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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

From the sublime to the corrupt. First, I draw the attention of hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I believe that a free press, a free Parliament and a free society are intrinsic to one another. Investigative journalism, campaigning journalism and, yes, even on occasion mischievous journalism are absolutely vital. They are the best medication for our political sanity, both in the Palace of Westminster and in society generally. Of course, the press and the media entertain, but they also shine a light into the darker caves of modern life. We should never be naive—if we shine a light into the darker caves, we sometimes get wrapped up in the darkness ourselves.

Many people have told me in the past two years that I have become a bit obsessed with News International and that surely this cannot possibly have gone on only at News International. I am absolutely sure that the problems that we have seen at The Sun and the News of the World may well have been replicated at the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror—all the national newspapers, in particular those trying to pursue what I call celebrity gossip, which was often where this kind of journalism was going on.

There are three distinctive things about News International’s contribution. First, there is hard evidence of what went on at News International. If there were to be hard evidence on any of the other newspapers, I hope the police would investigate with the full thoroughness with which they are now investigating News International. Secondly, there was a major cover-up at News International, which stretched right up to the very highest levels of the company—as we know, even up to James Murdoch. In the end, I suspect that that will prove to have been the biggest crime. Thirdly, News International is owned by News Corporation, which has the largest holding in BSkyB. That makes it quantifiably and qualitatively different from any of the other newspaper holdings in this country.

It is important to remember some of the background to the debate. Some 10 journalists at The Sun, and, as I understand it, 24 employees of the News of the World, have been arrested. They are all on police bail. Police and other public servants have also been arrested. The culture of mass corruption was intrinsic to The Sun’s modus operandi. One public employee received bribes of more than £80,000. One journalist at The Sun had more than £150,000 to disburse in illegal cash payments. So far as we have been told, they were not for grand projects of investigative journalism, but to pursue salacious gossip. A series of private investigators were used, probably not as private investigators, but as paid informants. For example, Philip Campbell Smith was sent to jail yesterday for obtaining private information for cash—another person caught up in this saga.

For a long time, News International maintained that there was one rogue reporter at the News of the World. We now know that that was a lie told on several occasions to Parliament. In an attempt to protect Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, News International said that the hacking started in 2004 and not before then. However,

Charlotte Church’s phone was hacked in 2002, as were many others—another lie repeatedly told to Parliament.

News International also maintained that the contagion was just about one newspaper. It had to keep on maintaining that, because otherwise there was a danger that the whole thing would collapse around its ears. Now we know that it was not. The Sun on Monday, The Sun on Tuesday, The Sun on Wednesday, The Sun on Thursday, The Sun on Friday and The Sun on Saturday were in it up to their necks just as much as the News of the World, now renamed The Sun on Sunday.

There is then the illegal cover-up. We know for sure that senior figures at News International ordered the mass destruction of evidence—the clear, incontrovertible evidence of corrupt payments to police that News International garnered together, gave to lawyers and squirreled away, and revealed to the public only very recently. The authorities in the US should be investigating that, because I do not believe that a single member of the board of directors of News Corp took their responsibilities in this regard seriously enough to prevent the payment of corrupt officials.

Yesterday, it was revealed, though I have known for some time, that some of the people who were targeted by the News of the World were on the witness protection scheme—people absolutely vital to securing convictions against very dangerous people in society. They rely absolutely on the state to protect them, so that they can deliver justice for others. The only people who could have given those names and telephone numbers to the News of the World are the Metropolitan police, who are meant to be the there to defend us. That single fact—it is not helpful to know the names—is one of the most destructive of all.

We know from yesterday that Tom Crone, the News of the World’s head of legal affairs, wrote to the then News of the World editor Andy Coulson on 15 September 2006 outlining what Rebekah Wade, now Brooks, told him about the information relayed to her by the cops. That is like the FBI going to Don Corleone and telling him that it has a bit of information on what his family has been up to—an extraordinary thing for us to witness. I suspect that people are so punch drunk with all the different stories in the past two years that they almost fail recognise its significance. The e-mail states:

“They suggested that they were not widening the case to include other NoW people, but would do so if they got direct evidence, say NoW journos directly accessing the voicemails (this is what did for Clive).”

In other words, people right at the top of the News of the World knew in 2006 exactly what had gone on, and everything that they have said since has been a pack of lies. In total, I believe—my poor old researcher has had to count them—there have been 486 lies to Parliament between News International, the police and other organisations. The police effectively became a partly owned subsidiary of News International, with some people working at News International then going on to work for the Met and some people working at the Met then going on to work for News International.

We know also that the Met, in its strategy to deal with victims of Glenn Mulcaire’s activities, bizarrely got in contact with The Mail on Sunday to tell it that its journalists’ phones had been hacked—an irony there; clearly, there is no honour among thieves. However, the Met did not contact all the other victims, including

the then Deputy Prime Minister. The Met was saying, right up until February last year, that his phone had not been hacked. We now know that Metropolitan police officers knew for certain that his phone had been hacked in 2007.

This is a problem for politicians, because every element of the regulatory regime failed. The directors of the company did not exercise their fiduciary responsibility, either in the UK or in the US. The Press Complaints Commission failed completely in its duty. The Metropolitan police were suborned. The courts provided justice only very slowly and at great expense and financial risk to those involved. Parliament failed to do its full duty. Let me start with the PCC.

The PCC, throughout all this, has proved to be a toothless gaggle of incompetent crones. At every turn, it has tried to defend the idea of self-regulation. Sir Christopher Meyer, whose period in charge of the PCC was probably one of the most dismal records of public service yet seen, has defended what went on during his time. He has even defended the PCC against the accusations relating to what the press did regarding Christopher Jefferies. Why the PCC did not intervene to say, “I’m sorry folks, it is quite clear what you are doing; you are compromising the course of justice. You must desist,” I cannot understand.

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Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park, Conservative)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. As weak, appalling and hopeless as the PCC has been, does he acknowledge that the PCC only applies to those newspapers that voluntarily opt in? Other newspapers do not opt in, which puts a big question mark over the self-regulation process.

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman, whom I count as a friend in these matters, is right. That issue needs to be addressed and is one reason why the answer that the PCC is coming up with at the moment—a contractual arrangement—will not do the trick, because by definition a contract can only be entered into by two willing volunteers. I do not see how we can proceed in that way.

Let us not forget that Baroness Buscombe, when she was PCC chair, was so fatally compromised by having been appointed by her cronies in the newspapers and by the editors of the major newspapers that she far too readily leapt to the defence of the News of the World and News International, condemned The Guardian and ended up having to pay damages to a Guardian journalist and a lawyer because of how she conducted herself. I do not think that she did due diligence. She is now blaming the News of the World, saying that it lied to her. I do not think that she ever asked the serious questions that needed to be asked.

The new PCC chairman regularly criticises politicians for being politicians. I merely say to him that he is a politician. He is in the legislature and was a Minister and a Member of Parliament; he takes the Conservative Whip. He was questioned at the Leveson inquiry:

“Do you think that Parliament might seek to use any form of legislation, however it was cast, as a way of controlling the press?”

He said:

“Yes, and they have told me so, many of them in both houses.”

His comments are untrue. I do not believe that Members of either House of Parliament want to control the press. That should never be our business. He is making that up and should withdraw the comment. I note that he has gone native, because he is already using unattributed comments, which is of course what most newspaper articles these days seem to consist of.

I say to the PCC chairman that I have no desire to control, muzzle, undermine or enfeeble the press. I want a robust, even scabrous, press to hold the powerful to account and to probe and bring the truth to light with courage and determination, within the bounds of the law and common decency and without hubris. It is hubris, in the end, that has done for News International.

We need a new body—not the PCC dressed up in a new fur coat—imbued with different principles and on a different standing. It is clear that it must be independent of the Government, but it must also be independent of the newspapers, because otherwise it will not command the respect of the British people. It must have statutory teeth provided to it in statute law, so that it can enforce its decisions. It must have an independent chairman, not a member of the legislature and certainly not a journalist or someone who takes a party political Whip. It must have the power to enforce redress and, if necessary, to fine. For instance, it should be able to say, “If you’ve published a story on the front page attacking somebody and it proves completely libellous, the response—the retraction—must be on the front page, if the victim of that libel wants.” The new body, whatever it is called, needs to have that power. Ofcom is not that bad a model for us to pursue.

The Minister said on “Question Time” last week that a new body still had to be self-regulating. He slipped that in rather quietly. It is not the view of the Prime Minister, who has made it clear that the body needs to be independent of the Government and the press. The Minister is obviously on the edge of his political career at the moment in respect of that disagreement. Self-regulation is long past the last chance saloon; it has had its last gin and tonic. It is time for a new body that is completely independent.

I have some suggestions on how to deal with the problem in other areas. For me, the biggest problem relates to ownership. At one point, News International had nearly 40% of the newspaper share and the largest part of the single biggest broadcaster in this country. BSkyB is often not referred to as a broadcaster these days, because in most people’s minds it is the platform on which broadcasts are provided. The Communications Act 2003 needs radical surgery in this regard and must be amended to catch up and include platforms, which are often the most anti-competitive element of the business, in the ownership structure.

At the moment, the only restriction on ownership is that if someone owns 20% of the newspaper share they are not allowed to have more than 20% of ITV. We need to be far more radical and say, first, that there is a cap on the amount of the whole of the media world that people can have and, secondly, if they are to own newspapers and broadcasters there has to be a lower cap on how much of that they can enjoy. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has asked Ofcom to consider this matter in relation to news only. We need to consider that market, but we also need to consider the whole. We need to reform the language on the fit and proper person, on which Ofcom has to adjudicate.

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Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park, Conservative)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that no matter what regulation or self-regulation emerges from the Leveson process, as long as individuals and individual corporations control such a large percentage of the news, it is inevitable—unavoidable—that Parliament and the democratic process itself will always bend beneath those interests?

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

Absolutely spot on. I agree. In addition, it is inevitable that political parties, craven as we are, will seek to influence somebody with so much concentration of media ownership and the relationship will become too close. Tidying this up is for the good of us all. It is not just for those of us who take a particular view about News International; it is about any potential conglomeration in future.

In relation to the fit and proper person test, one danger is that because so many members of the BSkyB board have been there for way in excess of the eight years that is now considered to be the maximum time that people can be considered as an independent director, to all intents and purposes none of that board’s members is now an independent director. That is bad for BSkyB. I could go on at great length about why BSkyB operates on a monopolistic basis. It uses its application programming interface, its operating system and its hoovering up of rights, in a way, to crowd out any new entrants to the market. Broadcasting is always intrinsically prone to monopoly, because it costs a lot to make a programme and relatively little to give it to 1,000 people, rather than to 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000. That is why statutory intervention is needed.

We need reform in relation to seeking redress. I have already mentioned the powers that a new body might have, but we also need legal redress through the courts that is cheaper than the present arrangements. Let me give figures in relation to myself. I was awarded £30,000 in a settlement. My legal costs came to some £300,000 and are being paid by News International because of the settlement. That is the normal proportion in such situations. The maximum that has ever been awarded in a privacy case by the courts is £60,000, yet if people go to court in a privacy case their costs will be between £300,000 and £500,000 and they may have to meet the costs of the other side as well, which might be in excess of that.

For the sake of both newspapers and ordinary members of the public, we need a cheaper way of doing this. We should set up some form of small claims court, perhaps limiting awards to £20,000 or £25,000. Such a process would not be heavy on lawyers—people would not need legal representation—and cases would be fairly simply and straightforwardly adjudicated, but they would go through the court system, which has true independence built into it.

We need to change some elements of the law. First, in relation to interception, it is clear in the law that if people listen to a voicemail message after the person for whom it was intended they are still intercepting it. Some believe that this matter is not quite as clear as crystal. Perhaps we should clarify that position. That is not to resile from the existing state of the law, which is perfectly adequate, but for the sake of clarity.

Similarly, we should take away the public interest defence for blagging. If someone is obtaining private information about someone else by deception, there

should be no public interest. The corollary is that, just as the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service always have to decide, first, whether they are likely to obtain a conviction and, secondly, whether it would be in the public interest to prosecute, so we should give a specific power to the DPP to decide not to prosecute in media cases.

There will be times when a journalist will rightly break the law because there is greater criminality to be detected. I suspect that the journalists in the United States of America who revealed Watergate broke the law on many occasions, but no one prosecuted—wisely, because they were revealing greater criminality and levels of corruption. Such an option should, manifestly, be available to the DPP and CPS.

Let me say something about the public interest test. The PCC has its own test:

“The public interest includes, but is not confined to…Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety…Protecting public health and safety…Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation”,

and, secondly:

“There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.”

That test, frankly, is riddled with holes. To say that there is a public interest in freedom of expression itself is a circular argument—that, basically, it is better to reveal whatever it is even if there is no other public interest at all. That idea is mistaken; we should not look at the public interest but at the public good. Many people—many editors—confuse the public interest with what the public are interested in, but the public can be made to be interested in absolutely anything.

One of the ironies of the past 20 years is that the tabloid newspapers in particular, seeing the collapse of their circulation, have ended up pursuing titillating, salacious stories about who is sleeping with whom and all the rest of it, thinking that celebrity would maintain their circulation. They have tended to do that in a pejorative, condemnatory and judgmental way, but we cannot have prurience and judgmentalism together—they just do not fit. If we are going to be prurient, we have to give up on the judgmentalism, which in practice is what has happened.

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Esther McVey (Wirral West, Conservative)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am listening with great interest, and he has brought up many relevant points. To dip my foot in the water a little, can we look further than newspapers and expand the discussion to all forms of media, including social media? I have worked in the media for 14 years and know how they shapeshift and move into different areas. Does he agree that regulation must capture that as well, because social media are currently more or less free from control? Anyone can go or could have gone in there to collect data, photographs and conversations, which could be used for the same purposes, but without redress because we are not dealing with giant organisations that we can have a Leveson inquiry into.

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

Social media are a vital part of news now. I sometimes say to people who worry about the future of the media in Wales that I get most of my news about my constituency not from the Rhondda Leader, the Western Mail—it was never from there, actually—or the South Wales Echo but from Twitter, which is by far

the fastest newsfeed. I certainly learn things before they are announced by Ministers in Parliament, and that is true for most newspapers. I know that half of what I read on Twitter will be untrue, so it is fine for me to dismiss it, but something in a newspaper, supposedly, has the authoritative seal of truth.

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Esther McVey (Wirral West, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman might know that 50% of what he reads is untrue, but when data are collected, added online and someone does a form of Google check on people and their history, anything found is taken as definitive. Does he agree that that, too, should come under the same form of scrutiny and exacting regulation?

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

Social media should not have the same regulation, but they should have the same exacting scrutiny so, yes, of course I agree. There is no point in us legislating for a world that died five years ago, which is almost always what happens with communications Acts, by definition. I remember one debate in the House of Lords on the Communications Bill in 2002, when two supposed experts talked about black and white television licences, which I think had already been discontinued. There is no point in having legislation that does not meet the future as well as today.

I wish to finish on the issue of lying to Parliament. Members will know that it is available to Parliament, through the Speaker or the Chairman of a Select Committee, under the Parliamentary Witnesses Oaths Act 1871, which was added to by the Perjury Act 1911, to insist that a witness providing evidence to the Commons do so on oath. It is difficult, if doing an investigation that goes on for six months, to decide suddenly that the one witness who is coming before the Committee on a particular day needs to give evidence on oath, because that would imply that they are the one person who cannot be trusted. I would prefer us to move to a model in which every person who gives evidence to a Select Committee does so on oath.

I am concerned that the Government want to introduce a new parliamentary privilege Bill which, as I understand it, will put into statute provision on oaths. The danger with that is that if someone lied to Parliament, the case would be decided in the courts, but the courts would almost certainly ask whether the Committee had the right to ask the question, as a judge in a court might ask whether a question was inappropriate and rule that it need not be answered. Was the witness being bullied? Was the witness having a question sprung on them to which they could not possibly know the answer? Were they being ganged up on, and so on? The danger is that we would lose control of our own proceedings.

We should act robustly in relation to those who have lied to us; they should be summoned to the Bar of the House and, as in the 1950s, we should not be frightened of telling people where to get off when they have manifestly, in effect, put two fingers up to Parliament. I am not convinced, however, that that element needs to be in statute law.

Many people think that we have heard the last bit of this story, but I suspect that we have just crept into act IV, scene ii, after being in act III, scene ii, for a long time. I hope that hon. Members will bear it in mind that although we might be punch drunk about the story, there are a lot more punches to come. So far, Leveson

has completely avoided touching anything of a criminal nature—rightly, because no one wants to compromise the ongoing criminal investigations or the prosecutions that I suspect may follow. In the end, however, I think we will find that this has been the single largest corporate corruption case in this country for more than 250 years.

11:28 am
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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

People in Westminster Hall have listened with interest to Chris Bryant. I come with a slightly different perspective. I should declare that I have taken successful defamation actions against a number of newspapers, but they are not relevant to what I will say. I put on the record that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has a media self-regulation guide that I commend to all. It takes a perspective beyond this country.

Media regulation can be seen as what the media themselves should be doing, or as what people do to the media. On the whole, I am more interested in what the media choose to do themselves. I regret that the ways of holding print journalism to account basically disappeared when the Hard News programme with Ray Snoddy was dropped. We ought to be able to justify a weekly serious news television programme looking at what the media do. I recognise that the media pages of the broadsheet newspapers include serious coverage by people who have had a great deal of experience in the media, but the ability to use the power of broadcasting to hold people to account and to make available to all what is known to a few would be useful.

I do not stand here as a supporter of News Corp, or News International, or the papers to which the hon. Member for Rhondda referred, but I am not antagonistic to them in general. However, I recollect that when John Biffen was Secretary of State for Trade he did not refer to the Monopolies Commission the takeover of The Sunday Times and The Times, when The Sunday Times was profitable but The Times certainly was not. Two Government Back Benchers voted against the Government. One was Jonathan Aitken, and I was the other. I am not suggesting that the takeover would not have been cleared, but it should have been referred. Before that debate and vote, I asked Harold Evans whether he would let me have some information. He said he would, but he did not. When he later fell out with his proprietor, he asked me to join his campaign to expose the wrong that had been done, and I said, “You’re a bit late, mate.”

A programme this morning—I forget whether it was on BBC 1 or Sky News—had an excerpt on elements of the independent media in Russia, where some proprietors of independent television and radio channels are having great pressure put on them by powerful people. We should know more about what is going on around the world when people suffer such pressure, and there should be a way of providing international interest and pressure so that the sort of media dominance that former President Berlusconi developed in Italy can be challenged. If what is happening in the media in one country cannot be challenged, persistent and reasonably consistent international pressure and interest is necessary.

The only profitable paper that Rupert Murdoch and his media took over in Britain was The Sunday Times. The Times was not profitable, and what became The Sun

was not profitable. He started his satellite television service from scratch, and it is arguable that by choosing analogue he stopped us having a world lead. Robert Maxwell’s competitor satellite service, which was digital, could have taken us further ahead, but one was commercially successful and one was not. That is the way the market goes.

I realise that the hon. Member for Rhondda and our current media have a great interest in what the News of the World and perhaps some of its fellow papers did, but we should not believe that they are the only ones to have caused casualties in some of their ways of operation. Mostly, they gather news and entertainment, putting it all together, and sell it commercially. There are times when it is possible to apply pressure. I remember being asked to go on Radio 4’s “Today” programme when The Sun had published a photograph of one of the Queen’s children, taken 16 years ago when he and various friends in Canada were jumping into a lake without clothes on. Crowns were drawn across their middles in the photograph. The deputy editor of The Sun was asked about that before I was interviewed, and he explained why he thought that was legitimate. I was then asked what I thought, and I said that if anyone was looking for naked bodies in the papers, there were more in The Guardian, but in the arts pages rather than the so-called news pages. I said that anyone who is frightfully worried about naked bodies should never have a bath, because all of us have one. I also said that if anyone thought that The Sun had made a mistake in publishing the photograph, there was no point telling it because it had explained why it thought it was all right. I suggested going to a branch of one of the 10 named advertisers who had full-page advertisements in The Sun and saying, “I’m not going to boycott you; I’m not even going to boycott The Sun, but if you talk to The Sun could you please say that I think it made a mistake.” Within 36 hours, The Sun had apologised. There was similar pressure when The Sun published the Queen’s Christmas message in advance, and it apologised for that.

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Susan Elan Jones (Opposition Whip (Commons); Clwyd South, Labour)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that my hon. Friend Chris Bryant made a powerful case on retraction? At the moment, when there is misrepresentation or a deliberate lie, it does not matter much to the people who perpetrate it because if they are eventually told that they must publish a retraction, they can do so, comfortable in the knowledge that it will be on page 36, somewhere between the crossword and the horoscope. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as my hon. Friend said, we should have like with like, and that we need teeth to do so?

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

I am not sure that we should be doing that; I think they should be doing that. As I understand it, the proposals for a revised system for the Press Complaints Commission, or whoever its successor might be, will require that any retractions and apologies that are negotiated or ordered will have to have agreed prominence, and not be tucked away in the middle or on the back pages. That problem is in hand.

I am not suggesting that we can have a perfect system. When my wife was a Minister, a senior person in another news group, not News International, said

that if it was not allowed to have a significant share in a television company, it would get us. Fourteen days after she made the decision that it would not get what it wanted, it put a 14-year-old member of our family on the front page of its paper. I am not saying that the two were necessarily connected, but it seemed suspicious at the time. There will be casualties in an open society, and we must accept that people make mistakes and that people suffer.

There is value in the press undertaking investigations that others choose not to, and publishing information that the powerful do not want published, and on balance we gain far more by reducing the amount of externally imposed regulation. Most of us get most of our news from the BBC. Its news coverage and transmissions, from Radio 1 to Radio 4 and the amount of news and current affairs on BBC 1 particularly—copied well by commercial television and Sky News—are important. I do not envy editors who are responsible for judgments on how to obtain and check information, and then decide what to broadcast and how to broadcast it. The question then arises of how to regulate, how to control, and how to obtain redress, and those are the matters that we should keep in mind. If anyone asked me to vote for externally imposed regulation, which would reduce the opportunity for people knowing what journalists and other media workers believe should be made available, I would do so with great reluctance, if at all.

The regulation system for the BBC is wrong, but it is not enormously wrong. The BBC should have a chairman. Having a chairman of the trust who is not officially the chairman to whom the director-general is responsible as an individual is wrong, but that is what Parliament decided, and it may take another cycle of change at the BBC for that to change. Ofcom has done pretty well, but we should provide a forum where people who work in the media and feel that they cannot get important stories broadcast or published could put such information so that we know what is cut out. Too often, the inhibitions on editors and journalists are greater than we know from outside.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman said in his introduction to the debate. I do not believe that the Government necessarily have the answers to all the questions, and I do not believe that they should have. It is often for the public will or the public mood in which there are many activists. I commend to those who are interested Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression, which has a rather more balanced approach than we have necessarily heard this morning.

11:38 am
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Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport); Bishop Auckland, Labour)

I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Bryant on securing this debate. The issue is important, and as ever he made an excellent speech and a compelling case. I want to make an undeclaration, and to make it absolutely clear that I am not related to Clive Goodman.

Her Majesty’s Opposition are basing their perspective of the issue on two principles. The first is the importance of free speech, which is guaranteed in the European convention on human rights, and the Human Rights Act. From that flows the free press, which is essential in our open democracy.

The second critical perspective is that of the ordinary citizen. The phone hacking of the abducted and subsequently murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, led to public horror and was why the Leader of the Opposition called for a public inquiry. We were pleased to support the Prime Minister in establishing the Leveson inquiry and agreeing the terms of reference. My hon. Friend described the horrors of the phone hacking that have emerged before the Leveson inquiry, but I suggest, as everybody in the Chamber will know, that the issues run wider than that.

I have heard from a number of ordinary constituents who have been abused by the press. Such cases seem to have become a common occurrence, and I want to tell one story—although I have others—about a woman who had a double-page spread written about her and photographs taken inside her home. She was described as a person who could not keep a house—in truth, her house was a tip; the Aggie programme would have had a field day—or control her children. The newspaper did not say, however, that the woman was a victim of domestic violence, which was crucial to understanding her situation. This woman was extremely alarmed, hurt and upset by the coverage that she received, but she was the sort of person who did not know that she had any rights and would not begin to understand the notion of redress. We want a system that works for people like her: we do not have such a system at the moment.

The press is already subject to a vast number of laws. For example, on matters of content such as racial incitement, the press is subject to the same laws as everybody else, and as my hon. Friend said, there are also laws that relate to the process by which stories are acquired. The big issue currently under discussion around the country is whether the press should have any special legal privileges.

Before Christmas, the managing editor of The Sun argued that the press should have an exemption from the Bribery Act 2010. Following yesterday’s evidence to the Leveson inquiry, however, we are bound to think that such an argument may have something to do with The Sun’s business model. I do not think that the press should have special legal exemptions. I agree with the Lord Chancellor: everybody should be subject to the law. The Attorney-General has made a number of sensible statements to say that although a free press and free speech are vital, the press must respect people’s other rights, such as the right to a fair trial.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of whether the press should have a public interest defence when acquiring stories, and we look forward with interest to the guidance that the Director of Public Prosecutions has promised to produce. At the moment, the public interest test is applied by the DPP when deciding whether to prosecute a journalist.

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Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park, Conservative)

Does the hon. Lady agree that a legal definition of the public interest would provide the flexibility that commentators in the press are asking for? Most of the corruption and the abuses that we heard about yesterday, and over the past few months, do not amount to the noble pursuit of truth but are actually pretty squalid. There are exceptions, however; Watergate, which was cited by Chris Bryant, is an example in which laws may have been broken in the pursuit of something valuable. A legal

definition of the public interest would provide the flexibility that we need to ensure proper, genuine and useful journalism, and help to weed out the rubbish and abuse that we have seen over the past few years.

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Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport); Bishop Auckland, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and we must distinguish between occasions when the press pursues the public interest or public good, and occasions when it does not. When the DPP produces his guidance, however, I do not think that he will define the public interest. If, for example, I were to say that the public interest includes uncovering crime and corruption, or demonstrating hypocrisy by people in high office, the problem is that it would be difficult to encapsulate everything. Therefore, if we were to go down that path, we would have to think about including everything else as well. I am not convinced that the public interest itself needs to be defined, although we do need greater clarity in the way that the test is applied.

The problem is that the press has ignored the law and the police have not enforced it. Another major problem concerns the inequity that exists in this country when people deal with the press. A person on a low income can go to the Press Complaints Commission, but it can offer them only a published apology or perhaps a letter. Wealthy people, however, can go to court, which is why we have seen them receiving big payouts. People have said, “There seem to be an awful lot of celebs at the Leveson inquiry”, but that is because celebs can afford to pursue their cases, and those are the stories that we know about. We do not know about the victim of domestic violence whom I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, or about the child involved in the criminal justice system, because they have not been able to pursue their cases.

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

People who do not have a lot of money—I do not have a lot of money—have been helped by the conditional fee agreement, which many would refer to as the no win, no fee arrangement. Such agreements worked particularly in cases of privacy and defamation because the amount that a person might eventually receive would be so low—£60,000 at most, and in many cases £20,000, £25,000 or £30,000—that they could not possibly pay all their legal fees. The danger with the Government’s changes to conditional fee agreements is that it will be the poor who are unable to get justice. Would it not make sense to have an exemption for privacy and libel cases?

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Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport); Bishop Auckland, Labour)

I was going to ask the Minister whether he will go back to his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and address the clauses in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently before Parliament. It would be good if Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport took seriously their responsibilities and got Ministers from the Ministry of Justice to shift their position.

We have briefly discussed the fact that we need a free press that pursues the public interest. Just like books and magazines, newspapers have a VAT exemption which, I understand from questions that I have asked of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, is worth £150 million. It seems to me that the public expect to get something for their £150 million—namely a responsible newspaper industry.

Everybody who contributes to this morning’s debate will say that they favour press freedom. There is, however, sometimes confusion about what we mean by that. I just want to tease out some distinctions in relation to that small phrase. Of course, everyone agrees that we need freedom of expression in a free society. If, after this debate is over, people want to say, “The Member for Bishop Auckland made a terrible speech and I didn’t agree with a word of it,” that is fine by me; they are free to do that. However, I do not think that that freedom of expression extends to a licence to ride roughshod over both the law and ethical considerations in order to pursue stories.

We need to be very clear about the distinction between freedom with respect to the content of what is written and freedom in terms of the process that the media use to acquire stories. If we take seriously that distinction between process and content—Onora O’Neill wrote a very interesting essay on this before Christmas—we will find it very helpful. I say that because when we look at the systems that apply—the PCC and whatever we would like to succeed the PCC—we are looking at systems that address the processes, not at systems that control what people write. No Opposition Member and, I am sure, no Government Member has any interest in standing in a newsroom with a big red pen. That is not what we are talking about.

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

indicated assent .

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Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport); Bishop Auckland, Labour)

I am glad that the Minister is nodding; we clearly have a consensus on that. However, if there is to be more discipline in relation to processes, that obviously requires the institutions, organisations and corporations themselves to have some proper internal management control.

[Sandra Osborne in the Chair]

I am pleased to welcome you to the Chair, Ms Osborne.

I have to say that it was pathetic to hear James Murdoch before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport saying that he did not know in answer to all the questions that the Committee was putting to him. I am leaving to one side the question whether all those answers were, strictly speaking, accurate and truthful. He seemed to think that not knowing was some kind of excuse, but in a well run organisation, the people at the top should know what is going on. It is not an excuse not to know. I have written about that in more detail, and people can see what I have written on my website. I now want to talk about the move to a new system and the criteria that a new system must fulfil.

My right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman made a speech in Oxford last month, in which she highlighted three criteria. A new system must be independent, must be citizen-centric and must have 100% coverage of all newspapers. At the same conference shortly afterwards, and very helpfully, Ed Richards, the head of Ofcom, spelt out the meaning of independence. Independence means independent of political influence and independent of those who are regulated. The system needs to be

independent of those who are regulated with respect to the decisions that are taken, the governance and the budgetary control.

Mr Richards went on to set out other qualities that a good system should have. He mentioned clear objectives, an investigative capacity, transparency of process, power to sanction and public accountability—something that we have not looked at enough in relation to the PCC, which is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act or all the usual accountability mechanisms of bodies that are pursuing public interests. The system must also be accessible to complainants.

In the light of what has happened, I would like to add four further points. No one should be above the law. The financial compensation that people receive should be related to the wrong that they have suffered, not the depth of their own back pocket. We need to see competent management systems and proper audit trails in the media industries. As Esther McVey said, we need to look across to the new media as well, because otherwise we could simply set up a system or see a system set up that made traditional newspapers completely uneconomic, with everything migrating to the net. We would then have the wild west on the net, which would not be acceptable, so the hon. Lady was right to raise that point.

Obviously, this is a difficult and complex area, and it would be good if the industry could produce some solutions that met the criteria that have been outlined. So far, we have seen some very positive and interesting ideas put forward to Lord Justice Leveson by Alan Rusbridger in relation to the Reynolds defence and the Omand principles, which show what The Guardian has done and how it has kept ahead of the PCC code.

We have also seen proposals from the current chair of the PCC, Lord Hunt of Wirral, who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda reminded the Chamber, takes the Tory Whip in the House of Lords. Lord Hunt seems to be putting forward a convoluted construction of commercial contracts between press and regulator. I would like to ask a number of questions about that proposal. First, is it not the institutionalisation of agency capture? Secondly, if it is based on contracts between the regulator and the regulated, how can the regulator be truly independent? Will not the regulator always be looking over his or her shoulder to see whether membership or income might be lost? That does not seem to meet the criteria for independence set out by Ed Richards in his speech.

My next question is how the proposal can guarantee 100% coverage. Of course, it might guarantee 100% coverage in the short term. It might be that Lord Hunt, who is an extremely persuasive and plausible man, can get people to sign up now, but what guarantee is there that people will not subsequently want to leave such a system? Is it not really designed to maintain the existing “cosy club” style of regulation? Do other hon. Members really believe that those commercial contracts will satisfy the public, given everything that they have seen come out in the Leveson inquiry?

On Sunday, on the television, Lord Hunt claimed that he had the support of political parties for the proposal. I have to say that he does not have the support of Her Majesty’s Opposition for the proposal. Has the Minister met Lord Hunt? Has the Minister agreed the proposal? I believe that we should wait for Lord Justice

Leveson to fulfil the inquiry that the whole House agreed it wanted him to undertake. We all agreed that that was important—that we needed the independence of a senior judge. I hope that the Minister will say that he, too, agrees that we should wait for Lord Justice Leveson to report, and that he does not accept the hysterical criticisms that were made of Lord Justice Leveson by the Secretary of State for Education.

11:58 am
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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

It is a pleasure to finish the debate under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne, it having begun under the chairmanship of Mr Chope, whose name still appears in front of you, which could confuse—well, it certainly should not confuse anyone who is watching the debate either on television or in this Chamber this morning, which is about to become this afternoon.

I congratulate Chris Bryant on calling this timely debate on a subject that I think it is safe to say has been in the news for many months. He may or not may recall that I praised him—perhaps presciently—in my maiden speech in 2005 as a fine Back Bencher. I do not think that anyone gets bored with praise and I am sure that he is aware that many people in the House have admired the way he has fought his corner on this issue over the last few months and, indeed, years.

Each week, as the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will be aware, seems to bring fresh reports of questionable, and possibly illegal, activities at some newspapers, and witnesses’ statements at Leveson have further stoked the fires. That was why the Prime Minister announced an inquiry into phone hacking on 13 July last year, following revelations that the News of the World may have routinely paid private investigators to hack into the voicemail messages of celebrities and other people involved in high-profile news stories. I certainly welcome the support for the Leveson inquiry from Helen Goodman, who is the spokesman for the official Opposition.

We all need to know what journalists and their agents were up to hacking into phone messages. We also need to know what the police knew when, what they did about it and how we might learn lessons for the future. However, it is worth noting, as we have been reminded this week, that the inquiry is not purely about phone hacking. It will also look into allegations that the Metropolitan Police Service’s earlier inquiries, although they resulted in two convictions, were not sufficiently thorough. That raised questions about the relationship between senior Metropolitan Police Service officers and News International.

The ongoing police investigations, which are being led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers of the Metropolitan police, are making good progress, and they are thorough and well resourced. As all hon. Members will agree, we must let those investigations, which may lead to criminal charges, run their course. About 120 members of staff are working on Operation Weeting, which, as hon. Members will recall, is focused on phone hacking. Operation Elvedon is the investigation into allegations of corrupt payments to police by journalists,

and it is supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. So far, those operations have seen 17 and 21 arrests respectively.

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

As the Minister may know, I asked Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson on 11 March 2003 whether they had ever paid police officers for information. They said that they had, but only within the law, even though such payments are obviously a criminal offence, and it is not possible to make them within the law. My anxiety, however, is this. Although there is an investigation into these issues in the Metropolitan police, I am pretty certain they have happened fairly extensively around the country. We only have to see how regularly the press turn up for the arrest of some famous person, having mysteriously guessed when it would happen. Will the Minister make sure that Operation Elvedon is not restricted and that each of our police forces cleans up its act?

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

Police operations are, of course, independent of the Government, as indeed is the Leveson inquiry, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s point will have been heard and taken on board by the respective police forces.

The Government are clear that we need to get to the bottom of this issue. We need to restore public trust in the regulation and activities of all our newspapers, and only an independent inquiry can do that. Let me also emphasise, however, that that should not be characterised as an attack on the press. As I said, the Government are equally clear about the importance of a free press and media that can challenge the Government and others.

To pick up one of the themes in the speech of my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, more than a third of the world’s people live in countries where there is no press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. In all the criticism we have seen of the press in the past year, it is easy to forget just how fortunate we are to live in a country where the media are not subjected to Government regulation and where the right to freedom of speech means that people can voice views that may be critical of, or offensive to, others. That independence from state intervention is fundamental to our democratic way of life.

Just a week after war reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Syria, it is worth reminding the House and ourselves that, although she was American, many journalists working in Britain also deserve our respect and thanks for the work they do.

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

May I say through the Minister that any Member who gets a chance to go to the Amnesty media awards, which are held each year, will come away with the most incredible regard for the courage and suffering of many journalists in the countries they cover?

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I am sure those listening to the debate will take note of those awards and attend them or look at what is produced.

With press freedom comes responsibility, however, and we have consistently heard reports that certain parts of the press have not lived up to their responsibilities. It will be for Lord Leveson’s inquiry to make specific recommendations on future regulation. To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland,

we will not prejudge what those recommendations might be. We are satisfied that, with this inquiry, we are putting in place the means of establishing the correct regulatory regime.

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

If that is true, why did the Minister say on “Question Time” that the answer had to be self-regulation?

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman is referring to the fact that my remark, albeit in shorthand, echoed the Secretary of State. My right hon. Friend said:

“I don’t know whether legislation would form part of the solution or not…I would love the industry to come to me with their proposed solution, but what I would say to them is that whatever you propose must have the confidence of the public, because the public are not happy with what’s been going on.”

We all agree that we do not want statutory regulation of the content of the press. We want to hear what proposals the press have for regulation, and we have not ruled out statutory backing for a regulatory system.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently noted in the same interview, there is more agreement than expected on the tougher form of newspaper regulation that will emerge in the light of the phone hacking scandal. It is no secret that we would like a regime for regulating the press that is independent, but which has credible sanctions to deal with transgressors, to pick up on the points made by the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland. It must also cover all the press.

Our preference is that there should be no direct statutory regulation of press content and that the press should be able to come forward with a new regime that is credible to the public. The press have already begun that process with the appointment of a new chair of the Press Complaints CommissionLord Hunt. We wish him well in tackling the challenges he and the industry face. However, we have ruled nothing out at this stage, and we are certainly not in the business of pre-empting Lord Justice Leveson’s report.

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Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport); Bishop Auckland, Labour)

I am pleased the Minister has said he does not intend to prejudge Lord Leveson’s inquiry, and that is helpful, but does he have any thoughts about the ideas put forward by Lord Hunt?

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

I hear what Lord Hunt has to say, and my understanding is that he wants everyone to be members of the new body. He wants credible sanctions, he wants the body to be independent of the Government and the industry, and he wants the industry to come forward with credible proposals. As I say, however, it would be wrong for me to comment on the specific elements he is putting forward for debate ahead of the Leveson inquiry’s findings.

Let me talk a little about the Leveson process before I make the other point I was about to make. The inquiry will have two parts. As everyone knows, the first part looks at media ethics and will make recommendations for a regulatory regime to ensure we have ethical media. It is important to note that that part of the inquiry will report in October 2012. The second part will look at the extent of illegal behaviour by News International and other media organisations and at the police inquiry into

that behaviour. That part of the inquiry is necessarily longer because of the difficulties of operating around live criminal investigations, as the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned.

The first part of the inquiry is made up of four modules. Module 1 dealt with the press and the public, and the hon. Gentleman will have seen the extensive media coverage of the witness hearings at the royal courts of justice. The evidence given has helped to raise the inquiry’s profile, and the continued coverage serves only to highlight the intense importance the public attach to the regulation of the press and to the inquiry’s outcome.

Hon. Members may have noticed that the hearings for module 2, which focuses on the press and the police, started yesterday. They will be followed by module 3, which focuses on the press and politicians. It is obvious, therefore, that media interest will continue right up until Lord Justice Leveson reports and that there is still a huge amount of evidence to be gathered and considered. Let me therefore repeat—I have said this almost ad nauseam—that it is important to wait for Lord Justice Leveson’s report.

There is, however, another opportunity to look at these issues. We will publish a Green Paper focusing, if I can put this in shorthand, on how to bring the Communications Act 2003 up to date. We hope the Green Paper will lead to a White Paper and then to a communications Bill. I say that in all sincerity because of the work the hon. Member for Rhondda has done on the issue and the position he has taken.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues this morning, and I hope that he does not feel I am being too much of a politician when I say it would be wrong for me to give a view on each of his points about a small claims court or amendments to interception rules, or, indeed, his concerns about the proposed parliamentary privilege Bill, which is still very much in the drafting stage, the fit and proper person test or the need to amend the Communications Act 2003. I hope that he will, perhaps in a personal capacity, submit evidence to the Green Paper.

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but I think he is being a bit too much of a politician, and not even a very good one, because his boss has already said that he will look at the idea of a small claims court; so I have got further with his boss than I have with him. The draft parliamentary privilege Bill is meant to be published in the next few weeks. I think the Minister could get a bit more up to speed with what is going on in the rest of the Department.

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

It is sad that our relationship has reached this stage, when the hon. Gentleman deliberately mischaracterises what I have said. If he is honest he will say that the Secretary of State has not reached a conclusion on whether the small claims court is the right way forward. My right hon. Friend said merely that it is an idea that should be considered, which is exactly what I said about two minutes ago: the hon. Gentleman put forward some interesting ideas and I would welcome it if he—I am treating him with a lot more respect than he is giving me—would put those ideas into the Green Paper. Is that all right?

I am sorry, Ms Osborne; I got slightly carried away, but it is a bit unfair when all we are saying is that the arguments being put across are perfectly valid and deserve consideration in a process that is being undertaken by the Leveson inquiry and the Green Paper.

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Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport); Bishop Auckland, Labour)

I am grateful to the Minister, who is being generous with his time. We were expecting the Green Paper to be published before the end of January, and it is now almost March. Does he have any idea about the timetable for the process, for which he is in fact responsible? [ Interruption. ]

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

My hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley, who is an experienced politician, says that the conventional answer is “Soon”. As a Minister I have come up with a new conventional answer to any question like that, which is “in the spring”, because I have discovered that in Whitehall the spring season runs from February to November. Therefore, to say that something will be published in the spring covers all the bases. However, to be more accurate, and feeling the vibes of pressure about my performance coming from the hon. Member for Rhondda, I can say that the timing has changed from spring to imminent, which means that we hope to publish the Green Paper in the next few weeks. We wanted to tighten up a number of issues, not related to what we are discussing today, but on a wholly separate matter.

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Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport); Bishop Auckland, Labour)

We know about that.

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

That is the reason for the delay, and I gather that the hon. Lady knows about it.

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

I hope that the Minister will not get wound up—it seems awfully easy to wind him up. Is it possible that some of the issues that we have been discussing will not be addressed at all in the Green Paper, and there may just be a great big hole? Is that the Government’s intention—a kind of hole, labelled “Please insert Leveson here”? Alternatively will there be an exploratory consultation as part of the Green Paper?

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, which is that the document is a Green Paper, not a White Paper. It is not a precursor to the legislation. The Green Paper is a consultation document, and it will raise a number of issues. It will, in some areas, give a clear view of the Government’s direction of travel, and in others it will simply raise an issue and invite comments. However, it is important to emphasise that a Green Paper is a precursor to a White Paper and is therefore not necessarily so detailed. It is designed to invite comment, ideas, thoughts and proposals. In that sense it is much more open minded, and is effectively a call for further evidence.

The hon. Member for Rhondda has raised a number of points during the debate, which although its title is “Media Regulation” focused on the issue that has exercised us for the past few months: the future of press regulation.

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Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport); Bishop Auckland, Labour)

I intuit that the Minister may be about to sit down. Before he does I want to remind him of another issue raised in the debate: whether he has put

any further pressure on his Ministry of Justice colleagues to amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

It is worth making the point that the conditional fee arrangements could be interpreted as a restriction on press freedom. I hear what the hon. Lady has said about the Opposition’s case for a clear exemption in the relevant areas; but there is certainly an argument that conditional fee arrangements put the press under undue pressure. I hear what the hon. Member for Rhondda says about the sums of money involved, but there is evidence that newspapers might settle cases that they would otherwise be prepared to fight, on the basis of the legal costs that they are likely to rack up against a litigant. I will happily write to the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Rhondda, setting out the position on that issue.

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

Some newspapers have advanced the argument that under the proposals they would not write things that they would otherwise write; but if the result is that they choose not to write things that infringe people’s privacy or libel them, that is a good thing, not a bad thing. If there is a chilling effect that means that they do not write lies, that is good, not bad. It is difficult enough, even if conditional fee agreements are allowed for privacy and libel cases, for ordinary people to gain access to lawyers. They just do not know how to go through the process. However, it will be infinitely more difficult, or almost impossible, for someone from, say, Soham to get justice, as it would be for someone involved in any of the big criminal investigations where the victims of crime have ended up in the newspapers unnecessarily and incorrectly, with their privacy traduced.

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

rose —

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

May I add to that intervention, and contradict it? The Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill has produced a report, to which we expect the Government to respond at some stage; perhaps it is as much for the Ministry of Justice as it is for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Anyone who has listened to the editors of Nature or the British Medical Journal, or the campaign “Sense about Science” or who has heard the saga of Simon Singh or Dr Peter Wilmshurst, would say that what matters to the public interest is to get more information out, especially if it challenges what other people are saying, or if what is claimed is incontrovertible.

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

rose —

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Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park, Conservative)

I should like to take up both those last two points, although that was not originally why I wanted to intervene.

I edited The Ecologist for about 10 years. We were threatened every month with litigation. Were it not for the fact that I personally had deep pockets and could defend the magazine in a way an ordinary editor or owner could not, the magazine would have been thrown against the rocks, so I take my hon. Friend’s point; but that is entirely different from the point that the hon. Member for Rhondda was making.

There is a clear public interest in the issues that Nature, for example, wanted to explore. There is no public interest in the kind of industrial-scale but nevertheless schoolyard bullying that people such as Charlotte Church faced, and which served no public interest. A 16-year-old girl was mercilessly torn apart by newspapers, and I do not believe any decent person in this country would defend what the newspapers did to her. The fact that she is a celebrity is neither here nor there. What they did was inhuman, and there is no public interest defence.

I challenge any of the newspapers following the debate to come up with one example of a genuine public interest story that has not been published as a result of the so-called chilling effect of the Leveson inquiry. I ask the Minister to reassure people who are afraid of a chilling effect resulting from it—several people have made that point—by saying that none of the ideas being put forward in response to the crisis that we face would jeopardise a free press.

Index on Censorship, which has campaigned harder than anyone else for the kind of reforms that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West wants, has teamed up with Hacked Off, which focuses entirely on the kind of abuse we have been discussing. The fact that they have joined forces to come up with a solution shows that the proposed solutions are not designed to jeopardise a proper free press.

I ask the Minister to make that point and to add, finally, that even if a crazy idea were put forward—if Leveson lost his head and came up with a lunatic idea, which is highly unlikely—the ideas are just recommendations, and Parliament will take a view. There is no reason at all for anyone to fear the Leveson process. I hope that the Minister will echo those sentiments and make that very clear.

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Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, Labour)

Order. Could we have short interventions, please?

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

rose —

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Helen Goodman (Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport); Bishop Auckland, Labour)

I just want to comment on the intervention made by the hon. Member for Worthing West. There are many things in the draft defamation Bill that will free the press, which the Opposition support. However, the Joint Committee report makes the point that the Jackson proposals should have been introduced rather than the things in the Government’s Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

I hesitated for a moment, Ms Osborne, in case anyone wanted to make a further intervention. Perhaps members of the audience might wish to participate in this debate, which is, funnily enough, beginning to resemble “Question Time”. I was glad not to raise a point of order with you, Ms Osborne, during the intervention of my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith. Although it was a lengthy intervention, it was full of passion. He is another Member of the House who has taken a great interest in recent activities.

My hon. Friend said that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West was making a separate point, but what that illustrates is the fact that there are arguments on both sides—whether that in protecting the interests of a litigant, we are restricting press freedom, or whether we are protecting the interests of a litigant against the press. Inadvertently perhaps, he made an interesting point. It is not always the big media organisations to which we turn to expose corruption or wrongdoing. Often it is small media magazines or publications, which do not have large-scale resources to defend themselves against litigation, that can be silenced when the balance is tipped the other way. The hon. Member for Rhondda made a passionate point about conditional fees, and clearly he will want those points taken on board and responded to fully in the light of the legislation that is currently being considered. As has been said time and again, it is interesting that it is the Ministry of Justice that is taking forward those important pieces of legislation, which are nevertheless having an impact on this debate.

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I think that he will remind us to keep in mind that there are issues of libel or defamation and of privacy. There are also issues relating to people who are not journalists who may want to speak at some professional conference where reports of what they have said can occasionally and wrongly suffer challenge in the court on the grounds of privacy, but more often of defamation. That needs protecting. In terms of the media responsibility, I hope that my hon. Friend and his Department will engage with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that such points are not forgotten.

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

Certainly, we engage with the Ministry of Justice at length on many of these issues. Going back to the speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda, his thesis was that the regulatory regime failed across the board, whether it be the directors of the company, the Press Complaints Commission, the Metropolitan police, the courts or Parliament. However, it is also worth remembering that where there was wrongdoing, there were mechanisms to stop it, such as a proper criminal investigation or a criminal prosecution. Nevertheless, we have quite rightly set up an independent inquiry into the future of press regulation. It seems that there is general agreement that whatever recommendations emerge from that, we need a system of press regulation that is independent both of Government and of newspapers.

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Chris Bryant (Shadow Minister (Home Affairs); Rhondda, Labour)

The Minister correctly characterised my argument, but there is one other vital element to it that Leveson is probably not considering, which is ownership. Part of my argument is that it was actually the whole pattern of owning BSkyB and 40% of the newspapers that was the problem. It was what led to the sense of hubris about how News International and News Corp owned the Metropolitan police, the British Government, Parliament and politicians and could do what they wanted.

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Edward Vaizey (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport; Wantage, Conservative)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He has obviously raised the issue of the fit and proper test and it is frequently referred to in this context. As he knows, Ofcom, an independent regulator for which I have the highest regard, has an ongoing duty to ensure that anyone who owns a broadcasting licence is, and

remains, a fit and proper person. It is frequently suggested by the hon. Gentleman and others that the revelations at News International mean that the owner of News Corporation is not a fit and proper person and hence BSkyB is not fit and proper to continue to hold its broadcast licences. I again emphasise that the regulation is independent of Government and is a matter for Ofcom. I understand that Ofcom has contacted the relevant authorities and asked to be kept informed of any information that might assist it in assessing whether BSkyB is, and remains, fit and proper to continue to hold its broadcast licences.

In the last five minutes, I wish to raise the issue of technology, which has not come up so far in this debate. It is worth looking at other systems of regulation. We now have the Authority for Television on Demand, which regulates broadcast-style services over the internet. It is interesting to see how that system of co-regulation is working; we have already had references to self-regulation, independent regulation and Government regulation. It will be interesting to see whether something emerges from Leveson and from our Green Paper about how to join up those different elements of regulation. Newspapers on the web do not currently fall under the regime of ATVOD because they are not pursuing broadcast-like services. That is an interesting matter for genuine debate about the future of press regulation.

We have had an entertaining and interesting debate. The hon. Member for Rhondda has put his case with the clarity and force for which he has become renowned in the House. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West for reminding the House about the importance of press freedom not just in this country but around the world where perhaps more oppressive regimes may exist. I am grateful for the support from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland for the Leveson inquiry and for her pertinent comments about the position of the official Opposition. The common position is that we must wait for the Leveson inquiry to reach its conclusions. I hope that people, including hon. Members with a particular interest in this area, will use the opportunity of the Green Paper to put forward their views on the future of media regulation.

Sitting suspended.