Media Standards and Media Regulation — Motion to Take Note
Lord Wakeham (Conservative)
My Lords, I begin by saying how pleased I am to see my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie sitting on the Front Bench. His father was a great friend and colleague of many of us over many years and I am tempted to say that if he makes half as good a speech as his father would have made in these circumstances he will do very well indeed.
I congratulate the noble Baroness who initiated this debate. She did it with the style and wisdom that we expect from her. While I am not sure I agree with everything she said, she put her case extremely well and it needs to be taken notice of.
We all wait with interest to see what Lord Justice Leveson will say and I will try to set out as best I can what I said when I gave evidence to him. Many people have grappled with the issues of press regulation and standards for many years. We have had royal commissions, and inquiries have come and gone. In the 1990s, I was involved in Government when we were trying to decide what to do, and I was the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission for seven and a half years. The truth is that there are not many potential models of self-regulation. Either the industry runs it or the Government run it. I do not believe that there is any magic formula that has not been tried.
My experiences as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission led me to conclude that self-regulation is certainly not perfect, but it did work, by and large, for the public and that should be our main concern. Self-regulation is practical and flexible and I am extremely glad that my noble friend Lord Hunt has found a way to develop it through the use of contract law, which is a real improvement. Statute, on the other hand, is fraught with difficulties. First, let us consider the public. Self-regulation may provide rough and ready answers but it does it quickly and it does it free and with common sense. Regulation through statute drags on for years. For example, there was a recent case involving Ofcom where it reached an adjudication 18 months after the programme was broadcast. That is crazy, and if it had happened when I was running the PCC, there would have been a dickens of a row. It is costly because statute means lawyers. The newspapers would fight it and people complaining would have to drag in lawyers as well, so the public would lose. The cost would be prohibitive. I read in the paper the other day about a footballer who lost a privacy case. He probably deserved to-I do not know enough about the case-but it cost him £500,000 to fight it. If that is what is offered by a statutory system, it is of no use at all to ordinary people in this country.
Then there are the unforeseen consequences. When the Human Rights Bill was going through this House-I see in his place the distinguished former Lord Chancellor, who disagreed with me pretty strongly at the time-I said that my worry was that Article 10 would produce a privacy law that would be available to the rich and those who wish to conceal things from the newspapers, but would be of no use at all to the ordinary person in this country. That is what has happened. As a result, we have an expensive system of taking cases to court, but 99% of the public are not able to access it. We also had the difficulties of injunctions and so on, which brought the law into disrepute.
There is also the practical problem of the internet. How could you put statutory controls on a weekly paper, such as the one in my former constituency, the Maldon and Burnham Standard, when a blogger with half a million followers can escape those statutory controls? You cannot make statute work when there are so many content providers. The world is a completely different place from 10 years ago and it will change again in the next 10 years. A statute would be out of date long before it ever left the House.
Finally, there is for me the crucial question. I do not see how you can make a statutory system work without a licensing system. What do the Government do if publishers refuse to sign up? Many would refuse to do so. Do you fine them? Do you send them to prison? Or, ultimately, do you stop them publishing? Unless you are prepared for those things, you can never make a statutory system work.
So we await Leveson. But as I told him-and he was not very pleased with this-even if the Government do not act on his report, he will have made a real contribution because he has caused us, once again, to focus on these important issues.