just heard, hon. Members repeatedly asked for the Government's views on the Committee's various recommendations—with engaging patience about when we might be able to provide them. I do not want to anticipate the Government's response to the Committee, on which hon. Members will have to be patient a little longer. However, I should like to consider the debate that we have had before making one or two general remarks about the report.
The right hon. Member for Gorton made a speech that was elegant, thorough and magisterial—adjectives which are also capable of being used about the Select Committee's report, even if they are not necessarily the words that leader writers used on the report's publication. The House will be grateful to him for the way in which he took us through the report of the Committee which he had so skilfully piloted. He gave us an insight into his advice to Lord Wilson to stop reading newspapers. I do not think that that advice would have been accepted by the first Earl Attlee, who relied on newspapers for reliable accounts of county cricket matches, as I do.
The right hon. Gentleman believes that the Select Committee's recommendations have prompted the press concessions. We cannot make a conclusion one way or the other. I have a personal preference for the ancient Chinese view that one gets more done in the world if one does not mind who receives the credit. The important fact is that the press has responded to the public concern evidenced in pluralist ways.
In a measured and thoughtful speech, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) asked about the timing of any announcement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I have sought to verify the answer during the debate, but I can only say that my best understanding is that he intends, as we do in our own response to the report, to bring his work before the House before the recess.
In a colourful and energetic speech, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) made a passing reference to the Stasi. He is not here, so I cannot ask him whether he knows the joke about the Stasi. When their function as police in east Berlin came to an end, they all became taxi drivers. They were the best in the world as all one had to do was give them one's name and they automatically knew one's address. The hon. Gentleman recommended all-party action. There has been near-unanimity in the debate. If Parliament legislates, there is much to be said for it to do so on the basis of all-party support.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn) made an uplifting speech. He said that any sober critic would say that the press was slipping. It is most important that that view should be rationally buttressed in order to carry conviction in any legislative action that might arise.
The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) was a little more partisan. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) described it as an attacking speech. I found it not so much attacking as familiar—a comfortable old friend whose sampler stitch aphorisms I could now repeat in my sleep. I caught her saying that the Conservative party is against freedom of information and likewise heard her going on to say—and I paraphrase—that contempt for democracy marched hand in hand with a disrespect for freedom of information—the dying fall of implication being that the Conservative party is contemptuous of democracy.
During the Committee stage of the Bill of the hon. Member for Hammersmith, I cited the occasion when Professor Joad—not then a professor—went to take a scholarship at Oxford and was asked to write for three hours on the question: can a good man be happy on the rack? To which he replied, if he was a very good man and it was a very bad rack, yes; if not, no. He was awarded a capital alpha for his answer. I would have found the hon. Member for Cynon Valley a little more convincing if, when she described the Government and thus implicitly, myself, as secretive and authoritarian, she had not already included the editor of The Sun in a group that she categorised as well-trained sheep. I commend to her the editor's evidence to the Select Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham made a compassionate speech and said that he regretted that the hon. Lady had introduced a discordant note into the atmosphere of unanimity which had been reflected in the Select Committee report. Given the elaborate investigatorial and legislative programme she spelled out in a somewhat premature version of the Queen's speech, I can see her difficulties.
The hon. Lady's note of dissent was matched by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) who, in an appropriately austere and discriminating speech, after paying tribute to the Select Committee, raised probing misgivings about the statutory ombudsman. The hon. Gentleman and I were contemporaries at Oxford with the Master of the Rolls whose views on the entrenchment of article 10 of the European convention on human rights has necessarily made a personal impact on me which I shall need to debate with him outside the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) made a reflective speech on a wide range of aspects of the Select Committee's findings. Although he correctly quoted the observation about the Englishman's castle, the original source of that stated fortification is Sir Edward Coke, the great lawyer of his age, who did not specify an Englishman but happily took a more generally Unionist view.
The hon. Member for Oldham, Central and Royton (Mr. Davies) made a self-confessedly generalist speech and in the process reinforced the view that anti-surveillance legislation should be generally rather than narrowly framed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North made a characteristically robust, wide-ranging and individual speech which in its coverage and vigour will bear retrospective re-reading. He personally introduced me to a ringing quotation by John Stuart Mill, who was a former Member of Parliament for part of my constituency, although for a party other than my own.
When I made a statement on 14 January at the time of the publication of the Calcutt report, I said that we would delay our full response to Calcutt, not only until after the Select Committee had reported, but until after the debate on the Bill of the hon. Member for Hammersmith had run its course.
I express appreciation to the hon. gentleman for the contribution his Bill has made to our general deliberations. I served as the Minister in the Standing Committee. That was an unusual innovation and, in the absence of a Government Whip, it reminded me how much I had forgotten about the detailed conduct of a Bill since I left the Whips' Office 10 years ago, not least because of the way that he arranged the evidence to be taken at the prefatory hearings prior to the Second Reading of his Bill.
The hon. Gentleman has turned himself into an one-man Select Committee. He has on these subjects become, if I may coin a phrase, a personal walking appendix. He raised the historic inadequacy of the Police Complaints Commission. He will remember the failings that Sir David Calcutt identified and there is virtue in comparing how many of those criticisms Pressbof has responded to. His speech demonstrated the continuing interest he will take in the subject even when the summer is over.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) quoted Doctor Leonard Sussman, whom the chairman of the Select Committee had quoted at the end of the opening speech of the debate. My hon. Friend's speech, which was tautly relevant to the report, was also informed by his own personal experiences at the hands of the press.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) brought a different aspect of personal experience to the debate which helped to illuminate it from a different perspective. Indeed, all those who have spoken from a vantage point outside the Select Committee have added to our understanding.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale) for his personal remarks. I shall tell my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat) what my hon. Friend said. We have only two Ministers in our Department and the other half of the ministerial team is dining for the heritage tonight. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon that my hon. Friend's passion for deregulation has not deserted him. It was good of my hon. Friend to take part in the debate without either membership of the Select Committee or the journalists' profession and the debate has gained in the process.
I said that I would conclude with a remark about the report. In its opening paragraphs, the Select Committee report seems to me to expose admirably the dilemma facing a democratic society which has to balance the right of freedom of expression with other rights. Of the other rights, privacy is not the only one, though it is probably the most important one, and it is certainly the one whose abuse by the press has caused the most concern recently among the public and in the House.
As the report says, the right to privacy must not be exploited to withhold information necessary for making democratic judgments; nor must it be ignored by those whose main interest is in providing a saucy story.
The Select Committee has been at pains to take and publish evidence from those claiming that their private lives have been harmed by injudicious, thoughtless or malicious reporting. I am sure that the House is grateful to the Committee for bringing those cases to its attention.
Whether the Committee's prescription for correcting press abuses is appropriate is another matter to which the Government will return in our response. I assure the House that meanwhile, in developing our policy we shall be concerned solely with seeking the best means by which to restrain abuses of press freedom and by which to achieve a proper balance between the often conflicting rights of freedom of the press and the rights of individuals.
The press argues that parliamentarians are preoccupied with defending themselves and that editors cannot identify a wider public concern about their behaviour. The freedom of the press becomes a talisman which is, at one and the same time, the covenant within the ark and the justification for all actions that the press may take. Parliamentarians have their own reasons for wishing the freedom of the press to be maintained. Our forebears in the House sought to create, to enlarge and to sustain that freedom; it is one of our national glories.
The press periodically becomes apprehensive that Parliament is about to interfere with that freedom in greater or lesser degree, and the events of this year have embraced such a period. But I think it reasonable for Parliament to remark that the press is not serving the interests of freedom if it automatically, even casually and dismissively, uses the amulet of press freedom to justify whatever action it takes, especially when individual privacy is invaded.
By leave of the House, I shall reply briefly. This debate will be read for many years to come, so may I first clarify a remark made by the Secretary of State about Lord Attlee's newspaper-reading habits? Lord Attlee read only two newspapers: the Daily Herald out of loyalty and The Times for the cricket scores. He otherwise paid no attention to what any newspaper said. He stayed in office for six years, and was a great and constructive Prime Minister. I once again recommend his practice to the present Prime Minister and to any of his successors in the remote future.
The Secretary of State need not have apologised in his comprehensive winding-up speech for not responding speedily to the Select Committee report. We on the Committee would far rather that the Government listened before acting. I and, I am sure, all my colleagues on the Select Committee are grateful for the fact that the Secretary of State has listened, has been here throughout the debate and has paid most serious attention to what has been said.
The Secretary of State said that the Government will take into account the totality of the response from the press before making up their mind about their course of action. That is satisfactory, and well and good. However, although that attitude is perfectly proper and appropriate, it must be taken into account, as has been acknowledged by many participants in this excellent debate, that in so far as progress has been made by the press in voluntary regulation, it has been made in anticipation of action being taken to the extent that the press itself does not take action.
Furthermore, my view is that if we have gone as far as we have, with the Government considering the matter carefully, with the Calcutt report, with Bills promoted by my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), and with our Select Committee report, and no action is taken, the press will slide backwards in the belief that it has got through its crisis and that it is now all clear for it to return to some of the deeply objectionable ways from which, we hope, it is beginning to emerge.
I say to the Secretary of State and to the House that our Select Committee remains active on the matter. The Committee will, if necessary, return to the matter in the present Parliament, depending on the way in which the press decides to accept the spirit of the country and the spirit of the House. There is no doubt that there must be action and that that action should include not only greatly enhanced voluntary regulation by the press, but action of the kind that we suggest to the Government in our report. The House is ready for that action; the House is ready for the Government's announcement, to which we look forward.
It being Ten o'clock, MADAM SPEAKER proceeded to put forthwith the Question which she was directed by paragraph (7) of Standing Order No. 19 (Consideration of Estimates) to put at that hour.
That a sum not exceeding £26,720,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges that will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1994 for expenditure by the Department of National Heritage and the Royal Fine Arts Commission on administration.