Phone Hacking — Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 15th November 2011.

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Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Opposition Whip (Lords) 2:36 pm, 15th November 2011

To ask Her Majesty's Government what measures they will take to prevent journalists from citing the protection of sources as a means of avoiding prosecution for illegal activities such as phone hacking.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Lords Spokesperson (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, protection of sources is not a defence against prosecution of any illegal act. If journalists, like anyone else, break the law, they should expect, like anyone else, to be prosecuted.

Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Opposition Whip (Lords)

Given that the Bribery Act, which places an obligation on companies to put procedures in place in relation to the actions of their employees, came into force in July this year, what steps do the Government intend to take so that it is possible to discover whether owners or editors of newspapers have authorised or paid to third parties for illegal activity? Will the Government ensure, through regulation or otherwise, that owners and editors are required to disclose information relating to such authorisation of payments?

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Lords Spokesperson (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, makes a very valid point. The most important point is that bribery and corruption are extremely serious offences, which the Government believe should be punished with the full force of the law. Journalists see themselves as having an ethical duty to protect their sources, and that is enshrined in the PCC's code of practice. It is likely that anonymity is an important consideration for some people and that the provision of anonymity for the informant has led to stories that are in the public interest. Of course, journalists must also abide by other clauses of the code. Foremost among those is accuracy, and an editor must be sure that a story is accurate regardless of source.

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative

My Lords, on phone hacking generally, has my noble friend noticed that there is now a campaign to deny the importance of the Leveson inquiry by some in the press who say that the matter should be left to the press to sort out for itself. Is it not the past failure of the press to take action that has led to this independent inquiry? Is its importance not further underlined by the mounting evidence that the phone hacking scandal extends beyond the News of the World to other papers?

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Lords Spokesperson (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, my noble friend is very expert in these matters and has gone to the core of the subject. The failure of some of the press to abide by the law has been evident. Regarding the Leveson inquiry, we all recognise the importance for our democratic process of a free and effective press that acts with integrity. That is what we all want. However, at the same time, we have to acknowledge that certain parts of the press have not abided by the law or the self-regulatory code to which they voluntarily signed up. As my noble friend says, it is the failures that the Leveson inquiry will seek to address.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, in view of the allegations in relation to unlawful payments made to serving police officers, can the Minister confirm that the Bribery Act 2010 applies with equal force to the proprietors and owners of newspapers, and indicate what steps, if any, Her Majesty's Government intend to take to ensure that adequate procedures are put in place to prevent corrupt practices?

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Lords Spokesperson (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we are all against, obviously, corrupt practices, and the making of payments to police officers by journalists is a serious crime. These allegations are being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The IPCC is experienced in investigating allegations of corrupt behaviour by police. These range from allegations of corrupt relationships, misuse of public funds and abuse of powers to inappropriate sexual relationships. This is the first time that the IPCC has overseen an investigation concerning allegations of police payments specifically from journalists.

Photo of Lord Stoneham of Droxford Lord Stoneham of Droxford Liberal Democrat

Assuming that a strengthened Press Complaints Commission emerges from the current public debate, will the Government consider withdrawing the VAT exemption on those newspapers which do not join the new regulation process?

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Lords Spokesperson (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I have read about that and at the minute we are waiting for the Leveson report, which will be giving us details and assessing that point.

Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Chair, EU Sub-Committee B - Internal Market, Energy and Transport

My Lords, if there is any truth in the suggestion-I am sure that there is truth in the suggestion-by my noble friend Lord Fowler that there is a campaign against the Leveson inquiry, can the Government do anything to stop it? This seems to undermine the whole principle of a free press and free expression.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Lords Spokesperson (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, we are not aware of a campaign against Leveson or his inquiry, which started yesterday. We wish it the best passage, because it is very important, as will be the Communications Act that we will be discussing here.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Labour

My Lords, will the noble Baroness define the difference between public interest as a defence and prurient interest? The noble Baroness seemed to imply that public interest could be used as a defence against an allegation of breaking the law.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Lords Spokesperson (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, regarding public interest, editors are responsible for the truth and for what is published in a newspaper, not the source of the story. If a story is not accurate, a range of options is available: the editor, the PPC or the courts, depending on the nature and the scale of the inaccuracy. We do not believe that additional safeguards on this point are necessary, but of course we will await the results of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into the wider ethics of the press.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Chair, Communications Committee

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of a local newspaper company. Would my noble friend the Minister not agree two things: first, that the bribery legislation applies equally to all citizens in this country, whether they are journalists or whether they are not; and secondly, that the decision whether to prosecute when evidence of a crime is available is something which is vested in the prosecution authorities?

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Lords Spokesperson (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, my noble friend goes really to the heart of the matter and brings out a very important point, which was stated clearly by my noble friend Lord Patten in his speech on Sunday, in which he said that the suggestion that a possible solution to the current crisis in confidence in the media today, which seems to be present as well in your Lordships' House, would be a form of the Hippocratic oath,

"a watermark to distinguish proper, ethical journalism from the mass of intrusive and unregulated material".