Right of Reply and Press Standards Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:19 pm on 25th February 2005.

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Votes in this debate

Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:30 pm, 25th February 2005

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

This is an unexpected opportunity to promote my Bill. I extend a word of sympathy to Mr. Williams, who cannot be here today. I believe that his wife is ill disposed. Not ill disposed—I mean indisposed. She may be ill disposed—[Interruption.] Yes, she may demand a right of reply and I should be pleased to give it to her. However, I make the point not only so that we can send her our best wishes but because, when my name was drawn out of the ballot, I received letters from all over the country from people who beseeched me to take up the Bill that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire adopted. I do not want those people to believe that the hon. Gentleman has gone on his holidays or is failing in his duty to promote that measure. It will be considered in the House in due course.

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the Bill. We live in an information age. We have never had more access to information, and even information that we do not seek rushes towards us on the super-highway. In a democratic society, we rightly place great importance on citizens' participation in national and community affairs. We have more opportunity than ever to contribute to decisions about how our lives are governed and we base them on the information available to us. It is therefore important that the information on which we base our judgments is true. It is essential that a free flow of information should underpin our democratic way of life. However, when information is untrue or inaccurate, our opinions and decisions may be distorted, sometimes deliberately, to serve the interests of those who wield considerable power, including media corporations. That happens too frequently.

People need to believe that what they are told is true.


Margaret Watson - I would like to congratulate Peter Bradley MP for taking a stand against the all powerful mass media. Pity this Government hasn’t got the guts to support Peter Bradley’s Bill, but then MP’s have the funds and wherewithal to take civil action for Defamation/libel, when false or malicious statements are published about them personally or members of their families. It is a case of I’m all right Jack, to bad about you and your family! This Government has the audacity to champion the Press Complains Commission and the freedom of the press, even when they have been given more than enough evidence that the PCC has no integrity or credibility as an organisation, which leaves innocent members of the public open to repeated persecution at the hands of irresponsible journalist and their editors.
Happy to supply any interested parties with evidence of how ineffective the PCC are.

Submitted by Margaret Watson

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The right hon. Gentleman guffaws—I believe that that is the right description.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I gave the right hon. Gentleman his right of reply and he corrected my inaccuracy. I do not know why he snorted—perhaps he will have an opportunity to explain later. However, people need to believe what they are told. That is my view as a Labour Member, but perhaps it is not shared by those on the Conservative Benches.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people should be able to believe what the Prime Minister tells them?

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Let me develop my point, because I hope that we can agree on some principles without dividing on our political and tribal associations. People need to be able to believe that what they are told is true because our system of government—no matter which party forms the Administration—is based if not on consensus, then on consent. It is based on the premise that people can trust that the Government of the day make their decisions and act in good faith.

Mr. Evans mentioned the Prime Minister. Perhaps he had in mind the controversy over the so-called "dodgy dossier". We do not have access to the information that Prime Ministers and their advisers have. When decisions that affect all of our lives are made, we need to be able to place our faith in the good intentions of those who have such access precisely because we do not. That is why I attach huge importance to the principle of trust, although that trust must be based on a belief that what we are being told is true.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Would the Bill extend protection to those who are smeared by the Government? There have been many cases recently in which vulnerable individuals have suffered as a result of Ministers and those in their Departments saying the most disgraceful things about them. Would such people have a right of redress under the Bill?

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. He is a very experienced Member of the House, and he spends far more Fridays in the Chamber than I do. He must have seen the title of my Bill: it refers to a right of reply to material that is published in newspapers and other publications. It does not, for example, seek to replace the libel law. If someone is libelled, they have recourse through the courts, although it is not always easily available to them. Its limited scope is one of the merits of the Bill.

The important, and uncontroversial, principle that the Bill seeks to establish is that if we cannot trust the information that forms the basis on which we make judgments and form opinions, our form of government is critically undermined. I want to discuss the relationship between trust and truth, as that will explain why I want to promote the Bill.

I understand that we might not be too far away from a general election. Recent trends have shown falling turnouts, a phenomenon that should concern us all. The press frequently insist that the fact that people are becoming disengaged from politics is the fault of the politicians, who have forfeited their trust. It is interesting, however, to note that newspaper sales are also tumbling dramatically. Compared with five years ago, 1.75 million fewer newspapers are now being sold every day. Why should that be so?

Last year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life undertook an interesting survey—it sent its findings to hon. Members, so they might be familiar with them—and found that only 27 per cent. of the public trusted Members of Parliament. Even more revealing was the finding that only 7 per cent. trusted tabloid journalists. Another, more encouraging finding was that 47 per cent. trusted their own Member of Parliament. I am sure that we all feel reassured by that statistic, but what it tells me is that the closer people are to events and personalities, the more likely they are to place their trust, and the more remote they are, the more difficulty they have.

Despite the loss of trust in politicians as a class, however, and despite the decline in trust in journalists, 64 per cent. of people said that their opinions were shaped at least in part by what they read in newspapers. So, when citizens are invited to decide who runs the country in a few weeks' time, we could have the strange state of affairs in which their judgment of politicians they do not trust will be based on what they read in newspapers they do not believe. That is a problem for all of us—politicians, the press and the public—and we need to take action to arrest the downward spiral.

Politicians are accountable, and we will find out at the general election whether the people to whom we are accountable want to put their cross in our box. We are also accountable in other ways: Ministers are accountable to the scrutiny of the House, and each of us is accountable to the standards commissioner. The press is not accountable, however. Journalists are not accountable for what they write, and there is very little redress if what they write is wrong or untrue. My Bill does not propose in any way to curtail their freedom or infringe their rights. It is fundamental to our liberal democracy that politicians should not have the last word and that the press plays a central role as a check and balance against our excesses or our temptation to exceed acceptable limits. I want the press to continue to be free to publish without fear or favour, but I want the Bill to establish a new right for the public to correct inaccuracies that misrepresent, damage or mislead them. I do not wish to curtail press rights other than the right to misrepresent individuals and mislead the public. The press should not have an unfettered freedom to misinform or deceive.

We all understand that there are intense pressures these days on journalists. We live in a 24-hour news culture, with increasingly powerful global media corporations in competition with each other, and newspapers and publications forced to compete with the internet. All that imposes pressure on newspapers in particular to out-scoop, out-sensationalise and outsell their rivals. In those circumstances, it is inevitable that corners get cut.

We are all familiar with the problems that politicians encounter with the press—the ferreting out of facts has given way at least to some extent to creating perceptions about facts. It is so much easier to create a perception than to undertake the time-consuming and exhaustive research that is infinitely preferable. We see newspapers reflecting prejudices rather than presenting news to their readers. We see a blurring of the distinction between the reporting of events and the editorial line that the newspaper takes on those events. We see less room for proper debate in the pages of newspapers or for the reporting of debates, including debates in the House of Commons. We see a much keener appetite to denounce those who come forward with ideas rather than to explore and contribute to those ideas. We are also seeing an unhealthy phenomenon, particularly in Sunday papers, in which agenda-setting political stories are based on a series of unattributed and often fabricated quotes in order to generate controversies that otherwise would not exist. All that is very unhealthy.

Our response as politicians is frequently to spin our side of the story and to come forward with a soundbite that we believe might capture a headline. We see lobby groups and in particular single issue groups tempted to take up ever more extreme positions, and to think up ever more dramatic stunts to get themselves into the newspapers. As the standard of debate declines, people's faith in what they read in newspapers also diminishes. There has been little sign of change for the better. It is now 15 years since David Mellor famously warned journalists that they were drinking in the last chance saloon, and little has happened to stop the bingeing.

This is not just a question of values, principles and what underpins democratic life; inaccurate reporting has victims. It is interesting that 94 per cent. of those who complain to the Press Complaints Commission are what it classifies as "ordinary people"—not celebrities or politicians, but ordinary men and women, and some 56 per cent. of their complaints are about inaccuracy.

Inaccurate reporting, casual indifference to the reputation of others, and not having the time or inclination to check facts or to corroborate them destroys people's reputations, damages their livelihoods and turns their lives upside down. Legion case studies have been put together over many years, particularly by MediaWise, to illustrate the damage that can be done to the lives of individuals who are the subject of media attention that is less scrupulous than it ought to be. They have no adequate recourse or redress. As I suggested in my response to Mr. Marsden, they might be able to take their case to a libel court, but in doing so they have to be pretty confident of ultimate success. They also have to be wealthy and very patient. The risks are very high.

In fact, in such circumstances most people do not want monetary compensation; they simply want the record set straight, and quickly. The PCC is their only other means of achieving redress, if redress it is. Last year, it received more than 3,600 complaints—just under 40 per cent. more than in the previous year. It adjudicated only 23 of those complaints and upheld just 11, or 0.3 per cent.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is it not true to say that some of the complaints were sorted out—in other words, mediated on—without recourse to judgment?

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman anticipates the point that I was about to make and he is absolutely right: some of them were mediated on. It would be interesting to know how many of those cases were resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I, or anyone who has had dealings with the PCC, that the truth of the matter is that if and when a newspaper finally agrees to correct, apologise for or retract an inaccurate report, such an apology is featured several weeks after the offending article appeared and is probably lost somewhere in the acrostic crossword. In other words, it might satisfy the PCC's provisions, but it does not satisfy the complainant and it does not go very far towards redressing the wrong. It certainly is not a proportionate correction—if a correction is achieved at all.

For those reasons, in my view and that of many others, the PCC does not work. Frankly, I would suggest that it is not meant to work. It is, after all, a creature of the press. It is funded by the press and many of its board members are representatives of the press— another reason why it does not command the confidence that it should. I am not suggesting for one moment that those who work for the PCC do not try their best in difficult circumstances to serve the public, but I am afraid that the results achieved are not impressive.

The Bill is very limited in scope. It seeks only to establish in this country a citizen's right that is enjoyed in at least 10 other European democracies. The French have had a right to reply in statute since 1881, and the Finns have had such legislation since 1919. Both have a vibrant public domain and vigorous newspapers and journals that are free to comment as they see fit—free, in the great old tradition, to publish and be damned.

My Bill seeks simply to establish a right of reply for those who believe that they have been disadvantaged by what has been printed in a newspaper or periodical. The editor or his delegate has three days in which to respond to the complaint. I accept that that is a demanding time scale, but it is right that it be demanding. When somebody is—as they see it—maligned or disadvantaged in the press, they need redress quickly, on the basis that justice delayed is justice denied.

The Bill requires a newspaper that agrees to publish a correction to do so prominently, in an editorial or on the news pages. If an individual cannot reach agreement with a newspaper, he or she can take the complaint to an adjudicator, who will have 14 days in which to reach a conclusion. If the adjudicator rules against the newspaper, it will be obliged to publish a correction, but will have the right—as, indeed, will the complainant—to appeal against the adjudicator's decision to the press standards board. The board will have a relatively short time to reach its own conclusions, and it will have the right to enforce them if the publication refuses to co-operate.

The board will have to maintain a database of corrections. We are all familiar with not just the damage that inaccurate reporting can cause, but the amplification of that damage when other newspapers or periodicals—or perhaps the same one—recycle the misinformation weeks, months or even many years later. The board will have powers to undertake research into trends in journalism, and to work with the press to develop a body of standards.

I am glad to say that many journalists support the Bill, recognising that it does no damage to their rights and freedoms. The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom says:

"The bill would introduce a very moderate measure of redress through a simple, quick and accountable system. It would also support journalists by encouraging and promoting the best traditions of journalism, thereby improving press standards."

MediaWise says:

"Having a Right of Reply on the statute book would keep editors on their toes. They have nothing to fear if they demand fairness and accuracy of their reporters, acknowledge when mistakes are made, and allow appropriate redress, swiftly and prominently . . . citizens who believe they have been wronged here, are regarded as supplicants rather than as equals. This Bill acknowledges that press freedom is a responsibility exercised by journalists on behalf of the public, which is one of our founding principles.

There would be no need for legislation if all newspapers were willing to set the record straight promptly and prominently when the inevitable, occasional mistakes occur."

Jeremy Dear, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, says:

"it's not just about the individuals—it's about the whole readership. An inaccuracy in print misinforms the readers, and they have a right to be told the truth.

A simple measure requiring factual inaccuracies to be corrected would be a step in the right direction. The NUJ would not support anything that restricted press freedom or allowed the state to determine what gets into print. There is no attempt to correct opinions or even descriptions—just the facts."

I am very grateful to those organisations and many of their members for that important endorsement. I too think that if the Bill were enacted, standards in our newspapers and periodicals would rise very quickly. I believe that there would be not more but fewer complaints, and I hope that fewer cases would be taken to the courts.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us why none of the Bill's sponsors has bothered to turn up to support him or it? He seems to be in a rather lonely position. Although he has cited support from people who are, no doubt, important and influential outside the House, we are legislating here today. Where are his friends?

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for turning up himself, and indeed I am very glad that I am here. There was a possibility that I would not be: I was told that there was little prospect of my being able to make this speech. As the right hon. Gentleman may or may not know—I mentioned it at the beginning—another Bill was scheduled to occupy the House, but it had to be pulled in unfortunate circumstances.The right hon. Gentleman will know—if he does not, perhaps someone should tell him—that most MPs have constituency duties and obligations on Fridays, even if he may not attach much importance to serving his constituents in his constituency. If he thinks that I am lonely in not having my supporters here, he is even lonelier in the conviction that he apparently holds on that matter. Therefore, it is not extraordinary that my supporters are not here, but they include Conservative Members—

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The right hon. Gentleman may want to look at the Bill itself. He will see the names of Conservative Members, Liberal Democrats as well as Labour Members of high standing in the House. The fact they are not here is not strictly relevant.

As we are on the subject and we have a little more time, the right hon. Gentleman may want to talk to some of his colleagues about Government legislation. Dare I mention the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill, which we debated in the House quite recently? I sat on the Committee that considered it. It was extraordinary that while 18 Labour Members wanted to debate measures that will have a direct and beneficial impact on the lives of their constituents, at times there was not a single Member on the Opposition Benches—for legislation that is likely to pass into law. Despite the best efforts of some of his colleagues to huff and puff about what they regarded as the limited time made available to debate the Bill, when it came to debating it they were nowhere to be seen. Before he reprimands the supporters of my Bill for being in their constituencies on a Friday, he may like to have a word with his Front Benchers and some of his colleagues. I am sorry that we have diverted somewhat from the Bill, but I am glad that I have had the opportunity to set the matter straight.

Newspapers have rights—and those rights must be protected—but so do the people whom they write about. As I said, individuals have a right not to be misrepresented and the public have an important right not to be misled. The Bill creates a new citizen's right of protection against the power of the press when that power is abused, either by design or, more often than not, by default.

I do not believe that any responsible journalist need fear the Bill. Only the worst, the least professional, the least scrupulous will be inconvenienced by it. Many will welcome it because they recognise that, in protecting the reputations of others, it will do much to restore their own. The press has a key role in keeping politicians honest but, if it expects high standards of us, it should meet those same standards. The Bill is a modest measure, but I believe that it makes an important contribution in rehabilitating the reputation of both press and politicians. Surely that is not just in our interest but in the general public interest.

Therefore, I hope for the support of other hon. Members, and in particular I hope for the support of the Government. As I say, this was an unexpected opportunity to speak to the Bill. I hope that I may be equally surprised by the response that I hear from the Minister.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport 1:58 pm, 25th February 2005

I congratulate Peter Bradley. Following on from what Mr. Forth said, I am quite happy to be counted as a supporter of the Bill. I may not be named on the back of it but I am happy to say that the Liberal Democrats support it. It is a modest measure but it is long overdue. In the same way that we have a free press, we should have a right of reply that is part of legislation. Everyone, including the humblest of citizens—not just the rich and famous, who are able to take journalists, newspapers and the media to task because they can afford it—should have that right of reply.

If this were in any way a measure to stifle the freedom of the press and its freedom of speech, obviously, I would oppose it. But it is clear that the Bill is trying to give back to citizens something that should be rightfully theirs.

In our democracy, it is essential that we have a free press that can unearth the facts and wrongdoing and can provide important scrutiny of the Government of the day, as well as of large corporations and organisations. But, as the hon. Gentleman said, the press must abide by the highest professional standards. The vast majority do, and the broadsheets—some are now compact editions—such as The Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian have exceptionally high standards of journalism. Likewise the BBC, Sky, CNN and many more organisations do us a great favour in providing quality news coverage for the British people.

However, there have been enormous abuses and I for one have been at the receiving end of them; I declare an interest. If the Government support the Bill, what will they do about further abuses that cannot be prevented by this specific and narrowly focused Bill? For instance, when journalists impersonate police officers and attempt illicitly to find information, as I came across, or if they take photographs of someone's children—

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

Presumably impersonating a police officer is an offence. Did not the hon. Gentleman report it to the police?

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport

The News of the World employed a gentleman to impersonate a police officer. He gave a false name, and I reported that to the police who said that in the circumstances they could not prove the case. They added that impersonating a police officer was "a grey area." I thought that was appalling. The journalist was trying to find out personal information about myself which he wanted to use to ascertain where I was, causing an enormous security scare. That is the sort of level they will go down to—in the gutter—to try to smear people.

The Bill is a modest measure, proposing that when the press does such things and misreports the facts, people should have a right to reply. It is time to end the abuses, and I hope that the Government will not only support the Bill, but look at other ways of tackling the abuses committed by this tiny minority of journalists. The PCC is a pretty toothless being, which, while well meaning, does not do what it should be doing. Obviously the Liberal Democrats will support the Bill.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:02 pm, 25th February 2005

I congratulate Peter Bradley on giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter. We have heard that it is a modest measure. If this Bill is modest, thank goodness it is only one measure. I am afraid that the Conservative party does not think this Bill necessary or desirable. In fact, it is a rather lengthy Bill, which will be a gift to lawyers.

The Bill would replace the Press Complaints Commission, which has been successful as a mediation service, with a rather complicated adversarial one to address a non-existent problem. The Conservative party supports the right of the press to regulate itself, which is a crucial part of our press freedom. Too many of our freedoms seem to be disappearing under this authoritarian Labour regime, which we hope will not continue to run for more than a few more weeks.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools) 2:04 pm, 25th February 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Peter Bradley on his presentation of the Bill.

The Government strongly believe that a press that is free from state intervention is fundamental to our democracy. The history of a free press in this country dates back to 1695, when Parliament decided against renewing the Press Licencing Act 1662, which, earlier in the century, had suppressed all newspapers except official publications. We believe that no laws should specifically restrict press freedom. The Government should not intervene in any way in what a newspaper or magazine chooses to publish. We support self-regulation and the basis of the Government's relationship with the independent Press Complaints Commission is support for effective self-regulation. Newspapers may not publish whatever they like, but must abide by the law, as we all must, and that includes laws covering defamatory material.

We acknowledge that with freedom comes responsibility. In recognition of their responsibilities, newspapers chose to restrict their historic right of free speech, which is now guaranteed by the Human Rights Act 1998, by signing up to the voluntary code of practice, which is overseen by the PCC. The newspaper industry recognises that society has expectations of it that it does not place on individuals. Those expectations go beyond the industry's legal duties, which is why they must establish a code of practice. Consequently, newspapers already work under tighter restrictions that the rest of us.

What is the extent of the problem? It is important to note the context of this debate. Every week, the nation reads 162 million copies of newspapers. In 2003, the last year for which full statistics are available, a record number of 3,649 complaints were made to the PCC. That represents a rise of 39 per cent. from the previous year, but a large number of them were about matters for which the commission had no remit—for example, advertising standards, taste and decency. When those letters were sifted out, the actual increase was a more conservative 7 per cent. and 56 per cent. of complaints concerned accuracy. I do not want to diminish the importance of those complaints, but we must keep a sense of perspective. Bearing in mind the vast number of publications, the number of copies distributed and the articles that they contain, the number of complaints is relatively small.

In addition, the PCC continues to monitor customer satisfaction by asking all complainants whether they were satisfied with the way in which their complaint was handled. For example, in 2003 the PCC surveyed 800 people who had used its services and received 414 replies. Of those, 62 per cent. said that their complaint had been handled satisfactorily or very satisfactorily. That included cases in which the commission found no breach of the code and in which one might expect some hostility to the PCC.

The MediaWise figures quoted in support of the Bill suggest that 64 per cent. of people surveyed were unhappy with the PCC's performance. However, I gather that of the 230 questionnaires sent out by MediaWise, only 107 went to people who had used the PCC. Only 52 usable replies were received, and of those only 35 had made complaints within the PCC's remit. It is clear that the statistic of 64 per cent. is based on a very small, and not necessarily representative, sample.

It is important to have accuracy and I am not suggesting that everything in the garden is rosy. There is no room for complacency and I have great sympathy for those who suddenly find themselves in the media spotlight, particularly if that is not their choice, and it must be particularly difficult if they feel that information is inaccurate, or even defamatory.

It is right that, in support of the PCC code, we remind the industry from time to time that accuracy is of the utmost importance to its standing among the public. The importance that the PCC accords to accuracy is reflected in the fact that the need for accuracy is enshrined in the first clause of the code.

That is the background against which we considered the Bill. As I said, we cannot countenance any restriction of the freedom of the press. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and others have argued that the proposed new board would not interfere with the principle of press freedom. However, I disagree, not least because, under paragraph 2 of schedule 1 of the Bill, the members of the board would be appointed by the Government. Is it right, as a matter of principle, that a board comprising Government appointees should be able to decide appeals made against the actions of the press? I do not think so.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Can my hon. Friend name a handful of boards of national quangos that are not appointed by the Government? Is that not the accepted principle? If he is suggesting that the integrity and independence of the board would be doubted, the conclusion is that one should doubt the independence and integrity of members of other boards.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

The majority of PCC members are lay members, and I shall return to that point later.

Clause 24 would place a duty on the board to prepare and issue codes of practice to editors and others responsible for editorial material. Although the Bill specifies that those codes should address matters relating to the right of reply in particular, the board would not be constrained from addressing any other issues. That could lead to great confusion. Which codes of practice should editors follow—those issued by the board or by the PCC? The Bill also states that such codes of practice would have to be subject to consultation with the Secretary of State. The prospect is of a board appointed by the Secretary of State, with a duty to issue codes of practice regulating the press's behaviour, the contents of which would have to be the subject of consultation with the Secretary of State. However, we are told by my hon. Friend that the Bill would not constitute interference with a free press.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We now have a panoply of safeguards, such as the appointments commissioner and the Nolan principles. I am concerned that my hon. Friend should suggest that because the Secretary of State would appoint the members of the board, they would not be seen to be independent. However, my hon. Friend would not make the same judgment on hundreds of other national, regional and local boards that are also directly or indirectly appointed by the Secretary of State.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

The issue is whether one favours self-regulation or not, and the Government do, as I shall explain in more detail.

The Bill calls for the creation of a new, publicly funded quango. Given the duties included in the Bill, a significant sum would be needed each year for its running costs, let alone the funding of reviews, the collection and maintenance of databases and the research that would be necessary. However, the Bill does not say to what purpose the research would be put. The industry is hugely successful and profitable, so can it be right to ask the taxpayer to fund a body to consider complaints when an industry-funded, independent body already exists for that purpose? That is especially pertinent given that the figures I have cited show that most people are happy with the present arrangements.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We are all familiar with the present concerns about Sudan 1. Does my hon. Friend think that the Food Standards Agency should be funded by the food industry alone, or is it properly funded by the public purse to ensure that the public can have confidence in it?

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

There is a specific argument on that point, which I wish to continue to explore.

A survey of 2,058 adults conducted by MORI in 2002 found that 64 per cent. of those interviewed believed that the industry should continue to fund the regulatory body, and only 12 per cent. thought that the cost should be met by the taxpayer. Moreover, the proposals in the Bill are more complex than the present system and would be less equitable to complainants. For example, complaints would have to be made within 14 days of publication. The present arrangements allow a month, but a significant number of people do not manage to meet that deadline. It is likely that more would be excluded by a shorter deadline. The Bill would require publications to respond within three days, but that allows inadequate time for investigation should any dispute be involved. Another layer of bureaucracy would be imposed in front of the adjudicator who would determine whether a right of reply should be granted.

If either the publication or the complainant disagreed with the adjudicator's decision, they could appeal to the board, but as the board would be responsible for the appointment of the adjudicator, its ability to hear appeals independently would be in doubt.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend makes the same point repeatedly without responding to my interventions. Who funds Ofcom, for example? Is it the media corporations or the public purse?

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

I suggest to my hon. Friend that there is a particular issue about press freedom and the way in which we monitor and manage it, and use the code of practice. That is why this issue is different and I shall continue to explain that as I proceed with my speech.

The fact is that, in the Government's view, the PCC's code of practice already provides a satisfactory means of redress for those who feel they have been misrepresented in the press. Clause 1 of the code requires that

"a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence."

A failure to do that would be a breach of the code. The PCC already fulfils the role of an adjudicator. Its independence is guaranteed by a lay majority of 10 to seven, its chairman is independent of the industry, and its staff have no connection to the industry. When the code has been breached and no satisfactory remedial action offered, the PCC will require a newspaper to publish, in full and with due prominence, a critical adjudication of the editor. That does not require a lengthy and costly legal battle.

It is significant that no editor has ever refused to publish the PCC adjudication and adherence to the PCC code is written into many editors' contracts. Furthermore, the complainants have the right to appeal on procedural grounds to an independent chartered commissioner, who can ask for the matter to be reconsidered.

As far as the maintenance of a database is concerned, the PCC currently publishes details of all its adjudications on its website, and it contains summaries of all resolved complaints, including details offered by the newspaper in each case. The PCC also publishes an annual report that provides an analysis of its work over the preceding year, as well as a bi-annual report providing a summary of its cases.

To conclude, I am afraid that the Bill would establish statutory regulation by the back door and I suspect that, once a board was established, there would inevitably be calls to extend the scope of its remit. After all, the need for accuracy is only one part of a larger range of issues considered by the PCC, and there will be others who argue with a passion equal to that of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and his supporters, that their particular concern can be addressed only through statutory means. Once we have breached the principle of press freedom—let us be clear about this—we will find ourselves on a very slippery slope.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport

We do not currently allow an unfettered right for the press to write whatever they want. Law and regulation is already in place, so the idea that this is the first time since the 17th century that our precious freedom of speech has been compromised is utter rubbish—and the Minister knows it. He is squirming around, trying to find tentative reasons to justify his position. For goodness' sake, why cannot he actually answer the specific questions put to him by Peter Bradley about the appointment and running of the board? Can we have a little more openness and honesty from this Minister?

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

I have already made it clear to the hon. Gentleman that there is a fundamental disagreement here over the regulation of the press and press freedom. I have set out my and the Government's position on the issue. There will be disagreements, but we believe that the current procedure and regulations in place—I am sure that things can always be improved—provide the best way forward.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

To conclude, the Government have no intention of presiding over the end of more than 300 years of press freedom.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Education and Skills) (Schools)

No, I am drawing to my conclusion and I ask the House to oppose the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be read a Second time.

The House divided: Ayes 6, Noes 12.

Division number 99 Right of Reply and Press Standards Bill

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 12 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Madam Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.