Media Standards and Media Regulation — Motion to Take Note
Lord Razzall (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, although the noble Baroness's Motion clearly refers to the media generally, from the debate so far and, I suspect, from the interest in the debate, it is obvious that it will focus on press regulation and what should be done about it. I think two principles should underpin any reform of press regulation. First, the system needs to be capable of putting a stop to the kinds of ethical, immoral journalistic practices that have emerged from the Leveson inquiry. During the course of several months, we have heard a powerful and depressing catalogue of the distress suffered by ordinary people-not just celebrities-at the hands of a press that often appeared to be acting cynically and ruthlessly to exploit other people's pain. Of course, there are not just the victims of phone hacking, but also the Liverpool supporters at Hillsborough who, all those years ago, witnessed the deaths of 96 football supporters and who were victims of recklessly inaccurate reporting in the Sun newspaper. The second test, it seems to me, should be that any reform should prevent any government intervention in a free press. As the Deputy Prime Minister said last week,
"Of course it would be completely unacceptable to do anything that allows politicians and governments to intrude upon the content of what the media do".
However, turning to the criticism that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, had indicated to those who are suggesting some statutory underpinning, there is a very clear distinction between a statute that allows political interference in what newspapers want to publish and an entirely independent body, established in law, that holds powerful press interest to account for implementing their own codes of conduct. In other words, it is certainly possible to keep front-line self-regulation that allows the press to police itself and deal with complaints at the speed that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, referred to and then establish an independent backstop regulator, with powers carefully prescribed in law, which does not interfere with content but simply ensures that the self-regulated keep their own promises. Of course, one would not allow any politicians any place on that backstop body.
We surely all agree that we cannot allow the continuation of a system that has failed time and time again. Since the 1940s, there have been three royal commissions and three further inquiries or reviews that took evidence from newspaper proprietors and editors, each publishing a report and recommendations. We all remember the Calcutt committee-I think that is what the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, referred to-which was established in 1989, after flagrant and repeated breaches of ethical standards by national tabloid newspapers in the 1980s. That was when reference was made to a drink in the last chance saloon. We need to remember that it was the friend of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, Rupert Murdoch, who prostrated himself before that committee promising real change. Despite the recommendation from Calcutt in its second report in 1993 that some statutory element was required, the Government were persuaded not to implement those recommendations and, 20 years later, we are back to the same issue.
I am not being sycophantic in commending what my noble friend Lord McNally said during the progress of the Communications Act 2003 when he introduced an amendment which would have required the PCC to send an annual report to Ofcom, to be included in Ofcom's report to Parliament, in order to allow more parliamentary scrutiny. However, Labour resisted those amendments with suggestions that that was a slippery slope to a state-controlled press. I see the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, nods, remembering that debate. My noble friend Lord McNally also talked in that debate about the need for the PCC to be formed into a genuinely independent body at arm's length from editors with compulsory membership and with the power to impose serious financial sanctions of up to seven figures. That, I suspect, is where we shall end up again now, nine years later.
Reference has been made to the press industry. To refer to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, as the press industry is probably inappropriate but he has proposed a new contractual arrangement to which there are a number of ingredients of which noble Lords will be aware, but they all require the continual involvement of editors and proprietors. A truly independent system of regulation requires independence from editors and proprietors as well as independence from government. It requires the ability to provide redress and sanctions, including fines. It requires the ability to investigate when things go wrong, and it needs the ability to compel membership from large and powerful press corporations that have, for far too long, thought themselves untouchable, Mr Desmond.
It works perfectly well in other industries. Virtually every other industry in this country has been subjected to comprehensive overhauls in transparency and accountability. The medical profession, the legal profession, the financial industry, pharmacists, coroners, social workers, teachers, local councils, and the BBC have all been reformed in accordance with modern, 21st century demands for justice and fair dealing-all except the press. Let us take the judiciary. We jealously guard the independence of our judiciary and judges are appointed by an independent and statutory Judicial Appointments Commission. We do not complain that our judges are state appointed.
We must surely agree that the system now needs to be changed. The Government must have the resolution and determination to stand up to the newspaper editors and proprietors and say, "We will not allow this to happen again". It is a unique moment in British media history in terms of promoting great public interest journalism and making sure that the kinds of abuses that have gone on for years in some of our newspapers can never be repeated without proper redress for victims and proper respect for the vast majority of journalists who want to get on with a vitally important job.
The public agree. A recent opinion poll by the organisation Hacked Off demonstrates that 78% of the public want an independent body established by law to regulate the press and 77% believe that it is no longer acceptable for proprietors and editors to control the complaints system. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government have asked Mr Justice Leveson and his colleagues to do a job. Assuming that he comes up with proposals that are proportionate and workable, we should implement them. We should support that view.