Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:30 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Prescott Lord Prescott Labour 10:30 pm, 8th February 2017

My Lords, I support the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. We have been in similar situations on previous legislation regarding the matter of Section 40. The noble Baroness said that she had an interest to declare. I declare that I gave evidence to Leveson about the phone tapping that the police and press did on my phone—so if that is an interest, I record it.

The important point today, though, is that we are not talking about creating a new piece of legislation; we are talking about implementing what both Houses of Parliament agreed is the law of the land. The only thing preventing the implementation of that section of the Crime and Courts Act is the fact that the Government are not prepared to implement the regulation necessary to see it implemented. In earlier debates—I quite understand why—I heard Ministers say, “This isn’t the appropriate piece of legislation”. They were probably right, but the relevant legislation has already been passed. It was agreed unanimously by both Houses of Parliament but for one reason or another the Government are refusing to implement it.

I received a letter today from Christopher Jefferies—now a well-known person to us all—asking if I would be attending this debate. In it he said:

“As you may know, I was a victim of gross press intrusion and libel after my tenant Joanna Yeates’ tragic death in 2010. Some newspapers effectively accused me of her murder, and made other appallingly false allegations and insinuations. I subsequently gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry”.

He is one of many who cannot understand why—if Parliament has passed this legislation and it was agreed unanimously, by all party leaders and the Prime Minister—we do not implement it, why there is a refusal to do so. I know that I am likely to be told, “We have started a process of consultation; the department is looking at the Leveson proposals”, but I cannot give an answer to Mr Jefferies or any of the others, although I have a suspicion that the influence on the Government is coming from the Murdoch press, which is quite central to all this and which has—as noble Lords will have seen in the papers—many meetings with senior Ministers. A meeting between Murdoch and Thatcher led to his buying the Times, and a recent meeting between Murdoch and May in New York led to the reconsideration of the Leveson proposals that are embodied in the royal charter.

I did not agree with the royal charter at the time—although the proposals were embodied in it—but there was a fear that unless the press could be assured that there was no political interference, they would oppose it. Even when we brought in the royal charter, I felt that we were we involving the Queen in the process and, now that there is divided opinion on it, when it comes back to the House to be repealed, it is the Queen’s charter we will have to throw out. That is one of the difficulties of going down that road, which I made clear at the time. Indeed, I went further: I resigned my right honourable membership of the Privy Council, simply because I thought the process was wrong.

So what we are discussing today is not only whether Section 40 can be implemented but whether the Leveson proposals as a whole are likely to come about. His main recommendation, to which the noble Baroness of course referred, was an independent press council. It is clear from all the evidence, as we saw during the inquiry, that the previous Press Council, owned and indeed financed by the press, did not in any way act independently. The new one is IPSO—but I would leave out “independent”, because under the royal charter, or even under Leveson’s proposals, you had to go to the press regulation body to determine whether it was independent. Yet IPSO is not prepared to go through that. When I heard Judge Moses, who is now the chairman of IPSO, being questioned on Radio 4 recently as to why IPSO would not seek a definition of independence, he said that it was because of political interference, as he saw it. That was the very reason we had the royal charter.

When we look at press regulation in Ireland, I have to ask the Government how it is that all the English newspapers in our press council—the Times, the Express, the Sun—are subject to press accountability and regulation in Ireland. Who is in charge of that? It is the Minister of Justice. I cannot think that there could be more political accountability, from the point of view of the press. Is the Minister’s departmental inquiry looking at the consequences of the press regulation the papers have signed up to and are co-operating with in Ireland? I hope it is, because that then poses the question of why they are opposing it here when they are readily co-operating in Ireland. I have not heard anyone suggest that in Ireland, they are subject to less democracy or freedom, or control of the press. Can the Minister tell us whether, following the inquiry—which is now closed; I gave evidence to it—they are intending to look at that alternative press system in Ireland?

That system goes further than we intended with the royal charter. We deliberately wanted not to involve people from the press in control of politicians. I accepted that argument, but why do the press go around saying they cannot accept this proposal, which does not go as far as Ireland’s, and readily sign up in Ireland? It is a proper question, and I hope the Minister can tell us that that matter is being looked at, and, when we get the consultation, he can then say, “We have looked at this,” and give us a judgment. Actually, it goes a lot further than Section 40, but it would be useful to hear what the Government have to say.

Undoubtedly, this is going to come back, and all this consultation is just the first move to abolishing the royal charter and any accountability of the press. The press has had about seven public inquiries over about 70 years, and all the recommendations say we should have some form of statutory framework. Every time this has been opposed by the press, and it has never been implemented, but now Parliament has a responsibility to Mr Jefferies and others to ask, “Why, if you agreed it, was it difficult to disagree four years ago—or can you now back out of it because it is not so unpopular?” That is the judgment in this consultation. I have to say it is looking very likely that they will lose if they try to rid us of the Leveson proposals.

As one of those who suffered from abuse by the press, frankly, I do not think they have changed a great deal. If you look in the papers, if you look at their involvement, they are still up to many of the things they used to do. This independent—so they say—press council is supposed to hold them accountable to some extent. In the Radio 4 interview it was very interesting to listen to the chairman trying to defend the press committee and the press code. His independent body was not really independent—the majority were people from the press itself.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister can give us at least some indication that the department is looking at Irish press accountability, and will give us a judgment as to which approach they prefer and the recommendations they intend to make.