Leveson Inquiry — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 5:40 pm on 29th November 2012.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 5:40 pm, 29th November 2012

My Lords, I would like to repeat a Statement on the Leveson inquiry made earlier in the House of Commons by the Deputy Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"Mr Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House. I know it is unusual, but this is an unusual debate. The terms of reference for Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry were agreed on a cross-party basis. As the House has heard, we intend to proceed on a cross-party basis. So I think it is right that Parliament is clear on the initial views of the Government-across the coalition.

First, let me say that I agree with a huge amount that has already been said by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, which bodes well for the cross-party talks taking place later this afternoon.

I would like to thank Lord Justice Leveson for his extremely thorough report. In my view, there are two big liberal principles at play in this debate: on the one hand, the belief that a raucous and vigorous press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy; on the other, the belief that the vulnerable, the innocent and the weak should be protected from powerful vested interests.

A free press does not mean a press that is free to bully innocent people or to abuse grieving families. What I want now is for us to strike a better balance between those two liberal principles, so that our media can scrutinise the powers that be, but cannot destroy innocent lives; so that the journalists up in the Press Gallery can hold us, the politicians, to account, but we can look up to the individuals and families in the Public Gallery knowing they have the right protections in place.

I have always said that I would support Lord Justice Leveson's reforms, providing they are proportionate and workable. I will come on to why, at first glance, I believe that to be the case for the report's core proposal for a tougher system of self-regulation, supported by new, independent checks, recognised in law.

However, I do not want to disguise the fact that I have some specific concerns about some specific recommendations; for example, on data protection rules, and any changes to the way in which journalists can use personal information when reporting in the public interest; and on the suggestion that it should be Ofcom that independently verifies the new press watchdog. Ofcom has a key role in regulating the content of broadcast media, but I am yet to be convinced that it is best placed to take on this new, light-touch function with the print media as well. Lord Justice Leveson has himself said this function could be fulfilled by a new body.

However, on the basic model, of a new, self-regulatory body, established with a change to the law, in principle, I believe this can be done in a proportionate and workable way. I understand the entirely legitimate reasons why some Members of this House are wary of using legislation. I myself have thought long and hard about this. I am a liberal; I do not make laws for the sake of it-and certainly not when it comes to the press. Indeed, when I gave my own evidence to the inquiry, I made the point that, if we could create a rigorous, independent, system of regulation that covers all the major players, without any changes to the law, of course we should. But no one has yet come up with a way of doing that.

Lord Justice Leveson has considered these issues at length. He has found that changing the law is the only way to guarantee a system of self-regulation that seeks to cover all of the press, and he explains why the system of sticks and carrots he proposes has to be recognised in statute in order to be properly implemented by the courts.

What is more, changing the law is the only way to give us all the assurance that the new regulator is not just independent for a few months or years but independent for good. Someone will need to check, periodically, that the independence of the regulator has not been weakened over time. The report explains why that needs to be set out in law. As Lord Justice Leveson himself says:

'This is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press'.

This is a voluntary system, based on incentives, with a guarantee of proper standards. It is not illiberal state regulation.

It is worth dwelling on that point for a moment because, while there has, rightly, been a lot of discussion about the risks of legislating, there have, so far, been key arguments missing from this debate. First, the press does not operate in some kind of lawless vacuum; it has to abide by the law. In many instances it is already protected by the law, and I agree with the report that we should actually go further in enshrining the freedom of the press in statute.

Secondly, it has been suggested that using the law will blur the line between politicians and the media, but we must not ignore the extent to which that line has already been blurred under the current system of self-regulation. It is the status quo which has allowed such cosy relationships between political and media elites to arise in the first place. And let us not forget that, of the five PCC chairs, three were serving parliamentarians who took a party whip. Far from allowing greater overlap, the laws that have been proposed give us a chance to create a hard wall between politics and the press.

Thirdly, as the report notes, there is already an example of statutory underpinning in the Press Council of Ireland, which has been accepted by a number of UK newspapers. The Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star, the Sun, the Sunday Times, the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror are all members; they all publish Irish editions. I have not yet heard these papers complain of a deeply illiberal press environment across the Irish Sea.

Of course, neither I nor anyone can be certain of exactly how these proposals will look until we have worked up the detail. The two tests I have set-that any reforms must be workable and proportionate-will need to be met in practice as much as in principle, and if they are not I will be the first to sound the alarm. In that event, we would then need to consider alternatives.

Absolutely the worst outcome in all this would be for nothing to happen at all, but we must not now prevaricate. I, like many people, am impatient for reform. Bluntly, nothing I have seen so far in this debate suggests to me that we will find a better solution than the one which has been proposed. Nor do I draw any hope from the repeated failure of pure self-regulation that we have seen over the past 60 years. We need to get on with this, without delay. We owe it to the victims of these scandals, who have already waited too long for us to do the right thing-too long for an independent press watchdog, in which they can put their trust. I am determined we do not make them wait any more".

I commend this Statement to the House.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 5:48 pm, 29th November 2012

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for repeating the Statement of his right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister in the other place. It is a bit like the No. 11 bus: we have been waiting a long time for a Statement on press regulation and two come along at the same time. The House has shown remarkable sympathy to accommodate the strains and stresses of the coalition Government and allow this to happen. Perhaps it will be equally accommodating when we are dealing with the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which we hope will come along at some point.

I found myself largely in agreement with much of what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said. I also pay tribute to his long-standing and consistent work in this area. Of course, the reason why the Deputy Prime Minister found it necessary to make a statement separate from that of the Prime Minister is now clear: there is a fundamental difference between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is extremely reluctant that statute should be involved in any way in a system of independent regulation of the press, whereas the Deputy Prime Minister is clearly convinced that a new system of independent regulation must be supported by statute. I invite the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to reiterate that Lord Justice Leveson could not have been clearer about why statutory underpinning of his proposed system of independent self-regulation is required. Paragraph 70 of the executive summary of the Leveson report says plainly that,

"it is essential that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system and facilitate its recognition in legal processes".

Does the noble Lord, Lord McNally, accept that Lord Leveson absolutely rejects as inadequate the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Black? In paragraph 53 of the executive summary, Lord Leveson says that,

"the new body must represent the interests of the public as well as the press and the proposed model"- the Black model-

"does not go anything like far enough to demonstrate sufficient independence from the industry (and in particular, serving editors) or sufficient security of high and unalienable standards for the public; neither does it appear to have sufficient support from all the major participants within the industry".

Surely that is persuasive in the need for action to provide the statutory underpinning that Lord Justice Leveson puts forward.

In his response, the Prime Minister seems to be setting himself against a fundamental point of what Lord Leveson proposes. He is setting himself against where the public are and he is certainly setting himself against where victims of the media want politicians to be. Of course, legislating on the press is a difficult and complex area but we believe that the Prime Minister is making a misjudgment on this issue. He should put his faith in what Lord Justice Leveson is proposing and enact it.

We welcome the Statement from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and look forward to working in cross-party talks with him and his party on this point. It is very simple: we should not allow the press to have another lock-in at the last chance saloon, which has lasted for so many decades. Our democracy needs a free press, but a clean press, too. We will work very hard to achieve that.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I am grateful for the kind, personal remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, called out from a sedentary position, "What's the difference?". The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, tries to find differences. One of the things that I found most encouraging about the two Statements-indeed, the three Statements made in the other place today-is the broad level of common ground. I hope that everyone will take the opportunity, including my noble friend Lord Black, to read the Leveson report and then match the statements that they made before reading it in the light of it. In some ways it is an insult to someone who has spent as long as Lord Leveson has, whether it was a year or nine months-I am never quite sure, but it was a very long time-to produce a four-volume 2,000-page report, and then to announce, "I agree with this; I agree with this; I agree with this". Let us read the report and think about how to go forward. I am pleased that, as far as I am aware, those cross-party talks have already been in place for the past 55 minutes, which bodes well.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Labour 5:54 pm, 29th November 2012

My Lords, clearly Lord Justice Leveson's report managed to answer the tests that he was set, which were basically how to reconcile freedom of the press with concern for the many victims who have suffered terrible mistreatment at the hands of the media. I think there is consensus in this House and in the other place that he has managed to do that with great aplomb, skill and proportionality.

I listened with care to what the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, and it filled me with concern. Here we are with a report that recommends regulation with the lightest of touch-it really only creates backstop oversight and allows the press themselves to create the independent regulatory system that we would all like to see-yet there is still a sense that somehow the media will not be satisfied and that the press barons and their supporters will rally to prevent anything happening.

There was a wonderful moment in the Leveson inquiry when Stephen Dorrell-who is not much remembered anymore but he was a Minister in the early 1990s in what was then the Department of National Heritage, now the Department for Culture-told how someone working on his team had produced a memo. Calcutt had just reported and the memo said, "We can't do anything; we're not going to do anything; we can't say we are not going to do anything; we therefore have to find something to say that sounds as though we're not going to be doing nothing". That is the terrible thing that I feel could easily happen here again. We must not descend again. I would like the Minister-who, as everyone has said, has a great track record on this-to reassure us that he is not going to allow this to become the purview yet again of those masters of the universe who happen to run some sections of our press.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, there will be a test tomorrow. If tomorrow's newspapers and editorials follow the lines suggested by the noble Baroness, I-and, I hope, the noble Lord, Lord Black, and anyone who has influence on it-will say that our media have misjudged horrendously the public mood and the public disgust at their behaviour. It is simply not good enough to wave the flag that it will be a state-controlled press and Russia and Turkey will be pleased at what we are doing, when manifestly that is not the case. That would be really sad.

There is also a responsibility on us. I do not mind the odd bit of knockabout, and I might remind the other side of its record in this area at some points in this questioning, but the responsibility of the three parties that have had experience of government is immense. This is our chance, a chance that may not come again, and it would be a betrayal if we did not take it.

Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in that precise context, does my noble friend agree that those in the press who have so overplayed their hand in their pre-emptive bombardment of Leveson, in the hope that we would somehow put it aside, have woefully misjudged both the public mood and the seriousness of the problem that confronts them, to which Lord Leveson has provided such a balanced reply?

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour

My Lords, the Minister spoke about the vulnerable, the innocent and poor people. Undoubtedly the issues that such people face will be complex and they will need help. Will the noble Lord undertake that, in suitable cases, legal aid will be available to them?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I suspect that legal aid would be available. However, this is not the evening to discuss that issue.

Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench

My Lords, can the Minister suggest an appropriate and achievable timetable to scrutinise Lord Justice Leveson's proposals for legislative action? Can he reassure the House that the case for legislation to underpin independent self-regulation will not simply be referred to another committee?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I most sincerely hope not. As I said earlier, all-party talks started, as I understand it, at five o'clock. When I had the pleasure earlier today of sitting in on a meeting between the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, there were both clearly determined that this issue would be pressed with all possible urgency. It will not run into the sand or go into the long grass, and the sooner that the press understand that and respond with a sense of urgency and reality, the better.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, I should declare an interest as chairman of the Cumbrian Newspaper Group, not that that makes me much of a press baron. Will my noble friend confirm that the Government accept Lord Justice Leveson's findings of fact in his report?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I would assume so, although I am not sure whether there is an elephant trap in that. One of the things that have been said by all those who have responded is that they pay tribute to the absolute thoroughness of the work done by Lord Justice Leveson.

Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop

My Lords, I welcome the report. Perhaps I may follow up the aside of the previous speaker and ask where do the press begin and where they end. It is not clear how much printed media there will be in the coming 20 years; increasingly they are going to be in the blogosphere, twittering and whatever, and it seems that, whatever the Government do, they must weigh that very carefully. The problems of the press are increasingly going to be the problems of the paperless media. I would like a reassurance that, in swiftly implementing what the inquiry says, the matter will be given careful thought.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, we are most certainly moving into a new age, but let us be clear: newspapers that publish online are already subject to the same disciplines as the printed versions of those newspapers. As I think we discovered in the Lord McAlpine case, electronic tweeting, e-mails and so on are not protected from the other laws of this land.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

My Lords, I think we should hear from the noble Lord, Lord Whitty.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour

My Lords, there seems to be one dimension that the discussion in this House so far has missed. A truly free press requires diversity of opinion and therefore diversity of ownership. A whole chunk of the recommendations in the report relate to that plurality point. The Government have a great chance. There is a Bill already before this House, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, in which the recommendations made here on media ownership, competition and plurality could be introduced at this stage. Will the noble Lord and, indeed, the Leader of the House prevail upon their colleagues to consider putting them into the Bill?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I will certainly take that suggestion back, and I think that the noble Lord is quite right. Although the Leveson report devotes a relatively small amount of attention to plurality, it throws on our respective Houses and on the Government the responsibility of looking at, monitoring and, if necessary, responding to questions of plurality. I hope that we will take up the challenge posed in the report because, as has been said, this is an industry in technical change and we may find that there are very rapid concentrations of power. We may well need to be able to respond to such concentrations, but whether or not that is done through the noble Lord's suggestions is above my pay grade.

Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I hope I am not alone in expressing my deep sympathies for my noble friend and for the Leader of the House at having to repeat these two Statements in the House because it is surely not the right way to proceed. What really matters are the all-party talks, and I am delighted to hear from my noble friend that they have already started. The danger about these Statements is that they overemphasise the differences within the coalition before the talks have started. That is not the right way. Lord Leveson took a long time to produce a weighty report, so we should treat it seriously and see that it is properly implemented.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

I hear what my noble friend said, but this is one of those dilemmas. In each House, my right honourable friend and I could have sat silently while a Conservative made the points, or we could have done what I think is the sensible thing, which is to set out clearly the attitudes of the three major parties that are going to have responsibility for seeing this through. I think we took the right decision and do not agree with my noble friend.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

On the specific point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, this is a different House from the House of Commons and very different in its procedures. I have agreed with everything that the noble Lord has said so I hope he will forgive me if I ask him: in what capacity was he speaking from the Dispatch Box? Why could he not have done what has been done on a number of previous occasions-the noble Lords, Lord Alderdice, and Lord Dholakia, have done it-and expressed a point of view from the Liberal Democrat Benches? That is what is done in this House, which is different from the other place.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

This House would not then have had the benefit of hearing what my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister said in the other place. I was trying to work out how long the noble Lord and I have known each other. I think it is-

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

So he knows the affection in which I hold him. However, I do not think that this is an issue for the barrack-room lawyers. It is a time for statesmanship in all three parties.

Photo of Lord Elystan-Morgan Lord Elystan-Morgan Crossbench

My Lords, I resist completely any temptation to embarrass the noble Lord in relation to the issue of legal aid, something that I have assiduously sought to do over the past six months, but does the Minister accept that Lord Justice Leveson says in his report that any complaint should be made,

"without cost to the complainant"?

Therefore it does not matter whether that comes from legal aid or some other public purse-there should be that complete freedom and guarantee in this regard.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

As with other parts of the Leveson report, we will have to look at this. However, one of the things that I know is in the report is the suggestion that, rather than a purely legalistic solution, there should be a road for settling complaints against the press that is cost-free.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

We have only had one Conservative speak so I think it should be my noble friend Lord Elton.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, I come back to the involvement of statute. I was 12 years old when the first of the succession of reports on the misconduct of the press was published. I was not old enough to take much interest in it, but I have taken an increasing level of interest in the successive ones. Every report has concluded that the press has undertaken to behave better. I was greatly impressed by the proposals from my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord Black but it comes down to the fact that if their working is dependent on the press fulfilling its undertakings to behave differently, then I hope my noble friend and his right honourable friend will look at the record before deciding how much weight to put on those undertakings.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My noble friend makes a very sound point, and it is extremely good that it comes from someone on the Conservative Benches with such long experience of these matters.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, the Deputy Prime Minister's Statement makes the very important point that the statutory underpinning of the Press Council of Ireland is accepted by those very newspapers that have become so hysterical about the possibility of statutory underpinning in this country. Will the Deputy Leader of the House assure the House that this crucially important point will not be lost in the cross-party discussions that will take place and that the Deputy Prime Minister will stick to his guns on this point?

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat

My Lords, Lord Leveson makes clear recommendations about changes to the framework of the Data Protection Act in terms of eliminating some of the exceptions that currently apply to the media. I note in the Statement repeated by my noble friend that my right honourable friend has certain reservations about that set of recommendations. Is the abuse of personal information not one of the root problems that we have seen during the past few years? Should we not proceed with those changes, particularly in light of the fact that his department would be responsible for making them?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

No, my Lords, we should not proceed with those changes but we should certainly move with speed to see how such changes could and should be implemented. The recommendations on data protection came slightly from left field; I am not sure that anyone was fully aware that Lord Leveson would make suggestions in this area. It is an area where we are discussing matters in a European context, in terms of revising the European data directive and our own legislation. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Justice and I have already commissioned work within our own department to respond to the Leveson suggestions. As with other parts of the report, we will move forward with all due purpose.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Labour

My Lords, while joining all the speakers who have condemned the attacks on people who are particularly vulnerable at times in their lives, such as the McCanns, and noting the Leveson report's reference to a second inquiry, which cannot be discussed at this stage, will the Minister please confirm that not only the weak and vulnerable but everyone who has the sought the limelight or is in public life should be exempt from anything that is found to be an illegal action?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

Yes, my Lords, I am sure that that is broadly the case. I have just been asked to remind the House, in relation to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones, that the illegal use of data is already against the criminal law. I say in response to the noble Baroness that what we want is a press that respects us all, and for us all to respect that press.

Photo of Baroness Rawlings Baroness Rawlings Conservative

My Lords, Lord Justice Leveson recommends that there should be a new a regulatory body for the press, that it should not be made up of the press, as was the PCC, and that it should not be made up of parliamentarians or Ministers. Who would make up this new independent body? Who would appoint the members? Would they be elected and what role would the judiciary play?

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

These matters will be looked at because they are not prescribed in the report. Although the judiciary must be feeling a little overworked these days because of the number of times we ask them to pick up hot potatoes for us, it is an interesting thought that there may be some judicial role in setting up the body.

The key thing is to emphasise that there is a broad measure of support for this and, I suspect, a broad measure of political determination. There have been views from different places this evening. Although I have occasionally thought that this House could be reformed, I have never been in any doubt that there is a collective wisdom in the House that Governments should draw on, particularly at times like this. On 18 December, we will have a debate on this in the House. The other place contains faster readers and they will have their debate on Monday. The debate on 18 December could-and, knowing this House as I do, will-contain a great detail of experience and wisdom, which will carry us forward on this issue.