Media Standards and Media Regulation — Motion to Take Note
Viscount Eccles (Conservative)
My Lords, I need to be forgiven for not directly following the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. I will start with something of a challenge. There has been quite a lot of talk about independence, and independence of statutory arrangements. We will be debating these matters further, and I shall be looking for examples of true independence where there is statutory regulation. I do not quite see, where Parliament is sovereign, that you can ever arrive at what I would describe as independence.
When thinking about media standards, I want to follow much of what my noble friend Lord Stoneham said, and concentrate upon those who are the subject of human interest stories and did not expect or wish to be caught up in media attention and become news. They may on many occasions-there is plenty of evidence for this-find it difficult to cope with the questioning, cameras, offers of advice, talk about money and everything that goes with a long-running human interest story, and even with less important stories.
There seem to me to be two questions to ask about these stories. How accurate are the facts which come across in the telling of these stories? Are the conclusions reached interim conclusions or final conclusions and are they believed by the writers to be true? I have two tests from long ago; I do not believe that there was a golden age when everybody behaved incredibly responsibly. One was the story of a Catholic priest. I was probably 17 at the time. He told us that he had been caught up in the Underground when there had been an accident in the late 1940s. There were injuries and, as I remember it, there were deaths as well. He went down into the Underground and did his job as a Catholic priest. He came up after a considerable period of time, pretty shattered, to be greeted by the cameras and the questioners who had not been allowed down into the Underground. In his exasperation, he said, "My God, mind your own business". The next day his picture appeared in the newspaper and the caption below was, "I am here on God's business".
The second story concerned Beaverbrook. You have to be quite old to remember much about Beaverbrook. I think that it was the Beachcomber column which hounded-I do not think that that is too strong a word-my father. It was a gossip column, which came to no conclusions because it wanted the public to come to their own conclusions. However, the gossip was handled, with scant regard to the facts, in such a way as to try to make sure that the public thought, "Well, this is a man not to follow. This is a man with views that cannot be right because look what sort of a person he is".
Therefore, I start with a scepticism about the press and great caution. Subsequently, in pretty mundane appearances of things close to what I was doing, just occasionally I have been reinforced in these views. In a small headline, I was described as a civil servant. Never mind what the article said, but it would have taken about two minutes, or possibly five, for the sub-editor-it was in a headline-to check whether I was a civil servant. Of course, I was not. Over that period, I would give the press about six out of 10, which is possibly generous, for the accuracy of the facts.
What about the truth of the conclusions? I do not think that the press is much interested in the truth of the conclusions because the story dominates. Its test is not what is in the public interest but what interests the public, which I think has always been the case. Probably, it was exactly the same in 1800 as regards the satirists and the broadsheets on the high street.
In facing up to this reality, what is to be sensibly done? The first thing that we should remember is not to underrate the public, who have a healthy scepticism. There perhaps is a tendency-we fall to this temptation in your Lordships' House-to think that others do not keep up as well as we do ourselves, which is probably a mistake. I also think that we should remember that we all love a drama, to be excited and to have something which has been built into a story that we would like to read. Perhaps we get the media that we deserve.
Much has been said about Leveson. I believe that the most brilliant evidence was that given by Matthew Parris. I commend it to noble Lords and hope that they will read it among all the other millions of words. There was a disenchantment in that evidence as regards the reality and the acceptance. He suggests that phone hacking is only the logical consequence of double mirrors, impersonation and long-range lenses.
Statutory legislation will not work. As has been correctly said, it is slow and process is more important than outcome. Perverse incentives come in. If I am subject to rules and I am very clever, I may think, "You've set the rules; now I am going to see how I can get round them". That is what happens always and everywhere with statutory regulation. Again, I challenge people to find a system of statutory regulation where that does not happen. Better would be the common sense of the people; a shake-up of the PCC; peer-group pressure; establishment of the things that we do and do not do; and some internal system of penalising those. The idea of civil law contracts is very good. That would serve us better than legislating for statutory regulation.