With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on matters relating to the Leveson inquiry. A free press is an essential component of a fully functioning democracy, which is why it was a manifesto commitment of this Government to defend a free press. The press should tell the truth without fear or favour and hold the powerful to account. However, we now know that that freedom has in the past been abused. We know that some parts of the press have ignored their own code of practice and the law. I have met victims of illegal and improper press intrusion, some of whom have suffered immense distress.
In July 2011, the coalition Government announced an inquiry into the role of the press and the police in phone hacking and other illegal practices in the British press. Lord Justice Leveson—now Sir Brian Leveson—was appointed chair of the inquiry. Part 1 of the inquiry examined the culture, practices and ethics of the press. It considered such matters as whether the press needed a different form of regulation and how the press interacted with the public, the police and politicians. Sir Brian Leveson heard evidence from more than 300 people, including some of those who had been affected by the most egregious press behaviour. On
Following a cross-party agreement, a royal charter established the Press Recognition Panel, which began operating in November 2014. As stated on its website, the panel’s purpose is to ensure that any press self-regulator is
“independent, properly funded and able to protect the public, while recognising the important role carried out by the press”.
Since September 2015, the panel has been taking applications from regulators that are seeking recognition. Alongside the royal charter, section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 was designed to incentivise newspapers to join a recognised self-regulator. Section 40 has passed into law but remains uncommenced. It is one of two incentives. The other, relating to exemplary damages, came into effect on
It has hitherto been the view of Government that as we wait for a number of elements of the new self-regulatory regime to settle in—the exemplary damages provisions of the 2013 Act, the press developing an effective form of voluntary self-regulation, and self-regulators applying for recognition—the time has not been right to commence section 40. However, the panel recently recognised its first self-regulator, the independent monitor for the press or IMPRESS, which currently has around 50 members. Meanwhile, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, known as IPSO, regulates more than 2,500 publications but has been clear that it will not seek recognition from the panel. We think the time is right to consider section 40 further.
It has also become apparent that the final criminal case relating to the Leveson inquiry is entering its final stages. We therefore think it is an appropriate time to start to consider the next steps on part 2 of the inquiry. Many of the issues that part 2 would have covered have been addressed over the past five years. Three police investigations— Operations Elveden, Tuleta and Weeting—have investigated a wide range of offences. A clear message has been sent to all police officers and public officials that receiving payments for confidential information will not be tolerated and will be dealt with robustly. The Metropolitan Police Service has introduced new policies on whistleblowing, gifts and hospitality, and media relations.
There was also a degree of subject matter overlap between parts 1 and 2 of the Leveson inquiry. For example, the inquiry reviewed the MPS’s initial investigation into phone hacking and the role of politicians and public servants regarding any failure to investigate wrongdoing in News International. Part 1 made numerous recommendations which, where they relate to them, are being addressed by the police, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the College of Policing. Given the extent of the criminal investigations, the implementation of the recommendations from part 1 of the Leveson inquiry, and the cost to the taxpayer of the investigations and part 1—£43.7 million and £5.4 million respectively—the Government are considering whether undertaking part 2 is still in the public interest.
We are keen to take stock and seek the views of the public and interested parties—not least those who have been the victims of press abuse. We will also formally consult Sir Brian Leveson, in his role as inquiry chair, on the question of part 2 at the appropriate time. I can announce that today we are launching a public consultation, inviting comments on both section 40 and part 2 of the Leveson inquiry from organisations that are affected by it and from the public. It will run for 10 weeks from today—
I have met Sir Brian Leveson, and spoke to him again this morning. I will write to him formally as well. I am extremely grateful for all the work that he and his team have done to get us this far. The Government are determined that a balance is struck between press freedom and the freedom of the individual. Those who are treated improperly must have redress. Likewise, politicians must not seek to muzzle the press or prevent them from doing legitimate work, such as holding us to account. The police must take seriously their role in protecting not only their own reputation, but also those people they are meant to serve. That is the balance that we wish to strike, and the consultation is the most appropriate and fairest way of doing so. I commend this statement to the House.
What a sad day this is. I am at least grateful to the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of her statement an hour ago—947 days after all parties reached an agreement to implement in full the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry.
The Prime Minister herself set the test for the process on
“I will never forget meeting with the Dowler family in Downing Street to run through the terms of this Inquiry with them and to hear what they had been through and how it had redoubled, trebled the pain and agony they’d been through over losing Milly.”
She went on to say that the test should be
“are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by this process. That’s what the test is.”
The Government reassured victims that if they spoke out at Leveson, the Government would act on his recommendations. Today, the Culture Secretary has announced that we must wait another 10 weeks while the reforms are discussed all over again in the context of a wider consultation on the press. The Opposition believe that they have been discussed and debated enough and should have been implemented years ago. The victims of press intrusion cannot wait a day longer for this Government to honour David Cameron’s promises to pass Theresa May’s self-defined test. For the Culture Secretary to stand here today and announce a consultation into the press nearly 1,000 days after those reforms were agreed by party leaders is deeply regrettable.
As the Culture Secretary said, it is more than five years since the previous Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and announced an inquiry into press practices and ethics. A lot has happened since then. We have had the Hillsborough inquiry and its findings on misleading police statements to Government officials and subsequently newspapers. We had the urgent question on Orgreave just this morning. We have had the case of Mazher Mahmood, the fake sheikh who perverted the course of justice to secure his scoops and in so doing left scores of previous convictions unsafe. Senior police officers have had to resign over phone hacking. We have had more information emerge about the brutal murder of Daniel Morgan, a private investigator who was threatening to reveal police corruption to the press. Over 30 police and public officials have been jailed for bribery.
Leveson 2 was meant to look at the relationship that existed between newspapers and police. Despite the exposure of criminality, it is impossible for the Minister to credibly conclude that we have learned enough about corruption to halt Leveson 2 before it starts. After all, one of the terms of reference for the second part of Leveson is
“To inquire into the extent of corporate governance and management failures at News International and other newspaper organisations, and the role, if any, of politicians, public servants and others in relation to any failure to investigate wrongdoing”.
In other words, Leveson 2 is the investigation into how the cover-up of phone hacking was conducted. In effect, the Culture Secretary is today announcing a consultation on whether the cover-up should be covered up. It is my view that the events of the past five years make Leveson 2 more urgent, not less. Leveson was created so that a Minster would not have to worry what pressure she was put under by newspaper editors. What the Secretary of State is doing today is abandoning that principle. She is taking back the power from an independent judge, and in so doing she opens up the Executive to accusations that they have succumbed to the vested interests of media barons—it is an age-old story and she is carrying the can.
I am afraid that the Secretary of State leaves us no choice but to ask her some searching questions. First, did the Prime Minister discuss the Leveson process at her private meeting with Rupert Murdoch in New York last month? Secondly, when the Secretary of State spoke to Lord Leveson earlier today, did he approve this hurried consultation? Does he agree with her analysis? Will she allow him to make a public statement? Finally, has she spoken to the parents of Milly Dowler and to other victims of press intrusion? What is their view of these proposals? Do they think this passes the Prime Minister’s test? Are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box, but I disagree with much of what he has just said. Let me start by being clear about victims of press intrusion: the first people I met in this job regarding press regulation were the victims of phone hacking—I did so with Hacked Off. I have been determined throughout my time in this role to make sure that I meet as many victims as possible; I did the same in my previous role in the Home Office and I continue to do it, because if we do not listen to people and what they have been through, we cannot possibly imagine it and legislate in an appropriate way. But what is clear to me, and I think to him, is that we all want effective, robust press regulation, so we have to look at the situation we find ourselves in today, not five years ago, to make sure we can achieve that. In his list of things that had happened, he actually set out all the reasons why we need to take a step back and to consider the position, so I invite responses from all interested bodies—from all people affected by this. I am sure that we will get many, many responses to the consultation and I welcome them. We need to look at this in terms of the situation and the press regulation we have today, to make sure we get the right, appropriate, robust, effective press regulation, so that, as he said, we do all we can to protect people.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s intention to continue to listen very carefully on these matters. Will she confirm that in considering how best to proceed, she will take account of the significant deterioration in the economic health of traditional media, which has taken place even since Leveson and is still leading to the closure of titles at both national and local level? Will she bear in mind that the real media giants of today, such as Facebook and Google, are outside the scope of legislation and regulation altogether?
My right hon. Friend, who was my predecessor in this role, sets out important arguments, which we need to consider. He rightly says that we need to make sure that this regulation affects the whole of the press, not just the print media that are on our high streets and that are produced locally, but those global players on the internet.
As the House knows, section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 was passed to implement the recommendations made by the Leveson inquiry that any new regulator set up should be accredited as independent and effective. The purpose of that section is to provide costs protection for claimants and Leveson-regulated newspaper publishers. Section 40 extends to England and Wales only. Regulation of print media is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, which has provided cross-party support for the UK Government’s actions to implement the royal charter. Does the Secretary of State understand the difficulties that local newspapers face and recognise that the majority of the press, especially the regional press in Scotland, was not involved in the sort of malpractice that prompted the Leveson recommendations?
It is important that we balance respect for the freedom of the press and the public desire for high standards, accuracy and transparency. That said, does the Secretary of State agree that the protection afforded by section 40 would be available to Scottish litigants who chose to sue newspapers based in England and Wales in the event that section 40 was enacted? In the meantime, Scottish National party MPs will support the House of Lords amendment to the Investigatory Powers Bill which will introduce a new clause 9, on the back of clause 8, which was introduced as an SNP amendment.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issues regarding the devolution of regulation of the press. As he will know, part 2 of Leveson will cover the whole of the United Kingdom but, as he said, section 40 covers England and Wales. I am due to speak to Fiona Hyslop this afternoon to discuss exactly how we make sure it works across the whole country. He makes the point strongly that many good local newspapers were not involved in any form of press abuse or intrusion, and we need to make sure that we do press regulation in a way that protects a free, vibrant local press.
I declare an interest, in that I have had four successful defamation actions against newspapers. I say to my right hon. Friend that having an effective, robust press is even more important than having effective, robust press regulation. If we have 2,500 newspapers, including all those—or nearly all those—represented by the Society of Editors, and we have a pretty pathetic list in IMPRESS, most of which do not have a circulation of more than 200, 300 or 1,000, we must not introduce section 40 and we ought to find a way in which the IPSO people cannot be forced into the Press Recognition Panel but can be recognised as representing newspapers, with a proper way of redress?
My hon. Friend sums up the dilemma that faces the Government today: we have more than 2,500 newspapers and other publications that have not signed up and never will sign up to a recognised regulator. We have to make this work in that climate and with that situation, and I urge all interested parties to respond to the consultation, so that we can hear all those views.
I thought I was going to welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, because she explained in clear detail why the incentives contained in section 40 are essential to the Leveson recommendations, which this House approved overwhelmingly in the royal charter and which, as she said, are already in law—and we now have a recognised regulator. But she went on to say that rather than commencing section 40, the Government were just going to consider it further. Why does she not just do the right thing by the victims and commence the legislation that this House and the House of Lords have already passed?
What I said is that we are going to consult; it is a 10-week consultation, and it is very clearly about part 2 of the Leveson inquiry and the commencement of section 40. I want to hear all views in that consultation.
“seek a fresh, more collegiate start.”
I would not expect the Secretary of State to take such an extreme position as the ex-editor of The Guardian, but does she agree that this consultation is exactly the right way forward and that it is an opportunity to take stock of where we are, to involve all interested parties and to see whether we can move on in a more consensual fashion?
I read that same article, and I should read out what Peter Preston says:
“It doesn’t make sense any longer. Blanket bitterness stuck in a time warp. Most editors, like most politicians, with a soupçon of perspective, would know what to say about such impasses. Time to dismantle the barricades. Time to move on.”
The Secretary of State has a very easy way out of her dilemma, which is to name a future date for the commencement of section 40. She will then get plenty of movement, because there will be plenty of incentive. We have all been circulated things by local newspapers, at the behest of national newspaper owners, but does the Secretary of State agree that that lobbying tells only half the truth? Section 40 gives protection for serious journalism from the chilling effect of deep-pocketed vexatious litigants, because such people would first have to go through a low-cost arbitration system and not to the courts? In that sense, it protects hard-pressed local newspapers in particular, whose investigations have, sadly, not been of the calibre that we have been used to.
The hon. Gentleman and I discussed that at the Select Committee last week. We share a local paper in the Stoke Sentinel, which has communicated with both of us, but he must recognise that the Stoke Sentinel and others have signed up to IPSO, which does not have recognition under the Press Recognition Panel. We need to ensure that we get this right, which is why we need to take stock, listen to all views and consider the position based on the fact that we are now five years on from the original date of the inquiry.
Order. Questions are rather long. Perhaps we can get pithiness from a classicist and a philosopher. I call Sir Oliver Letwin.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that equivocal introduction.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does she agree that the members of IPSO—the press—could spare us a lot of grief and move the matter on if they were to enforce, through IPSO, a genuinely Leveson-compliant regime, including the provision of a low-cost arbitration service?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the role that he has played in developing the cross-party agreement. Those are exactly the kind of comments that we want to hear through the consultation.
I rather agree with Sir Oliver Letwin that that is precisely what IPSO could do, but this is now a matter of keeping faith. David Foulkes was killed in the
“We were in a very dark place. You think that it is as dark as it can get, and then you realise that there’s someone out there who can make it darker.”
The right hon. Gentleman made promises to Mr Foulkes, as did the Prime Minister at the time and the present Prime Minister. Mr Vaizey also made promises to Mr Foulkes and to so many others that, first, the commencement would start immediately, and secondly—no ifs, no buts—that there would be Leveson 2. Why on earth is the right hon. Lady reneging on all those promises made to the victims?
Nobody is reneging on any promises. We are having a consultation. We want to hear from all sides, and we will make a decision after that.
Will the Secretary of State bear most in mind the weakening and poor health of local and national newspapers, as set out by my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale, and make sure that they will always be protected in being able to expose people in authority? They should be protected from rich bullies who, by the very threat of legal action against them, may force newspapers not to print stories that would be in the public interest. Not doing that may suit many people in this House, but it would do a gross disservice to the public at large.
My hon. Friend is right. We all know of instances when local newspapers have perhaps printed something with which we did not necessarily agree, but I defend the right for them to do so.
I feel so let down and disappointed by the Secretary of State’s statement. She could have come here and announced the commencement of section 40, which would have been the right and proper thing to do. I do not know what she thinks more talking will do after the months and months of Leveson, but I want to ask this specific question: has she met the families and the victims of the lack of press regulation—not on the day that she took office, but today or yesterday—to say that there was going to be more delay and more consultation and to explain what she was coming here to announce today?
As I told Mr Watson, I have met victims and I will continue to meet them. I will ensure that I have correspondence and engagement with all, but I wanted to come to the House and make this announcement because Parliament needs to hear it first.
I suppose I had better begin by declaring an hereditary interest rather than a direct one.
I want to commend my right hon. Friend for her excellent statement. She is clearly right to be reviewing this, because the system cannot be working when IMPRESS, funded by a degenerate libertine who was embarrassed by free newspapers a few years ago, has only 50 subscribers, and IPSO, representing the vast swathe of the press, has 2,500 subscribers. She is quite right to review that, and also right to defend the freedom of the press, which is more important than the press being responsible.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. That is why we are having a consultation. I want to hear all responses, and I want to look at this in the light of today, not of five, 10 or 15 years ago.
One common thread that runs between the injustices uncovered in recent years is an unhealthy, collusive relationship between police and the press. Part 2 of the Leveson inquiry was intended to examine that in detail. It is seen as essential by Hillsborough campaigners to bring a form of accountability, and yet the Secretary of State, if I heard her correctly, has effectively announced today that she is consulting on a decision to reject it. Can she not see that that will leave campaigners feeling bitterly let down? Does it not sound for all the world like the second Government cover-up in just two days?
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman for whom I have enormous respect. In this case, he is simply wrong. We are consulting on what is the right thing to do today. He must recognise that there have been significant changes in the way in which the police behave and are accountable, much of which was uncovered during the inquiry on Hillsborough. I want to look at the position today to get the right result for those who have been victims of press intrusion in the past and to make sure that people in the future have the appropriate regulation and the appropriate redress.
I really welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend about effective and robust regulation. It is crystal clear that IPSO does neither of those. Will she do all she can to ensure that low-cost arbitration is on the top of her list?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We do want to see all people, no matter what their background, being able to get appropriate redress and arbitration that is effective and works.
The Secretary of State says that she wants to come up to date with what is going on now, and not just look back at the tragedies of 10 years ago. Well, she needs only to look at the case of Fatima Manji to see that the same people being complained about were the judges and the jury in the regulator, IPSO. That is the problem.
Does the Secretary of State accept that, regardless of her consultation, the current status quo is not acceptable, because we have yet to see the establishment of a robust industry-funded system of arbitration, which gives access to justice—one of Leveson’s key recommendations?
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, makes a very good and important point, and one that I want to hear more about during the consultation.
The Press Recognition Panel set up in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal stated that urgent action is required if the post-Leveson system of independent regulation is to be given a chance to survive. Surely today’s procrastination is tantamount to political interference by the Government.
I do not accept that point. We have commenced the exemplary damages point. We now have a recognised regulator. Now is the time to take stock and look at what further work needs to be done.
As a former journalist of some 17 years, I was shocked when only 14 of us in this House voted against the Royal Charter all those years ago, and I questioned whether democracy was at risk. May I remind Members of the Opposition and perhaps one or two Members on the Government Benches that phone hacking is already illegal and a person will go to jail if they commit that offence? Finally, local newspapers, which had nothing to do with the scandal that occurred in a very small majority of the major newspapers, fear that if they have to pay costs despite even winning their case, they will have to close down and they will not be able to challenge those who should be challenged.
The Secretary of State says that press regulation is failing, but let us not forget that this Government set up this system, which is now failing. Is it not the case that this Government have been engaging in political gymnastics on this issue since the beginning to arrive at the very point that we are at today where section 40 and part 2 are going to be scrapped? It has always been the Government’s intention to pay lip service to this issue and not to consider the victims.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right to stand up for independence, regulation and arbitration, but the consultation she has announced today will of course delay, at best, section 40. Does she not agree, therefore, that it would be reasonable to accept Baroness Hollins’ amendments to clause 8 of the Investigatory Powers Bill?
Section 40 needs to be implemented now—not just because it is in statute and part of Leveson, but because it is necessary to address part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The effect of that Act, which was introduced by the previous coalition Government, is that it is not possible for victims easily to sue people, so will they not continue to be vilified and humiliated?
Like my right hon. Friend, I believe in a free press, but I also believe in a responsible press. Does she not agree that a great virtue of the Leveson inquiry was that it took this whole contentious issue out of the hands of politicians; that by going for this consultation, which she will respond to, she is in danger of embroiling politicians in the issue again; and that low-cost arbitration has to be part of the solution?
The very fact that we are having a debate about section 40—tied up with the matter of national security, which is the Investigatory Powers Bill—means that we need to take stock and work out exactly what is the best thing to do.
Academic research has shown conclusively that the false lies printed on a daily basis on most of the front pages of our newspapers against migrants and minority communities have led to the rise of violence and prejudice towards those people. When complaints are made, all we get is a two-line correction at the bottom of the page. Has not IPSO singularly failed to deal with that?
The hon. Gentleman does not have to look quite so surprised. He was standing. Therefore, I did think he wanted to contribute. It is not surprising, if he then rises to his feet, that I call him.
Order. I must say that the capacity of hon. and right hon. Members for misguided self-pity is unlimited.
My hon. Friend is usually at the top of my list. I want to assure him that this is an open, frank consultation where we want to hear all views so we can make a decision based on the situation we find ourselves in today to get the effective, robust regulation that we all want.
The Secretary of State deliberately refused to answer the precise questions that my hon. Friend Mr Watson put to her from the Front Bench. Will she now say, having spoken to Lord Leveson, what are Lord Leveson’s views on the statement she has made today and whether she will allow him to speak publicly about his views?
I should declare that I spent 15 years as a journalist at The Daily Telegraph. We all feel profound sympathy for the victims in this situation, but, overall, is not the real prize that a good, free, robust and boisterous press holds the Government to account regionally, locally and nationally? If we get that wrong by allowing it to become either unsustainable or impractically regulated, we will lose far more than we are talking about today.
My hon. Friend makes the point very well. We want a robust, free, strong press that holds us to account. We will not like it when the press holds us to account, but it should have the right to do so.
My local, family-owned newspaper, the Newark Advertiser, knows what it is like to be vexatiously sued by a politician. When Harold Laski sued the newspaper to try to ruin a local family, the Parlbys, he lost. That is now one of the leading cases in this area of law. Of course, had these rules been in place, the family would still have been ruined and my local newspaper would still have been put out of business. In the consultation, will the Secretary of State pay particular attention to local newspapers and, above all, to independent titles such as the Newark Advertiser?
I am sure the Secretary of State, like me, will be amazed by the spectacle of a Parliament in which it is the Opposition who are demanding more restrictions on the press. Will she reassure me that we will balance any future system against the needs of the local media, particularly in an era when, sometimes, update lists via email run by Members of the House have a larger circulation?
My hon. Friend touches on the point alluded to by my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale: we are in a news world entirely different from what we have ever had before. We have digital media, global players and local players who can get to people through social media and the internet in a way that is totally unregulated. We need to ensure that we look at all those matters and get the right regulation.
Believing that my right hon. Friend’s heart is in the right place, I wonder whether the irony in her repeated statement that this is the right thing to do for today was intended or unintended. What assurance can she give me that she will commence section 40 if there is no other way to get to low-cost arbitration?
We will come to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. The wine will mature. Do not worry.