New Clause 4 — Publication on matters of public interest

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 12th September 2012.

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Photo of Paul Farrelly Paul Farrelly Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme 4:15 pm, 12th September 2012

The hon. and learned Gentleman makes a fine point. The purpose of my amendment, which I shall not press to a Division, is to probe the Government’s thinking. Other suggestions for amendments were made in Committee and some of those might reflect the judgments given in Reynolds more closely than paragraph (g).

Any decisions by lower courts can be appealed, but going all the way to the Supreme Court is very time-consuming and expensive. The purpose of my amendment 10 is therefore to get the Government to clarify what they mean by paragraph (g) and whether they have fully taken into account the most up-to-date case law, and to give them the opportunity to state to the House that there is no intention that the clause should be at odds in any way with how the “responsible journalism” defence has been developed by the courts over the years.

Amendment 11, which relates to sub-section (2)(h), simply reflects the actual wording used by Lord Nicholls in his list in the Reynolds case, in which the court considered whether a newspaper might reasonably have delayed publication—for instance, to wait longer for a comment from the subject of an article—rather than going to press when it did. The concern in the legal profession about the current wording of sub-section (2)(h) is that it is neutral and does not capture the essence of the urge, or the urgency, to publish. It is a concern for weekly, fortnightly or monthly publications, for example, that withholding a comment can be used to try to ensure that a story does not appear in a particular edition. I shall pray the noble Lord Lester in aid again. Urgency appears explicitly in his list of factors that the courts may take into account. In his private Member’s Bill, he proposed that they may consider

“whether there were any factors supporting urgent publication”.

Amendment 12 is lifted word for word from Lord Lester. It is intentionally broader than amendment 3, which my hon. Friend John McDonnell will speak to shortly. It also seeks to address a concern that was not addressed in Committee. Following the phone-hacking affair and the failure, yet again, by certain aggressive tabloids to put their own house in order, there is now a crisis of confidence in the press in this country. The Press Complaints Commission palpably failed over phone hacking, and in cases such as that of the McCanns. It is broken, and the “son of PCC” advanced by the industry to replace it looks all too much like the PCC itself. The mantra in the industry often seems to have been never to let the editors’ code of practice get in the way of a good story or good business. I am sure that, when Lord Justice Leveson reports next month, he will make similar damning judgments about the practices of the press, or certain parts of it.

The amendment seeks to give statutory recognition, if that is the right word, when newspapers are seeking to rely on qualified privilege, to the importance of journalists following a relevant code of practice—be it their own publication’s code, the editors’ code, one from a regulator or that of the profession. It also seeks to bolster the position of journalists. They are frequently asked by editors to do things that breach those codes: “Leave your morals at home or you’ll be colouring in the black squares on the crossword before we sack you” can instil genuine fear in many parts of the industry. Only editors and proprietors have been consulted on the proposals for the reform of the PCC; journalists have not. I believe that in striving for better quality journalism, we should give good codes of practice more weight. The amendment seeks to do that.