Orders of the Day — Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill

– in the House of Commons at 9:34 am on 29th January 1993.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith 9:35 am, 29th January 1993

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is with pleasure that I seek to move the Second Reading of the Bill. I hope that the House will not make the mistake of rushing into hasty legislation as a result of the high-profile cases of recent months. Those cases are important, but the genesis of my Bill is events before those cases came to light. The case for my Bill lies in the rights of ordinary citizens to a decent, fair and accurate press. The House has to get right the standards, combined with the freedom, of the press. I hope that today's debate will be the beginning of that process.

The debate about press freedom has a long history. Frank Allaun, a former Member of Parliament, introduced a Bill many years ago. That was followed by Bills introduced by my hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) and for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). Mr. John Browne, who did not retain his seat at the last election, introduced a privacy Bill. All those Bills had an impact.

There have also been two royal commissions—in 1949 and 1977. We have had the first and second Calcutt reports. We had the Press Commission from 1953 to 1991 and the Press Complaints Commission since 1991. Much more recently, I set up my own committee as part of my legislative process, if I can describe it in that way. I thank the many people who were involved in supporting the taking part in the proceedings of the committee and to the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), who chaired it throughout in his usual able way.

The committee undertook an important process. The results of its deliberations have been fully transcribed and are now available. They make useful and informative reading on the background to the Bill. I suggest that it is helpful to hold such hearings before a Bill begins its Committee stage, or in Committee. I have always been a great supporter of the welcome reform of the special Bill procedure introduced by Norman St. John-Stevas when he was a Member of Parliament.

When a private Member holds hearings before introducing his Bill he takes three weeks out of his own time. Unless we reformed other procedures of the House, it would be a high-risk business to do it through the normal system offered by the House. That is why I did it in the way that I chose. However, it puts an enormous burden on the resources and work load of the Member involved. It is difficult enough to think of the right questions to ask witnesses who appear before a Committee. But when one is worrying whether the next witness will appear, it puts a different meaning on the words "stress of the work load". One starts to wonder where one's priorities are—delivering the people or asking the questions. It is a good system and I commend it, but we ought to make it possible within the structure of the House, without risking the loss of time that it implies, especially for a private Member.

A number of people have asked me why I have introduced the Bill, and what was my interest in the press, as I have not been involved with it or been a journalist. I have a long history of interest in the subject—going back 10 or 15 years—which came about simply because I was concerned about the erosion of press freedom during the past 10 to 20 years. The House has placed many Acts on the statute book—sometimes unthinkingly—that have had a profound and detrimental effect on press freedom. Yet, at the same time, journalistic standards have collapsed in some parts of the press, although not all, and we now have a serious problem.

Photo of Mr Michael Stern Mr Michael Stern , Bristol North West

The hon. Gentleman and I were present yesterday at a meeting of the Chartered Institute of Journalists. Does he agree that it is at least commendable that that is one body which not only has a charter of conduct for its members but enforces it?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

The National Union of Journalists also has a charter, and its ethics council gave evidence to my committee and made the important point that any member of the public can take up a complaint, which can be enforced by disciplinary procedures, against a member of the NUJ. The problem is that those codes of practice are not well known, and hardly anyone either inside or outside the House is aware of them.

May I refer Members to the debate that I initiated when I was fortunate enough to win the ballot on private Members' motions on 27 November 1987 and introduced a similar Bill? Many of the issues of which I gave examples then still trouble me today.

I must make it clear—as I have done several times in the media—that this is not a privacy Bill; nor does it involve any pre-publication censorship. Underlying our debates on the subject is the idea that we should steer clear of legislation that involves such censorship. There is a strong case for putting something right after one gets it wrong, but if one wants to prevent the publication of something, one needs to be clear that, in so doing, one is not preventing good investigative journalism. Frequently we have not dealt with that issue, and although other aspects of the laws that we have passed have been well-intentioned, they have had that side effect.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, while many hon. Members and people outside say that it is so difficult to draft legislation to decide what is in the public interest and what is invasion of privacy, nations such as Holland, Germany and the United States, among others, all have privacy legislation? If they can draft it, why cannot we?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I shall come to that in more detail later, but, briefly, the critical difference between Britain and the countries that the hon. Gentleman has named is that they all have a press freedom law. That is an important issue, and I shall deal with it.

It is often not mentioned that the underlying agenda and thrust of my Bill is designed to raise standards of journalism. The problem is not that there are insufficient laws affecting journalists—in many respects there are too many—but that the standards and ethical codes of some editors and journalists are too low and we must tackle that. People should view my Bill through the eyes of someone who is trying to raise standards. One cannot legislate automatically to raise standards and tell people that, by law, they must behave better. However, one can construct a framework of law that encourages and protects good behaviour. That is an important part of my Bill and it is the agenda for the House on any law. We are always looking for a structure and framework that seeks to achieve the aims of society.

As I have made clear, this is not a privacy Bill, because such legislation has certain problems. First, such a measure would largely, although not entirely, protect the rich and powerful. I have had some involvement in the debate that has been raging for the past few months, and hon. Members must be aware that it has centred on public figures with some power, wealth and influence. Although I would strongly argue that such people have a right to privacy, the question is whether we should pass a law simply to deal with the problems of the rich and powerful. If anything, the balance needs to be weighted slightly the other way.

As public figures, Members of Parliament expect and should get more scrutiny than ordinary people, such as non-Members of Parliament and people in less powerful and influential positions. Although we have rights to privacy, we must expect some intrusions. If we passed a Bill to protect people's privacy at this time, no matter what the intention, it would be seen as a measure to protect the rich and powerful

Photo of Mr Andrew Hargreaves Mr Andrew Hargreaves , Birmingham, Hall Green

While I am sure that my hon. Friends on the Conservative side would perhaps sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's stated intention of raising standards for the press, rather than with the formal title of the Bill, the concept that you raised—

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. I remind the hon. Member that he is addressing me.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hargreaves Mr Andrew Hargreaves , Birmingham, Hall Green

I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. The concept that a privacy Bill would only protect the rich and famous does not wash. It would also protect other people—for example, modest and unknown people who have been involved in some calamity and then suffer the intrusion of having cameras stuffed under their noses.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I well understand that, but the underlying aim of my Bill is to raise standards. In the present climate, a privacy Bill, without counterbalancing freedoms, would be seen as a measure to protect the rich and the powerful. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that such a Bill would protect other people, but that has not been the most frequent complaint from ordinary people who complain to the Press Complaints Commission or to me.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

My hon. Friend has been busy in recent weeks, and we have obviously not been able to see him at the National Heritage Select Committee's sittings into intrusions on privacy. Perhaps the press has given massive publicity to the problems of the royal family, and Mr. Kelvin MacKenzie got enormous publicity last week with his list of Members of Parliament. However, there are members of the Select Committee in the Chamber today who can tell my hon. Friend that we have given the maximum emphasis to the problems of rape victims and people who have been harassed after a bereavement, such as widows of members of the IRA— people who have been thrust into the limelight through no fault of their own and have suffered great distress. That is the reason why we need a privacy Bill—not to protect the rich and famous who attract the attention of the newspapers.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The other problem is that if we introduced privacy legislation in Britain, there would be no counterbalancing press there are a number of problems with that. First, one would be creating a Bill designed with let-out clauses for the press, which would create problems in its own right. Secondly, we need a measure that the courts can adjudicate on, that could act as a balance between the rights and needs for freedom of the press and the rights of individuals.

Let us take the matter one stage further. The problem with many of the privacy legislation proposals is that they would not have prevented the publication of material in recent high-profile cases. For example, the proposal on physical intrusion in the summary of r recommendations in Sir David Calcutt's report, which was defined, among other things, as placing a surveillance device … taking a photograph", was subject to a let-out clause that would have allowed publication of the tapes of the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) and the photographs of the Duchess of York. Paragraph 2 of Sir David's summary includes subsections (b) and (c), which provide two let-out clauses in the public interest—they are exclusion clauses.

We are in danger of talking ourselves into a privacy law that would not prevent the problems posed by the recent high-profile cases, which may or may not address the needs of "small" people, about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) is concerned and which would not guarantee press freedom. I should be happy to consider a privacy Bill if it were counterbalanced by a press freedom or freedom of information Act.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , South Staffordshire

Surely the nub of the matter is deciding what is in the public interest and what is of interest to the public. The two things are not the same.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; I have made that point on a number of occasions.

Most complaints about the press relate to accuracy. The most recent report of the Press Complaints Commission that I have studied reveals that 66 per cent. of complaints were about that. The interesting thing about the cases that have been forwarded to me is that harassment follows an inaccurate story and is aggravated by that inaccuracy.

A classic example of that is the case of Linda Townley, who gave profoundly effective evidence to my committee, and who received a lot of national coverage. She was the maid at the centre of the story about Princess Anne's letters. The story suggested that she was the thief of those letters. If she had stolen them, one did not need to be too bright a journalist to work out that she knew what was in them and, better still, where they were. The story therefore became doubly attractive because people wanted to get hold of those letters.

The harassment that Linda Townley suffered was largely caused by that inaccurate story. She believes that the problem is that, if one cannot go for libel, which is a heavy weapon to use, one has to put up with the inaccuracies. Mona Shourjabi also put that argument very effectively recently. That is why such people—and there are many—who have suffered from intrusion and harassment have said no to a privacy law and no to Sir David Calcutt's recommendations, but yes to my Bill.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

I am exceedingly bothered by my hon. Friend's Bill. How does he define accuracy? One person's perception of fact may be very different from that of another. Some of us consider his Bill a lucrative field for lawyers and a nightmare for editors.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

My hon. Friend has asked a question which was, until recently, put to me many times, until people realised that the answer is abundantly clear. I shall come to that issue later.

Another alternative to my Bill is anti-bugging legislation. I should certainly vote for such legislation, but it would not stop the publication of the Camillagate tapes because the transcript was published overseas—by chance, of course, in a Murdoch newspaper—and somehow or other it found its way into similar papers here.

If we had an anti-bugging law, one might be able to stop the publication of a transcript in this country, but once that transcript was published overseas—whether the bugging was done here or somewhere else would be irrelevant—we would then have to have a law to say that we could not publish it here. I do not need to remind the Government of the problems created by "Spycatcher". The Government fell into that exact trap when they chased the publishers all around the world trying to stop the publication of that book in Britain when it had been published in every other country. One cannot sensibly go down that road.

I accept that we should endeavour to make bugging difficult or impossible, but the new offence on bugging recommended in the Calcutt report would not have stopped the bugging of the telephone in the case of the right hon. and learned Member for Putney when that telephone was in someone else's flat. It would not stop papers being able to use the transcript of those telephone conversations, because they could claim the public interest defence. Although I am fully in favour of stopping bugging, legislation is not the answer, because overseas publication of transcripts presents a problem.

I was strongly against the use of the photographs of the Duchess of York. It was not necessary to use them to make the point that dishonest statements were being made about relationships in the royal family. Obviously, the nature of those statements and consequences for our constitution, which is somewhat unusual, but has nevertheless been very successful. I do not doubt that those photographs were used to increase circulation.

It may be fine to bring in a law to restrict the use of photographs taken on people's private property, but how does one stop the publication of photographs when a television crew goes to the door of any hon. Member, asks for a comment and that person closes the door with the words, "No comment"? The television company must get the permission of that hon. Member before using those photographs, but are we suggesting that they should be unable to use photographs of that hon. Member coming out of his front door? There are all sorts of traps.

I was as offended as anyone else by the use of some recent photographs, but the most effective legislation would be an effective code that is respected and honoured by journalists and editors. If we had that, we would not need to trouble the House with specific legislation. What to do about the failure of self-regulation is the problem.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

Surely it is possible to have a law to prohibit the buying, selling and publishing of such material. No one can stop pictures being taken or a telephone being bugged, but it is the buying, selling and publishing of such material without permission that is the problem. Child pornography is published abroad, but it is not published here because we are allowed to have separate laws.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I understand that, and I am not saying that it would be impossible to draft the necessary legislation, but we would be faced with the difficulty of trying to restrict the publication of photographs, tapes or whatever that were published in other countries. Such material is fundamentally different from child pornography because of its political slant—it may relate to the royal family and therefore have constitutional implications. It is not impossible to get round the problem, but it would be profoundly difficult to do it in a way that does not impinge on genuine investigative journalism.

I believe that there is a better case for a tort of harassment, but, again, I emphasise that that must be balanced by legislation guaranteeing press freedom. That is the difficulty we face.

I shall now outline briefly the scope of my Bill. I will take further interventions, but I should be grateful if hon. Members were brief, because I know that many wish to speak. Clause 1 sets up the Independent Press Authority which has two duties: to enforce accuracy and to promote press freedom. The duties and powers of that authority are spelt out in clause 2. It aims to promote high standards, the lack of which is the underlying problem and is top of my agenda. We cannot legislate simply for bad newspapers; we must legislate for all, so that the balance is right.

It is important to stress that many of my proposals would protect good journalists. A photographer came to see me recently and told me that he did not like climbing over people's fences to get photographs, but he admitted, "Frankly, if I don't, I don't get the job." That is the problem. Good journalists and photographers need to be protected against the practices of some editors and others, who are anxious for material at any price.

Clause 2 promotes press freedom. I have already spoken about a possible amendment to it, and, in this regard, I have sought the help of the Government.

My Bill provides a good structure for the way forward. A key element that should be considered for inclusion is a legal defence of press freedom. That would make it easier for the House to enact an anti-bugging law, a law forbidding the photography of private property, and a privacy law. Were such a provision included, the cases in France, Germany and the United States would become more meaningful.

It would be easier for people such as myself to vote for such measures if the law contained a provision on press freedom that could be cited in court. If the Government could come up with something like that, they would profoundly help the cause of press freedom. That would allow the House to legislate on matters such as those suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) on privacy, bugging and photography.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, will he explain in a little more detail what the law on press freedom will actually say? What freedoms will be enshrined in it that do not presently exist?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

The simple route would be to use something similar to article 10 of the European convention on human rights, which was drafted by the British—as were so many other parts of the law around the world—in 1945. I looked to see whether we could include article 10 in the Bill: I do not think that we can merely lift it and place it in the Bill.

There is another argument, about whether we should incorporate all European human rights legislation into British law. There would be problems in doing so, but it would not be beyond the wit of lawyers to include in the Bill a clause similar to article 10. If that could be done, it would provide a good way forward.

As a halfway measure, I have suggested tightening up my clause so that it reads: and to promote the fundamental freedom of the press to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas. That section would replace the words "press freedom" in clause 2(b). That would place a much stronger duty on the organisation to promote press freedom, not just argue for it, which is important. However, that would not be as good as having a legal defence of press freedom.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier , Harborough

I understand the hon. Gentleman's arguments about introducing into the Bill, if possible, something on the lines of article 10 of the European convention. However, if he is prepared to do that, would he be prepared to introduce into the Bill article 8, which states that everyone has the right to respect in his private and family life, his home and his correspondence?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

The hon. Gentleman has missed much of my argument—that was precisely what I was saying. If there were a press freedom law, people such as me would not have a problem with privacy law. My problem—and that of many hon. Members—concerns introducing privacy laws without the counterbalance of legislation on press freedom and freedom of information. It is fine by me if the hon. Gentleman wants to introduce such laws through articles 8 and 10 of the European convention on human rights, but we cannot have one set of laws without the other, particularly if we introduce privacy laws first with no provision for press freedom. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman is right, but he must remember that that is precisely what I have just said at some length.

Clause 2 also relates to monopoly. I do not want to spend too much time on that subject, but the monopolistic structure of the press—not just its ownership, but its distribution—poses a problem. Circulation wars rage between competing groups. When the Daily Mirror published the photographs of the Duchess of York, The Sun suddenly decided that, having sat on the tape of Diana and not used it for about two years for "a principled reason", that reason no longer applied, mainly because the sales of the Daily Mirror had risen by 100,000. The problem with such battles—they also pose problems for the Press Complaints Commission—is that circulation wars take precedence over the ethics of journalism.

The Bill contains a code of conduct, which is profoundly important. A code of conduct in a high-status, lay-dominated organisation of the sort that the Bill sets up would have more effect than the present one, which is unbelievable. The status of that organisation is important. Examples showing how well it can work can be found in the electronic media.

Clause 2(1)(g) and (h) refer to Parliament's influence. We should debate the subject more frequently in the House. Press freedom is too important to be debated only occasionally.

Clause 3 relates to the power to enforce accuracy, and marks the basis of my assumptions. If people understood my assumptions, many of their arguments would fade away. One of my great disappointments is that editors will not say what I am about to say: citizens have a right—I mean a right—to expect their news to be reported accurately.

There is no such thing as inaccurate news; there is only disinformation. If that were disseminated by Pravda, we should rightly be furious—and we were. If such action is taken by our papers, we should be equally furious. Inaccuracy is a contradiction of press freedom; it is the other side of the coin of press freedom. If one makes that assumption, many of the other arguments fade into irrelevance.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that some of the disputes within the press—both regional and national—over the past few years have undermined the drive towards accuracy by forcing experienced journalists out of jobs in favour of cheap, inefficient and untrained journalists, in order to bring down costs and, with them, standards?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

Much of what the hon. Gentleman says is contained within the duties of the new Independent Press Authority. That organisation has a duty to look at the training and ethics of journalism. Another problem is that there are relatively few schools of journalism in Britain, and within them the standards and teaching of ethics is minimal. I am not saying that a wonderful ethics code exists that can always be applied, but any journalist should always ask himself questions about the ethics of what he is doing.

Journalism is one of the trades where one does not need to be trained in a specific way of behaviour, but must keep asking oneself, "Am I invading someone's privacy, am I doing my job properly and for a good reason, or merely to sell papers?"

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

I think that the House will want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done in preparation for his speech. Surely, freedom is the right to be wrong. If something that I say turns out to be wrong, I should correct it, but I should not be required to prove everything that I say before I make a contribution. In that context, the press have a far harder job than Members of Parliament.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

One reason that I have drafted the Bill as tightly as I have—many legal experts agree that it is tightly drafted—is that I deliberately wanted to stress that we should not comment on opinion. I have proposed dropping the section on impartiality, as I see that it would cause difficulties, such as those currently faced by the BBC and ITV. That subject is not contained in the Bill, only in the long title which is set down earlier.

One can still hold an opinion and express it, but if one makes a factual inaccuracy, one must set it right. The Bill does not involve pre-publication censorship. One can publish whatever one likes, but if one gets it wrong, one has to put it right. People get things wrong for many reasons, often well-intentioned reasons.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

My hon. Friend has been saying that journalists should have standards, should not intrude and should adopt a decent moral code. The problem is that perfectly decent journalists who want to do good work have to take jobs with rotten employers. If a journalist is told that he has to get the news story and find dirt on the Labour party—as is frequently the case—the journalist either has to maintain his high standards and not be employed or do the dirty work. How will my hon. Friend's Bill provide a safeguard so that journalists can maintain the decent standards that they were taught during their training?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

The organisation in my Bill has a duty to report on, research and recommend on journalistic standards, including training, ethics and the practices of the employers, including the editor. There is no reason why that should not be done. However, the organisation should not enforce, which is why I have not given it the power to do so. The Bill contains only one statutory power: to correct inaccuracy. That is important as standards can be raised in other ways.

My hon. Friend's intervention was helpful in another respect. I recently saw a press release from News International stating that The Sun and others were now going to enforce the Press Complaints Commission code. Any employee who breached the code would be fired. I am looking forward to Kelvin MacKenzie giving himself notice.

Photo of Mr Stuart Randall Mr Stuart Randall , Kingston upon Hull West

I ask my hon. Friend to extend his arguments with regard to the intervention from the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). The hon. Member said that there should be a freedom to be wrong, and then my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) went on about accuracy, with which I agree completely. The other consequence of this—it is an argument much used by the hon. Member for Eltham—is the harm it creates. Surely it cannot be right for journalists to be free to create harm.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

My hon. Friend puts the point very powerfully. That point has been in my mind recently, but I had not yet made it, so I am grateful to him.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson , Hartlepool

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) argued that there is a straightforward difference between factual information on the one hand and information on the other. Surely, there is a third category—interpretation. In the case of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, journalists were interpreting the information they had, and then the heavens opened and they were damned for doing so. It then turned out that they were accurate.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I do not think that that is the problem which the hon. Member for Eltham fears. I have made it clear that if one is printing something which one believes to be accurate at the time but which turns out to be inaccurate because someone else has been lying, covering up, or whatever, one corrects it at the time it comes out. If it is the other way round—if one publishes something which one believes to be accurate—that is all one needs to do.

In other words, if a paper wants to print a story in which I say something that they think is daft, wrong or dishonest but is newsworthy, it does so. It is for me to take the flak if I am wrong. It is the same thing to give me that flak if I got it wrong. I shall come back to the royal family in due course because it is an important point.

Let me put it this way. I use the example of a criminal who is managing to fool a journalist who believes, rightly, that the person is indulging in criminal behaviour. Let us say that the journalist must correct an inaccuracy which later turns out to be right—perhaps when the criminal goes to court, the case is found to be proved. Are we really saying that that criminals should be convicted on inaccuracies? On the other hand, if a newspaper turns out to be accurate at the end of the road, is not that part of the evidence?

The job of the newspaper is to report accurately what it judges to be news. If the news turns out to be inaccurate for reasons other than the newspaper's reporting, that is when the newspaper corrects it. That is when newspaper says, in great big headlines: "We told you so. We told you that Clive Soley was doing a cover-up". That is how it should work, and it is how it works in other democracies. There is no problem with it.

If I may make a bit more progress on this, I was about to move on to clause 4—the power of enforcement. Under clause 4, a press complaints adviser is appointed. A press complaints adviser is important because of some of the failures of the present Press Complaints Commission. Complaints are taken only in writing; there are no oral hearings. Some of the complaints that I have heard are that the way in which the Press Complaints Commission reformulates complaints does not cover the points which the complainants were making. There are no oral hearings in which the complainants can put their views. In other words, there is no one to help the complainants, although that help is clearly important.

The Bill contains a more flexible time span than exists under the present code of the Press Complaints Commission. The time limit is one month, although that can be extended in certain circumstances. In the Bill, I also rule out trivial and vexatious complaints. One of the arguments used earlier in the debate is that it will be inundated with letters from the green ink brigade. Frankly, Members of Parliament are inundated from time to time by those letters. Most of us are capable of dealing with them without too much trouble. If we can deal with them, I do not see why another body cannot deal with it. The Bill provides the body with the ability to exclude vexatious and trivial complaints. Once again, it is not a problem. I have said that the code of conduct is important.

Clause 5 deals with adjudication. The press complaints adviser will hear both sides of the argument. Clause 6 sets out the powers of the adviser, which may also be a conciliatory role. The House should remember that most complaints will be resolved between the editor and the complainant, as happens now. Most complaints continue in that way. A minority of complaints in which there is a major problem go on. In such cases, there should be, and often will be, a rate agreed by conciliation. Cases will only need to go to the much further extent, which I shall come to in a moment, in other circumstances.

There is only one schedule in the Bill. Paragraph 1 appoints the Independent Press Authority. Many people have told me that article 1 troubles them. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is worried about it. Editors are worried about it; they panicked like mad. My Bill provides that the Home Secretary will make the appointments. I know that there is some anxiety about that.

Such a system of appointment has worked well for the regulated electronic media, television and radio, for 40, 50 or 60 years. No one goes around the world saying that ITV, the BBC and so on are not free, are grossly inaccurate, do not have a decent code of behaviour and do not do good investigative journalism. The electronic media are regulated, and they perform well. The system in the Bill is the same.

Having said that, I have proposed two amendments which might be worth while. I should like hon. Members to address the issue if they feel strongly about it. In Calcutt's first report, he suggested—Louis Blom-Cooper and others have suggested it as well—that an appointments commission be set up by the Secretary of State, which would then appoint the members. One could say that it is at arm's length. I have suggested a slightly more radical approach, which could incorporate that proposal. I commend it to the House, and I should welcome views on it.

There is a strong case for saying that the relevant Select Committee—probably the Select Committee on National Heritage—should have the power to veto appointments. That is not only an additional safeguard, but a traditional British method of the legislature checking the Executive. It also gives more power to the Select Committee and Back Benchers. I have always argued—indeed, many hon. Members on both sides of the House have also argued—that that is something which we need to do in the House, because in some respects Back Benchers have lost the powers they had in the 19th century. It is an interesting way forward. I should welcome comments on that proposed amendment.

I want to turn to some of the arguments that have been used against the Bill. Let me deal first with the argument raised in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow. His argument is the one that was used constantly during the first few weeks of my campaign on the matter by the editors all round the country. The editors then dropped the argument. They said that one cannot define accuracy: one man's accuracy is another man's opinion. One cannot adjudicate on the matter.

I picked up the Press Complaints Commission's code, which was drawn up by the editors. Clause 1 relates to accuracy. One should notice the importance and the status of it: "You will report accurately. You will put it right if you get it wrong." Who adjudicates on that? The Press Complaints Commission adjudicates on it. The argument is not and never has been that one cannot have accuracy or adjudicate on it.

The argument—this is why the editors dropped their opposition—is who should adjudicate. The editors want to be the judge and jury in their own cases. I am saying, as one who is strongly in favour of regulated bodies, that it is a profound mistake to sit in judgment on oneself, because even if one gets it right, one will not be believed. That is the problem, and that is why it is so powerful.

Photo of Mr David Harris Mr David Harris , St Ives

I have great sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman is saying. In approaching the whole issue, he seems to see the whole question of news reporting in black and white terms. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) was right to say that there is a grey area, especially with regard to interpretation. I spent 19 years in the parliamentary Press Gallery and in the Lobby of the House. As we all know, that is an area in political journalism where one deals with facts. In the Lobby, one is sometimes dealing with something else which cannot be proved, whether it relates to facts or not. That matter will provide great difficulties, especially on the point of correction.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

Someone muttered that it was a rumour. I shall answer in a different way. The BBC and ITV do not have that problem, but their investigative journalism is better than that of the press. Secondly, newspaper editors say that it can be done under the PCC code, but the hon. Gentleman says that it can not. He is really saying, as are the editors, "We want to judge it, please. Let us judge ourselves." It is as if the House said, "We shall have elections but MPs will elect themselves"—[Interruption.] I should not give the House ideas; it could be dangerous.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin

As my hon. Friend has rightly said, newspaper editors and most journalists strongly oppose self-regulation for everyone else. When self-regulation is mentioned in respect of any other area of our national life, journalists, and newspaper editors in particular, are rightly derisory about it. They are in favour of independent regulation for others and opposed to it for themselves.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

My hon. Friend is right. The point was powerfully made in my committee. I read a powerful editorial in The Guardian—it often has good editorials—which said that self-regulation in the City had not worked and needed to be independent. Two weeks later, it came out against my form of regulation for the press. That suggests that people have not fully thought through the arguments.

The next argument, which I am pleased to say is not much used now, is that people do not have a right to accuracy. One or two editors told me that, and they were really saying that it did not matter if they got it wrong. The citizen has a right to expect his news to be accurate. The argument against that, more than any other, ignores the damage caused to people's lives. I have many cases of people who were deeply hurt and are fearful of the press. That is sad news for journalism, and I do not get any joy from saying it.

The next argument is that the Press Complaints Commission is all right, is doing a good job, and should be left alone. However, it has a credibility problem. Just about everyone—including the Government, to judge from the statement by the Secretary of State, and Sir David Calcutt—agrees with me on that. It has only reluctantly accepted a lay majority, but I am sorry to say that that majority will not be of the people who are necessary to adjudicate. I am also worried about so many editors being on that board. I am in favour of working journalists being on such a body, and for my committee I suggest working journalists. I have no objections to one or two editors serving on it, but there are far too many editors and senior executives from the newspaper industry on the PCC.

The PCC has been far too reluctant to take third-party complaints, although it has told me that it is now willing to take them more openly, and that is a move in the right direction. The concept of the third-party complaint is interesting, because it contradicts my belief in the rights of the citizen.

I shall give the example of Mr. and Mrs. McKeever from Northern Ireland. I shall endeavour to make the Bill cover Northern Ireland, because two Northern Ireland cases were used in committee. Mr. and Mrs. McKeever are a classic example of the citizen's rights. They read in a tabloid newspaper that there was to be a cure within one year for the form of muscular dystrophy that their son had. Their son would be in a wheelchair by the age of 10 or 11 and probably dead in his early 20s.

I have not gone into the background of how the story was written, but I guarantee that it was not malicious. I am sure that it was well intentioned, but it was wrong. The professor concerned strongly objected to the use of the story, saying that it was right in other newspapers. The McKeevers read the story and believed it, and for three days their hopes were dramatically raised. That is an example of what I have said about people being hurt by the right to be wrong. Those people believed that their son would be saved, but three days later their hopes were dashed.

Hon. Members who served on my committee will remember the depth of feeling of those two people. All they wanted was for the newspapers to get it right, and that is what many other people want. I am sure that the story-was a genuine mistake, and the problem may have arisen because of sloppy journalism or sloppy sub-editing. The story had good intentions, but it was wrong, and that had a profound and dramatic effect on those people. That is why I say that the citizen has a right to expect news to be accurately reported.

Photo of Mr Patrick Thompson Mr Patrick Thompson , Norwich North

The House has some difficulty with the concept of the word "accuracy", and there is plainly some disagreement about how much it can be applied. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the words "truth" and "untruth" should be used a little more in the debate?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I have no objection to that, but for a number of reasons the word "accuracy" is better. The press accepts that it can be achieved, and another example of accuracy is to be found with the Advertising Standards Authority. Hon. Members with long memories will recall that, when that authority was given power to go to court to enforce accuracy, the arguments that are now used by the press were used then. It was said, "You can't get accuracy in an advert. What about the jokey ones? It is opinion." However, there have been no problems, and only three cases have gone to court for final adjudication. That would have applied under the Bill, and such a provision also protects editors. The important issue is that such cases are in a minority, and the back-up of natural justice is there if it is needed. It has been done before, it is proven and it works. Let us do it for the sake of the people that I have described.

I have described other problems with the PCC. It rephrases complaints, interviews are not oral and it is dominated by the impact of the circulation war, which means that, when they are adjudicating, editors and others have one eye on circulation and the other on the ethnics of journalism, and the latter tends to lose out over the former. A powerful point emerged in a recent example. The press reported that there were problems in the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) spoke about that. People were asking, how did the press know that the stories were true? The press had no problem in reporting the story and, as I have said from the beginning, there was a legitimate case for reporting it, because it does have an impact on the constitution.

There were many arguments about the way in which that story was reported, but there is no doubt that there was a case for reporting it. It emerged that a couple of editors and journalists were in the know because they were being taken into the confidence of the two members of the royal family who were involved. The interesting point about the case is that the editors, or one of them, told Lord McGregor of Durris, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, who made a great burst of it, holding forth rather along the lines of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool and saying, "Ah well, the press is vindicated."

What happened, of course, is that not only did the truth come out in the way that I have described in response to an intervention, but Lord McGregor joined the cover-up. That troubles me deeply, and it should trouble everyone. I can understand an editor or a journalist protecting his sources, but it is incorrect for the chairman of the PCC, the body in which we are supposed to have confidence and which is there to protect the public, to join in the cover-up and say, "We will not tell you, either."

There has been much nonsense from The Sun and other newspapers which say, "We are here to tell you the truth." They are covering up, and they are joined by the Press Complaints Commission. That is unacceptable. There was a so-called attack on the Establishment by The Sun, but that newspaper is involved in nonsense, and to pretend that it is attacking the Establishment is, I am afraid, a dream in the mind of Kelvin MacKenzie.

The PCC adjudicates on a tiny percentage, about 3 per cent., of all cases that come before it. I do not want to attach too much weight to that, although it is important. I do not think that many complaints go to the PCC anyway, because until recently no one knew that it existed.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

It is a waste of time.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

That is one of the sad features.

Others say that the recommendations of the Calcutt report and privacy would be better. I have dealt with privacy, and I shall deal now with the problems that I find with the Calcutt report. There are profound dangers. If there is a code of conduct that provides that heavy fines can be imposed for any breach, it will act on good journalists as the law of libel acts on them now. The good journalist is looking over his shoulder at the law of libel. If there is a code of conduct with 40 or 60 clauses, that journalist will be worried about the imposition of heavy fines as a result of each and every provision. That would be a profoundly dangerous mistake. That makes the case for focusing on one statutory power that bears on accuracy and to raise standards by that method.

Paragraph 7.6 of the Calcutt report deals with the new concept of physical intrusion. The paragraph deals with why only journalists should be caught by the provision, not editors. The second sentence of the paragraph reads: The Privacy Committee considered this point … but concluded that the case had yet to be made for an additional offence of publication. The following words should trouble hon. Members:

Further, any editor or proprietor could, if circumstances warranted it, be charged as an accessory or with conspiracy. If we put editors in the dock on conspiracy and other such charges when there may be a real debate about press freedom, we shall set out on a dangerous road. It is far better to have a code that is respected. If we have a code with sufficient body behind it to ensure that it is respected and has status—it has worked with the electronic media without inhibiting their freedoms—we shall embark on a much safer road. That is the proven way forward.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter , Plymouth, Sutton

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of my strong agreement with much of what he has said. I recognise the work that he has done on this important issue. If we are talking about a code that will be respected and his proposals being respected, does he accept that they will be respected by the best journalists, of whom we have many? There will always be some journalists, however, and some newspapers, that will say, "We are only in business to sell newspapers. We are not bothered about standards or the law. We shall drive a coach and horses through anything."

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I understand that argument. The same argument applies, however, to many minor radio stations, most of which achieve high standards. They do so because there is an independent regulatory body. Those stations are involved also in a circulation battle, but they stay within their code most of the time. Against that background, I am reasonably optimistic. If the Bill were amended on the basis of press freedom, and if the hon. Gentleman and others then discovered that my system did not work, we could introduce legislation of the sort that other hon. Members wish to see on the statute book. That is the way forward. I suggest that that approach meets the anxieties that have been expressed.

Some say that statutory regulation is dangerous. I have dealt with the argument that accuracy is the other side, as it were, of press freedom. I have dealt also with the argument that that applies already to the BBC and ITV.

It is important to understand that the press is already heavily regulated. Those who argue against press regulation are ignoring the fact that it is the subject of regulations. My argument—this may seem strange to some—is that the press is over-regulated. But it is over-regulated in the wrong way. The present regulations prevent good investigative journalism, but do nothing to stop the abuses that we have all been worried about. Surely that is evidence enough that we have got it wrong and that we need to get it right. That is the purpose of the Bill.

The press has been the subject of regulation—some of them favoured it—since the 1880s. For example, it was given exemptions in certain libel proceedings. It was able to report Select Committees in the 19th century. It was free from the risk of libel in certain circumstances. It has protections in copyright legislation and in the law that applies to the rehabilitation of offenders. It has protection in the covering of elections. These are positive freedoms for the press. They are positive regulations.

On the other hand, there are negative regulations, as the press sees it. There are problems with contempt of court legislation, libel laws, official secrets legislation and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. The press is concerned about the power that the law provides to confiscate journalists' photographs and some of the terms of prevention of terrorism legislation.

In other words, we are regulating the press right across the board. We have been doing that day in and day out in this place, especially for the past 10 or 15 years. In doing so, we have eroded press freedom. We have undermined good investigative journalism and we have allowed bad journalism to flourish. We have got things wrong and we need to turn them round. The argument is not to regulate because we do so massively already. Instead, we must consider how to regulate and for what purpose. I seek to regulate for accuracy, higher standards and press freedom. Surely there cannot be a better approach than that.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if there were freedon of information laws, the scandal involving Robert Maxwell, which was known to many journalists for four or five years before he died, would have been exposed? Gagging writs prevented the scandal from being exposed.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

It would be a much easier approach to reform libel laws. Some say that we should make legal aid available in libel cases. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the law of libel and other legal devices prevented Maxwell from being investigated. That being so, to extend the law of libel would be the worst possible way to discipline the press. We need instead dramatically to reform our libel laws. In doing so, we must include within them correction of inaccuracy provisions.

There were many punitive settlements against newspapers a year or two ago. I cheered along with everyone else because they got their just deserts. Deep inside me, however, a little voice said, "This is a bad way to regulate the press, because it will be used against it in due course." Editors seem, sadly, to be blind to these arguments, while journalists are often not so blind. If we had correction of inaccuracy legislation, libel actions would not be the first step for many people, and financial settlements would come in lower figures. If a correction is published, there is less need or desire for a jury to say, "Half a million pounds in settlement." That is extremely important. In that way we could head off libel actions.

Many people have said to me, "I don't want a money settlement. I want a correction. Please can I have a correction quickly? I do not want to wait one or two years before it is printed in the newspaper. I want the matter to be dealt with quickly." In my view, that is their right.

Some say that what I propose is the thin end of the wedge. That is a strange argument to advance when there is all the regulatory law that I have described. Instead, we have the thick end of the wedge. The problem is how to turn things round. The regulatory body that I am describing would do just that. It would be necessary to introduce other legislation. We would not be able to pin things on to the system that I have described as though it were a Christmas tree.

There is something of a vacuum when it conies to the Government's policy on regulation. I do not intend to be offensive, and the Minister knows of my concern about these matters. The Government have said that self-regulation has failed, so what do we put in its place? The Minister has acknowledged that there is a problem. I suggest that the special form of regulation that I am suggesting—it would be similar to that which we use in the electronic media, which is so successful—is the way forward. We might, of course, want to change some parts of it. It has worked well, however, in giving us broadcasting media that are among the best in the world. Why are we so worried?

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin , Sunderland South

The media were the best in the world until the Broadcasting Act 1990.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I know that my hon. Friend is worried about that Act, and I share some of his concerns. If we take a long-term view, however, things have gone well.

It is right that the royal family and others need protection. It is—

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies , Stamford and Spalding

The hon. Gentleman has several times used the analogy of the broadcasting media, which are regulated. As he has rightly said, they have established high standards. Surely the fundamental difference between the press and the broadcasting media is that the media have to be licensed or franchised because the airwaves have to be rationed. Therefore, there is a considerable sanction on the broadcasting media. If they establish a reputation for consistent inaccuracy or irresponsible behaviour, they risk the non-renewal of their franchise. If they lose that, they will be out of business.

The hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the commission that would be established if his Bill were enacted would have the ability to withdraw the franchise of a newspaper and so put it out of business. It is—[Interruption.] Some hon. Members might think that that is a desirable prospect, but that is not seriously on offer. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be impossible to reproduce the sanctions that exist against the broadcasting media within the context of the Bill?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I understand the argument. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that regulation is about the withdrawal of a licence at the end of the day, but that is not what happens. He will remember the interview of the investigative journalists. They were asked by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) why the BBC and the ITV were better than the press. One of them had worked as a freelance press investigative journalist, and before that he had worked for television. He gave an answer to the effect that there was a culture of accuracy in the broadcasting world. That is the difference. Although it is right that the regulatory body could not withdraw a licence—I would not want to go down that road—it could go to court on the question of accuracy.

That power improved the general performance of advertising and made British advertising much better. Indeed, it is now among the best in the world. It is more accurate because of the power to go to court. Advertisers say, "We cannot afford to make mistakes, so let's check it again." Unfortunately, that does not happen in the press.

We must remember the rights of people in public life. A number of countries make it clear that Members of Parliament and royal families, for example, have less right to privacy. I accept that, but the people concerned have the right to expect the reporting to be accurate. I have a letter from a Mrs. Kibel, who took on the Sunday Express. She sent me a rather nice quote about the Queen's feelings about Diana and the royal family. It referred to a discussion in the palace on that matter and said:

The discussion cleared the air and Diana left feeling that the Queen, who has always made her feel nervous, was understanding and comforting. The article then directly quoted the Queen as saying to Diana: The whole family holds you in the highest esteem, so don't worry. What happened is obvious—the journalist picked up the telephone and said, "Can I have the Queen please?" He then said to the Queen, "Is it right that you said, 'Don't worry Diana, we all like you.'?" The Queen then said, "Yes, that's it, you've got it." Alternatively, the journalist might have rung the press office at the palace, which said, "I've got a quote here from the Queen, who says …"

The number of times that people are directly quoted when there has been no such quotation is horrendous. We heard a great deal about that at the Select Committee.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies , Stamford and Spalding

Did the hon. Gentleman ever think that the simple explanation might be that the journalist was bugging the Queen's conversations?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I had not thought of that. Inventive quotes such as that are really too much.

A MORI poll in 1992 showed that lack of confidence in the press and dislike of its practices were widespread. It is sad that people have such a poor regard for journalists. It is a great profession, of which we should be able to be proud. It is a pity that journalism is being besmirched by some practices.

I have many letters about the issue, but I shall quote from just two more. One woman wrote: I must add that because of the distress caused to my family and myself I am not prepared to have this case made public … writing this has once again opened up a festering wound. You know after four years I still can't come to terms with the fact that although I was guilty of nothing I have had to fight to clear my name and in the meantime lost nearly everything I cared about. She had lost her job and her home.

Another letter was from a father writing on behalf of his daughter. He said: It would not take much for the ratpack to turn and rend her … so she feels that she is not justified in running the risk of drawing fire on herself and even more so on her family … So there we have it. The tabloids seem bound to win because in the end they can make life unacceptably unpleasant for those who displease them and—more to the point—those people's families. I could quote and requote those sentiments from many, many letters. The House must act and bring about a balance between freedom and responsibility.

I am pleased to say that I have been told by a variety of people that matters will improve, and that everything is looking up now.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

That is very likely.

I do not like the bully-boy image of some of the press. Most of the press is good, some of it is appalling—and it is that small part that causes the bully-boy image. I was pleased to see a report in a newspaper recently that Kelvin MacKenzie editor of The Sun, had said, "We are now going to report the news accurately. He used the word "now". It is the first recorded case of a man who has been asked, "When did you stop beating your wife?" replying, "A few moments ago." But I have this horrible feeling that he is going to start beating her again.

What annoys me is the talk about disciplining journalists who breach the code, yet those editors have been breaching the code for years. Who is going to sack them? Will Mr. Murdoch come over here and sack them? There is a curious relationship between people like Mr. Murdoch and Mr. MacKenzie, who have a curious attitude that is a combination of being both prude and crude. That is very dangerous and damaging, and it makes us wonder what on earth is the underlying morality and code of such people if it is not just to make money out of circulation. It is a matter for them, in which I do not want to become involved, but if everyone else is fair game for journalism, perhaps they should be fair game, too.

Photo of Mr Peter Thurnham Mr Peter Thurnham , Bolton North East

The hon. Gentleman is introducing his Bill with good humour and good sense. May I take him back to the difficult question of the failure of the media to expose Maxwell? Could he explain how he thinks his Bill would help to overcome such a failure?

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley , Hammersmith

I shall do so; it is precisely the point that I have been putting for many years in the House.

We must change the libel and other laws that restrict investigative journalism. That must be done in the context of freedom of the press or freedom of information legislation that will allow investigative journalism, while also raising the standards. It is not a quick fix. We cannot rush an Act through the House to solve the problem. The law should have allowed the investigative journalists who knew about Maxwell to expose him. My proposed body could recommend how that should be done. Under the way that I have structured the Bill, it could take its time working out the sort of legislation that we need, and advise the House accordingly.

I want to make one further comment on the nature of the press during recent months. I am deeply disturbed, as the House should be, by the hidden threat. Some 250 Members of Parliament have been under the threat of Miss Whiplash. Everyone has something to hide; no one is pure and clean. I am not worried about sexual morality provided that it does not affect those who do not consent. However, when that is used as a weapon of warning, whether against Members of Parliament or anyone else, the press is taking on not just the Government, but Parliament.

When the issue began to grow in importance just before Christmas, senior members of the press said to me, "We are going to go nuclear on the Government if they support Calcutt or your Bill." I said, "Go nuclear if you like, but at the end of the day citizens have rights. We need a free press and we are going to have it."

When I presented the Mona Shourjabi case, the following day the Daily Mail, in a ridiculous piece of journalism, attacked her in a vitriolic article based on the assumption that she was supporting privacy. The reason that I introduced her was that she was so good at warning against privacy. I decided to check whether the BBC had used the word "privacy" on its "Today" programme when it interviewed her. It had not used that word, but I was immediately told, "Oh, you're ringing about that story. The Sun has already been on to us to ask us why we gave her such a soft time."

The Sun did not think that the story was important enough to print, but certainly thought it important enough to ring the BBC and try to strongarm it into being tougher the next time.

It is troubling to see the press working like that. It is worried less about reporting the news than influencing it. A number of people around the country have published editorials about me and my Bill. The Guild of British Newspaper Editors has written to hon. Members saying that my arguments do not stand up. I shall leave hon. Members to judge that for themselves as best they can.

In some cases, both the guild and newspaper editors said that I would not release details of the cases that came to me as a result of a letter that I had published in most local papers. Some refused to publish it, but the majority did. The purpose of that letter, which I sent out last August, was not to measure the level of content or discontent. I have made that plain a number of times, although the guild and some editors appear to believe that that was its purpose. If that were so, I would not have submitted that letter in August, when most people were on holiday and not reading newspapers.

That letter was designed to produce new cases, which I needed to inform the process of my Bill. There is no dispute that, at a meeting, I said that I would try to find a way of letting a guild representative examine those letters, subject to confidentiality. That was a genuine offer, because I like the open government bit and wanted the guild to see those letters. However, when we returned to my office and read through them, I found statements of confidentiality of the kind that I have already read to the House.

We then drew up a table for the editors and sent them that instead. Still they objected, saying that they wanted to see the letters. Rather more worrying was that they wanted the name of the newspaper, the date and the type of case—which information would of course serve as an identifier. I felt that the best that I could do was to write to everyone who had written to me asking whether he or she would be prepared to put their case to the newspaper—but stating that if they were worried about the consequences, they need not bother. That was all that I could do in the circumstances. I may add that newspapers are much tougher about protecting their sources than I ever was in that example, which I give because a number of hon. Members wrote to me on that subject.

Bad newspapers have no culture of accuracy and no respect for customers. When I complained recently to the Daily Mail about its treatment of Mona Shourjabi, I was horrified to find myself speaking to someone who exploded with anger when I asked if she had read the article. She seemed to think that I should automatically know that in her position as deputy editor, she had read it and was familiar with it. I thought to myself, "If she treats me—a Member of Parliament—like that, how on earth does she treat an ordinary citizen?" There is no recognition of the importance of the customer.

Bad newspapers do not run correction columns or make a friendly response to the public—although, to be fair to the Daily Mail, it came back to me in a very friendly manner after about an hour saying that yes, it had got it wrong and was very apologetic. From that moment on, I was dealt with most fairly and a correction was published. That correction was for me, but I do not know whether a correction for Mona Shourjabi was published—and I know that she wrote.

Bad newspapers do not publish a statement of aims or publicise the existence of the Press Complaints Commission, although that has been done more often recently. Some local newspapers, to their credit, do all those things. Local newspapers are often better in that respect because they are closer to their communities. Everyone should observe those practices.

My Bill allows for some negotiation on where a correction appears in a newspaper. I should be happy for such items to appear in a corrections column, and my Bill would allow that. Why do not newspapers publish correction columns? A simple correction is what people want to read. That is a simple way forward. I suggest that my Bill is the way forward for the Government, the House and the country.

Some editors have said that I am more interested in regulating the press than in press freedom. I remember issuing press statements during the progress of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the prevention of terrorism Act, for which I sat on the Labour Front Bench, and a number of other Bills, stating that, if the legislation went through in its present form, it would lead to journalists appearing in court. Sure enough, under the prevention of terrorism Act, Channel 4's Box Productions appeared in court only last year. I warned of that six years ago, but to the best of my knowledge, not one newspaper responded to or pursued my press release.

In the case of PACE, I warned of the danger of the police having confiscatory powers in respect of photographs, because that would put photographers at risk when they covered inner-city riots and so on. Again, little attention was paid to that warning, with one or two honourable exceptions—particularly a newspaper in Bristol that was affected.

My record of defending press freedom in the House is much better than that of the editors who did not even bother to publish my press release. More importantly, they attack those who express dissent. I have not yet dealt with the reason for my initial involvement in this subject, although I have mentioned it often enough outside the House. I am an ex-probation officer, and I knew in the 1970s and early 1980s that policing in his country was going off the rails. I knew that bad practices were creeping into policing, and I said so, as did others.

I knew that the Birmingham Six convictions were wrong. I was one of those who took groups of people to see the then Home Secretary about that case. I am the ex-probation officer for one of the defendants in the Guildford Four. Initially, I believed that she was guilty, because she said, "I suppose that I must have done it." I still remember her saying that to me. We now know the way that she was dealt with in the early stages—of the treatment that she received after her arrest. We know also—this became increasingly apparent to me the more that I looked at her case—that she could not possibly be guilty. We made the same discovery in respect of the Broadwater Farm case.

In those instances, I did not witness good investigative journalism that opened up the problem of this country's criminal justice system going off the rails, but the wrong people being sent to prison while the guilty went free, and I saw that our criminal justice system had failed and failed badly. What an opportunity those cases presented for good investigative journalism.

I make no complaint about the press not pursuing such cases, for whatever reason, but I make every complaint about the press turning on the families and friends of the individuals concerned for protesting their innocence. They were presented in the press as either anti-police or pro-IRA. That is what was so wrong and so damaging. When people tell me that the press has the freedom to get it wrong, I reply that it has no freedom to present dissenting minority groups, who are vulnerable enough already, in a way that is inaccurate and leads to their being pilloried. The press has no right to do that, for that is profoundly dangerous to our democratic structure.

Today, we have an opportunity to put in place the structure of a Bill that would give our citizens the right that they deserve—the right to accurate news reporting which could improve the standard of journalism in this country and could protect something that we all need and which does not belong to editors or to Members of Parliament but to every British citizen, everywhere—the freedom of the press.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I say that it is clear that there is great interest in the Bill. Many hon. Members have signified their wish to speak, and I hope that those who catch my eye early will remember that.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet 10:56 am, 29th January 1993

I start by declaring an interest as a member of the National Union of Journalists, which supports the campaign for press and broadcasting freedom and is a supporter of the Bill.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on his success in the ballot and on the way in which he prepared the ground for the debate and his meticulousness in collating evidence. I am only sorry that I was unable—for reasons of which the hon. Gentleman is aware—to take part in that exercise. Above all, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on generating a debate on a subject of considerable interest, not only to right hon. and hon. Members but to those outside the House. The debate is really about a Bill which is about and for ordinary people.

If there is a Division, I shall support the Bill in the Lobby, though I shall describe certain reservations that I have about its drafting. However, it is most important that the Bill receives a Second Reading and is considered in Committee and has further chances of a wider and deeper debate.

We are dealing with two needs. First and foremost, there is need for a free press in a free society—for the freedom of a free press to question the Establishment and people in any position of power. I refer to the sort of freedom without which Goverments become extremely dangerous, as has happened in other parts of the world.

The freedom of the United Kingdom press is of immense value to ordinary people and to our democratic process. However, that freedom must be exercised responsibly, and that has gone wrong in recent years and must now be addressed. We must get that train firmly back on the rails, for the alternative is that those who want to gag the press, for a variety of reasons—many of them malevolent—will win the day.

The second need that we must consider—a need with which the Bill deals—is for the individual to be free to enjoy privacy without harassment, especially the privacy of his own home. There seem to be two responses to that, at two different levels. First, there is the response to what Sir David Calcutt has described as physical intrusion, in the form of electronic eavesdropping, telephone tapping, trespass of people's property and homes and "photo intrusion" by means of the telephoto lens.

The public have made their views known. The press will tell us that it does not really believe in opinion polls, except when they suit it. A Kent newspaper recently decided to place itself and its readership firmly in the same stable as that notable organ The Daily Sport by publishing in full what became known as the Camillagate transcript. That publication was the subject of an interview on Meridian television. At lunch time, the editor defended his publication; the television company subsequently conducted a phone-in opinion poll. By the evening, it was able to announce that 60 per cent. of the public were in favour of publication.

It then conducted a further interview with the editor in which the general public were asked how they would feel if their private telephone conversations had been tapped and then printed on the front page of the Kent newspaper—which I shall not bother to publicise by naming it. Surprisingly—or, perhaps, not so surprisingly—by the end of that television programme, when another phone-in poll was conducted, the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction. The overwhelming majority of the ordinary people of whom we hear so much had decided that publication was not such a good idea after all. In other words, the vicarious pleasure to be gained from the publicising of the affairs of people in high places had given way to the stark realisation that this was the thin end of the wedge—that anyone in the United Kingdom could be affected. The Bill seeks to protect the ordinary individual's right to a fair and factual presentation in the press.

I am on record as supporting Calcutt's recommendations for changes to criminal justice legislation. As a journalist, I have reached the conclusion that the way in which to control the more unsavoury aspects of public life and journalism in general—electronic eavesdropping, phone tapping, intrusion by long-tom lens and trespass—is to introduce a clause in the next criminal justice Bill to outlaw such practices. That should apply not only to journalists, but to everyone in the United Kingdom—and I mean everyone. That clearly raises issues concerning the security services, and we must face those issues.

That is half the argument. The other half involves the right of redress for those covered by that wonderful phrase "ordinary people". Let me gently suggest that, in this context, we are all ordinary people. We are not talking about pre-publication censorship; the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) made that very clear. We are not seeking to censor the press: that is not compatible with the existence of a free press in a free society. We seek to protect the right of ordinary people to a fair hearing, not the right of access to the libel law which is available to those who can afford it.

I have said that, in this context, we are all ordinary people. Those outside the House may have a different view, but I doubt whether many hon. Members' bank balances would allow them to take on a major libel case against a national newspaper. Some hon. Members have taken such action, and have put their lives, homes, families and jobs on the line to protect themselves. It takes a very courageous person—or, perhaps, a very foolhardy person—to do that.

We are talking, then, of the rights of most people—people without big bank balances, people who want a fair hearing. Those are the rights which the Bill seeks to protect, and I believe that they are a vital aspect of the debate about press freedom and the freedom of the individual.

In the opening pages of his excellent report, Sir David Calcutt expresses very clearly his belief that the Press Complaints Commission has failed. I believe that too. I find it extraordinary that Lord McGregor is still in his job. The hon. Member for Hammersmith referred to the commission's publication of criticism of press treatment of the royal family, and to the suppression of information given to the commission's chairman by a member of the commission who was a senior editor. That information would have redressed the balance; but the commission did not publish it, in order to defend the press. It did not have the guts to stand up and say, "We were wrong." That strikes me as just as wrong as certain other things that the Press Complaints Commission has chosen not to investigate, or has treated with scant attention. It is not surprising that there is no public confidence, and very little press confidence, in the commission as it is currently constituted.

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton

Unfortunately, Lord McGregor is not here to defend himself. He would say, would he not, that his Press Complaints Commission cannot do anything if the parties affected by offensive press reporting do not complain? What is my hon. Friend's response to that?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet

My response is very straightforward. It should be understood that I am saying nothing today, under privilege, that I have not said very publicly outside the House. Lord McGregor is aware of my views.

This week, the press suddenly decided that it might be in order to investigate complaints that are not instigated by a first or second party. It strikes me that, if the press can make such a decision now, it could have done so earlier. But my prime complaint is that, faced with detailed inside knowledge, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission—the person to whom we are all supposed to look confidently for redress, either as members of the press or as members of the public—failed to make that inside knowledge public. I consider that inexcusable, and I said so at the time.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier , Harborough

I agree that the Press Complaints Commission has failed signally to achieve what it set out to achieve. In the past few days, the commission has announced to the public that it wishes to invite complaints about the Prince of Wales tape recording, and then announced that the affected parties did not wish to complain. Does that not destroy the whole purpose of the commission? First, it announces that the possibility of a complaint; then it announces that the potential complainants do not wish to complain, thereby destroying whatever privacy and right to be left alone those potential complainants may have had.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet

I would have agreed with my hon. Friend had not the press then decided that, given a reasonably free rein, it could investigate matters instigated by people other than those directly involved. The press does not seem even to know its own mind.

As for Calcutt's suggestion that there should be a press tribunal, I shall quote from a letter that I have received from Tony Lennon, the chairman of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. In that letter to Members of Parliament, under the heading "Calcutt and Privacy", he says: The proposals to introduce measures to protect privacy are, in our opinion, a threat to Press Freedom. The measures—the creation of new torts and the use of pre-publication injunctions and post-publication fines—would only benefit those people who are wealthy enough to access these processes. Secondly they would, as current libel laws are, be used as a device to gag investigations. We believe the issue is to give citizens rights, and not—as the Calcutt proposals do—to take them away from serious journalism. The Calcutt proposal to establish a three person tribunal with powers to enforce a statutory code and impose fines is a negative one. Firstly the composition—three people, one of whom is a judge—would be narrow and unrepresentative. Secondly imposing fines on papers would effectively act as a form of censorship—discouraging investigative journalism—and would, in our view, have a disproportionate effect on small publications whose existence is vital to media freedom. I agree entirely with those sentiments. I have great respect for much of the content of the Calcutt report. However, Sir David's proposals for a press tribunal are draconian and restrictive and would damage the freedom of the press. I believe that, almost certainly, they would be unworkable.

I come, therefore, to the proposal by the hon. Member for Hammersmith for an independent press authority. Its purpose would be to assist the ordinary person—that is, most of us—to obtain redress. I intend to refer to one current example—and if I begin to move out of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that you will correct me immediately.

The issue that has been raised in the press in the past 24 hours involves the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It may or may not come before the courts. I do not intend to comment on attitudes towards that issue, apart from saying that a quarter of the front page of The Times today is taken up with the photograph of a lady, clearly under some stress, whom I at least regard as a very ordinary person—not the high, not the mighty, not the rich, not the famous. Apparently, she is a reasonably successful business woman, working on her own behalf and providing a service to other people. Because of the publication of a story in one, two or three newspapers, she has become embroiled in an issue which is now common knowledge throughout the press. The lady has parents who must, presumably, be suffering the same distress as must be experienced by any parent when their child is objected to gutter journalism.

The photograph was not to be found in a publication that was seeking relaunch publicity for itself. It, and others like it, are in every national newspaper. It is of an ordinary person—not people who have to be exposed and whose every thought and murmur has to be interpreted by the Press Gallery because they are making the policy that runs the United Kingdom. That is the kind of ordinary person who needs protection but who does not have the money to fight an expensive libel case.

I am afraid that we hear too much from the press to the effect, "It's in the public intersest." What the press means is that it is interesting to the public and that it sells newspapers. I fear that that is precisely why one of my local newspapers decided to take a chance and publish the Camillagate transcript. I was assured by that newspaper, and accepted its undertaking, that it was trying not to increase sales but to inform the public. You will appreciate, Madam Deputy Speaker, that, as a journalist, I suffer from no cynicism whatsoever.

After receiving that assurance, I had an anonymous telephone call. I do not like anonymous telephone calls, but it was from somebody who works in that press print. My informant told me, "You ought to know that the print run was dramatically increased first thing this morning because we knew that this was gong to be good for selling the paper." That is the public interest—it is interesting to the public and is selling newspapers.

I do not believe that the pre-publication of the Queen's speech by The Sun before Christmas was in the public interest. The material was going to be in the public domain in two days' time, in any event. I have to say, with due respect to Her Majesty, that the Queen's speech is not normally the most dramatically controversial event of the year.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

Who decides what is the public interest? Some of us may have very different views about the public interest.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet

The hon. Gentleman made that point earlier. We are, of course, talking about degree and opinion, but I suggest that that breach of an understood embargo, if not a literal embargo, can hardly be claimed to have been in the public interest. One editor of one newspaper stuck two fingers up and said, "I don't give a xxxx for the Establishment of the United Kingdom."

One case has been referred to three times this morning, the Robert Maxwell case. I suggest to the House, on behalf of my constituents, that the fact that Maxwell pensioners lost money was in the public interest and that that fraud ought to have been exposed. Where were the dogs of Fleet street? They were not barking. The editor of one national Sunday newspaper told me, "I've got a cupboardful of gagging writs that prevented me from publishing that story." Forgive me, but how does one take out a gagging writ on a story that is so carefully and delicately handled that it is published before a writ can be obtained? One can take out a libel writ afterwards, but one must have prior information to gag. That is one singular occasion upon which Fleet Street failed the country.

I have some concerns about the Bill. The provision for the quick correction of errors, particularly in the case of small local newspapers which have a tendency for inaccuracy, usually through haste or inexperience but not through malice, may lead to their front pages being filled with corrections. I know that that is not what the hon. Gentleman intends. In clause 4(5) he provides that his authority would be able to dismiss applications that it considered to be trivial. The hon. Gentleman will have to look at that matter carefully in Committee so that the right balance is struck.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

How much space would "Tiny" Rowland be given in correcting the Al Fayed brothers?

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet

The hon. Gentleman will be making a speech. He has intervened about five times this morning.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet

I am endeavouring to—

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman , Billericay

My hon. Friend does not have to answer.

Photo of Miss Janet Fookes Miss Janet Fookes , Plymouth Drake

Order. We must be careful about reasonable standards of courtesy. We cannot have a sub-conversation going on.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. You invited hon. Members to be brief. Many hon. Members want to speak in the debate. I could spend half an hour talking about that issue, but I choose not to do so. It will be much better if hon. Members make their own speeches.

My personal inclination is that we should amend the criminal justice legislation to regulate electronic eavesdropping, the taking of photographs by long-torn lenses and intrusion into people's homes. That is a matter entirely for the Home Office and criminal justice legislation. I look to the hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage to provide redress for the ordinary person.

Last week, members of the press ordered the last drinks in the last chance saloon by trying to find a way round the Press Complaints Commission. After everything that I have said, and after having heard what the press has said this week, I believe that if it is prepared to implement each and every one of the alterations that have been suggested, a revamped Press Complaints Commission, under a new chairman and with many more lay members, might prove eventually to be the way forward for the ordinary person. However, the hon. Gentleman's Bill makes a serious attempt to address a serious problem. I commend him for having introduced it. I hope that it receives a Second Reading. I wish it well.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington , Clydebank and Milngavie 11:19 am, 29th January 1993

I am grateful to be called, and I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on introducing the Bill. As he said, I was involved in the issue some years ago.

The best article that has been written on the subject recently appeared in The Herald, in which Mr. Ian Bell said:

The issue is not privacy; the issue is not bias. The issue is not good taste, ethics, or the relationships between information technology and the state. The issue is not smut, deference, royalty or David Mellor's big toe. The issue is accuracy, where journalism begins and ends. The first question should be, "Is it true?" If we concentrated on that, many of our problems would be at an end. That is where I started from, and that is where Kelvin MacKenzie starts from. He said that tabloid journalism cannot be condemned simply because it is brash or noisy or declamatory; it must be called to account only if it is false, irresponsible or reports untruthfully. I agree entirely. But what does someone do if a newspaper is inaccurate or, worse, if it prints lies? As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, when I introduced the Right of Reply Bill, I was assured that matters had improved considerably and that the press had cleaned up its act.

Mr. MacKenzie says that his newspaper no longer lies. What does someone do who disagrees with him, when the courts are not available and, frankly, when the courts can never be available? Even if legal aid were available for defamation, court procedures are not appropriate to such action. Surely the onus should be on the press to show some evidence for their stories, given the huge damage that can be done, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith showed.

This week I tried to find some untrue stories. The difficulty is that one gets only one side of the story. On Wednesday, the Nimmo Smith and Friel inquiry reported on the allegation that there is a gay network in Scotland. A headline from The Sun appeared in The Herald, saying: Gay Judges Linked to Palace. Homosexuals in Scotland's top jobs are part of a deep-rooted gay network with members stretching ail over Britain and even to Buckingham Palace, The Sun can reveal". There is no hesitation about that statement. The article was about a list that had come from a man called Colin Tucker. The Nimmo Smith/Friel report states: Colin Tucker's so-called 'list' is a Statement which we have in our possession and which does not name or otherwise identify any prominent member of the Scottish legal establishment, apart from Lord Dervaird"— who resigned several years ago—

as a person who has allegedly engaged in homosexual behaviour. There is a fair amount of evidence that that story is untrue, that it is a fabrication and that it was probably known to be such when it was written.

Another headline appeared in The Sun on Monday, not on page 23 but on page 1. It says: Kick out Colonel Charles. —I am not a great monarchist; I am simply quoting from this week's stories— Army anger at Camilla affair. Senior Army officers last night called on Prince Charles to quit as colonel-in-chief of six regiments—over his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. I read on with great interest to discover which six regiments were calling for the Prince's resignation, but The Sun could not find one Army officer or even a batty old retired general to make the story stand up. One knows what probably occurred: it was a slack Sunday in the office at The Sun.

On Tuesday, The Sun reported: Prince Charles yesterday turned down an investigation into the Camillagatc tape"— that is true— and declared: 'I have got to get on with my job'. The thought that Prince Charles telephoned the deputy editor of The Sun, Stewart Higgins, and said, "I have got to get on with my job", beggars belief. I have no problem saying that that is inaccurate; it is not true. We must start by asking, "Is it true"? The journalist will be able to say, "Yes, it is true; here is the evidence."

I am sad that such journalism masks the superb journalism, of which we have seen some good examples this year. It was not our Government or the Foreign Office but the world's journalists who alterted us to the problems of Somalia. There is some incredibly brave journalism coming out of the Balkans. I watched a moving programme on television last week about the work that is being done by journalists in the Balkans. In neither place will one find the newspapers that are causing us so much concern. When I went to Somalia, I asked myself, "Will I find The Sun there? Will I be able to escape press harassment?" Somalia is a good place to go if one wants to avoid The Sun. Its brave lads are at the bedroom window.

Its editors have decided that the world's greatest humanitarian disaster—Somalia—is not a story. I find that rather difficult to accept.

It is nonsense to say that such newspapers are on the side of the little people. One of the extraordinary achievements of such papers is that they have made freedom of the press unpopular in a democracy. An extraordinary story appeared in The Independent this week. It said that a survey conducted by Glasgow university found that the public put tabloids at the bottom of the list of agencies for protecting human rights.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington , Clydebank and Milngavie

Yes, The Sun was at the bottom. The public found lies and distortions more offensive than anything else.

It is not freedom of the press if the press can say in print anything it likes about someone without offering redress. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, the freedom of the press is a concept which belongs to the people, not a few editors. A right of reply, as embodied in the Bill, enhances the freedom of the press because the ordinary citizen can have his or her say. The knowledge that someone can bite back and say, "It is not true" is a formidable deterrent to a lying or sloppy newspaper.

When I introduced my Bill, I was aware that one of its weaknesses was the way in which it proposed to establish a press commission. It looked as if the Government were setting up a body. I am aware that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said, we have a long tradition of setting up bodies which achieve some distance from the Government. However, the idea suggested by Sir Louis Blom-Cooper is worth examining. He said that we should give the duty of appointing an authority to people in responsible posts who did not obtain those posts through any Government appointment. That would be a valuable way of creating some distance.

I commend the Bill. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith would like to tackle the whole sorry mess of our press laws. I should like a Bill of Rights, freedom of information, a new official secrets Act with a public interest defence and a reform law on defamation with perhaps a small claims court attached to it. There would be differences among us about a privacy law. I remain to be convinced that it could be framed adequately. However, the Bill is a valuable start, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth , Stratford-on-Avon 11:30 am, 29th January 1993

It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), who has also introduced legislation intended to address these immensely important issues. So we are indebted to him, as to the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley).

I have some worries about the proposals in the Bill which I should like to elaborate. I am a member of the National Heritage Select Committee. The review that the Committee is currently undertaking of privacy and the media takes us into some of the same territory as the Bill occupies. The Committee has reached no conclusions. My remarks this morning will be in an entirely personal capacity.

What is the nature of the problem to which we should address ourselves? What is the evidence of a collapse of journalistic standards? Jaded and dyspeptic individuals at their breakfast tables have always complained of what my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) described as the gutter press. In the home counties a generation ago, it was widely assumed that the country was going to the dogs because The Times intended to print news on the front page. The decline of the press is always with us.

If we contemplate legislation, we need to consider the facts and the practicalities calmly. There is a good deal too much righteous indignation sloshing around our political system. We hear tirades from editors and from some politicians. It will be as well if we look to see what objective evidence there is on the problem. We do not find very much.

The statistics of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission in the 18 months to July 1992 show, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, that complaints about accuracy were by far the largest category. But they numbered in total 1,052. There were another 40 complaints about the opportunity to reply. There were 143 complaints about privacy. In the same period, the press ran hundreds of thousands of stories. Are we to conclude, as the Press Complaints Commission and the editors do, that there is no great problem? Or are the complaints received from aggrieved individuals the tip of the iceberg? Possibly they are.

Regrettably, the Press Complaints Commission does not monitor the press. Nor has it considered third-party complaints. I commend the hon. Member for Hammersmith on his attempt in clause 3(2) to address that need. We all have our hunches and prejudices, but there is no body of evidence upon which to base the contention that there is a problem of abuse of power by the press such that we should legislate to control further than we already do what the papers are to print. After all, that is a decision not to be taken lightly in a free society.

Of course, journalists write inaccuracies from time to time. They produce quantities of material to tight deadlines. But I suggest that one important reason why inaccuracies occur is that few, if any, of us operating in the political world systematically seek to lodge in the minds of the press a complete and objective version of things which does justice to all sides of the argument. All Governments, at any rate in Britain, are great culprits here. Knowledge is power. Therefore, they deny information to the public. Huge quantities of information are systematically but unnecessarily kept secret. Governments make highly selective information available and steer interpretation on the part of the press, often by unattributable guidance.

Politicians do their best to manipulate the press and lead it by the nose. Is it fitting, then, that we should legislate to establish a statutorily based authority, the job of which would be to require the press to print the truth under compulsion of powerful sanctions? I worry about the proposal in the Bill that the Secretary of State—even so liberal and honest a Secretary of State as my right hon. Friend—should appoint the members of such an authority. The editor of The Observer, Donald Trelford hit the nail squarely on the head when he said: I think it would be undesirable for people appointed by the Government to decide what is truth. The hon. Member for Hammersmith acknowledges that difficulty, and contemplates the establishment of an intermediary appointments commission. Even then, I would be worried about the indirect element of political patronage. I should have similar reservations about his suggestion that the National Heritage Select Committee should play a part in determining who is appropriate to serve on such a body.

Of course it is desirable that the press should adhere to high standards of accuracy. Indeed, it is proper that a citizen who suffers from some inaccurate report should be able to exercise the same freedom of expression as a journalist and have a correction stated in the same media. However, the establishment of what is correct will often not be easy. I feel that the hon. Member for Hammersmith underestimates that difficulty.

The Bill postulates a notion of "due accuracy". What is due accuracy? What is truth? The answer has baffled philosophers and perplexed the courts time out of mind. With the best will in the world, truth will often be hard to ascertain.

How would the Independent Press Authority deal with propaganda—when politician A says something which politician B insists is wrong? If a newspaper correctly reports what the hon. Member for Loamshire, South says, may it not perpetuate the untruth about which the hon. Member for Coketown, North has so vigorously complained? What would be the proper role of the IPA there? What should the IPA do where there is a complaint of selective reporting which is misleading on account of what is not said?

The 21 good persons and true who are to be members of the authority would need a godlike wisdom to discern what is accurate, true and in the public interest in myriad such cases. However, the issues will be immensely important. Truth matters, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith eloquently impressed on us.

For that very reason, the press will insist on a full right to defend themselves against charges of purveying untruth. The press argued against the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, which would have established a right of reply. The press argued that the Bill would deprive it of proper legal safeguards, including the rights to demand evidence on oath, to cross-examination, to legal representation and to discovery of documents.

When arraigned for falsifying the truth, the press will surely, at least in important cases, claim the right to trial by jury. The press won that right at the end of the 18th century in Fox's libel law. It has been part of our law ever since. Are we to deny those long entrenched rights?

The hon. Member for Hammersmith envisages that the IPA should make up its own procedures. I think that he hopes that they would be informal and rapid. I fear that his hopes would be thwarted and that the procedures of the IPA would be driven to approximate more and more to those of a court. The IPA would be like no other court. It would be a special court to try the press. It would try the press without the full rigour and processes of a true court of law.

For a long time at least, the IPA would be unpredictable in the exercise of its authority. It would wield its powers on the basis of loosely defined duties rather than a detailed body of case law and jurisprudence. The IPA would be confused in its purposes, as its role would be in certain instances to conciliate as well as adjudicate when conciliation fails. I do not believe that it is possible satisfactorily to combine both functions. The defendant will not co-operate fully and candidly with a conciliation body, if he knows that what he says will be noted as evidence when that same body later adjudicates on a complaint.

The IPA would be overwhelmed in its work load. The Bill proposes to go much further than that of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, which provided a statutory right of reply to factual inaccuracies which were damaging to the character, reputation and good standing of an individual or body of persons. I apologise if I am mispronouncing the hon. Gentleman's constituency, perhaps he will correct me.

Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth , Stratford-on-Avon

I am very willing to grant him that right of reply. His Bill limited the types of inaccuracy to which there would be a right of reply.

The Bill provides in clause 3(1) a right for a published correction of a factual inaccuracy"— any factual inaccuracy, regardless of whether it is damaging. That would open the IPA to a vast body of potential complaints. Hon. Members of this House alone—651 of us—could keep the IPA busy around the clock. The hon. Member for Hammersmith would have complaints considered not only from those people about whom the inaccurate statements were made but from anyone else who wanted to complain.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith seeks to make the work load of the authority manageable by his provision in clause 4(5): The Authority may dismiss any application which it reasonably considers to be vexatious or trivial. But it would be no easy matter to do that sifting. Each case would need to be considered with proper care.

Some of the best justified third party complaints to the Press Council were pooh-poohed by editors as vexatious and trivial. An example is the case of Mr. Robert Borzello—a private individual who has campaigned persistently and courageously for years against racist language in the media. He has repeatedly been characterised as a crank and a vexatious troublemaker by arrogant and apprehensive editors.

It is extremely important that third-party complaints, raised in the public interest by whomsoever, should be reviewed by the regulatory authorities with care and respect, but all that would take time. I worry that the IPA—on the model proposed—would become an enormous organisation and would flounder. It would prove unable to carry out the duties laid upon it, even with regard to dealing with inaccuracies.

The correction of inaccuracies looms large in the Bill. My feeling is that the measure lacks balance on account of that. The hon. Member for Hammersmith wants to strike a proper balance between the freedom and the restraint of the press, but I question whether he has done so, although that needs to be done.

The sections of the Bill that refer to the upholding of freedom are brief and highly generalised. As far as detailed provisions are concerned, the parts that deal with the restraint of press freedom and the clauses that create a power to require the press to print new material are the meat of the Bill. Its emphasis is on restraint.

It also seems unbalanced and inconsistent, in that, whereas it would be the duty of the IPA to promulgate codes of professional and ethical standards for the press, as in clause 2(1)(d), it will be its duty to police the conduct of the press in one respect only—the correction of inaccuracies.

Of all the items that one would expect to be in the code—privacy, harassment, cheque-book journalism, intrusion into grief or shock, discrimination and so forth—I do not understand why the IPA should police only inaccuracies. A number of different values have to be kept in balance. If accuracy is of paramount concern, we could hardly complain about bugging. Bugging is a great aid to accurate reporting, but privacy matters at least as much, yet the balance of the Bill does not reflect that.

We need to be prepared to allow certain risks to be taken with investigative journalism. We need newspapers that are prepared to run risks and to penetrate the opacities presented to them in the interests of exposing bad practice. If we are not prepared to risk inaccuracy, we may prevent public good being done through investigative journalism.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Hammersmith thinks that the IPA will have enough to keep it busy in dealing with inaccuracies. By the time it has got through the catalogue of duties set out in clause 2(1)(c)— to investigate and monitor ethical standards of the press, distribution of newspapers, ownership and control of the media, access to information and restrictions on reporting and any related matter it may consider appropriate"— its members will be dizzy with confusion and fatigue. Under clause 2(1)(b), apart from anything else, the IPA will be monitoring itself—a somewhat circular and giddy process.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Hammersmith leaves most of what will be covered by a code of standards for the press to self-regulation. I am not entirely clear about that from my reading of the Bill, but I assume it to be the case. Self-regulation is greatly preferable to statutory supervision by an external body. I cannot understand or accept the notion of a code of professional standards imposed from outside. The essence of professionalism is ethical autonomy and self-regulation.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman , Billericay

Does my hon. Friend not agree that newspapers are businesses? Journalists are not professionals who discipline themselves from within but people who are trying to make a profit out of peddling stuff, some of which causes great distress to the public. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has pointed out the difficulty of achieving perfection in any piece of legislation drafted in this House, but, while we may not achieve perfection, do not the public expect us to try to provide a society in which they can go about their everyday lives without being unduly harassed or traduced so that someone can make money out of them?

Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth , Stratford-on-Avon

Many eminent and respected journalists would agree with my hon. Friend that journalism is not a profession but a craft or trade. If that is so, perhaps we should not be talking about professional standards, but we certainly must talk about ethical standards and ground rules. As far as possible, it is much better for those to be generated by the newpaper industry staff, through self-regulation. If journalists own their own code of practice there is a better chance that they will feel committed to it. If the regulatory body contains a good proportion of practising journalists, their colleagues are more likely to respect their judgments, but the most important part of the case for self-regulation is that a free press is a crucial safeguard of a free society.

The press have, however, confronted us with a great difficulty. For years they have dragged their feet over self-regulation. Instead of embracing it positively, they have done the minimum that they could get away with at the latest possible stage. Self-regulation has therefore been unimpressive and that has certainly applied during the two year existence of the Press Complaints Commission.

Self-regulation, however, could be made more effective. The gaps in the code could be filled, the code could be made more detailed and specific, and its application could be made tougher, reinforced by penalties agreed by the industry. Fines would be an effective self-imposed sanction. There is already a requirement under the code—imposed by the press on itself—that corrections should be printed. They could be printed in prescribed ways. When an editor could not agree with a complainant that an inaccuracy had been printed, the code could stipulate that a reasonably argued letter of refutation should be published. That would be greatly preferable to the quasi-judicial apparatus of the IPA.

I am afraid that events have convinced me that self-regulation, while necessary, will not be sufficient. The breakdown of ethical consensus in our society and the pressures of the circulation wars mean that some newspapers will occasionally brush aside the code of practice to which they claim to subscribe.

That being the case, I believe we must reinforce the legal remedies available to the citizen. We can strengthen the law of confidence, as recommended by the Law Commission and accepted in principle by the Government some years ago. We could create a new tort of infringement of privacy, although, like the hon. Member for Hammersmith, I have some doubts about that. The creation of a new tort of harassment seems attractive. We must make legal remedy against defamation, which bears on the issue of accuracy that is so emphasised in the Bill, available in practice to people other than the rich. I presume that the simplification of procedures that the Lord Chancellor is contemplating would bring down the costs of libel actions, and I hope that he will reconsider his position on legal aid and make it available for plaintiffs in libel actions and at levels well above income support.

The third element of reform needed, to balance the proper protection of the individual with enhanced freedom of the press, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith wants, is freedom of information legislation. Happily, the House will have an opportunity to debate that next month.

There are other possibilities of strengthening press freedom in beneficial ways. The Law Commission's proposed Bill would provide a clear-cut public interest defence in proceedings for breach of confidence. That would reduce the scope for prior restraint of publication, which also needs underpinning in libel cases, as the Robert Maxwell saga has shown.

Although I applaud the hon. Member for Hammersmith for giving new focus and urgency to the national debate on the freedom and the responsibility of the press—in the hearings in his committee before Christmas, as well as in today's debate—I must say, with respect, that I do not believe that his independent IPA is what is needed. I have explained my reservations. If the Bill goes into Committee, I hope that some of these difficulties can be looked at in more detail.

I hope that the House will prefer to consider a threefold thrust of reform—improved self-regulation by the press, strengthened civil remedies for the citizen and enhanced freedoms for the press, by far the greater part of which is responsibly committed to the public interest.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry) 11:50 am, 29th January 1993

The two speeches that we have had from Conservative Members have rather neatly encapsulated the divide on the argument. The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) wanted a level of control and regulation of the press that I should like to think that most of the House would wish to resist. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) expressed his reservations about the Bill. He accepted that they could be absorbed by the Bill, although he chose to take a different view.

In some ways, I regard this debate as a sad day. I should make clear my own interest as a member of the NUJ, although I am not in any way speaking on its behalf. I was in the House on the day when the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) had the debate on the motion to which he referred. I said then that I was resistant to any measures that might infringe the freedom of the press or require legal measures to control it in any way. That remains my view, but I also said then that it was becoming increasingly difficult for those of us who took that view to defend the excesses of at least some sections of the press.

It is right for hon. Members to acknowledge that the press is, to some extent, our bread and butter and vice versa. On occasions we can sound a little self-righteous, if not priggish, when we complain about the excesses of the press, when we are more than happy to see that and to witness the effect it can produce on unwitting voters when it is done on our behalf.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin , Sunderland South

I cannot remember the last time that the press was excessive on my behalf.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

As a Liberal Democrat, I echo the hon. Gentlman's sentiments. I do not believe that the press is excessively committed to putting forward the arguments that I should like to see presented.

The sad fact is that self-regulation has failed. Editors make themselves look a little foolish when they write highly charged critical editorials about the need for independent regulation of the City and an independent investigation of the police, and then say, "But, please, not an independent body to look into the affairs of the British press."

The hon. Member for Hammersmith has put his finger on it—the issue is not whether there should be some measure of assessing the accuracy of reporting in the British press and the rights of citizens to redress, but what that mechanism should be. How can we be sure that that mechanism will be independent? How do we ensure that the citizen feels that he has a reasonable chance of fair redress?

I commend the hon. Member for Hammersmith on the innovative way in which he has brought his Bill to the House. Although I was unable to take part in his investigative committee, it demonstrated his long-standing commitment to this issue. He is aware of the need to get the balance right, and he has sought to canvass a wide range of opinion to shape his Bill. The hon. Gentleman should not only be commended for that: hon. Members should take on board the fact that his Bill has been brought here after a great deal of thought, consideration and canvassing of widespread views. That cannot always be said for the Bills that we debate on Fridays, or indeed on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who is not present in the Chamber now, but who hopes to speak, has strong reservations about where the Bill could lead. I have been drawn, reluctantly, to the conclusion that support for a Bill of this kind is necessary, but I am firmly opposed to the many draconian proposals of Sir David Calcutt. I am absolutely opposed to any pre-publication censorship. If we ever begin to travel down that road, the freedom of our press will be in grave jeopardy. I was astonished that Sir David, as a member of the judiciary, did not appreciate the dangerous nature of that proposal. I am pleased to note that the general reaction to it seems to suggest that it does not command widespread support—I am not too sure about the hon. Member for Thanet, North.

It is important to put on record one's appreciation of the great deal of good that is done by the British press. Exchange of information, a change in public attitudes and change in Government attitude could not take place but for the work of the press, and the popular press.

Mention has been made of investigative journalism, but let us consider the simple issues that popular newspapers take up in the right vein. I have an example of one such issue, which demonstrates just how effective the popular press can be on an issue of concern to certain sections of the community. Some time ago, without warning, the children's television programme "Blue Peter" withdrew the subtitles, even though they had been introduced as a result of a poll conducted among children about which programme they wanted subtitled. They had been financed by the National Deaf Children's Society. On the basis of a campaign that consisted of an early-day motion signed by myself and the then right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, Jack Ashley and others, which was then taken up by the Daily Star, the BBC's decision was reversed within a week.

I do not believe that the House would have been able to achieve that without the benefit of a popular newspaper identifying that issue as one which the BBC had got wrong. That newspaper launched an effective campaign and encouraged its readers to complain in writing and by telephone. That campaign forced a public corporation to recognise that its decision was indefensible and that it needed to reverse it.

Every hon. Member could quote an issue on which they have enlisted the support of the press. We all depend on our local press, week in, week out, to achieve changes in our communities. It is important to put on record the positive nature of a campaigning popular press. That balances the regret that we feel when certain sections of the press overreach themselves in their determination simply to achieve higher sales.

It is also difficult to pick out recent examples of press excess. The press have ultimately been able to say that, in many cases, the stories that they ran were true. They may have been sensationalised and those stories may have been handled tastelessly, but their basis was true. We must be extremely careful that we do not introduce measures that prevent those stories from ultimately reaching the public domain, given that there is a legitimate public interest in the information that they contain, if not necessarily in the way in which that information is disseminated.

I believe that the hon. Member for Hammersmith has addressed the problems. I have been persuaded by the way in which he conducted his committee and by his long speech—justifiably so—to present his Bill. I was also impressed by the way in which he handled interventions. He demonstrated conclusively that he has thought about the problems deeply and that he is well aware of the dangers of going too far.

This is a sad day. I should prefer to vote against the Bill, because I should like to believe that it has not become necessary. I regret to say, however, that some sections of the press have not heeded their own self-regulatory bodies and the pleas of the ordinary members of the public who have suffered at their hands. They show no signs of mending their ways or adapting their codes of practice. They treat those codes with contempt.

By simply requiring newspapers to be accurate and, when proved inaccurate, to make amends by publishing true statements of equal value to the original misstatement, we are not fundamentally censoring the press, but giving ordinary citizens the right to have their views expressed properly and in a balanced fashion, and to seek redress where necessary.

It will not surprise the House to know that I, as a Liberal Democrat, believe that many freedoms in this country are under attack, but the freedom of the press is not the one which is most threatened. We need positive measures to establish the rights of citizens against the concentrations of power within the estates and the country. We must recognise that there has to be a standard of integrity in high places, which is now being questioned.

In the past two or three weeks, a major British airline has been exposed in the courts as having pursued illegal, fraudulent, corrupt practices to destroy several British companies. In spite of that court case, two chief executives of the company have said that they intend to study the organisation to find out who is responsible and sack them. There is no suggestion of the integrity of responsibility of top management. Even if they did not know what was going on—I do not believe for a minute that they did not—they should resign and accept that they and their company have been found out, and they are not fit to hold public office. Unfortunately, standards in this country are such that we cannot now expect that sort of honour, which used to be the practice, both in public office and in public service in the private sector.

We must accept that the time has come for a modest measure to give individual citizens the right to a fair, accurate and responsible press. The overwhelming majority of the press has those attributes. The problems relating to the local press will not detain the Independent Press Authority. However, we cannot allow to continue the practice of editors who believe that freedom to make money and sell newspapers should be upheld at the expense of trampling on the lives of individuals without the resources to defend themselves.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman , Billericay

Is it not a fact that most of the investigation in the British Airways and Branson case was done by Richard Branson and Virgin against the background of newspapers publishing scurrilous, inaccurate material allegedly issued by British Airways? Therefore, all that the newspapers achieved was to help British Airways in its attempt to undermine Virgin. The newspapers then printed reports of the brave case that Mr. Branson brought in the courts, but they had been party to the British Airways campaign.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

That may be true and had the Bill been in place, redress might have been available. However, that is no comfort to British Caledonian, Laker, Air Europe and Dan Air, which were all destroyed by such practices and had no right of reply.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith has introduced a Bill which is, regrettably, necessary. It is extremely well balanced and guarded in what it seeks to do. It commends itself to the majority of the House and should be allowed to make progress so that, in Committee, some of the issues raised may be further considered.

I apologise to the House for having to leave as soon as I sit down, as I have to attend a press conference in the Grand Committee Room on the launch of the report of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on the pit closures. I am sure that the House will understand why I wish to attend it.

As I said, the Bill is, regrettably, necessary; I hope that the House will allow its passage so that it may be given proper consideration in Committee.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham 12:06 pm, 29th January 1993

I understand what the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) has to do—perhaps he will bring a few spare copies of the report back for us.

The House must consider what structures and methods are used in countries where the press is constrained. One of the few good functions of the National Union of Journalists is to support Amnesty International to ensure that the barbed wire comes off the pens in other countries. Some hon. Members will have been present when Hong Kong journalists spoke earlier this week about what was happening among some authorities in China which were restricting not merely journalists' opportunities for reporting what was going on in China, but their freedom to be effective journalists in Hong Kong.

Although many criticisms can be levelled at the NUJ, we should use its expertise and worldwide contacts, and consider Index, produced each year on press restriction round the world, to understand what leads to restraints that go far beyond those being considered by hon. Members today.

There are few wrongs in society that have not been put right without both journalists and editors taking a risk. I shall return to what has now become a more fashionable issue.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) was regarded as pernicious and his reports as inaccurate. It was felt that he was undermining the foundations of society as we knew it. It was only when a Conservative Member of Parliament started paying more attention to what he was saying that an alliance began to develop that led to the righting of a wrong.

Although some people who believe in free enterprise may occasionally see a joke that others do not, it is often the unfashionable and the unlikely that deserves to be given an airing.

In many of the instances where people have been challenged to prove that something is accurate, they have not been able to do so immediately. They depend on evidence being brought forward later once the issue has come into the public arena. We should learn from such lessons.

It turned out that haemophiliac sufferers were being poisoned by the blood products that were supposed to extend and enhance the quality of their lives. One person's private guess resulted in research, which was not initially accepted as soundly based. I suspect that some of the researchers, who were not necessarily doctors but people associated with haemophiliac sufferers, wanted to give the issue more prominence.

We must be careful about introducing a requirement for proof. We should allow people to raise issues which, in turn, allow us to overcome disadvantages, distress and other handicaps that must be brought into the public arena. That has to be done before the change can be fully accepted.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin , Sunderland South

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's generous reference to me. However, I do not want it to be used in an argument for voting against the Bill. The issues in which I was involved were not based on one person's private guess—I know that the hon. Gentleman was referring to haemophiliacs—but careful research of a sort that, unhappily, is not common among newspaper journalists in a large section of the press. As a result of my research, I found that the entire free press, with certain honourable exceptions, had been unleashed on me. My constituents were repeatedly, and over a long period, told that I was a supporter of the IRA. That is the sort of malicious falsehood which I hope the Bill is designed to correct.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

That may be so. I recommend that those listening and those who read the debate read the hon. Gentleman's book. It is a good example of what a journalist or a non-journalist can achieve by studying published sources and talking to people.

One of the earliest cases that I took up as a Member of Parliament was that of a young man who had been wrongly convicted of attempting to steal on an underground train. I visited him in prison. He did not appeal against his sentence of three months—which I thought was far too severe—as he thought it best to get the sentence behind him and get on with his life.

Five years later a journalist reported a case of a detective sergeant who was suspected of framing someone. It was only then that we linked the two cases and discovered that the detective sergeant had been a detective constable and had been involved in framing my constituent and one of his friends. I am not saying that all the good things justify any particular example of the worst behaviour of the press. It is important that people speak up for what the role of the press can be, and we must ensure that we preserve that role.

I am speaking against the Bill, and I shall vote against it if there is a vote. I welcome the debate. It is a good idea to have more debates on the freedom and practices of the press. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) should be congratulated not only on his speech but strongly on the work that he and his colleagues put in to the Soley report and the hearings. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), who chaired the proceedings in an admirably effective way.

I shall make various references to the inquiry. First, I acknowledge that the form that the inquiry took is one which the House should by vote insist takes place in various other areas where the Government are minded to propose legislation or to intervene when the Government have proposed legislation to ensure that it happens as well. In three hearings, we have seen that it is possible to cover a lot of ground and get a lot of information into the open.

I shall make a declaration of respect for the media, affection, occasional frustration, normally because they do not take up my causes early enough, and frequent anger when I see them doing things which are avoidably painful to others. On rare occasions I have low levels of writing income from them, rare payments of legal fees and sometimes damages for things which they have said or done. I hope that that list covers enough declarations of interest to keep everybody else happy.

I ask a question: how do people in the United Kingdom deal with Members of Parliament who damage others? How do people deal with a Member of Parliament who goes too far, is inaccurate or is reckless, malicious or simply mistaken?

As Peter Preston said on page 80 of the Soley report, A functioning democracy is rough trade, as the House itself sometimes shows. So is the press. When people question how we should get what we might call control over press mistakes, we should ask how it happens when we do the same in the House. A free Parliament and a free press are both essential parts of democracy.

How do people deal with lawyers in court who try to get witnesses to say something is true when the witness knows that it is not true? Most of us who have had any experience of courts know that lawyers, paid professionals, can, almost without limit, exert immense pressure, sometimes over several days, to get people to agree to something to which they should not agree, knowing that it is not true. What redress is there for ordinary people in such cases?

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier , Harborough

Let me declare an interest as a member of the Bar. Barristers in court do not seek to do anything other than put their client's case. It would be a professional offence for barristers to advance a case which they knew to be false. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) is not suggesting that barristers spend their time persuading people to change their minds when the lawyer knows that what he is proposing is based on a falsity.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

May I put it to my hon. Friend in roughly the sort of words that lawyers use? It is not simply in civil and criminal courts; it is also in tribunals. The best example I have is when I assisted a constituent in a case in which the Inland Revenue was appealing against a rate reduction. A clever lawyer who I do not think is in the House at present said to Mrs. So-and-so, "I put it to you that this, that that and the other is the case." She said, "It is not true." For half an hour, the lawyer banged away. He was a professional and she was a small, frail pensioner who had had unbelievable aggravation from the people next door, which is why her rates evaluation had been halved.

The lawyer went on and on. Eventually, I slipped her a note as I could not speak. She said to the chairman, "Excuse me. Can I ask this gentleman if he has been instructed to say this by the Inland Revenue and by the council, or is he making it up?" That was the collapse of the lawyer.

I have been in magistrates courts, civil hearings and criminal courts in which lawyers have continued in the way that I have described. I accept that no lawyer would do anything unprofessional. It is more than I can say for politicians. If that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is putting to me, I give way to his pressure.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson , Hampstead and Highgate

Surely the basis of the hon. Gentleman's argument is in the examples that he has given to the House. There is a comparative equality of the ability to refute whatever point is put forward. The Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) defends the individual who is traduced by the press. The argument against that individual goes into millions of homes and there is no possibility of the individual countering that argument on a one-to-one basis.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

If someone such as George Carman QC takes a day or two to interview someone in court, and if it is reported widely, there is the same impact and the same inability to come back. I would argue that Members of Parliament may be able to speak of an individual from outside in a way which is reported with the same impact, so I do not think that there is an absence of equivalence.

About a week ago, I asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether the same rules should apply to political parties in advertisements, for lawyers in court and jounalists on newspapers. I would have added Members of Parliament, but for some reason the Bill of Rights stopped me from doing so. Would he propose legislation to require those three groups always to be accurate, and provide equal time for balancing arguments when people disagree with what has been said, establish a statutory body which would adjudicate and let such statutory bodies have the power to impose fines if, at the time of adjudication, it turned out that the person who had made the remark was not convincing when there was a hearing? The Prime Minister's answer was no. That was sensible.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle , Wallasey

My interpretation of the Bill is that there is no chance of fines unless the newspaper responsible refuses to print a correction. As most editors say that they are in favour of prompt corrections, I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is exaggerating what the effect of the Bill will be. I have been listening to him refer to the problems with the Bill. Everyone recognises that there have been problems with the press. Does the hon. Gentleman have any views as to how the press should be dealt with? He does not seem to have put his views forward so far.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

I am against the Bill. If the hon. Lady reads in Hansard what I have said, she will find the answer to her intervention.

William Cobbett, who helped to break the secrecy with which this House conducted its affairs hundreds of years ago, said: no general rule can be given beyond this; that, the right and the duty being clear to our minds, the means that are surest and swiftest are the best. That is the argument for legislation because we all are supposed to know that the law stops people doing what the law says they should not do. There is no evidence of that. In the United Kingdom, one third of men have already been convicted of a criminal offence for which they could have been sent to gaol for six months or more by the age of 30, but that is a side issue. William Cobbett went on to say: In every such case, however, the great and predominant desire ought to be not to employ any means beyond those of reason and persuasion, as long as the employment of these afford a ground for rational expectation of success. I argue that, by bringing such issues into the public gaze, and by getting the proprietors, the editors and the journalists as well as the people and the politicians to discuss it, we will continue to see improvements of the sort that we have seen in the press recently.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

I will give way to my hon. Friend and then I shall not give way again.

Photo of Mr John Gorst Mr John Gorst , Hendon North

When my hon. Friend refers to problems with speeches made in the House and the treatment of people in the courts, is he arguing that, because there is a problem, we should not try to find a solution for the press treatment of people? Is that part of his argument? I got rather lost.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

It is difficult by law to establish the truth. It is difficult to rely on a statutory body having any more beneficial results than the Press Complaints Commission has at present. Some of the criticisms of the PPC are fair and may go beyond good debating points, but most of them are wrong.

During my time in the House, many people have come to me with problems of many kinds, but few have been about their treatment in the press. Generally, there are fewer complaints now than there could justifiably have been a few years ago. There are some scandals, but even the hon. Member for Hammersmith would not argue that his Bill would get rid of all of them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) asked what would happen when people defied the law. Do we create some kind of licensing system for journalists which prevents them from working until they kowtow to the courts? Would we end up with the sort of controls that now exist for broadcasters? [Interruption.] My hon. Friends will have an opportunity to speak later in the debate.

The problems of accuracy go beyond the tabloids, about which much could be said. The best recent example was in the Church of England newspaper in which an eight-line report about a meeting on the ordination of women was followed two weeks later by a 13-line apology for about five errors in the original eight lines.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) gave a good example in the way that The Times treated a person in a current case. The same problem occurs with The Daily Telegraph, which continues to use unreliable correspondents, especially on religious affairs.

The Times refused to correct a report by Clifford Longley when Archbishop Runcie announced his retirement. Longley said that Runcie could not make up his mind about the rights and wrongs of the Falklands war. He was factually and demonstrably wrong for the year of the war and for every year since.

There are also problems about the sensitivities of journalists. In the Soley hearings there was a rather curious session with Pat Healy of the NUJ ethics committee which seemed to hold proceedings on one case in secret. There were other odd happenings which reminded one of the 1920s when the NUJ complained about Members of Parliament, especially Labour ones, writing and said that journalism should be preserved for journalists. That is the sort of closed society for which people seem to argue all too often, and it is also a restraint on the press.

We would do well to place on record what the Cross-Media group said in its evidence to the committee: Stripped of its verbosity, the Bill boils down to simply this: there should be a legal obligation on newspapers, enforceable by the Courts, to publish corrections of 'factual inaccuracy' as adjudicated by an Independent Press Authority. It has nothing to do with sleaze, bias, sensationalism, unfairness or any of the other sins that journalists can commit.Mr. Soley's Bill is perhaps well-motivated, but it is wrong-headed and potentially dangerous to the freedom of the press in this country. I do not say that I agree with the way that that was put. As I said in the House, I think earlier this week, Members of Parliament should be even more keen to protect the freedom of the press than members of the press.

We cannot do our job under a system that would lead to greater and greater constraints on the press. I do not say that all the constraints should be removed because there are ways in which the laws of libel can be adapted.

There is an important step to be taken by saying that no law should apply to the press that does not apply to others as well. In such ways we can move forward.

I do not think that Dugal Nesbitt Smith of the Newspaper Society was wrong when he said that the price of a free press was worth the price of a few bad newspapers. I do not think that there are bad newspapers, only bad parts within them, and there is some sloppiness and habits which grow but which can be squashed. For example, The Sun is not sued for libel nowadays. Some years ago it was casual about libelling people, but now it is not.

There are problems even with newspapers such as The Guardian, because this week Peter Preston, whom I have quoted with approval, published an article by the Archbishop of York saying that The Guardian leader the day before had been wrong and that he had not mentioned the present royal family at all. In the same issue, there was a letter from Dame Barbara Cartland built on the false assumption that the paper had made. That is sloppy work within the newspaper and should be stopped, but a statutory authority is not needed to do that.

Malcolm Rutherford of The Financial Times, a well-respected journalist, said: The existence of the Bill is worrying. A blanket law to stop tabloids going as you think perhaps too far would have a very serious effect on The Financial Times." The House should take such evidence seriously.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

Some serious newspapers gave evidence to the effect that the Bill is unnecessary for them because it will require them only to print a correction if they get something wrong. We are aiming at irresponsible newspapers which print something that is incorrect and refuse to print a correction.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Eltham

My hon. Friend must establish why statutory regulation would go much further than voluntary regulation. The House and the country' must decide what to do if people decide to defy such regulation. The courts will also have to establish what they will do in such instances.

As the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) often says, the history of this country is built as much on defiance as on compliance. My hon. Friend would probably discover that people would ask, "What is the next stage?"

I fear that, one way or another, we shall end up with a small bit of barbed wire around the pen. I do not want that, and the time to stop it is now.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin 12:26 pm, 29th January 1993

Like so many hon. Members who have spoken, I begin by warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), not only on his care and trouble in introducing the Bill, but on the tremendous amount of work on the pre-hearings. I found them thoroughly enjoyable and most helpful and informative.

I shall make a couple of simple declarations of interest because they will affect part of my speech. I am a member of the National Union of Journalists, although I do not agree with the NUJ view on this issue. Secondly, I spent some time working in broadcasting and that experience greatly affects my attitude to legislation of this sort.

I should like to establish a couple of propositions that provide strong arguments for my hon. Friend's proposed legislation. The first key proposition is that there are basically two types of media—print and broadcasting. Print is subject to self-regulation, and broadcasting has a long history of democratic regulation and control. Despite that contrast, the almost universal acknowledgement is that, especially on news and current affairs, the broadcast media are freer, more accurate and the more independent. This may sound paradoxical to hon. Members who hold the Conservative philosophy, but that area of the media commands most public respect.

There is endless evidence for that. One piece of evidence that I like especially was produced by the BBC. From time to time it conducts a test of the believability of different sources of news and current affairs. The rating scale is from nought to five. At the top of the believability rating—I do not know what conclusion is to be drawn from this—is "Crimewatch" with a rating of 4.4. It appears that everyone believes it. I am not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing. I shall not detain the House with that finding because we are concerned basically with newspapers and current affairs programmes.

Near the top of the believability scale is ITN's "News at Ten", with a rating of 4.1, along with the BBC's nine o'clock news. "World in Action" and "Panorama" are also high on the list.

The newspapers are far lower down the scale. At the bottom, beneath the Daily Mail and the Daily Express—this will not greatly surprise the House—are the party-political broadcasts. I am happy to report that the Labour party-political broadcasts had a higher believability rating than those of the Conservative party. Beneath even the party-political broadcasts was The Sun, with a rating of 1.4. As the evidence is overwhelming that the public place trust in the broadcasting media and not in the press, I shall not labour the point.

The source that I am about to quote might destroy our bipartisan spirit on some issues. In an important NOP poll before the last general election, potential voters were asked whom they trusted to give them the truth about the facts surrounding the election. They were asked, "How much do you trust each of the following to tell the truth in the coming general election campaign?" It appeared that 67 per cent. of those polled trusted ITN. That result showed that they trusted it either a "great deal" or a "fair amount". Clearly they trusted ITN to tell them the truth about the campaign. There was a similar figure for the BBC's news.

The respondents were then asked how much they trusted the daily newspapers to tell them the truth about the campaign. Two of the categories were "a little" or "not at all". It appears that 64 per cent. trusted them "a little" or "not at all". That should concern hon. Members. It should be our right to receive good and accurate information, especially in the context of the democratic decision that the electorate has to make at the end of a general election campaign. There was not much sympathy from those who are now sitting on the Government Benches in response to the clear distortions and lies with which we were confronted in the run-in to the last general election and to previous elections.

The resignation of the former Secretary of State for National Heritage has been mentioned. The key quote that I heard from both the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), the former Secretary of State, and, I think, from the Prime Minister—this was the opinion of Conservative Members generally—was to the effect that it is outrageous that members of the Cabinet should be selected by the press, especially the tabloid press. I say, "Amen to that", but I wish that it had been found similarly outrageous when Governments were being selected by the press—

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin

I would rather not. I want to be brief. The hon. Gentleman has intervened on two or three occasions already.

No one can dispute that the press has enormous power. Similarly, it cannot be disputed that its standards of accuracy in its news and current affairs coverage are not a fraction as good as those of the broadcast media.

Despite the evidence that the press, when compared with the broadcasting media, leaves a great deal to be desired, all the trends in recent years are towards making the broadcasting media more like the press rather than the other way round. I cannot think of any other area of national life or consumerism where it is said, "We have two machines for news and current affairs, one of which works pretty well while the other is flawed in many respects. Let us copy the flawed machine and move further in that direction." Unfortunately, that is precisely what is happening.

The Government carry a fair degree of responsibility for the way in which things are drifting. The former Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, said during the passage of what was the Broadcasting Bill that one of his aims was to make broadcasting a bit like browsing through a good bookshop. In other words, he envisaged numerous channels. He seemed to be saying, "Let us use the model of the press for broadcasting where you pick and choose what newspaper you want, and have a proliferation of broadcasting channels to mirror it." We have seen what has happened since the Bill was enacted.

As deregulation has begun in broadcasting, new questions have arisen about the accuracy, fairness and quality of the broadcasting media. There is a direct correlation between the current regulatory system and the quality of news and current affairs programmes. What has happened since the Broadcasting Act 1990? There has been a loss of production facilities and a cut in programme budgets. Good news and current affairs programmes cannot be produced on peanuts. Standards are falling, there is less training of journalists, less money is being spent and there is greater competition for audiences in a narrow field where advertising influences the way in which programmes are made.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

I thought that we were here today to discuss the Bill. The hon. Gentleman has drifted off the point, first to become party political and now with a discussion about the Broadcasting Act.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

Order. The Chair will decide what is in order.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin

The hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) has made a couple of interventions and a bogus point of order. I hope that he will listen as I come precisely and exactly to the conclusion of my remarks.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

The hon. Gentleman is going round in circles.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin

I am not. The hon. Gentleman can read my speech tomorrow if he does not like the oratory.

There is a simple proposition in the Bill, which encompasses the lessons to be learnt from the clear contrast between the broadcast and the print media, and which is moving precisely, gently and moderately towards the establishment of some sort of standard. The only power within the Bill is to correct inaccuracies. It is a simple measure which recognises that quality news and current affairs reporting cannot happen by accident. I know that many Conservative Members think that a free market delivers everything, but it palpably does not deliver everything needed for quality news and current affairs. I am staggered that the Bill has any opposition when it is simply about correcting factual inaccuracies.

The PCC's code of practice states: Whenever it is recognised that a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report has been published, it should be corrected promptly". All the Bill does is to provide for the statutory framework in which that can happen.

Some of my many, many friends who are journalists and fellow members of the National Union of Journalists are concerned about the Bill. Item 4 of the NUJ's code of conduct states: A journalist shall rectify promptly any harmful inaccuracies, ensure that correction and apologies receive due prominence and afford the right of reply to persons criticised when the issue is of sufficient importance. Of course, it is not always within the power of a working journalist to guarantee that redress. This modest Bill will help good journalists because it enshrines the codes of practice of the PCC and the NUJ. The assumption in those codes is that we know what is accurate or inaccurate. No one denies that the matter can be complex, but there is an assumption that we can find out through some machinery what is accurate or inaccurate. The only argument is what body should provide that machinery.

There is a philosophical difference between Conservative and Labour Members. The evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of people who, like myself, believe that good news and current affairs reporting does not happen by accident and by just hoping that the training and the money will be provided. Good news and current affairs reporting occurs when a proper democracy understands and accepts that there are times when there is need for democratic regulation and control. That is not a revolutionary statement. Such a system exists in the broadcasting media and has served this country well in the outstanding field of investigative journalism in which so many broadcasters have received notable awards over the years.

My hon. Friend's Bill redresses a little the balance of free market forces and democratic regulation, and tries to bring the press closer to the standards of broadcasters. It should be enthusiastically supported by those who cherish our democratic values.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury 12:40 pm, 29th January 1993

I am conscious of the fact that this is a precious Back Benchers' day, but it may be convenient to the House if I spend a few minutes explaining the Government's stance on the Bill. I thank the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) for the opportunity to have such a wide-ranging debate both in the House and beyond. I have not noticed any particular differences between the two sides of the Chamber, but impressive arguments have been deployed in all parts of the House. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, it is, above all, a parliamentary matter.

The Government's attitude will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage gave due warning of it in his statement to the House on 14 January, on the occasion of the publication of the "Review of Press Self-Regulation" by Sir David Calcutt.

The House will be aware that in the report of his review, Sir David makes six recommendations. Five concern privacy, while the remaining—and central—recommendation concerns the future basis for regulation of the press. So far as the recommendations on privacy are concerned, my right hon. Friend accepted the case for new criminal offences to deal with specified types of physical intrusion and surveillance. Subject to further examination of the details of the proposed offences and to consultations with practitioners, the Government will therefore bring forward legislation in due course to give effect to those proposals in England and Wales.

My right hon. Friend accepted also Sir David's recommendation that further consideration should be given to the introduction of a new tort of infringement of privacy. He accepted that we would, in addition, look at the possible relevance of the Data Protection Act 1984 in situations where there is misrepresentation or intrusion into personal privacy by the press; give further thought to the legislation on the non-identification of minors and others in court proceedings; and look at the legislation covering interception of telecommunications.

Giving effect to all those recommendations will represent a substantial programme of work, not just for my own Department, but for the several other Government Departments—particularly the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department—concerned with different aspects of them. Suitable machinery will be established for overseeing and carrying forward that programme of work in the fastest possible time scale.

It is, however, Sir David's central recommendation, concerning the future basis of regulation of the press, that is most relevant for the purposes of today's debate. As the House will know, Sir David's overall conclusion is that the Press Complaints Commission is not an effective regulator of the press. He considers that the press would not now be willing to make the changes needed to make the commission the truly independent body, commanding the confidence of the public as well as the press, that it should be.

He therefore recommends that the Government should introduce a statutory complaints tribunal on the model of that described in the 1990 report of the committee on privacy and related matters, which Sir David chaired. The tribunal would have wide-ranging powers, including the power to restrain publication of material in breach of its code of practice; the ability to require the printing of apologies, corrections and replies; and the ability to award compensation, impose fines and award costs.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out clearly the Government's initial response to that recommendation. I remind the House of what he said. He made it clear that the Government agree with Sir David that the Press Complaints Commission, as at present constituted, is not an effective regulator of the press. We also recognise the strength of the case that Sir David makes in his report for a statutory tribunal with wide-ranging powers. We have not ruled that out. At the same time, we are conscious that action to make such a body statutory would be a step of some constitutional significance, departing from the traditional approach to press regulation in this country. In the light of those considerations, the Government would be extremely reluctant to pursue that route. A most persuasive case for statutory regulation would need to be made out.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

Is there not a precedent? The police used to investigate complaints against the police force—for instance, allegations that they had beaten people up to obtain confessions—and we were forced to establish a statutory Police Complaints Authority. The local government ombudsman and the body appointed to investigate the national health service are also statutory. Why should the Government resist the establishment of a similar authority to investigate the press?

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

I shall address that point shortly. Part of the reason is that we want to listen to the voices of those who have a great deal to say, but who may not have had time to marshal the evidence—and, indeed, their own thoughts—on this crucial issue, which is possibly more important than all the other issues put together. I refer to the constitutional relationship between the state and the press.

My right hon. Friend said that, in reaching a final view, we would want to take account of the debate surrounding the Bill. He explained that the Government would advise the House that, although we had not announced our final conclusions regarding a statutory regime, we could not support the Bill.

As I have said, the main reason why we do not support the Bill is that we are not persuaded at this stage that statutory regulation of the press is necessary or would be appropriate. That does not mean that we are satisfied with the present approach to self-regulation. Sir David pointed to the shortcomings of the present arrangements and we consider his detailed analysis compelling. We hope that, in the light of his report, the press will now give further consideration to improving self-regulation; we want it to address in particular the 12 points listed as deficiencies in Sir David's report, which cover mainly the independence and procedures of the Press Complaints Commission.

The most important step that the press could take would be to introduce reforms designed to ensure the independence of the Press Complaints Commission. Sir David charted the way forward; we hope that it will be followed. Sir David also identified the need for a further look at the Commission's code of practice, which would need to be amended to reflect more closely what was proposed in the privacy committee's report. In particular, the code would need to spell out more specifically what "public interest" considerations had to be satisfied for publication to be considered justifiable. The Government look to the press to take all those points to heart; it remains to be seen whether, and how far, the press will respond to the crtiticisms in Sir David's report.

Photo of Mr Michael Carttiss Mr Michael Carttiss , Great Yarmouth

I hope that I am not premature in expressing a desire for my hon. Friend to conclude by wishing the Bill a fair wind, which would allow the very developments for which he asks to take place here. I refer to his personal view, rather than to his description of the Government's response.

As my hon. Friend has said, this is a parliamentary matter. I have an awful fear that the Government are intimidated by the press and are afraid to act; alternatively, they may think that they owe a debt to the press, because it helped them to win the general election. We are told that no one believes reports in newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Mirror—although everyone seems to have voted Tory as a result of reading The Sun.

Can my hon. Friend reassure those of us who have our doubts about the Bill on certain grounds but who believe that such issues should be examined in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) and that that could best be done by giving his Bill a Committee stage? That would enable hon. Members to examine, freely and openly, the very issues about which the Government are concerned, but in which they do not wish to become involved at this stage.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

I am going to ask my hon. Friend to do something very difficult and unusual. I am going to ask him to make up his mind without the assistance of a Government pressing him in a certain direction. I shall not seek to cajole him, or any of my right hon. and hon. Friends, at 2.30 this afternoon.

My right hon. Friend and I have of course studied carefully the many editorials which have appeared on the subject, and not only in national newspapers. As my right hon. Friend also made clear, the Government will want, before reaching final conclusions on a statutory regime, to take account of not only today's very useful and timely debate but the outcome of the inquiry into privacy and media intrusion that the Select Committee on National Heritage has set in train. We look forward to receiving the Select Committee's report as a further significant contribution to the public debate on these issues. We have had a number of excellent speeches today from both sides of the House and members of the Select Committee.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson , Hartlepool

The hon. Gentleman seems to be joining the herdlike, headlong rush of opposition to the Press Complaints Commission. As it happens, I am not in that herd. However, both I—and, I believe, the House—should like to know precisely why the Government think that the Press Complaints Commission has been so ineffective. Is it because the code of practice is flawed? If so, in what respect? Or is it because the commission has not invoked the code sufficiently? Or is it because the code has been flouted once a judgment has been reached? Which of these three is it?

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated the next paragraph of my speech. I shall, of course, come to his absolutely crucial and reasonable request.

I must make it clear to the hon. Member for Hammersmith that we regard his Bill as premature and misconceived. I have already explained why we regard it as premature. We think that there are other voices to be heard and other judgments to be made. We think that it is misconceived because, in effect, it invites the House to tackle the complex issues raised by Sir David's review on a piecemeal basis, rather than in the round.

The Bill has two main purposes. It creates an Independent Press Authority, with duties to promote high standards of journalism, and it establishes a right to a published correction of factual inaccuracy in the press.

We believe that the Bill has a number of defects. The new press authority, for example, would have wide-ranging duties to promote ethical standards among the press and to issue advice and guidance, but it is given no powers to enforce its codes of practice or any other guidance material. It has potentially far-reaching powers to order the publication of corrections of factual inaccuracy, but the Bill makes no attempt to define what is meant by "factual inaccuracy".

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Denton and Reddish

The Minister suggests that the Bill is premature. I am aware of hundreds of people throughout the country who have suffered personal tragedies—someone having been assassinated or murdered, or a member of a family having been arrested—and have then been subjected to horrendous doorstepping by the newspapers. Is it not time that we did something to stop that now, instead of going on talking about it, month after month, leaving more people to be subjected to that sort of treatment on their doorsteps, which is absolutely disgusting, given the horrors that they are already suffering?

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

I do not deny for one moment that many of our constituents and many hon. Members fall into that category. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) highlighted that problem by seeking to substitute his judgment regarding what should be the editorial policy of newspapers for that of a particular newspaper whose editorial policy he does not like. That is the danger of following the route suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hargreaves Mr Andrew Hargreaves , Birmingham, Hall Green

The point made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) was that enough time had gone by and enough people had been subjected to horrendous doorstepping after not just criminal offences but tragedies in their own families. Their house may burn down, and the press immediately turn up on the doorstep. Surely the flaw in this Bill, if it is flawed, is not its suggestion that the press should improve its conduct—a suggestion which both I and the whole House probably believe to be admirable—but the fact that it does not balance sufficiently the freedom of the press, encompassed in its title, and privacy from doorstepping.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

The hon. Member for Hammersmith referred to freedom of information, which is an important issue. I do not seek to sidestep it, but it stretches far beyond the press and my Department's responsibility. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister feels passionately about open government, one manifestation of which is his determination to extend the principle of the citizens charter—an idea which, initially, was derided but which is having a substantial and welcome impact on public service. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is urgently undertaking much work on the issue of open government and the management of information right across government.

Photo of Mr Tony Worthington Mr Tony Worthington , Clydebank and Milngavie

The Minister referred to my intervention. I would be critical of the editorial judgment of some newspapers—that is my right, but it is their right as well. I disagree with some of the points that have been made by my hon. Friends. I buy newspapers because they are biased and because I know what I read in them will be what I like. I expect that that is true of every hon. Member. If a newspaper gives an opinion, it is an opinion, but if it says, in direct quotes, "Someone said that", and they did not, that is a lie. It should be seen as a lie and nailed as such.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

The hon. Gentleman is right about that point, but I was referring to his comments on Somalia.

I am being pressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, which, perhaps unusually, I find helpful, because it shows the urgency to take on board the need for some reform. We are now arguing, I hope in an informed and balanced way, about the need for such reform.

It might have been possible to correct some of the matters to which I have referred during the Bill's passage through Parliament if we had been able to endorse its underlying policy, but at present we are not in a position to do so. We need to listen further.

What is clear—on this point the Government can express full agreement with Sir David Calcutt—is that, if a statutory complaints tribunal or authority were to be introduced, its remit would have to encompass not only those areas that the Bill seeks to cover but other matters. Sir David makes that point in paragraph 6.4 of his report, where he says that the Bill, which suggests that the press authority should have responsibility for promoting high standards of journalism, does not accept, except in relation to matters of accuracy, how such standards are to be attained.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

The Minister said that he would listen to comment. In the light of what he said about Calcutt, how does he answer the charge by the Guild of Newspaper Editors that we are going down the road of state-appointed press policemen?

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

That is one of the problems, which is why we want to listen to the Select Committee. It undoubtedly will have much to say about how the commission should operate. I do not deny the gravity of the hon. Gentleman's charge. That is why I do not wish to be hurried, but I see the need to make haste.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson , Hartlepool

The Minister said that the Government have not made up their mind about the crucial issue of moving from self-regulation to state regulation, but, within 72 hours of the Calcutt report being published, the Prime Minister let it be known through his press secretary to the parliamentary lobby, that he—he is not an unimportant member of the Government—had now decided against statutory regulation of the press. Was that because he sensed Kelvin MacKenzie's tanks rolling down Whitehall and approaching No. 10 Downing street?

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key , Salisbury

The hon. Gentleman is being slightly fanciful and is using words that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not use. Quite specifically, my right hon. Friend did not say that he had decided anything. It is alleged that he expressed an opinion, which anyone is entitled to express. I am glad that he has opinions, with which I can always agree.

Sir David's view is that a somewhat different statutory body with wider functions and powers would be needed. He went on to say what he thought those functions and powers should be. As I have said, Sir David's recommendation is still on the table. The Government have not yet picked it up. We want to hear what others think of his ideas. We want to see what response the press is prepared to make to his call for reform.

For all those reasons, we are not able to support the Bill today. It may secure a Second Reading today. If so, we recommend that it should not be passed unless it is suitably amended.

1 pm

Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (National Heritage)

It has been one of those odd weeks in this place. It started with Ministers and Conservative Members of Parliament on Monday putting the boot into the football pools because they were private firms making private profits and Labour describing the Government's proposals for a national lottery as the unacceptable face of nationalisation. Today Conservative Members want new legal constraints on the press and Labour defends and wants to extend press freedom. The Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) seeks to do just that. However, we shall need to consider in Committee the route by which he proposes to achieve the ends of better accuracy and faster correction for the citizen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his Bill and especially on the enormous amount of work that he has put into it. He follows in the steps of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is absent today, and my hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) and for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington). The central issue of the Bill and of both Calcutt reports seems to be how we balance the freedom of the press, which we too often take for granted, with the responsibility of the press, which it too often ignores in the chase for sales and advertising revenue.

The issue essentially involves the national daily and Sunday press. Regional daily and local weekly newspapers are nearer to their readers, more in touch with them, feature far less often in complaints and are much speedier in putting complaints right. I worked on papers in each category when I had a real job, so I feel able to make that claim.

Various attempt have been made to achieve the balance between freedom and responsibility after bouts of public and parliamentary anxiety about press behaviour and standards. They included the former Press Council, the present Press Complaints Commission and now the repeated Calcutt proposals for a statutory body. The Press Council went because it was recognised that it had failed. It failed because, as with the Press Complaints Commission, owners refused to make clear to their editors the standards that they expected them and their staff to meet.

The new breed of owners have their eyes more firmly on cash than on quality and they enable and encourage an atmosphere in which the object is sales rather than standards. Each should go hand in hand. I do not put the editors in the dock alone. The owners are in the driving seat. They pile on the pressure for sales, especially in the never-ending tabloid war on weekdays and Sundays, but that does not leave the editors blameless.

In earlier days, editors had an independence from owners which has now all but gone. There is no way in which the editor of The Sun, even if he wanted to, could urge readers to vote Liberal Democrat or Labour before a general election because his paper's foreign owner would not allow it. To that extent, he is not free, so he should not feel free to invent stories and put words into people's mouths, whether for fun or for malign reasons, if the paper's owner accepted equivalent responsibility. It is in that sense that I say that responsibility rests with owners. They cannot stand aside and pretend that the editors are in charge. The owners—those owners especially—decide If an editor is in any doubt about that, he soon becomes a former editor. The central aim of the Bill is simple. It seeks to make it the duty of newspapers not to publish deliberately or carelessly, inaccuracies or statements designed to mislead, and to correct promptly and with due significance inaccuracies which they have published or misleading statements for which they are responsible, apologising for these where appropriate. The words are not mine. They come from appendix Q on page 119 of the first Calcutt report into privacy and related matters, which was published in June 1990.

The Press Complaints Commission significantly altered that and most other provisions of the proposed code and, in many respects, went back to the inadequate code of the former Press Council. Even then, some editors and owners have chosen to ignore it. It is because the PCC tampered with the Calcutt code that we have Calcutt mark 2 and, in part, my hon. Friend's Bill.

Press and Parliament have been playing a cat and mouse game for years. The press and its owners do not believe that the House will seek to rein in the wilder excesses of publications at the sleazier end of the business because, in so doing, it would be seen to be acting against what little proper investigative journalism is carried out on behalf of the public, mainly by the broadsheets—or the "quality" press, as it titles itself.

In turn, that has encouraged those with little respect for accuracy and a lot of respect for commercial success to take risks because they know that their posher and more responsible brothers, like the American cavalry, will ride in and come to their aid in the name of them all. Because the press and its owners have failed to exercise properly the responsibility that goes along with its freedoms, we need to encourage them on behalf of the public.

The Bill stands on its own, although Calcutt is close alongside. In a sense, the row between press, public and Parliament was bound to happen from the moment the press was shown into the last chance saloon with seven editors and eight of the great and the good to set up the Press Complaints Commission and began by watering down the code of conduct proposed by Calcutt.

As they are relevant to the Bill, I shall give two examples that deal with inaccuracies and the chance to reply. As I said earlier, Calcutt stated that it is the duty of newspapers not to publish, deliberately or carelessly, inaccuracies or statements designed to mislead". The Press Complaints Commission code said that Newspapers should take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material. There is an enormous difference between a "duty" and "taking care".

Following the former rule of every journalist when I was at it—if in doubt, leave it out—Calcutt said that it was a "duty" not to publish. The PCC coyly changed that to "take care". The gap is wide and significant. In paragraph 2 of the proposed code, Calcutt said: It is the duty of newspapers to allow a fair opportunity for reply when reasonably called for. The PCC's version is: A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies should be given to individuals or organisations when reasonably called for. Again, the House will note the "duty" that Calcutt wanted newspapers to accept became simply "a fair opportunity".

We know, and I think that we understand, that many newspapers do not like to publish corrections, even when they acknowledge that a genuine error has been made. Often, errors are made because of the speed of production. Newspapers often seek to put things right by offering to run another version of the same story, but that is not good enough. It allows the first story to stand so that, as the late Manny Shinwell described it, Reporters check the cuttings in the fond belief that they are checking the facts and inaccuracies and distortions run the risk of being repeated.

I shall give a third example in which a change between what Calcutt wanted and what the PCC delivered sowed the seeds of failure. On intrusion into grief, Calcutt said in paragraph 7: Newspapers and journalists serving them should in general avoid intruding into personal grief. Inquiries should be carried out and approaches made with sympathy and discretion. The PCC massaged this in the following permissive way: In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries should be carried out and approaches made with sympathy and discretion. Where Calcutt wanted inquiries avoided, the PCC assumed that they were okay if they were done with "sympathy and discretion". I just do not understand why either editors or owners have any objection to a bid to raise and maintain standards of professional competence and, where inaccuracies happen, to have them corrected. Certainly no working newspaper journalist can properly object to this. As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) has rightly said, journalists working in broadcasting have to meet far higher standards than anything envisaged in the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith.

The Independent seems to manage this all right. On page 2, its first home news page, of its edition on Wednesday it carried an apology for a statement—on the face of it a damaging one—made in its edition on Monday. It apologised for that report and then added the most unusual words in my experience We are happy to correct this error. Surely that is the way in which it should be done. I cannot for the life of me see why there is any argument against. I assume that, in this case, there was a civilised conversation between the complainant and the newspaper and that things were sorted out. Such an approach is one of the main thrusts of the Bill and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith lays great stress on the role of the adviser who, he believes, will try to achieve that.

The problem starts where the complaintant and the newspaper cannot agree that an inaccuracy or a misstatement has occurred. That brings us to the real choice of the Bill. Should there be some form of statutory body or should tenders now be invited for an extension to the last chance saloon and yet another go at self-regulation?

We have made it clear that we are opposed to the route that Calcutt has suggested. As the House has heard today, there are bodies set up under statute, but which are independent of government. That may be one of the keys to solving this puzzle. There is the Independent Television Commission, the BBC board of governors, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority, the Office of Fair Trading, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, and so on. All those organisations have been given life through laws passed here, so perhaps the choice between self-regulation and statutory form needs putting in another way.

We probably all agree that, at least to date, self-regulation has not worked as we intended, and we are entitled to be dubious whether it ever will. We and many others also do not want any form of body that is Government run and seen to be a licensing system. We shall try to find an answer somewhere between the two as we consult and consider our response to Calcutt. In the context of the Bill, we shall see whether there are other ways of getting adequate powers of enforcement if persuasion and reason fail.

The press response to my hon. Friend's Bill might have carried more weight if some of them at least had come out strongly in support of a freedom of information act, a Bill of Rights or an inquiry into the growing threat to true freedom of the press through monopoly ownership and cross-ownership of the media.

Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth , Stratford-on-Avon

The hon. Member mentioned a Bill of Rights. I noted with great interest the speech reported today from the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith). The Labour party should think carefully before endorsing a Bill of Rights and the large shift from democratic to judicial power which that would entail. Does the hon. Gentleman recall how the Reagan Administration set out successfully to shift the ideological balance of the Supreme Court in the United States? Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the observations of the former chief justice of the Canadian Supreme Court, Brian Dickson? He and his colleagues were the final arbiters on many of the important social issues confronting society. Is that how the Labour party want parliamentary democracy to develop?

Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (National Heritage)

I am sure that if I begin discussions with the hon. Gentleman on a Bill of Rights, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will pull me up. I am glad to have anticipated the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the leader of the Labour party. The Bill of Rights would not stand alone, but would be one of a number of other measures that I have mentioned—not least a freedom of information Act. It has long been the Labour party's position that the general provisions of a Bill of Rights should be underpinned by specific measures. However, I shall not develop that issue.

The Labour party and I are not alone in believing that a growing threat to freedom of the press lies in the monopoly ownership and cross-ownership of the media. It cannot be healthy for press freedom that a man who owns 50 per cent, of BSkyB also controls more than 35 out of every 100 newspapers sold each day in the United Kingdom. He also has an effective monopoly of the technology needed to operate satellite pay television services in the United Kingdom, which makes his the only organisation allowed to issue the smart cards needed by satellite viewers.

I have deliberately not mentioned the other issues in the Calcutt report such as intrusion, trespass and illegal electronic bugging as they form no part of my hon. Friend's Bill. However, I have no doubt that the House will discuss them later.

The press should welcome and embrace the Bill's aims and help us to find a sensible way of achieving them. If it will not, we shall have to encourage it to exercise its responsibilities more effectively and to attain higher professional and ethical standards by giving the Bill and Second Reading today.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies , Stamford and Spalding 1:17 pm, 29th January 1993

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who made a thoughtful and constructive speech, as did my hon. Friend the Minister. I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Erdington said about the facile way in which a falsehood, once formulated in the press, takes on a life of its own and is endlessly repeated as an established fact.

I was the subject of an amusing example of that a little while ago. The Evening Standard printed an article stating that I was a millionaire. I cannot imagine that any research was undertaken to verify that claim, which was fundamentally false and must have greatly surprised my bank manager. Having been published in the Evening Standard, it has since been repeated nearly every time that my name is mentioned in the press—which does not happen frequently—as an established fact. The claim, which was not defamatory, has established a life of its own. No doubt it greatly increases my credit among shopkeepers and tradesmen. Such examples must be reproduced thousands of times over the year.

Unlike the majority of my Conservative colleagues, I am not intrinsically opposed to a freedom of information Act. I hope that the Government will look more positively at the possibility of learning from the satisfactory experience in the United States.

I am pleased that most hon. Members who have spoken this morning began by congratulating the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), because he deserves the warmest possible congratulations. In my relatively brief time in the House, I cannot recall any other private Member's Bill which has been the subject of such thorough and thoughtful preparation. That was reflected in the speech of the hon. Member for Hammersmith when he introduced the Bill this morning. His initiative in setting up a committee to take evidence before he introduced his Bill was most valuable. I hope that the same practice will be followed on future occasions. It was a privilege for me to serve on the committee. We took some most interesting evidence, some of which was horrifying in the abuses of press behaviour which it revealed.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith knows that I have one or two fundamental reservations about the principle of his Bill—I have never hidden that from him. Nevertheless, there is no question but that the Bill raises important and timely issues. It would be wrong for the House to bury those issues today by voting against the Bill at this stage. It would be right for those issues to be given full parliamentary scrutiny in a Committee. Therefore, I shall vote without any hesitation for the Bill if I have an opportunity to do so later today.

My reservations can be rapidly summed up because they are essentially matters of principle. It is right for the House always to be extremely reluctant to introduce any sort of regulation, especially a statutory governmental regulation, in any field. It is far too easy for hon. Members to dream up new things that should be regulated and new restrictions that should be imposed on human freedom. Sometimes it is much too difficult to deregulate—and it is rarely done—to get rid of the enormous incubus of restrictions and regulations from which we suffer in our society. It is right to treat with the greatest suspicion any suggestion that we should regulate something that is not regulated at present. It is especially right to treat with suspicion the suggestion that the Government should become involved directly or indirectly in such regulation. When we forget that basic principle, we shall be on our way to a society that becomes so regulated that it suffocates, and possibly loses the right to call itself a genuinely free and open society.

My second reservation, which connects to my first one, is that I am inherently suspicious of any concept of a press law. A press law exists in many totalitarian or semi-totalitarian countries. One should not be worried by the fact that the phrase "press law" is often used in such countries. One should look at the merits of the proposal before us, although a certain amount of suspicion and hesitation are in order.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

Surely my hon. Friend would not refer to Holland as being anything other one of the most liberal nations, although it has privacy legislation. We are not even discussing a privacy Bill today.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies , Stamford and Spalding

I agree with my hon. Friend. I shall move on to the question of a privacy Bill in a moment, but I am strictly addressing the Bill before the House today, which is a press law.

We must look at the matter open-mindedly. However, it is right to look at the matter with some hesitation, for the fundamental reason that the press should, in a free society, have exactly the same rights and obligations as all other citizens, no more and no less. When one introduces a law that governs the behaviour of a specific class of citizen—in this case the press—an amount of doubt and scepticism are in order. I put it no more strongly than that.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson , Hampstead and Highgate

On the basis of the hon. Gentleman's argument about equal rights and privileges, would he say that the credit rating of a billionaire should be passed and be equal, or that the credit rating of someone who was not a billionaire should be absolutely equal, too?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies , Stamford and Spalding

I have now been elevated to being a billionaire, if I heard the hon. Lady correctly. My credit will be going up by leaps and bounds. I was unable totally to follow the mathematics or the logic of the hon. Lady's intervention, but when I read it in Hansard I promise to think carefully about it.

On the other side of the balance sheet, the Bill has some clear attractions. First and foremost is the appalling state of the press in this country. There is no doubt that in some respects we have a good press. I greatly regret the demise of so many of our good provincial broadsheets over the past 10 years or so. But we have five quality national dailies which are a great national asset. I know of no other western country which has more than two or three national quality dailies. That applies to the continent and to the United States, although the United States has time zone reasons for quality papers on the west coast not circulating on the east coast.

The five national quality newspapers that we all know set extremely high standards of journalism and deserve to be considered among the best newspapers in the world. That is high praise, because there are some extremely good ones, especially in Switzerland and Germany. At the other end of the spectrum, our tabloids are quite appalling. Only Bild Zeitung in Europe competes with the tabloids in this country either for trivialisation and sensationalism, or for low standards in the verification and presentation of stories. Such a national issue concerns us all.

Tabloids are published throughout the world and there are the rather lurid ones at the check-out points in American supermarkets: the National Enquirer is the most famous. There are many others elsewhere, such as Ici Paris or France Dimanche, in France. They serve a certain market for titillation, but it is accepted by readers and everyone else in those countries that the great majority, if not the totality, of what is contained in them is complete rubbish or invention. No doubt they are the more titillating and exciting for that. Sometimes our tabloids seem to have an identity crisis because they do not know whether they belong in that category of publication or are still trying to be newspapers presenting news. The result is the problems with which we are all familiar.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier , Harborough

Does my hon. Friend accept that the more disreputably journalists behave, the more obscure the benefits of their freedom tend to be? Thus the defenders of the freest possible press are never more needed than when press freedoms are most abused.

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies , Stamford and Spalding

That is an unexceptionable and worthy statement of aims.

The second important reason for making use of the opportunity that the Bill presents to discuss these matters is that it is quite clear that the Press Complaints Commission is a paper tiger It no longer has any credibility in any section of society, except of course in the section that dominates the PCC—the proprietors and the editors. The fact that the PCC is dominated by the industry is a weakness which even Lord McGregor, under considerable pressure, has had to recognise.

The Press Complaints Commission suffers from other defects. It is a toothless as well as a paper tiger. No sanctions are available to it and, in their absence, its judgments are likely to be treated with some contempt by those who do not respect the commission's aims, which are in themselves highly laudable.

I have read the commission's last two reports and I was struck by the extraordinary tone of complacency that they reflected. They seemed to suggest that the commission was saying, "Everything is perfect in the best of all possible worlds. We have seen off the enemies of press freedom. Everyone is happy with what we are doing. If we do not pass judgment against newspapers, generally it is because there are no complaints or because the complaints made have no merit." It seems that the continued existence of the commission is not in the public interest. It acts as a screen behind which the worst abuses will continue. If the initiative of the hon. Member for Hammersmith does nothing else—the same can be said of the Calcutt report—I hope that it will bring about sorely needed reform.

I am prepared to be convinced that we should support the Bill. I look forward to its consideration in Committee. The House and the country will greatly appreciate the opportunity to examine in great detail and with much care the important issues that the Bill raises.

I greatly welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about privacy. It is the Government's intention to look favourably at the possibility of introducing a tort for breach of privacy. They have a commitment to look favourably at making illegal several of the mechanisms that have been used recently by the media to invade privacy. It seems to be an even more important issue than the regulation of the press. It is based on a fundamental principle to which I believe we all subscribe, which is that in a free society everyone must have the maximum freedom that is compatible with the freedom of others. That principle leads us inexorably to the view that there is an area of everybody's personal life that should be secure from invasion.

My personal belief is that if someone is in public life there is a quid pro quo for entering it, its being a voluntary act. That person must accept that any aspect of his activity that could have any bearing on his public activities or publicly stated opinions should be open to public scrutiny. Therefore, any privacy Bill must have a public interest protection clause.

I am aware of some sad cases of invasion of the privacy of some of my constituents. One, for instance, is by no stretch of the imagination a public figure. He found that two pages in the News of the World were devoted to his private life. That is inconsistent with the basic principle that in a free society people's privacy should be immune from attack in that way.

Various methods have been used by the media recently to invade the privacy of citizens. They include the bugging of telephone conversations, purchasing purloined photographs or private correspondence, corrupting so-called friends or acquaintances of the media's targets and the use of surreptitious electronic or photographic surveillance devices of various sorts. It is not an exaggeration to say that we have the use by the media here in the 1990s of methods that are more usually associated with the operations of secret police forces in totalitarian societies. That is a serious matter and a practice that should be brought to an end rapidly, and I hope that it will be by the implementation of the proposals to which my hon. Friend the Minister referred.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant , Staffordshire Mid

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that if privacy as a concept is introduced into civil law—it has been said already that it is those who are perhaps weak and financially less able to defend themselves who are most at risk—the tort will be available only to those who are rich and powerful unless we provide legal aid or another mechanism to enable those most at risk to use the civil courts?

Photo of Quentin Davies Quentin Davies , Stamford and Spalding

I do not want to be drawn too much into the important matter raised by my hon. Friend, but I can give him three short answers. First, surveillance methods such as bugging should be brought within the criminal law and, therefore, subject to criminal prosecution in verified instances of such behaviour. Secondly, there should be a civil tort of privacy, enabling individuals to gain some protection from those who attack their privacy. Thirdly—this is not a matter on which you would allow me to go into any great detail, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as it is rather wide of the debate—there is a major problem because sadly civil legal redress is, in practice, restricted to those on income support—who thereby qualify for legal aid—and those who, unlike myself, are genuine billionaires and can afford to pay lawyers.

If I may be allowed to make a personal plug, I attempted to deal with the problem through a ten-minute Bill during the last Parliament, which would have overridden the rules of the Law Society and the Bar Council that currently prevent lawyers from taking on briefs on a contingency-fee basis. If we had contingency fees, the problem would be solved without a great burden on the Treasury. There would be no danger of a great many frivolous law suits because lawyers taking on such briefs would have to be sure that the cases had merit and a reasonable chance of success or they would not be paid. That would be a useful discipline.

The methods to which I have referred and the whole squalid morass of corruption and intrusion that has grown up in Fleet Street has brought about a new industry which has replaced the traditional industry of blackmail. Throughout the history of society—ours and others—there have been blackmailers. They are unpleasant criminals and we have always treated them as such, with high penalties for those convicted.

The blackmailer has been put out of business because anyone who purloins some document or photograph or bugs some conversation that might be used against an individual no longer has to go to that individual and say, "Unless you pay me money I will reveal all", get £1,000 or £2,000 from his poor victim and risk 10 years in gaol; he has only to go to Fleet Street or Wapping to get tens of thousands of pounds for the information and be hailed a hero, without risk of any penalty.

We have not so much given a new lease of life to blackmail as replaced it with something much more attractive and with much greater economic inducements. We have produced a new and squalid industry that has been the cause of a number of scandals, to which I do not need to refer as they are fresh in our minds.

The House cannot for much longer continue to sweep the matter under the carpet. The hon. Member for Hammersmith has provided us with a splendid opportunity. The Government's initative in setting up the Calcutt inquiry did the same. We have now reached the stage where, as a House of Parliament, we must take some important decisions in the next few months. I hope that, whatever we hear during our debates, we do not hear any more of the argument that we are being premature and that we can continue to avoid making difficult decisions.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin , Sunderland South 1:39 pm, 29th January 1993

I know that we are not allowed to see beyond the Chamber, but it is a pity that our debate has not yet succeeded in attracting more than half a dozen members of our free press to the Press Gallery.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on the dignified, restrained and careful way in which he presented his case. Like many hon. Members who have spoken, in a previous incarnation I was a journalist. For a time, I was the editor of a small but distinguished publication entitled Tribune. All the issues that we discussed today presented themselves to me in that capacity but never caused me any difficulty. It was always taken for granted that if we made a mistake, as we sometimes did, we would correct it and that we would apologise when we were wrong.

I always took it for granted, not merely on questions of fact. If someone of a different opinion felt that it had not been properly represented in our publication, I gave them an opportunity to put their point of view. Previous and subsequent editors did the same.

Mr. Stewart Steven, editor of the Evening Standard was quoted the other day as saying, "You have to be in a profession to understand it well enough to make proper judgments upon it." Many hon. Members who have spoken are in that profession and have made proper judgments on it—and I am glad to add my name to theirs. I have been in that profession 20 years and understand it all too well.

I understand that while we have journalists and newspapers of integrity, they are a minority. I understand that most national and many regional newspapers are controlled by multinational corporations motivated by a ruthless desire for profits regardless of facts twisted or lives ruined. Our worst newspapers are no more than a branch of the entertainment industry run by unscrupulous men and women willing to do whatever is necessary to make money for their proprietors, their shareholders and themselves. They have to some extent debased our way of life and the profession of journalism.

I understand also that some newspapers are owned by proprietors whose interest is not only making profits but seeking an outlet for their political prejudices. That was more the case in the past, but it is still true today. At least some of the old press barons were frank about that. Lord Beaverbrook told the 1947 royal commission on the press, "I own the Daily Express for the sole purpose of making political propaganda and for no other reason." Nowadays, the Maxwells and Beaverbrooks are a dying breed; money is the main motivation now.

I understand that it is one of the functions of much of our tabloid press to assume the role once performed in the Soviet Union by the KGB—the hounding of dissidents on behalf of the state. All the talk about independence from the state is nonsense. The tabloid press often acts as an agent of the state. When the Government have been offended by the actions of a particular individual, a tidal wave of hatred is unleashed on that person. We can all think of examples. One of the most vicious attacks in recent times was perhaps on Peter Tatchell, who had the good fortune to be selected as Labour candidate in Bermondsey. I believe that today politicians of all persuasions are ashamed of what occurred in that by-election. That man's life was ruined: his house had to be boarded up, he came under siege, he received enormous amount of hate mail and he was attacked in the street—on one occasion, by people chanting from a headline in The Sun—and all because of false reporting.

There was the case also of Carmen Proetta who, while washing up in her kitchen in Gibraltar, happened to see from her window the killing by the Special Air Service of three IRA people. It was not as though she planted herself there—it was her own home. Her version of events differed somewhat from the official version. I will not get bogged down in those two versions, but a tidal wave of hate was unleashed also on Carmen Proetta—with some encouragement from the state. Here is one of the better-known examples: The Tart … The Sun discovers shock truth about IRA death witness Carmen … she is an ex-prostitute, runs an escort agency, and is married to a seedy drug peddler". All that was false, and ultimately had to be paid for in libel damages, but if a correction ever appeared in The Sun—I certainly did not see one—I bet that it was a bit smaller than the article that committed the original offence.

Towards the end of his speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith said that those who dared to suggest that there was anything wrong with our system of justice had had to endure a certain amount of hatred in the early days, generated by those who took a different view. I regret to say that that was sometimes encouraged by members of the Cabinet. I am proud to have on my wall, framed, my own front-page headline from The Sun in letters several inches high: "Loony MP backs bomb gang". I also possess various editorials, "Mr. Odious … Is there a more odious man in Britain than …".

I do not mind any of that. As several hon. Members have already pointed out, politicians are not really entitled to complain. People who depend on votes for a living, however, find it somewhat regrettable that those who peddled such nonsense chose not to deal with the arguments, but, as I said earlier to the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), preferred to tell my constituents that I was motivated by a love for "the men in balaclavas". I am afraid that a lot of the mud stuck. As I have said, it does not bother me much; those who run public campaigns find that a good denunciation is something to be grateful for, because it shows that they have managed to catch the attention of people whose attention needs to be caught. In such circumstances, the worst that the press can do is to ignore one. That, however, was not the position of Carmen Proetta, an ordinary citizen who, when washing up in her kitchen, just happened to witness events with which she was unconnected. She was given the full treatment.

I treat with contempt any suggestion that the likes of Kelvin MacKenzie are protecting our liberties from the excesses of the establishment. Mr. MacKenzie's loyalty to the establishment is exceeded only by his loyalty to his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. We must all be amused by the spectacle of editors demanding independence from the establishment while simultaneously queueing to accept knighthoods from the very establishment from which they claim to protect us. What more loyal lickspittles of the establishment can there be than Sir Larry Lamb, Sir Nicholas Lloyd, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, Sir David English and Sir Alastair Burnet—oh yes, Sir Alastair Burnet too? Anyone in doubt about why those knighthoods were handed over by the state should read the coverage of recent general elections or of the miners' strike. If we have to depend on such people for our liberties, we are all doomed.

I believe that a free press is the lifeblood of democracy. My only regret is that we have no such free press. I feel rather like Mr. Gandhi who, when he came to this country in the 1930s, was asked what he thought of British civilisation. He replied that he thought that it would be a very good idea. If I were asked what I thought of a free press I, too, would say that I thought it a very good idea. The Bill takes a small step in that direction—although, with great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, it is only a small step.

Having spent most of my life in inquiring journalism, I would not support any measure designed to shackle press freedom, but the Bill does not threaten press freedom in any way; it merely legislates for a minimum standard of integrity, in an area in which all attempts at self-regulation have failed.

Many hon. Members have referred to the appalling state of the tabloid press, and I agree with all that they have said. Indeed, I can add to it, but it is a little too easy to justify what we are seeking to do on the sole ground of the worst example—The Sun. In fact, the problem is not confined to the gutter press. When I went to Vietnam for the first time, in 1973, I was amazed to discover that The Daily Telegraph's Saigon correspondent—who appeared in the paper every day under the name "John Draw"—was actually Nguyen Ngoc Phac, a captain on the general staff of the Saigon army, responsible for press relations. So confident was he that his cover would never be blown that he even used to appear in the Reuter office to tap out his dispatches among all the other journalists, wearing his uniform.

When I went home I dropped a letter to The Daily Telegraph which at that time was, I believe, edited by Lord Deedes. It refused to publish my letter, despite having agreed in advance to publish one. It then wrote back with a lie, saying that while I was correct in assuming that the correspondent was Nguyen Ngoc Phac, and not John Draw, it had no idea that he was an officer on the general staff of the Saigon army.

To test how far freedom of the press went, I then offered this snippet to the diary columns of The Times and The Guardian. From The Times there was only silence. From The Guardian, the reply was that it thought that this news was a bit "so what-ish." I then took the matter to the Press Council, as it then was. I still have the fascinating correspondence that I had with the Press Council over a period of nine months or a year. It went up hill and down dale with reasons why it could not touch this thorny issue with a bargepole.

Lest anyone think that 1973 was a long time ago and that The Daily Telegraph has cleaned up its act since then, I will offer a more recent example, In August of last year The Daily Telegraph increased the price of its Saturday edition from 50p to 60p, without passing on the increase to the newsagents. That followed a reduction in the retailers' percentage 18 months previously. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents attempted to take out an advertisement in The Daily Telegraph to explain the position of its members. The advertisement was refused without explanation.

When I raised the matter with the editor, I received a reply from the circulation director, Mr. C. J. Haslum, which we should bear in mind when told that we have a completely free press which is open to all schools of thought. He said: It is very well established that no newspaper publisher is ever obliged to include in his newspaper any advertisement to which he takes exception, whether on the ground of taste or because it is not in his commercial interest to do so. So commercial interest, not principle, guides certainly The Daily Telegraph and, I suggest, most of our press.

In Sunderland we have a newspaper called the Sunderland Echo, whose commitment to impartiality is not so great as to prevent its board from donating money, from time to time, to the Conservative party. My relationship with the Sunderland Echo is not bad now, and I am not complaining about it—I hope that they can hear me up there—but it got offer to a rocky start. Now we have a good working relationship. The editor, Mr. Andrew Hughes, is a man of integrity. He is also a member of the Press Complaints Commission. He wrote in The Times on 27 January that my hon. Friend's Bill could turn into a malignant tumour on democracy.

I want to give an illustration from my own experience—only one of a very large number that I could give—regarding the Sunderland Echo, edited at the time by the same gentleman. On 20 May 1989, in a front page lead story, the Sunderland Echo falsely reported that I had attacked leaders of the local Labour council at a public meeting on coal imports. As that was the lead story, it presented some difficulties for me. The paper then rang the leader of the council and put that falsehood to him and got him to attack me. The paper made that the lead story on the following Monday, its next edition. I contacted the editor of the Sunderland Echo. After five days of negotiation and in return for these two false front-page leads, I was rewarded with a five-line correction on page three. The paper was not all that quick in coming forward with that correction; nor was it all that keen to publish it.

I shall give another example from the quality press. I am concerned about the idea that this is all to do with The Sun and the Star. It is not. It is the whole lot of them, basically, with the most obvious exception of TheIndependent, which is an honourable newspaper and the brightest thing to occur in British national newspaper history in recent years.

I recall a big battle in the Labour party in September 1981. I shall not bore you with the details, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you were around at the time. The Times published a profile of the three candidates for the deputy leadership. It inserted a false statement about one of the candidates, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn): "City sources speak of a Stansgate trust registered with the Bank of Bermuda", from which members of his family were supposed to be beneficiaries. I rang the Bank of Bermuda to ask whether that was true and it said that not only was there no such trust but that nobody from The Times had bothered to ring to check. I asked the journalist who had written the profile about it and he said that the paragraph that he had included in the article had been removed and replaced with this deliberate falsehood. In due course, but not before the damage was done, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield was awarded a one-line apology at the end of a letter.

The only views of newspapers editors to which I listen with respect are those of editors such as Mr. Andreas Whittam Smith of The Independent, but I must, with respect, disagree with him. He said that self-regulation has been successful. It has not. In every example—the City of London, that much-derided body—the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, the police investigating the police and the Advertising Standards Authority—self-regulation has been tried but has not worked properly. That is why, not for the first time, we are discussing a modest measure of this sort. If the media are not happy about the Bill, they have only themselves to blame.

It is my pleasure to support the Bill. I regard it as only a small step in the right direction. Honest journalists have nothing to fear from it and, as an honest journalist, I am proud to support it.

With respect, I do not think that the Bill addresses the real issue, which will await later legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) gave us a clue in his excellent speech, in which he outlined the real problem in a democracy. A democracy depends on the free flow of information, without which there is no democracy. It cannot be right that one proprietor should have five national daily and Sunday newspapers and control of all satellite television. It cannot be right that almost all our national newspapers are in hock to enormous commercial interests rather than to the principles to which they pay lip service.

I look forward to the day when a Government genuinely committed to a free press introduce a little liberal anti-monopoly legislation designed to break up the media empires, but until that day dawns I am happy to support the Bill.

Photo of Mr Michael Carttiss Mr Michael Carttiss , Great Yarmouth 1:57 pm, 29th January 1993

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) is not one of the hon. Members with whom I normally find myself even within spitting distance of remote agreement, but I endorse much of what he said. He must not assume that all of us who believe in market forces necessarily think that it is good if market forces lead to the media being owned by one or two people. That is not part of my philosophy.

I share the hon. Gentleman's objection to knighthoods. He expressed his objection to the journalists who accept knighthoods, but I express it to those who recommend them for knighthoods. It is a prostitution of their profession that they accept a knighthood from a Government, and it is a wrong tactic for a Government to seek to buy them off by giving them knighthoods. I must tell the House that, if I am here long enough and Her Majesty the Queen is recommended to offer me one, I shall refuse it. I hope that Kelvin MacKenzie will, too.

Other hon. Members want to speak, so I must constrain myself. I hope that the hon. Member for Hammersmith will not mind if I do not launch into paeans of praise. However, I wish to put on record my admiration of his speech today and the way in which he has tackled the problem. He has made an enormous effort. It is an example of this place at its best when an hon. Member goes ahead in that way, strikes a chord across the party divide and involves what we call "ordinary people"—I hope that we put it in quotes because we are ordinary people, too—who would not normally be involved. I commend him greatly for that.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) is another Member with whom I would blush to agree, but today I find myself in agreement with almost everything that he said. He shares the name—we once chatted about the possibility that he might have his ancestry—of the famous Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth, Miles Corbett, who lost his head for freedom. He was one of those who signed Charles I's death warrant. When Charles II exercised retribution, Miles Corbett lose his head.

One of my predecessors lost his hand in the interests of press freedom in the reign of the previous Queen Elizabeth. He had written a piece that suggested that Queen Elizabeth I should not marry a particularly ugly and senile French duke who was being promoted for her hand. We Yarmouth people have always been rather disinclined to view European potentates with any great favour. My predecessor lost his hand, not for daring to question the Queen joining in matrimony with the ugly French duke, but for suggesting that there was no point in her marrying because she was too old to bear children.

The hon. Member for Erdington highlighted, as did the hon. Member for Sunderland, South, the hypocrisy of the editor of The Sun. I also highlight the hypocrisy of the editor of the Daily Mirror. They suggest that they are the free press upon which the liberties of the nation depend. They are in hock to their proprietors. The Sun is owned by Mr. Murdoch. I am not sure who owns the Daily Mirror now. When Maxwell owned it, he honourably set forth his support for the Labour party. But it is no good the Daily Mirror or The Sun pretending that they are independent.

The quality newspapers are not independent either. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South concentrated our attention on the quality newspapers—this is not all about tabloids. The first time I came to this place, I was about 15 or 16. I had always believed everything that I read in The Daily Telegraph. That is probably why I am a Conservative—I never got over the experience. I sat in the Gallery when I was 16 or 17—I am going up in age because I must have been older than 14. I am sure that I did not read The Daily Telegraph when I was 14. When I read the next day The Daily Telegraph report of the debate that I had attended here, it bore no resemblance whatever to the debate that I had heard.

Photo of Mr Michael Carttiss Mr Michael Carttiss , Great Yarmouth

I shall not give way to anyone because we are running short of time. I apologise to my hon. Friend. Too many Members have given way today.

I share the anxiety that has been expressed about party allegiance. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister that I suggested that he and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State might be intimidated. No one could intimidate my hon. Friend the Minister. I said it in case I was not called. I thought that it would be a good soundbite for my local television and radio stations.

Mr. Kelvin MacKenzie:

addressed the National Heritage Select Committee. He said, "You guys would be nuts if you wanted the American privacy law". I go to the United States quite a bit and I admire the privacy law; indeed, I am wearing a Cape Cod tie. I should be happy for us to have similar privacy.

Because Miss Whiplash has evidently entertained Members of this House, it has been said that we would be nuts to allow the list to be published. Who are those guilty men? Let them be named.

Photo of Mr Joe Ashton Mr Joe Ashton , Bassetlaw

They are all public schoolboys.

Photo of Mr Michael Carttiss Mr Michael Carttiss , Great Yarmouth

Do not believe it. What about the journalists and editors? We know that the editors of two quality newspapers have had a liaison with a lady of questionable character. Let us publish the Miss Whiplash list, and not merely the names of Members of Parliament on it. Why is Kelvin MacKenzie not publishing it? The best argument that I have heard for the Bill is the fact that he said, "You must be nuts if you want to publish it". If he did not want to publish it, it shows that the United States legislation on privacy and the press is a good law. Let us copy it. The hon. Member for Hammersmith has not.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) mentioned the problem of defining the truth and my colleagues have also referred to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) was concerned about the question of truth and accuracy. However, truth cannot be defined and that is not what we are talking about. There can be different views of the truth.

My. hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) has left the Chamber. He put up a number of Aunt Sallies and shot them down and he mentioned many matters that are not dealt with in the Bill. Hon. Members tried to use truth as a synonym for accuracy, but one can be accurate but untruthful. It is easy to determine whether something is accurate.

I have no real complaint about my local newspapers, even though they have never contributed to the Conservative party in all the time that they have been in existence. However, one thing has always bugged me. Three or four years ago my local authority applied for assisted area status. I thought that it had no chance of getting it, and it did not. Lord Tebbit was then Secretary of State for Trade and he was not going to give anyone anything. I told the Conservatives and socialists on Great Yarmouth borough council that there was no chance of getting that status and said, "We must stand on our own two feet." The headline on the front page of my local newspaper that week was, "MP says 'You must stand on your own two feet'". That was inaccuracy. It was not telling an untruth as that was what I meant but, by suggesting that I was separating myself from the people that I represent—in an area where generations of my family have lived and worked—it was pretending that I was adopting a position that was inappropriate for me as a Member of Parliament.

Photo of Lady Olga Maitland Lady Olga Maitland , Sutton and Cheam

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although the local newspaper made an error in that headline, by and large, reporting standards and accuracy in regional papers are higher than those of the national press, the reason being that they cannot afford the heavy cost of a libel action? Their sales depend on credibility, which means accuracy.

Photo of Mr Michael Carttiss Mr Michael Carttiss , Great Yarmouth

My hon. Friend has stated her case, but I do not think that it was a mistake. The headline was a deliberate inaccuracy and it was in quotation marks—the sort of inaccuracy that we have been discussing.

The hon. Member for Hartlepool was concerned about truth and accuracy in relation to the royal family. He said that the newspapers were talking about the marriage between the Prince and Princess of Wales being in a rocky state, which turned out to be the truth. The fact of the matter is that the prince and princess were pushing the story. I saw a problem with the hon. Member using that as an argument against the Bill, which is concerned with accuracy. That is not a matter of accuracy. People are entitled to express a view about a marriage.

I make no complaint about the intrusion of the press on the private lives of Members of Parliament. No hon. Member has mentioned Sunday Sport, but I am going to give it a plug because I have been in it several times. The famous occasion—famous for me—when I suddenly decided to vote for the Government, something I do reluctantly every day—[Interruption.] Wait a moment. When I see the alternative to the Government, that forces me to vote for them. There was a suggestion that the Whips had used all sorts of blackmailing tactics to persuade Conservative Members to go in the Lobby on the Maastricht Bill. It was suggested that some people had changed their vote, not for the reasons they gave or because of the issues, but because someone knew something about their private life. The next day one of the journalists in the Lobby said to me, "Are you aware that one of your colleagues was threatened that if he didn't vote with the Government the Whips Office would reveal the name of his mistress to his wife?" He asked me what I thought and I said, "I am not worried about my colleagues' mistresses—I've got too many of my own to concern myself with."

Photo of Mr Michael Carttiss Mr Michael Carttiss , Great Yarmouth

Read it in the Sunday Sport.

The next day the Daily Mirror sent two people to the village where I live, where my mother was born and before her my grandparents and great-grandparents. For two days they went around asking my neighbours about my private life. Those neighbours were free to show those journalists the door, as they did. One dear old lady of 80, who has known me since I was a baby, said, "You send the Mirror down to me, boy."—I will have to clean up the language. "The only thing that that paper is any good for is to wipe your backside on." I was away from my house, but those two newspaper people were outside my door. My neighbours kept asking them to go, and eventually they telephoned the police.

If I had changed my vote in the House because I was fearful of some private scandal coming out, the public have the right to know that. If a Member of Parliament puts himself forward to the electorate as a family man, which I do not, and fresh from going to the photographer to be photographed with his wife and adoring children, he then consorts with his mistress, telephone bugged or not, the public are entitled to know.

So, members of the press have a duty which we should be supporting, but they have abused it in many ways. The hon. Member for Hammersmith has done a signal service not just to the House but to the country in obliging us to focus attention on these issues in a small way. If that prods the ample form of my hon. Friend the Minister into coming forward with suitable Government legislation, the Bill will have served its purpose, even if it gets no further. However, I hope that the Bill will reach Committee where the issues will be debated; and there I promise to reveal more of my private life.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson , Hampstead and Highgate 2:13 pm, 29th January 1993

I should like to join the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss) and others, not in the pages of Sunday Sport, but in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) not only on introducing the Bill but on the amount of work that so clearly went into it before it was presented to the House. I believe that the title of the Bill, "Freedom and Responsibility of the Press", is a model for what my hon. Friend is attempting to produce. Freedom of the press is essential to any society that wants to be free. However, as we have heard today, that freedom within this country has, in some sections of the press, devolved into licence and its concomitant responsibility has been conspicuous by its absence.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) is not in his place. I was puzzled by his misunderstanding of my hon. Friend's Bill, which contains no attempt to reduce the freedom of the press. Indeed, in his splendid opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith took time to say how the freedom of the press is and has been diminished. His Bill attempts to ensure that news and information is presented and disseminated accurately by prompting codes of ethical and professional standards that will produce the highest standards of journalism.

The argument that the code proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith would be unworkable falls when considered in the light of existing codes exercised by the BBC and the Independent Television Commission over the broadcasting of television and radio. An example of how such codes of practice can work in the best interests of the public is the world service of the BBC, which is regarded—not only by the people of this country, but by millions of people around the world who, in many instances, are attempting to create a democratic society—as a reliable exponent of accurate facts, news and information.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) spoke of believability tables, in which the press fell way below television and radio in the public's trust. What protection is afforded for our democratic system and our free society if the press so loses its credibility by abusing its own power? That power should, of itself, be engaged in countering the awesome power of government, and of great wealth, privilege and influence. That credibility is most quickly forfeit when power is exercised without responsibility.

The exercise of democracy in a free society is not solely and totally served by our right to place our votes in ballot boxes. We also need accurate information on which to make reasoned judgments about how we wish to be governed. If that information is tainted, so is the political process and democracy. Freedom of expression cannot be tampered with simply because the views expressed are those that we—on whichever side of the political spectrum—do not wish to hear.

Another sphere of concern of which we have heard only this week relates to the invasion of the privacy of those in power and high public office. That issue has become the focal point for the debate on press freedom and responsibility. The debate has centred on those issues and, regrettably, in some instances, seems to have become stuck. In common with other right hon. and hon. Members, I believe that all citizens should have privacy rights. I also believe, however, that those who hold positions of privilege, power and influence must accept a degree of intrusion into their private lives, particularly if their public power directly affects and can limit an individual's privacy. To give more power to the already powerful is not to strengthen a free society, but to weaken it. All too often, people with no privilege, influence and, increasingly, no recourse to lengthy and expensive legal redress, fall victim to the excesses of the press.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith referred to good behaviour on the part of the press as part of the code of conduct. The Minister referred to a possible Government Bill which may include a new law of tort on the invasion of privacy. I prefer my hon. Friend's view that the provision should relate to harassment. I can give the House a personal anecdote. A member of my family was criminally attacked, as a result of which he had to be operated on and spent a few days in hospital. On three separate occasions, the already overstretched and overworked staff of my local hospital had to throw off the ward a photographer from a tabloid newspaper. I have not raised that story in the House because of my involvement, but that was a gross intrusion not only on a member of my family but on other patients. It is desperate that those who dedicate their whole lives to the sick and the ill have had more burdens placed on their shoulders. Such behaviour is simply unacceptable.

The press cannot have it both ways. If its right to protect the public interest is to be safeguarded, the rights of the public must be safeguarded from the press. If the press wishes to protect its right to speak freely about the powerful, the public must have the right to reply to the powerful. If the press wishes to pass comment on private individuals, those individuals must be guaranteed the right to respond.

In common with hon. Members on both sides of the House, I believe that the freedom of the press is central to democracy—indeed, to a free society. It is central because the press is one of the vital links between the people and those whom they elect. In many instances, it is the press who can guard people from abuse by those who, once elected, would otherwise turn their backs on people's needs. It is that link between the interests of the public and of the press which the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith seeks to maintain, and I shall vote for the Bill today.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Denton and Reddish 2:21 pm, 29th January 1993

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the Question be now put:—

The House divided: Ayes 129, Noes 11.

Division No. 134][2.21 pm
AYES
Allen, GrahamHughes, Simon (Southwark)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)Ingram, Adam
Austin-Walker, JohnJackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Janner, Greville
Barnes, HarryJohnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Battle, JohnJones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Bayley, HughJones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Benn, Rt Hon TonyKhabra, Piara S.
Berry, Dr. RogerKnox, David
Betts, CliveLeighton, Ron
Blunkett, DavidLestor, Joan (Eccles)
Bray, Dr JeremyLivingstone, Ken
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Loyden, Eddie
Burden, RichardMackinlay, Andrew
Caborn, RichardMcNamara, Kevin
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)McWilliam, John
Carttiss, MichaelMahon, Alice
Channon, Rt Hon PaulMarek, Dr John
Clwyd, Mrs AnnMarshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Cohen, HarryMarshall, John (Hendon S)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)Meacher, Michael
Corbett, RobinMichael, Alun
Corbyn, JeremyMiller, Andrew
Cormack, PatrickMolyneaux, Rt Hon James
Corston, Ms JeanMorgan, Rhodri
Cox, TomMorris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Cryer, BobMorris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)Mullin, Chris
Davies, Quentin (Stamford)Murphy, Paul
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)O'Hara, Edward
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)Olner, William
Dobson, FrankO'Neill, Martin
Dowd, JimPickthall, Colin
Dunnachie, JimmyPike, Peter L.
Eagle, Ms AngelaPowell, Ray (Ogmore)
Enright, DerekPrentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)
Ewing, Mrs MargaretPrentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Fabricant, MichaelPrescott, John
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)Radice, Giles
Fisher, MarkRandall, Stuart
Flynn, PaulRaynsford, Nick
Foster, Derek (B'p Auckland)Roche, Mrs. Barbara
Fraser, JohnRooker, Jeff
Gale, RogerRuddock, Joan
Gapes, MikeSedgemore, Brian
Gerrard, NeilShore, Rt Hon Peter
Godsiff, RogerShort, Clare
Gorman, Mrs TeresaSimpson, Alan
Gould, BryanSkinner, Dennis
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)Smith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Soley, Clive
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Spearing, Nigel
Grocott, BruceSpellar, John
Gunnell, JohnStern, Michael
Hain, PeterStrang, Dr. Gavin
Hall, MikeTownsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Harris, DavidVaz, Keith
Heppell, JohnWalker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Hill, Keith (Streatham)Walley, Joan
Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)Watson, Mike
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)Wicks, Malcolm
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)Young, David (Bolton SE)
Wilson, Brian
Winnick, DavidTellers for the Ayes:
Wise, AudreyMr. Joseph Ashton and
Worthington, TonyMr. Andrew F. Bennett.
Wright, Dr Tony
NOES
Alexander, RichardThurnham, Peter
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Dalyell, TamWhittingdale, John
Gallie, Phil
Garnier, EdwardTellers for the Noes
Hargreaves, AndrewMr. Piers Merchant and
Kilfedder, Sir JamesMr. Peter Bottomley
Maitland, Lady Olga

Question accordingly agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 119, Noes 15.

Division No. 135][2.31 pm
AYES
Ainger, NickDavies, Quentin (Stamford)
Allen, GrahamDavies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Austin-Walker, JohnDobson, Frank
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Dowd, Jim
Barnes, HarryDunnachie, Jimmy
Battle, JohnEagle, Ms Angela
Bayley, HughEnright, Derek
Benn, Rt Hon TonyEwing, Mrs Margaret
Berry, Dr. RogerFabricant, Michael
Betts, CliveField, Frank (Birkenhead)
Blunkett, DavidFisher, Mark
Bray, Dr JeremyFlynn, Paul
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Foster, Derek (B'p Auckland)
Burden, RichardFraser, John
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Gale, Roger
Carttiss, MichaelGapes, Mike
Channon, Rt Hon PaulGerrard, Neil
Clwyd, Mrs AnnGodsiff, Roger
Cohen, HarryGorman, Mrs Teresa
Cook, Robin (Livingston)Gould, Bryan
Corbett, RobinGrant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Corbyn, JeremyGriffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Corston, Ms JeanGrocott, Bruce
Cox, TomGunnell, John
Cryer, BobHain, Peter
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)Hall, Mike
Heppell, JohnPike, Peter L.
Hill, Keith (Streatham)Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lew'm E)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Ingram, AdamRadice, Giles
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)Randall, Stuart
Janner, GrevilleRaynsford, Nick
Johnson Smith, Sir GeoffreyRoche, Mrs. Barbara
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)Rooker, Jeff
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)Ruddock, Joan
Khabra, Piara S.Sedgemore, Brian
Knox, DavidShore, Rt Hon Peter
Leighton, RonShort, Clare
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)Simpson, Alan
Livingstone, KenSmith, C. (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)
Loyden, EddieSoley, Clive
Mackinlay, AndrewSpearing, Nigel
McNamara, KevinSpellar, John
McWilliam, JohnStrang, Dr. Gavin
Mahon, AliceTownsend, Cyril D. (Bexl'yh'th)
Marek, Dr JohnVaz, Keith
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold
Meacher, MichaelWatson, Mike
Michael, AlunWicks, Malcolm
Miller, AndrewWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon JamesWinnick, David
Morgan, RhodriWise, Audrey
Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)Worthington, Tony
Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Wright, Dr Tony
Mullin, ChrisYoung, David (Bolton SE)
Murphy, Paul
O'Hara, EdwardTellers for the Ayes:
Olner, WilliamMr. Joseph Ashton and
O'Neill, MartinMr. Andrew F. Bennett.
Pickthall, Colin
NOES
Alexander, RichardMarshall, John (Hendon S)
Ancram, MichaelSkinner, Dennis
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Thurnham, Peter
Dalyell, TamWaller, Gary
Garnier, EdwardWheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Whittingdale, John
Hargreaves, Andrew
Harris, DavidTellers for the Noes:
Kilfedder, Sir JamesMr. Piers Merchant and
Maitland, Lady OlgaMr. Peter Bottomley.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).