Press Complaints Commission

– in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 8 June 2005.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 2:37, 8 June 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will grant powers to the Press Complaints Commission to take up, on its own initiative, cases of misrepresentation by newspapers.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, the Press Complaints Commission is an independent body. The Government have no control over it and cannot, therefore, grant it any powers. However, the commission may, if it chooses, take up on its own initiative cases of misrepresentation or any other issue covered by the Editors' Code of Practice.

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am glad to hear that the commission can do so, but may I give an example of where it has failed to do so? As I hope the Government are aware, there has been a persistent campaign of persecution against Miss Maxine Carr, as documented by Mr Roy Greenslade in the Guardian on 16 May. Some five cases of totally inaccurate and unfounded stories appeared in the News of the World, the People, the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday. Miss Carr of course is in no position to make a complaint herself. Are the Government also aware that this encouragement of lynch law led to a South African visitor who happened to be mistaken for Miss Carr having to seek police protection? Is it not therefore extremely desirable that the Press Complaints Commission should itself take action on its own initiative to prevent the spread of such blatant lies, which are a danger to democracy, instead of acting as if it is a paper tiger?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, the noble Lord has taken the opportunity to draw attention to a significant case and I think that many Members of this House will have sympathy with his expressed view. The Press Complaints Commission is aware of opinion in these terms. However, let me make the obvious point. It is not for the Government to intervene. If they did so, we would be very concerned about the concept of a free press. But it is certainly the case that newspapers should be aware of the weight of public opinion on those occasions when they appear to present matters in ways that are largely unacceptable. I do not doubt that the Press Complaints Commission will note carefully these exchanges today.

Photo of Lord Borrie Lord Borrie Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Press Complaints Commission has a very powerful and independent chairman in Sir Christopher Meyer, a well known former ambassador who is indeed very independent? He has increased the number of independent members of the commission and the description of it as a paper tiger by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, is a long way from the truth. Does my noble friend also agree that while it may well be meritorious for the commission from time to time to initiate inquiries on its own rather than waiting for complaints, it would be wholly unmeritorious for the Government to take the initiative as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne? That would be a gross interference with the freedom of the press and set a very bad precedent for some Minister in some future government to intervene in other ways.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what my noble friend has said. Coming from that source, the whole House will recognise his testimony to the independence of the Press Complaints Commission, why we need to sustain it in that role, and the effectiveness of its current operation under the present chairman. The Press Complaints Commission does initiate inquiries, although infrequently, on certain occasions. But this or any other occasion certainly would not be ones on which the Government ought to intervene.

Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Spokespersons In the Lords, The Family & Culture, Media & Sport

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we very much agree with the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Borrie? The Minister said that in exceptional circumstances the Press Complaints Commission will investigate articles even if there has been no complaint, a point made clear on its website. So will the Minister ensure that the commission is made aware of the exchanges taking place this afternoon in your Lordships' House?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I do not think that the present chairman would earn the plaudits of my noble friend Lord Borrie or anyone else in this House if the commission remained unaware of these exchanges. However, I shall undertake to make sure that the position is reinforced.

Photo of Lord Kilclooney Lord Kilclooney Crossbench

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is some concern that the Press Complaints Commission is hesitant to make decisions against some of the better known daily newspapers in the United Kingdom? How is the commission financed?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, the commission is independently financed and no public contribution is made to it. It is funded by the industry. The only comment I would make on the noble Lord's expression of anxiety about whether it deals with everyone on a fair basis is to say that occasions have arisen when very significant titles have been subject to comment by the Press Complaints Commission. Over recent months and years, I cannot think of an occasion when the charge put by the noble Lord could be substantiated to any great extent.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, is it not a fact that behind every story there is a byline? It may be for the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, to contact the journalists responsible for writing these stories.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, needs advice from the Government Front Bench on the strategy he should pursue, but he has drawn attention to an important issue. The Press Complaints Commission undertakes inquiries from sources of complaint, but inevitably the weight of its work relates to people who complain directly when they are involved. I am sure we all agree that that should be so.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader In the House of Lords, Leader, House of Lords, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, is right to say that there is a danger of a sweetheart relationship developing between a regulator and the organisations which finance it, but which it is supposed to regulate? Does he not now regret that the Government resisted the suggestions from these Benches during the passage of the Communications Bill that, from time to time, Ofcom should be allowed the run the ruler over the Press Complaints Commission just to make sure that it is doing the fine, upstanding job that the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, claims? That would ensure that the commission does not slip into a sweetheart relationship with its paymasters.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

My Lords, contributions are made by the whole industry, not just by the major titles. The question of whether the Press Complaints Commission was doing its job would be reflected in a great deal of public comment if it were producing some outstanding failures. By public comment, I mean comment also in this Chamber and in another place. I think that we would all recognise that such comments have been relatively few and far between over recent years, and that is part of the reason why we did not find particularly attractive the suggestion made from the noble Lord's Benches during proceedings on the Communications Bill.