Question of Privilege

– in the House of Commons at 3:40 pm on 8th March 1988.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 3:40 pm, 8th March 1988

I wish to call attention to the parliamentary sketch in The Guardian of 2 March, and beg to move, That the matter of the complaint be referred to the Committee of Privileges. Members of Parliament are not noted for being shy and retiring creatures. Obviously, in the clash of ideologies which we have in the Chamber there are bound at the very least to be robust exchanges of view. Much heat is often generated, and strong and sometimes unkind words are used. No one should complain and, indeed, no one on either side complains about that.

By nature I am not a whinger. I am prepared to hand it out and to accept it, but there are clear limits. I maintain that the article by Mr. Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian of 2 March grossly exceeded those limits. It was gratuitously offensive to named Members and it slandered most other hon. Members on this side of the House.

Mr. Rawnsley's complaint was that in the debate on unemployment benefit changes on 1 March there were only a handful of Labour Members in the Chamber. He failed to notice that there were even fewer Tory Members present, but we shall let that pass for the moment. I understand that Mr. Rawnsley is a new and inexperienced sketch writer, but that is no excuse for not understanding the nature of parliamentary business, or for not attempting to find out how it is organised.

I confess that I am rather saddened that it is a journalist of The Guardian whom I am seeking to refer to the Committee of Privileges. The Guardian is one of the few national newspapers which we could describe as a quality newspaper with certain standards. I would have infinitely preferred that it had been The Sun that we were discussing, but since that newspaper has no standards it would have been impossible for it to have fallen from them.

At the time that Mr. Rawnsley was penning his offensive remarks, no fewer than nine Standing Committees were in session involving 74 Labour Members, plus a greater number of Conservative Members. In addition, a further 27 Labour Members were in Select Committees. There was also that day a major education lobby in which 2,000 people from all over the country participated, and obviously Members of Parliament would have been meeting their constituents.

For my part, I attended the education lobby and then went directly to the Standing Committee on the Housing Bill, which did not adjourn until 12.45 the following morning. In the Division on the unemployment benefit motion at 10 pm, about 90 per cent. of the parliamentary Labour party voted, a fact unlikely to have been observed by a sketch writer who no doubt was safely tucked up in bed, as any Guardian journalist would be during opening time. In conjunction with my hon. Friends, I would have much liked to have been in the Chamber to participate in the debate on the unemployment benefit changes, but I could not, for the reasons already stated.

In all the circumstances, on the day in question it was an insult for Mr. Rawnsley to state that "drink, laziness and incompetence" were the reasons for the absence of hon. Members from the Chamber. For Mr. Rawnsley, when he realised how foolish he had been, subsequently to have written that it was all meant to be light-hearted, merely added insult to injury. I wish to tell Mr. Rawnsley and any other journalist that the best kind of humour is that based on truth. There is nothing very funny about common abuse based on an imperfect understanding of the truth.

The House would be foolish to become over-sensitive to criticism, but fair criticism is as far from vulgar abuse as I thought the journalistic standards of The Guardian were from those of certain other newspapers. If the reputation of Parliament is to be maintained, there are times when our procedures must be defended in the face of ill-informed and malign attacks made upon us by journalists or anyone else. I do not seek to be vindictive towards a particular journalist and I am not interested in this House having privileges that are not justified by the duties and responsibilities placed upon us by the electorate. However, journalists should not be allowed irresponsibly and unjustifiably to attack MPs—or any of our citizens.

In view of what I believe to have been a gross contempt of this House by a newspaper journalist from The Guardian, I ask the House to accept the motion and to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges for further consideration.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne 3:47 pm, 8th March 1988

I am not one of those who read The Guardian out of choice. It is true to say that before this I had never heard of Andrew Rawnsley, and it is only fair to add that I am sure that he has never heard of me. The article in question was totally unknown to me until the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was kind enough to hand it to me when he and I were both absent from the Chamber in the Public Accounts Committee a week ago today.

However, I note that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) had occasion to address the House on 19 June 1984 when my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) sought leave to refer a matter to the Committee of Privileges. The hon. Gentleman opposed the motion moved by my hon. Friend, and this is what he said on that occasion: I believe that this motion represents an unpardonable waste of parliamentary time. He went on: All Members of Parliament, Mr. Speaker, must accept the consequences of their actions and not whinge afterwards."—[Official Report, 19 June 1984;Vol. 62, c. 160–61.] Let us examine the allegations made, mercifully, not against my hon. Friends but against Opposition Members: Labour MPs appear to be slowly vanishing from the Chamber—

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

The hon. Gentleman has underlined the truth of what was said by the sketch writer.

The question is then posed: Where are they? … The latest theory is the oldest. At work, once again, is the Westminster Triangle: drink, laziness and incompetence. I have no wish to forfeit the methodist vote in my constituency but I have to confess that during my short period in the House—and, indeed, before I arrived here—I have had more than one glass of white lady. I have given up drink for Lent, but let us examine the nature of the allegation and the Labour party's response to it. There are sins graver than to have a drink.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

Laziness is a vice that has afflicted parliamentary sketch writers and Members of Parliament down the ages. To object to the charge of incompetence that was levelled at the Labour party is an objection with no foundation whatever.

Therefore, I conclude that the article, which was described as a sketch, has provoked the most unworthy response, notably from the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. He is the custodian and trustee of some of the silver that used to be the property of the Greater London council. Whether it was incompetence that led him into the role of trustee, whether it is laziness that has prevented him from giving it back, or whether, at the moment of taking it or at the moment of putting it where it now is, he was under the influence of drink are matters which should not detain the House any further. I for one will be voting against the motion.

Mr. David Steel:

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) omitted one important fact in moving his motion, and that is that the newspaper has apologised, not once but twice. Although I found the article offensive, that should be the end of the matter and the Committee of Privileges should not waste its time on it.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth , Mid Worcestershire 3:52 pm, 8th March 1988

I regret the terms of the motion because, in the words of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), it shows a degree of over-sensitivity that does the House and hon. Members little justice. If we are to resort to this device every time we felt sensitive about something writen by the press, the Committee of Privileges would be in constant session. There is nothing to be gained in pursuing this matter.

The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) has just mentioned the fact that the journalist involved apologised twice for what had been said and that leads me to reflect on the fact that in the past few days the conduct of an hon. Member was drawn to your attention, Mr. Speaker, and, although a matter of privilege may have been involved, the hon. Member apologised and the matter was not pursued any further.

Here, a journalist has been accused of a breach of privilege, he has apologised and yet the House is in danger of taking the matter further. That suggests to me that there is one rule for Members of Parliament and quite a different rule for journalists. That is patently unsustainable and I hope that the House will pause long and hard before accepting the motion.

If the matter were to be referred to the Committee of Privileges, we could be open to the accusation not just of over-sensitivity but of seeking to defend ourselves against any accusation or criticism in the press. Since we take to ourselves the very privilege of criticising anyone whom we please, under cover of our own privilege, it ill becomes us to use such a mechanism against members of the press. For those reasons, I hope that the House will soundly reject the motion.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton 3:53 pm, 8th March 1988

Like most of my hon. Friends, when I read the column by the journalist from The Guardian I was furious. I felt that it was quite unjust that a Labour Member who was ill should have been named in the way that he was and that other Labour Members who were in various Committees should have been attacked for not being in the House when, in fact, more Labour Members than Conservative Members were in the Chamber. I felt furious. Indeed, I almost phoned Mr. Ian Aitken about the matter. I did not phone him because I reflected on the issue and I realised that if we are in the House of Commons, we are bound on occasion, whether we like it or not, having stood for Parliament and come to the House, to be attacked and traduced, sometimes quite wrongly.

I remember The Sunday Times saying that I would cheerfully see off my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) because I was the Stalin of the Labour party. I did not raise a matter of privilege. I took the paper to court. Having taken it to court, I had quite a nice holiday in Italy. We have to accept that whether we like it or not, on occasions we will be wrongly attacked.

I think that the young journalist on The Guardian who wrote the article was absolutely wrong, but the House would make the position far worse if we decided to make it a matter of privilege. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), whose anger I understand—I feel as strongly as he does about the matter—to accept that The Guardian has apologised to my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis).

Even if we are not absolutely happy with that apology, the House should accept it and hope that in future other people will take a little more notice of what actually happens in the House of Commons, and understand that hon. Members cannot be here on every occasion because we have to attend Standing Committees, Select Committees and internal party committees. I worry about television in the House precisely because some people outside the House will not understand that.

I do not wish to say much more, except to give some advice to the young gentleman who writes for The Guardian. There used to be a journalist here called Frank Johnson. He pilloried me regularly, but in such a way that I used to roar with laughter. I hope that the present sketch writers will follow the example of Frank Johnson and write in a way that is not harmful or nasty and which right hon. and hon. Members can fully appreciate.

Photo of Mr Philip Oppenheim Mr Philip Oppenheim , Amber Valley 3:57 pm, 8th March 1988

Many Conservative Members probably accept that the offending piece in The Guardian was gratuitously offensive and probably untrue, but surely that should not be the cause of any surprise to Opposition Members and should not cause them to behave like coy little political virgins and feign surprise that The Guardian for once is not the sole repository of the truth. After all, surely a paper that is so forward as to propound the fact that it takes an independent, non-partisan line and stress the strength of its profession on that score should arouse our suspicion in the first place.

The Guardian has already given two whingeing apologies, so it is wrong for hon. Members to waste the House's time in trying to extract a further pound of flesh. If hon. Members honestly believe that they have a case, they have the option to seek recourse in the courts and sue for libel. They should do that rather than waste the time of the House. What surprises Conservative Members about this shameful little episode is the way in which Opposition Members cringe like delicate little flowers at the first onset of a late frost in spring. After all, are they not the very same hon. Members who daily trade insults and invective across the Floor of the Chamber? Perhaps we should not be too surprised by the inconsistency of their attitude. In recent years we have seen how they are prepared to use the most vile invective against my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, yet they cry, "foul" the moment my right hon. Friend uses even a mildly harsh word in reply.

I hope that this unpleasant little episode may have a mildly cathartic influence on the Opposition. I hope that they will now realise the idiocy of using gratuitous insults. I hope that they will take the opportunity to brush up their debating skills and limit themselves to real arguments rather than ignorant abuse.

4 pm

Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore , Hackney South and Shoreditch

I find it very difficult to follow that magnum opus. I am bound to say that the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) has almost made me change my mind.

I begin by declaring an interest. I drink and I have been known to take a catnap in the Library. Indeed, when I once appeared as a barrister before the Lord Chief Justice of England, he said to me, "I can see you are doing your incompetent best, Mr. Sedgemore." Nevertheless, I hope that we will take the motion seriously. It is serious for The Guardian, that radical newspaper—

Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore , Hackney South and Shoreditch

A radical newspaper, which is not only short of money and a decent layout artist, but if I may paraphrase Swift, is in danger of dying by swallowing its own lies. Having said that, I want to defend The Guardian and the right of journalists to abuse hon. Members.

All my life I have had the misfortune to be laughed at. You will understand, Mr. Speaker—well, perhaps you will not, because perhaps no one has ever laughed at you—that it hurts. The position became unbearable when I was at the school debating society one year and one of my opponents described me as "a long streak of spit". I thought, "Well, this cannot go on." I was lying in the bath and I had a brilliant idea. I said to myself, "I know what I'll do to stop it,; I'll become an MP. Then I'll get the protection of the all-powerful, all-party Committee of Privileges. No longer will anyone in this life be able to hold me up to hatred, ridicule and contempt." Imagine my surprise when only last week, as a result of something that I said during proceedings on the Education Reform Bill in Committee, a journalist who is sitting in the Reporter's Gallery described me as "Derek Jameson's voice coming out of Kerry Packer's body." I do not know how hon. Members can worry about 200 Members of Parliament being called "incompetent, lazy drunks" when a tender, delicate soul like myself is being likened to Sid Yobbo.

I am not claiming that Andrew Rawnsley is entirely innocent. I am not sure how I am supposed to respond, as a paid-up member of the National Union of Journalists, when he argues in his column, as he argues every day, that politicians are even more odious than journalists.

You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that I am not one of those hon. Members who believes in vulgar, personal abuse—[Interruption.] I prefer to leave such abuse to the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) and I am sorry that he is not in the Chamber. I understand that at this very moment he is seeking to raise the standards of artistic appreciation in our country by trying to persuade The Sun to set up a Kelvin MacKenzie room at the Tate gallery to house a permanent collection of nipples. That is the kind of abuse that we could do without. If the right hon. Member for Chingford had not become a Member of Parliament, I am sure that he would have become a PPE—not a graduate in politics, philosophy and economics, but a purveyor of pornography extraordinaire.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) will agree that we should judge political abuse by three standards. First, abuse in politics must be treated as an art. Secondly, abuse is at its best when it is in thoroughly bad taste. Finally, — this was the only point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West picked up himself—abuse should at some stage hint at reality. That is where poor little Rawnsley up there in the Press Gallery, the fearless scribe from Farringdon road whose goolies are about to be tweaked today, got it wrong.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman seek to use language that is more parliamentary?

Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore , Hackney South and Shoreditch

You are absolutely right. Mr. Speaker. I am getting carried away. Obviously Mr. Rawnsley came to the House and was hard-pressed, like the rest of use, to earn a crust. He did not have a story, and the classic story to make up in the Reporters' Gallery is the "empty Chamber" story.

Before I finish, I want to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West two questions. I want my hon. Friend to consider some of the best abuse down the ages and I want to give one example from across the Atlantic and one from this side. When my hon. Friend replies and withdraws his motion I want to know how he would respond to such abuse.

How would my hon. Friend have responded to these comments made by Harry Truman?

Richard Nixon is a no-good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in. Also, how would my hon. Friend have responded to the classic 18th century argument between Lord Sandwich and John Wilkes?

'Pon your honour, Wilkes, I don't know whether you'll die on the gallows or of the pox. To which Wilkes replied: That must depend, my Lord, upon whether I embrace your Lordship's principles or your Lordship's mistress. A serious point is involved. It is important to preserve the freedom of the press, and that necessitates the freedom of journalists in the Press Gallery to abuse hon. Members down here on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Harrow West 4:06 pm, 8th March 1988

The final comments of the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) were important. We must remember that in this relatively comical exchange across the Chamber there is an attempt to hound a journalist. We may well be inexperienced, but he has an absolute right to report this Chamber. I regard—[Interruption.] It was patronising for the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) to remark upon the journalist's age and to suggest that he does not know what he is talking about. That was particularly patronising when we consider the offensive remarks that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West has made in this Chamber and in other chambers in which he has spoken in other guises.

I cannot compete with the historical analogies drawn by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. However, I wonder why the hon. Member for Newham. North-West is so sensitive about one particular column in one newspaper. Why was it more offensive for Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian to say what he said and for complaints to be made in the House about those comments when we consider comments made in the columns in various newspapers last week?

For example, The Daily Telegraph called my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) A restaurant critic who … occasionally visits the Commons. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—[Interruption.] wait for it—was described as "sadistic" in The Times. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) was reported in The Times as bearing a remarkable resemblance to a member of the Munster family. The Daily Telegraph reported that the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) was glad of a further opportunity to practise his vocal impersonation of the late Gracie Fields's hairdresser. Such comments are made day after day and have been made about almost every hon. Member.

There is no need for apologies from The Guardian, despite the fact that it has offered one twice. There is no need to complain about the words that are used to describe hon. Members. There is no need for the fuss and bawling across the Chamber that we have heard from Opposition Members. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West can dish it out, but he cannot take it—he has proved that today.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 4:10 pm, 8th March 1988

I cannot add to the analyses or jokes about this motion, but, in asking my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks)—he is one of my favourite colleagues—to pause, I speak as one who had the misfortune to be investigated by the Privileges Committee 21 years ago. Whatever anyone who has been investigated by that Committee may say, I can assure the House that it is no joke to have been investigated by Lord Elwyn Jones, Duncan Sandys and others.

The Privileges Committee should be reserved for the most important and weighty matters. It is a senior Committee of the House, and the swings and roundabouts of journalism should not take up its time. The Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), is nodding in agreement. As one who has been before the Committee of Privileges, I say this with some vehemence. If the Committee is to consider anything next week or the week after that, it should consider what is happening between British Coal and the South of Scotland electricity board—

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. That is not the motion before the House.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

It would be a far better subject. Or, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) has raised the subject, let the Privileges Committee turn its mind to the subject of question 10 on the Order Paper to the Prime Minister. It concerns Mr. Bernard Ingham and Mr. Charles Powell

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. Let us try not to widen the motion. I ask the hon. Gentleman to keep to the motion.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

I say to my hon. Friends that if they vote for the motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West they will be going down a path that many of us may later regret having entered upon.

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson , Cunninghame North 4:12 pm, 8th March 1988

This has been a useful debate. I should have thought that the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) about Richard Nixon would have earned him an honorary knighthood.

I shall speak in three capacities: first, as one who was not here a year ago and who therefore read the sketches avidly as a political activist in the country—and tended to believe what was in them. I can well remember reacting to the scathing references to hon. Members in the sketches. I would certainly have wondered, a couple of weeks ago, where the other 200-odd Labour Members were, on the basis of what I read in the sketch. So I can well understand the sensitivity of Opposition Members — and Conservative Members—to the sort of dishonesty that appeared in Andrew Rawnsley's column.

My second capacity is that of an hon. Member who now knows the truth of what happens. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, virtually all Opposition Members—and probably most Conservative Members — were engaged in proper parliamentary business at the time when Mr. Rawnsley suggested they were engaged in less worthy business.

My third capacity—this is the only reason why I speak in the debate—is as a member of the National Union of Journalists who until recently earned his living by writing for newspapers, including, from time to time, The Guardian. When I wrote for The Guardian, I was more worried about whether the typographical errors would extend to getting the football scores wrong.

On the whole, it is much more important to safeguard the rights of journalists and to take account of the freedom of the press than to get too worked up over this sort of thing. It is absurd that for the past hour or so we have been talking about The Guardian and one of its writers when all hon. Members know that there are standards of journalism in this country that are a hundred times worse than anything that appears in The Guardian or in Mr. Rawnsley's column.

If we want to discuss freedom of the press and the right of reply, of which this is one aspect, by all means let us do so; but let us not pillory one journalist for one bad column on a thin day. Let us address ourselves to the wider issues of freedom of the press and ownership and control of newspapers.

I am less worried by what Mr. Rawnsley wrote than by a little thing that happened last night, when an incident took place, or did not take place, in the Chamber, and the Secretary of State for Scotland went running out to tell The Sun and the BBC, to name but two outlets—

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. May I bring the hon. Gentleman back to the subject? He should confine himself to the motion.

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson , Cunninghame North

To adduce motives for behaviour in the way that the Secretary of State—and Mr. Rawnsley—did comes from the dirty tricks kennel of Mr. Bernard Ingham. Let us not hear about Mr. Rawnsley without hearing the same about others who try to operate a regime if disinformation about what goes on inside, as well as outside, this House.

Photo of Mr Tim Rathbone Mr Tim Rathbone , Lewes 4:15 pm, 8th March 1988

Would it not be wise for the hon. Members for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) and for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) to remember the old Chinese proverb which goes—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Tim Rathbone Mr Tim Rathbone , Lewes

I remind hon. Members of the old Chinese proverb: "A little is all very well, but enough is too much."

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape , West Bromwich East 4:16 pm, 8th March 1988

I have been a reader of The Guardian for many years. In the 1960s, before my goods train got under way, I used to lean back in the guard's van and read Mr. Norman Shrapnel, who wrote entertaining stuff about the activities of hon. Members in the House. Since those days the parliamentary reports in The Guardian and other newspapers have appeared to take second place to the witticisms or otherwise of the sketch writers.

There is a serious point in what my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said. I have been a fan of various parliamentary sketch-writers for years. Mr. Michael White and Mr. Frank Johnson, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) alluded, were probably two of the better sketch writers in the Gallery. I was also a fan, although I did not always agree with his politics or philosophy, of Mr. Edward Pearce. I tabled an early-day motion about him 18 months ago. When Edward Pearce, a sketch writer, criticised the Conservative party, he was removed from the Press Gallery by the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph, who said that he did not buy The Daily Telegraph for it to be full of anti-Conservative propaganda—a sentiment which would appeal enormously to Conservative Members, if they were capable of reading or assimilating a parliamentary sketch in The Daily Telegraph or anywhere else.

So a serious point arises from my hon. Friend's motion, although I hope he will not press it to a Division. I know that he is a great traditionalist about matters concerning the House, although the Trappist philosophy of the Whips Office does not appear to appeal to him greatly at present. I hope that he, like me, will consider the article unworthy of the blunderbuss of parliamentary privilege. I am sure that my learned Friends have given my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) suitable advice, and that he, like my hon. Friend the Member for Walton will spend the summer on the Italian riviera at someone else's expense. I must confess to a dash of envy about that.

I have never met Mr. Andrew Rawnsley, but, judging from his picture in The Guardian, he is only about 14 years of age. Indeed, he appears to be almost as callow as the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) who, despite his reference to debating skills, appeared to be nothing other than the spokesman for pre-pubescent youth.

I hope that, in making my plea to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West, I do not sound too much like a sketch writer. I should think that, arising from the debate, there will be an opportunity to write tomorrow's sketch if only to complain about the lack of impromptu debating skills demonstrated by most Conservative Members. It is bad enough that the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) looks like a barrow boy, but he does not have to sound like one too.

I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West will reflect that, to turn out the brigade of guards of parliamentary privilege to arrest a wolf cub such as Mr. Andrew Rawnsley, is not what this House should be about.

Photo of Mr Roger King Mr Roger King , Birmingham, Northfield 4:21 pm, 8th March 1988

All hon. Members like to listen to or to read parliamentary sketches and to note whether we have been mentioned.

I believe that it was unfortunate that Mr. Rawnsley mentioned the absence of the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) during Prime Minister's Question Time. We are now aware of the reason for his inability to ask his question. Naturally, any sketch writer may draw a certain conclusion from that absence and judge that the hon. Gentleman is one of the disappearing masses of the Labour party. The writer has apologised for that one particular misdemeanour.

At some stage we all, I hope, get into the sketch writers' columns. I am proud of the fact that I was in one entitled "Creep of the Year". That article also mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). I am proud of the fact that we were associated, because no one represents principles better than my hon. Friend. However, he was accused of trying to sacrifice his soul for a gong. I am not aware that he has done so on any occasion. Since my hon. Friend has admitted that he has never read The Guardian I am not sure whether he has written to condemn the newspaper for that approach.

My claim to fame as creep of the year is that I believe I am the only person who has successfully driven my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) out of the Chamber as a result of what I said. If that is correct, I am prepared to accept that achievement in the manner in which it was meant in the article. We have to learn to look at sketches and laugh at them as appropriate.

I accept that Mr. Rawnsley's article was slightly excessive, but I hope that we will consider his article in the knowledge that he has learnt a lesson. We look forward to reading much more accurate sketches in future.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Chair, House of Commons (Services): Computer Sub-Committee, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 4:23 pm, 8th March 1988

I always believe that the House is at its worst when it is being its most pompous, and it is usually at its most pompous when it is talking about its rights and privileges. However, today— bless the House — it has not been particularly pompous. One wonders what would have been the reaction of some Conservative Members if the abuse in the article had been directed at the Conservative Benches.

You ruled, Mr. Speaker, that the article was, prima facie, a breach of privilege. Therefore, that gave my hon.

Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) the opportunity to propose a motion to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges.

Privilege, as you are aware, Mr. Speaker, has taken many forms over the years. It was not long ago in the history of the Parliament that it was a breach of privilege to report the happenings in this place, whether such reports were accurate or not. As long ago as 1699 the House resolved that misreporting the proceedings of Members was a breach of privilege.

It is worth noting that the motives behind my hon. Friend's motion do not introduce any elements of novelty regarding the requirements that we would wish the people in the Press Gallery to meet. Their predecessors who attempted to report this place, when such reporting could result in imprisonment or worse, justified their desire to report on the basis that the accurate reporting of elected Members' actions was a sound basis for democracy and accountability. There is absolutely no occasion in history when those reporters suggested that the misreporting of Members was a sound basis for accountability or democracy. My hon. Friend, in wishing for some accuracy and even a lack of malice in such reporting, is not introducing into our discussion, or into any discussion about the freedom of the press, any new elements.

I must admit that, initially, I had not read the article by Mr. Rawnsley because I find it almost impossible to find any article in The Guardian since it redesigned its layout. When the article was drawn to my attention, it appeared to me that, again, The Guardian was falling somewhat short of the standards that that paper laid down in the days before fancy layout became more important than reporting the facts.

If my hon. Friend is asking The Guardian to subscribe to its old standards, I believe that he is, in fact, asking its reporters to remember the world-famous dictum of C. P. Scott—The Guardian's most famous editor—rather than being free with the facts and even freer with its comments. C.P. Scott said: Comment is free but facts are sacred. Nothing could have been further from the basis of Mr. Rawnsley's article. I shall read out what Scott said in detail, but I must be careful not to read the wrong quotation, or I might find myself in breach of privilege. The next quotation in the "The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations" is from Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who said: Great God! this is an awful place. C. P. Scott said: Its primary office"— that is, of a newspaper— is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation, must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free but facts are sacred". We cannot just blame Mr. Rawnsley for his article. The people who purport to edit that newspaper must also accept the responsibility. Mr. Rawnsley and his editor must realise that they have fallen far short of the standards to which that newspaper used to subscribe.

There is one new element in our discussion. Recently we voted to set up a Select Committee to consider all aspects of televising the proceedings of the House. One of the tasks of the Committee is to come up with guidelines to provide safeguards for the House and individual Members, which must be followed by the television authorities and its employees. Even now both sides of the House doubt whether the television authorities will stick to any guidelines that are laid down.

I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West will not press his motion, but those who are enthusiastic for that course of action should bear in mind the effects of television. The television authorities will not be keen to follow any guidelines for their coverage of the House, and if they see we are not even prepared to refer to the Privileges Committee the guidelines for the scribes in the Gallery which were laid down about 150 years ago, they will think that, if they push, they will get their way whatever they do.

We must bear in mind the consequence of our actions today. On balance, I believe that, to take terrible retribution against Mr. Rawnsley—I must admit that appearing before the people likely to sit on the Privileges Committee would be terrible retribution—for a sloppy, second-rate article of which he and The Guardian should be ashamed, might be going too far.

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon 4:29 pm, 8th March 1988

Just as I believe that you, Mr. Speaker, were right to give this matter precedence in debate over the business of the House set down today, so I believe that we should have regard to the important debates that are to follow, and therefore I shall be brief in my remarks.

It has been a good-natured, humorous and entertaining debate, but there are some serious points to be made, if only for consideration for the future. Your decision, Mr. Speaker, to give the matter precedence—this is an important point, because the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) did not quite get this right—does not imply that a prima facie breach of privilege or contempt of the House has occurred. For that reason, our task today is not to examine exhaustively all the arguments as to whether that has taken place, but simply to decide whether there is sufficient cause to refer to the Committee of Privileges the article in The Guardian newspaper of 2 March, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-west (Mr. Banks) proposes.

The purpose of parliamentary privilege is to enable hon. Members to carry out the job for which they have been elected. To enforce that privilege, the House has penal powers which it may decide to exercise in any particular case where there has been a breach of privilege. In deciding whether to make use of that power, the House would doubtless wish to take account of the recommendations that it approved on 6 February 1978. These derived from the report of the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1966–67, which took the view that, in general, the House should exercise its penal jurisdiction as sparingly as possible and only when it was satisfied that it was essential to do so to protect itself from substantial interference in the performance of its functions.

That leads me to the first set of arguments against accepting the motion, which were first made by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) and others—that the House would be behaving in a pompous and over-sensitive manner to bring in the full weight of the Committee of Privileges over this parliamentary sketch, for which some apology has already been made. The supplementey argument is that the House should he wary of entering into a process where the penalties at its command are too draconian sensibly to be imposed and, therefore, that it would look foolish by having caused a fuss for no effect.

I appreciate the concerns revealed by those two lines of argument, and I am sure that they would have great force, but the logic of raising the matter on the Floor of the House is to refer it to a Committee of Privileges for two reasons. First, there is a general view that irresponsible criticism of the House may, over time, damage its standing and impair its effectiveness. No one is saying that the House should be immune from adverse comment, but, if our effectiveness is not to be damaged, there is a point beyond which legitimate criticism cannot go. In those circumstances, the House should properly be concerned about what is said in the press.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

Are there not matters with which Privileges Committee should be much more concerned, such as the misbehaviour of the most senior Minister in such matters as Westland and the bombing of Libya?

Photo of Mr John Wakeham Mr John Wakeham , Colchester South and Maldon

That is the hon. Gentleman's view, and I might have my own view about that, but we are not dealing with that this afternoon.

The immoderate tone of the article, its perhaps wilful lack of understanding of, or reference to, the work done by hon. Members outside the Chamber, and its irresponsible focusing on the absence of the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis), apparently with no check on the true position, raises, in one view, sufficient reason to justify consideration by the Committee of Privileges.

The second reason is that referring the matter to the Committee of Privileges is the best way to provide the House with a further means of considering the matter. In that referral the House is asking the Committee to consider, first, whether a breach of privilege or contempt of the House has taken place and, secondly, if so, what action should be taken against those who have committed it.

A range of options are open to the Committee of Privileges in the consideration of the article. The Committee would make a judgment as to the appropriate response and report to the House. If, however, the matter is not referred to the Committee of Privileges, the question of the attitude of the House to the article would rest at the end of this debate on the fact that we do not think it worth referring the matter to the Committee.

I am content either way. If the hon. Member for Newham, North-West presses his motion, I shall support him. If he withdraws it, I shall be perfectly content and that will be the end of the matter.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 4:34 pm, 8th March 1988

I am grateful to the Leader if the House for his comments. The debate has been useful and it has certainly been entertaining, with a serious content as well.

The House must be mindful of the fact that wilful abuse of hon. Members in this place will, in the end, undoubtedly undermine any public confidence that people might have in the House and how we operate our procedures. However, I believe that referral to the Committee of Privileges is perhaps heavy-handed. One would like, perhaps, to have referred the matter somewhere else, but, as the Leader of the House will know, there is nowhere else that one can refer such a matter.

I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) for his contribution to the debate. Indeed, I was most impressed by the arguments put forward by Labour Members. I was particularly grateful to the hon. Member for mentioning Mr. Ed Pearce. In one of his sketch articles in The Daily Telegraph, when I was chair of the arts and recreation committee of the GLC, Mr. Pearce referred to me as the snarling czar of culture in London". I was less than amused by that comment, but I should like to report to the House that I shall be having dinner with Mr. Pearce later this week, which shows that I am of a very forgiving nature.

In view of what the Leader of the House has said, as the House has made clear its feelings, and in eager anticipation of a champagne supper with Mr. Andrew Rawnsley, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.