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Media Standards and Media Regulation — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:24 pm on 25th October 2012.

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Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 12:24 pm, 25th October 2012

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness on initiating this debate, and the very cogent way in which she put the issues. I find myself in great sympathy with the points she made; rather more, I might say-very mildly of course-than the case put by my noble friend sitting beside me. But I join him in welcoming the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, whose father we all remember with enormous affection.

I am so old that when I joined the Times at the beginning of the 1960s, the front page was entirely covered with advertisements; there were no garish headlines; the writers were anonymous; and the paper took pride in the fact that it was accurate and a journal of record. One might think that it was an old, fuddy-duddy newspaper, waiting to be told what to write rather than to investigate, but that was not remotely the case. I remember the then editor, William Haley, a very upright and honest man, telling the assembled staff what their role was. "The job of a newspaper," he said, "is to reveal", and he was right-that is its job. Years ago it was to reveal the conditions in the Crimea; in recent years the equipment of the British troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the position with regard to thalidomide.

I entirely defend the right of the media to reveal, to probe behind what officialdom wants kept secret, and I entirely defend and applaud the media when they stand up for human rights and expose injustice. That is overwhelmingly in the public interest. But do not ask me to defend the activities of those who pry, sometimes illegally, into the private life of the citizen, or employ photographers with long-range cameras to get personal shots of celebrities, or bribe the police or other officials in order to get a story. The task is to offer a defence to the public against the rogue reporters while allowing newspapers the total freedom to expose the truth and work in the public interest.

No one claims that that division is easy. That is why, many months ago, I advocated an independent inquiry into phone hacking. I am told that I was the first in Parliament to do so, so I applaud very strongly the way that Lord Leveson has gone about his work. His inquiry has been comprehensive and fair. Frankly, what I deplore is the undoubted effort that is now taking place to denigrate and rubbish the report, even before anyone in Parliament or the public has had the opportunity of reading it. Let no one doubt that there is a campaign in motion to do just that.

Perhaps I might say in parenthesis to my own Front Bench that it was the Prime Minister and the Government who set up this inquiry and they were totally right to do so. It is certainly not open to any member of the Government to dissociate themselves or attack the inquiry process. There may well be differences of view at the end, but we should at least wait to see what Lord Leveson has to say. We should also acknowledge the part that the inquiry has already played in revealing what has been taking place. We now know that around 1,000 people were the likely victims of phone hacking, that it was not an isolated rogue reporter who was responsible but an organised conspiracy, and that the abuse stretched way beyond the News of the World to other newspapers.

The inquiry has given the clearest indication that the country is getting serious about the abuse that has taken place. It has also shown how truth can be revealed, not in a piecemeal way but comprehensively. That is what concerns me about the various different inquiries that are taking place into the Jimmy Savile case. Of course, the action or inaction of the BBC should be investigated but to get a complete picture so should other areas, such as the health service. I was Health Secretary for six years. I met Mr Savile once or twice in that time, as did my predecessors and successors. Did no one at Stoke Mandeville, Leeds or Broadmoor know about his activities? Was information passed on, and if it was, what then happened? These are not just questions of historic importance; they have total relevance today if any similar thing should happen again. That is why I believe that the public would be best served by one inquiry designed to reveal what really happened and the lessons that could be learnt from it.

As far as the BBC is concerned, I am bound to say-and I speak as a defender of the BBC-that its response to the allegations has been somewhere between woeful and shambolic. I return to a point that I and my former committee made previously: the BBC in responding to issues of this kind would be much better served by a chairman who was the real chairman of the BBC and an independent body for complaints, rather than a system that is ridiculously divided between the executive on one side and the BBC Trust on the other.

Therefore, the perennial problem of the BBC is the trust and the perennial problem of the press is the Press Complaints Commission. Let us be clear on one point, to put it at its most moderate: the national press-because it is predominantly the national press that we are talking about-has a case to answer. Since Leveson was set up, we have seen a newspaper closed down and 40 journalists arrested, and the clearest evidence has been accumulated that the public interest has been ignored. If this was some other industry, it would be the press themselves who were calling for radical reform and saying that action should be taken.

We need a complaints system which is demonstrably independent and which is not seen as a defence mechanism for the press; we need a system where the public interest is put first; we need a system which is as fearless as the best of the newspapers that it is reviewing; and we need a system which includes all newspapers and where there is a power of investigation into abuse.

Then, of course, there is the question of whether there should be a statutory element. Having argued that we should wait for Leveson, I just say this: no one is arguing for overriding statutory controls that limit the legitimate interests of the press. Equally, however, I find it difficult to accept the argument that any kind of statutory underpinning will lead to the end of free journalism as we know it. That is a ludicrous overstatement of the case.

Following Leveson, we have the opportunity of putting things right. I say to the Government that we do not want any more words about drinking in the last-chance saloon. That time has passed. What we want now is action in the public interest, providing us with a free press but with proper safeguards for the legitimate rights of the public. We have all seen in the past how reports have been shelved due to the opposition that can be whipped up. We all know what the easy way is to get newspaper headlines, but I hope that, this time, Ministers will consider most the interests of the ordinary citizen.