Media (Transparency and Disclosure)

Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 1:29 pm on 23 May 2007.

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Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon 1:29, 23 May 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require media organisations to disclose certain information about any payments made by them to individuals for the contribution of those individuals to articles or broadcasts in which they are involved;
and for connected purposes.

It is important that Britain retains a robust and free press. It is one of the safeguards of our constitutional freedoms and part of the mature framework of checks and balances that keeps us safe from tyranny. Many of the countries to which I travel in my work for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy would give their right arm to have an independent and rigorous press like ours. Yet there are occasions when the great British media overstep the mark and throw around their unprecedented power to influence and shape events and their ability to make or break careers and lives, without exercising proper responsibility or accountability. Too often, media stories are fabricated, exaggerated or sensationalised; too often, there are hidden agendas; and too often, we do not know enough about the integrity or motivation of the primary source of a story. In particular, we do not know whether anybody was paid for that story.

It would be a big job—possibly beyond the scope of any party, Government or Act of Parliament—to put the media back in their box without damaging their essential freedom and the modest measure I bring forward today does not attempt to do any such thing. My Bill is designed to deal only with the fact that the reader or listener or viewer is rarely told whether a source of information for a story was paid, and if so, how much. Why is that relevant? Imagine the situation in a courtroom where a judge or jury is trying to assess the evidence in a complex set of facts. Imagine the sudden revelation in court that a crucial eye witness has been paid for his evidence by the defence. That evidence would be immediately discounted: nobody would believe a word that witness said, even if they had been telling the truth—because concern over a possible mercenary motivation would rightly undermine confidence in the reliability of the testimony.

Why is it different in the media? In a story about an alleged neighbour from hell, a bullying boss or an unfaithful wife, I want to know if the neighbour, the employee or the husband—the persons making the colourful allegations—have been paid for their stories. Why? Because it will help me to decide what weight to give to their evidence. It will help me to make a better informed decision about motivation and veracity and whether the subject of the allegations should rightly be the object of my distrust and scorn. Ah, people argue, but this is not a court of law, this is simply a story on the TV or in the press. It is just harmless entertainment. But it is not entertainment for the hapless target of that story—countless dozens of them everyday, both celebrities and ordinary people alike, the victims of cheque-book journalism. What about the law of defamation, surely that can be used to protect people? It is an expensive exercise and beyond the means of all but the very rich to sue a mighty media organisation for libel, with no legal aid being available. Even stories that are horribly distorted and lampoon people unfairly can contain a modicum of truth, sufficient to enable the media's sharp-suited lawyers to bat away all but the most determined of litigants.

Sadly, the Press Complaints Commission is of little use. More often than not, it reveals itself to be a toothless tiger and a self-congratulatory organisation that persistently fails those who seek its assistance. That means that the print press in particular is effectively free of regulation, despite the enormous power it wields over the perceptions we hold of the events and individuals that shape our lives. That is not a new problem. Even the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte observed ruefully:

"Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets".

The pen is truly mightier than the sword when it is wielded by the media.

I am not saying that the media should not pay for stories. I am not saying that people should not accept payment for selling their stories to the press. I am simply saying that the viewer or the reader or the listener should be told whether money has changed hands to put that story together, and if so how much. In this age of maximum disclosure and transparency, is it reasonable that the reader should any longer be denied that crucial information? My belief in more media disclosure is only one reason why I do not support the Bill that passed through this House last Friday, and I very much hope that it falls in the other place.

I was interested to see in The Mail on Sunday on 29 April 2007 that at the end of an article entitled, "We loved each other like older people do", a disclaimer appeared stating that

"Valerie Beech has received no payment for this interview."

If The Mail on Sunday believes that information to be relevant when no money has been paid for a story, why is it not relevant when money has been paid? Why not force all media by law to make that clear every time? Compare that example to the recent Lord Brown case. Was it right that it had to be dragged screaming and kicking from Associated Newspapers, days after the allegations about his private life were first unveiled, that his former friend Jeff Chevalier was paid substantial sums of money by Associated Newspapers over a significant period of time for his story? Surely, the very first time that that story broke we, the public, were entitled to be told that tens of thousands of pounds in cash or kind were paid to extract that expression of grief from a jilted lover.

We live in an age when the media is immensely powerful. It can make or break careers and lives. The media have much more influence on Government policy, on how the country is run, than a humble Back Bencher like me. Indeed, the media have more influence than most junior Ministers. The rules for transparency and disclosure for elected representatives are stringent, and rightly so. We go on an overseas trip to view poverty in Malawi paid for by a charity and we are hounded if we do not disclose that fact. Sometimes, we hound each other over such trivial matters, and that is an issue on which we should all reflect.

Remember the outrage that was rightly expressed in the media when it emerged years ago that at least one of our colleagues was willing to accept cash to ask questions in this House? We rightly took the view that such mercenary motivation was not to be tolerated in the nation's Parliament. However, we have this powerful beast prowling around our country trashing lives and pronouncing their judgments and the reader does not have the first idea about how their stories were obtained and how much blood money was paid for the destruction of a reputation. It is time to bring that to an end. It is time for more transparency.

Naturally, the media must be allowed to protect its sources, and that is a principle we should respect. My Bill does not demand the disclosure of the source's identity, simply a sentence at the end of each broadcast or article stating whether or not the cheque book had been used, and if so how much. Then, the reader could make a better informed judgment about whether or not the story should be believed.

There is a particular problem, which I do not have time fully to consider today, and it relates to the police. Many sensational headlines emanate from some police officers who, within five minutes of a celebrity arrest, are apparently on the phone to their favourite reporter shopping the person concerned for cash—a person who is innocent until proved guilty, as we should remember. It happens every day. The editor of The Sun, Rebekah Wade, in her evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 11 March 2003, admitted that newspapers pay the police for stories. Often that is illegal, but whether it is or not, the reader should be told when it happens. Perhaps that is a problem that should be tackled through other means.

The eminent editor of The Guardian newspaper, C. P. Scott, wrote in 1921 that

"Comment is free, but facts are sacred".

That is a seminal statement of the values of a free press. Somewhere along the journey from 1921 to today, that concept of a news media in which facts are sacred has mutated into "entertainment is king", and on that modern altar, private lives and public reputations are sacrificed for 24 hours of amusement and titillation. The spirit of C. P. Scott has been lost and with it trust in that vital and serious pillar of our democracy. I believe that my Bill, far from harming the media, can help to restore lost confidence in a noble profession.

Let us celebrate the robust and vivid character of the fourth estate, but let the media be sensational and responsible in equal measure. Let them work within the framework of disclosure and transparency with which all of the rest of us have to comply. Let us be told—did they pay for that story, and if so, how much? I commend my Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gary Streeter, Angela Browning, Sir George Young, Dr. Tony Wright, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Colin Breed, Mr. David Curry, Mrs. Janet Dean, Mr. David Burrowes, Mr. Greg Pope and Ms Karen Buck.