Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:55 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Prescott Lord Prescott Labour 5:55 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I offer my congratulations to the three excellent maiden speakers today, who very much reflected their personal experiences, which will clearly be to the advantage of future debates in this House.

I will also make a contribution arising from my personal experiences of press regulation, the setting-up of a royal charter and the Leveson proposals. I agree with the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, earlier and his criticism of how long the process has taken and the opposition of the press to any form of change. This was reflected in an excellent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on the first day of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Both noble Lords expressed the view that the media were not prepared to co-operate in the way they believed the media should. There has now been such a long debate.

As a privy counsellor, I confess that I think that the role of the royal charter and of privy counsellors is at the heart of what we have to discuss today. There seems to be a general belief that somehow the Privy Council and the royal charter should not be involved in political controversy: that whatever they recommend to the Crown, the Crown will accept. However, that will not be the proposal now as we have two royal charters. Decisions have to be taken, and they have to be taken by the Privy Council.

I am not sure how this practice will work. I do not suppose that I will be one of the selected few sent to discuss the whole business of press regulation with the Queen. I presume the Cabinet will appoint the people who will sit on the Privy Council. That happened under the previous Administration; it is the normal process. However, it raises the very interesting point about whether they have a political view in making a decision on the different royal charters before us—another issue that I shall address.

My concern has been very much increased by the virulent opposition, referred to in earlier speeches, of the press. They do not accept that others can have a different view. They use the power of the media to attack anyone who holds a different view from them. That is totally unacceptable, quite apart from the other activities for which over 100 journalists have been arrested, the top press management being accused of conspiracy and all sorts of crimes and illegal acts. Let the courts decide how they will deal with that, but this does not sound to me like a press that has been reformed by their experience. They somehow do not believe that there needs to be any change. Indeed, the press’s royal charter is exactly what they want: to remain as they are. What they object to, quite clearly, is any statutory framework.

I am a bit curious about that. Since I have been in this House—and it has only been a short time—I have seen the press coming here asking for statutory privileges to protect them from damages and against legal aid. They require the law for that, and we have gone along with them, as much as we might have disagreed. They are therefore not necessarily against statutory frameworks in principle. Indeed, it is curious to note that they co-operated in Ireland where they own papers and where there is government control in a way: a Minister who decides who is on the regulatory body for press freedom. The press have signed up for that. How can they believe that it is all right in Ireland but not over here? They are the same papers, with the editors taking the decisions. All this business about them not accepting a statutory framework is nonsense.

The Defamation Act 2013 strengthens the press’s position because they want their damages reduced. They do not like having to pay a lot of money for offences that have been committed. We have made it better for them. We have made legal aid better for them, so that people cannot easily get legal aid to seek justice in the courts. All these things we have done for our media. They are not against a statutory framework; they do not like the idea of a statutory framework which they think would disadvantage them. They want to be able to judge what is in the public interest and what is right. Indeed, they even challenge the judges when they make a judgment on human rights. They say that it is the job of the editors to make decisions about public interest. I am bound to say that the record does not show that they are very fair about that.

When we get down to it, the Defamation Act and the latest changes, brought about by actions in this House, make it clear that there will be more accountability and that the damages that we are talking about will now apply to the press, whether they welcome the regulation or not. We have actually brought in a statutory framework, so for all the talk about there not being a statutory framework, we can say that we have one which the House has passed. It will apply whether the press join the royal charter or not. It is therefore nonsense to talk about there being no statutory framework. That is just part of the smoke that is being thrown up by them.

I am no fan of royal charters. Frankly, you cannot, as a democrat—I say that sitting in this place, but let me leave that aside—believe in a royal charter because it overrules and bypasses Parliament. However, another change that we have now made, which I welcome, is that if there is to be any change to a future royal charter, the agreement of two-thirds of this House and the other place is needed. That means that more political accountability has now been put on the royal charters. It is not privy counsellors getting together, having a little chat, passing a note to the Queen and then saying, “That’s the law”. No, we are now going to have a say and we therefore have extended political accountability, which should be welcome. Again, the framework is involved.

Now that there are two different concepts, two different royal charters, someone has to make a decision. Does anyone believe that that will not be politically controversial? There is the charter produced by the press, which is clearly different, certainly as regards a statutory framework, from the other one produced by this Parliament. This Parliament has decided overwhelmingly that it wants a statutory underpinning. It does not like to say that it is statutory because that is like forcing something on the press. However, if you leave the language aside, we have indeed established a statutory framework.

Therefore, when the council meets, it will consider which charter it wants to accept. Two charters means that a decision has to be taken. I assume that whoever the privy counsellors are they will include members of the Government. Even the Secretary of State for Culture must be involved in that process. Is that Secretary of State likely to vote for the press charter? I hope not, but if that happened that would be defying what Parliament had agreed, would it not? Why would the council judge the press one first? Because the press nipped in quickly and got that position. Now the council has to make a decision. That will be political, whatever we say about it. Even if you ignore the press charter, will the press believe that you have been fair? Will Parliament’s charter be accepted? Even if the Queen had to decide on these matters, and one does not want to put her in that position, would she then say, “I do not support the parliamentary one”, given the overwhelming majority? I do not think so. It would certainly be politically controversial.

In conclusion, my concern is the actions of the press themselves. They are still showing their bitter opposition. Remember that their proposal does not come from a majority. Not all the papers have agreed to it. Only the very people who have committed all the offences have got together and do not want to be stopped. They want to keep things in their present form. What are they doing? They are already threatening that if their charter is not accepted, they will continue to oppose the other charter. That would be politically controversial. They also propose to take the matter to a judicial inquiry. They are, as I understand it, going to take on the Crown in the courts against our proposal. That is very interesting.

What really gets under my skin is that the papers and editors have campaigned, day after day, to get rid of the European Convention on Human Rights. Now they are going to go to the European Court of Human Rights citing Article 10 on the freedom of information and the protection of private rights. I do not suppose that they will use Section 2, only Section 1.

I say to the Government: have you thought of a plan B? Perhaps I should not say “plan B” because they do not like it. We have to face up to our obligation, which is to carry out what Parliament decided. That means that the only alternative is statutory legislation. We should be absolutely clear about that. Giving in again is exactly what we have always done on press regulation—give in, give in, give in. Politicians go for delay. As they get near an election, they get nervous about what papers are going to do. We should not let them do the same thing. Now is the time for change. Now is the time to pass what Parliament has decided and to say to the media, as is the case for every other organisation in this country, “You have some responsibility under a regulated framework”.