Media Standards and Media Regulation — Motion to Take Note
Lord Sugar (Labour)
My Lords, there is a need to crank up regulations controlling the media. They have, for far too long, run wild with very little control. A few weeks ago in this Chamber, we discussed the Defamation Bill, and this debate today touches on some of the same ground. Regrettably, in the case of defamation, your Lordships are considering easing up and, some may argue, actually making life easier for the media to continue to run wild.
What we have seen in the past few years is the complete decay of decency and morals in the media. They do not seem to exist at all in the printed media and sometimes, I regret to say, in television. Desperation to get a story has led editors to stray from honesty and truthfulness to using unfair means of finding or creating devious angles on a story, or even tricking the subject of the story by illegal means. Of this, of course, your Lordships are fully aware in light of the recent inquiry carried out by Lord Leveson.
It is my opinion that journalists should be licensed. Moreover, editors should be made responsible for what is printed in their newspapers or broadcast on their TV channels and they, too, should be licensed. I do not see any room for self-regulation. There should be an authority which dishes out, for want of a better expression, yellow cards or ultimately red cards for those who continually abuse the system-or, to use our American cousins' terminology, "three strikes and you're out". In other words, we should say, "Your newspaper, your television channel, has been guilty of publishing lies or indulging in irresponsible journalism under your watch and, therefore, you are banned from operating as a newspaper or television editor"-in the same way that company directors are disqualified from running companies when they act irresponsibly and illegally.
The Press Complaints Commission, I regret to say, is weak-I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, because I know that he was the chair of it. However, I take a point that he raised about a footballer having to spend half a million pounds to defend himself and to get some justice. Well, does that not answer the question? If the Press Complaints Commission actually had some clout among the press, one would not have to go and spend any money with lawyers; it would actually punish the media. I do not care what anyone might say to argue with that statement; I can assure you that there are very few, if any, in the printed media who take the PCC seriously.
There was a day when the once great newspaper, the Sunday Times, would spend months working on a story, breaking news on some revelation. The journalism was carried out very diligently and carefully so that the content of the finished article was accurate. Those stories would take weeks, if not months, to develop and were kept under wraps until they broke, bringing massive revelations. These days, newspaper editors are demanding a story a day. They are forcing their staff to fabricate stories-to make up stories-to provide compelling headlines for their front pages. It is this pressure which is inducing staff to act illegally in the manner which the Leveson inquiry has covered in full.
It is impossible for journalism to be treated in the same way as a production line. You can not fabricate stories in matters of public interest simply because events are not occurring as regularly as newspapers would like them to. It is because of this that you get low-class journalism where journalists are trained to trick contributors to their articles or programmes, where content is edited in such a manner that is misleading, and where headlines are created from throwaway remarks or taken completely out of context. A double-page spread in the Sun today accuses the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, here of "blasting" the BBC. The other day, I made the fatal error of giving somebody an interview about enterprise and youngsters, and it resulted in me "blasting" the BBC. Of course, this morning, my telephone was blasting with calls from executives at the BBC-as if they have not got enough to worry about at the moment-asking me what this was all about.
Let us consider a situation where a camera crew has forgotten to switch off a microphone or deliberately left it switched on. This of course happened to the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It was quite natural that he may have had some comments to make privately in the car, but, unbeknown to him, his microphone was still on. This was not proper journalism; this is the sort of thing that needs to be controlled.
Another example is the murder of Jo Yeates in Bristol, where the pressure on journalists was such that they effectively accused her landlord of her murder-he was questioned by police and found not to be guilty-but, nevertheless, they had him hung. That was absolutely diabolical journalism at its worst. The whole Madeleine McCann story is another example where, because of the same pressure to produce something when there was nothing new to report, the press just made stuff up and it all ended up with them having to print front-page apologies. The damage was done and you can never repair that damage.
I hope that the Leveson inquiry not only reaches conclusions about things that have been done but produces some practical recommendations on regulating the media, with provisions that can result in prosecution for people who act illegally and, more to the point, the suspension of high-profile editorial staff-as well as significant fines of a quantum similar to those imposed by, for example, the FSA when a financial services company steps over the line. If necessary, those responsible should be banned from practising their profession in the same way as a lawyer or doctor would be struck off if they had acted improperly.