My Lords, I speak in support of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and in doing so I declare my interest as chair of the Manchester Arena review. Indeed, it is on this that I would like to speak first as it was referred to in the debate in the other House. I will come back to the noble Baroness’s amendment later. If your Lordships look at the terms of reference of the review, you will find no mention of us looking into the behaviour of the press. However, both the Mayor of Greater Manchester and the review panel were clear from the outset that the experiences of the bereaved families, the injured and others directly affected should be at the heart of the review process. It was through the contributions of those directly affected that the issues of media behaviour emerged.
The panel commissioned the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to support its work. Over 200 contributions were received via the NSPCC, most through email and a dedicated phone line. Members of the panel also met with those directly affected to hear their experiences in person. The panel itself heard from the family and friends of 11 of the 22 people who died. These contributions were made on an individual basis. They were strictly confidential apart from the need, should it arise, to share them with the coroner. I salute their enormous courage in reliving that experience in order that we might learn for the future. On a personal level, I felt truly humbled by their contributions.
Most of the participants who commented on their experiences of the media in the aftermath of the attack were negative. People talked about being hounded and bombarded; about having to force their way through scrums of reporters at hospitals who “wouldn’t take no for an answer”. Specific mention was made of photos being sneakily taken through the glass windows at the Etihad Stadium, when the families were being given news of their bereavement. Several people told of the physical presence of crews outside their homes. One mentioned the forceful attempt by a reporter to gain access through their front door by ramming a foot in the doorway. There were at least two examples of impersonation.
I personally heard from a family whose daughter was visited by a reporter at their home and given condolences on the death of her brother, while her parents were at the Etihad stadium waiting to hear the news. This took place on the morning following the attack. The families were not told that their son was likely to be among the fatalities until later that day. In another case I heard I was told of an injured member of a family being rung on her mobile by a journalist while in a hospital ward recovering from multiple operations to deal with her injuries. I could go on, but noble Lords can read the account for themselves in chapter 2 of our report.
It is important to say that a number of families spoke in praise of the sympathetic reporting, particularly by the Manchester Evening News, but also by other papers local to the bereaved. But overall, the panel were shocked and dismayed by these accounts. To have experienced such intrusive and overbearing behaviour at a time of such enormous vulnerability seemed to us to be completely unacceptable. By any measure, these actions fell well below the standards set out in the editors’ code of conduct.
The report does not name individual publications or news channels. This is because neither we nor the families concerned where in a position to confirm, when a journalist said they were from a particular publication, that this was indeed the case. Nor have there been many individual complaints to IPSO. The level of trauma experienced by these families, which they were still living with when I met them, meant that even if they were aware of the opportunity to complain to IPSO, the reality is that that was very unlikely to happen. Their focus, quite rightly, was not on press intrusion but on coping with family tragedy—something that consumes most if not all of the time and energy available to them. But I am in no doubt that a number of journalists, albeit a minority, behaved very badly towards these very vulnerable families and it is highly unlikely that they were all from foreign media.
In contrast to the fire and rescue service and Vodafone, which immediately issued full apologies on the issues we raised, the response from IPSO and other representative organisations to our media findings was very disappointing. To his credit, though, the chair of IPSO, Sir Alan Moses, has in subsequent correspondence with me acknowledged the seriousness of the issues and IPSO has produced an action plan to address our recommendations.
It was not the role of the review’s report to comment on the wider ramifications for the press. Our focus was on what specific action could be taken to prevent this happening again. But there is a real relevance to our debate because it points to the fact that, whatever improvements have been made in recent years, real issues still remain about the behaviour of the press, and in significant parts of the press there is still denial about these issues. I should say that I am a passionate believer in the independence of the press and its importance in a free society. Indeed, to the annoyance of some of my colleagues in central and local government, I argued forcefully against new proposed restrictions to the Freedom of Information Act being put forward by the then Minister for the Cabinet Office, one Matt Hancock. It is certainly the first and probably the last time I will receive a favourable comment on the front page of the Daily Mail.
This love of papers was imbued in me from an early age. One of my father’s personal treats at the weekend was to buy a couple of extra newspapers to read. He always went for papers which did not reflect his particular views so that he could get a rounded picture. My love of newspapers, inherited from him, is not conditioned by whether or not they say kind things about me or even this House. If the price of having a free press is for noble Lords to put up with being described as “ripe for the abattoir”, that is a price worth paying. However, that licence cannot and should not be extended to ordinary members of the public who are vulnerable and not in a position to respond.
I understand and share the concern about the intense financial pressure on our newspapers, particularly local ones. I also recognise the wider concerns about how we have a fact-free system working in social media. In the end, though, I support the establishment of an inquiry, as proposed in the amendment, because a promise was made by all the main political parties—not just their leaders—that there would be a second phase, and as a general rule I think promises should be kept. It is the clear recommendation of Sir Brian Leveson himself—who ought to be in a position to know whether or not the issues have been addressed—that there should be a second phase. In my view, it is perfectly possible, particularly with the amendments now made, to do this inquiry in a proportionate way that does not put at risk an independent press. Finally, I know from personal experience that, sadly, the issues that gave rise to the proposed second-phase inquiry have not yet been adequately addressed. I urge noble Lords to support the amendment.