Amendment 83

Media Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 22 May 2024.

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Baroness Hollins:

Moved by Baroness Hollins

83: Clause 50, page 115, line 32, at beginning insert “Section 40 of”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is consequential on another amendment in my name which seeks to provide the same protection against court costs for a journalist working for a publisher which was a member of an approved regulator as would be enjoyed by the publisher.

Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench

My Lords, I will also speak to Amendments 84 to 86 in my name, and my comments will be relevant to other amendments in the group to which I have added my name.

At the heart of these amendments are the recommendations of the Leveson report, which followed a 12-month public inquiry ordered by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, in 2011. I received clarifications from Sir Brian Leveson that are highly relevant to the debate, and I will share them with the Committee before I speak to the details of my amendment. First, I declare an interest in that I gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry about the personal and family impact of unacceptable behaviour by the media, and I am co-party to a civil claim against a newspaper group about alleged hacking of personal data. The claim is at the pretrial disclosure stage.

The Leveson report recommendations aimed to balance press freedom with the rights of the public. The chair of the inquiry, then Lord Justice Leveson, proposed a new regulatory framework that was independent of political influence and would protect people affected by press wrongdoing. Although some legislative progress was made, those recommendations have been returned to repeatedly in this place over the past 10 years, with some noble Lords asserting seriously flawed arguments against reform—for example, that Lord Justice Leveson proposed state regulation or that his recommendations would imperil the survival of news publishers.

Sir Brian Leveson himself has never publicly responded to those arguments. I wrote to Sir Brian to put these oft-repeated arguments against reform directly to him. I was grateful to receive a detailed reply from him and, furthermore, I am grateful that he has agreed that I and other noble Lords might quote him in Committee today. I have put this correspondence into the hands of the independent body established by the royal charter, the Press Recognition Panel. It is now available on the Press Recognition Panel website for those interested to read it in full. It is an extremely helpful letter that forensically takes apart falsity after falsity. First, Sir Brian makes it clear that the principle behind Section 40 did not originate from campaigners or politicians but was inspired by the testimony of a national newspaper editor. He describes testimony from a national newspaper editor who could see merit in a framework that encouraged parties to seek out low-cost arbitration, rather than the vast expense of court proceedings, and how this could protect publishers from rich and powerful litigants and, at the same time, protect ordinary people from rich and powerful publishers.

That is the symmetry of protection that lies behind Section 40. Some noble Lords, even speaking on behalf of the Government, have claimed that Section 40 would force publishers to pay costs, win or lose. But Sir Brian explains in his letter that this is not true. Other noble Lords will cover this point in greater detail, but I am going to quote briefly from his letter. He says:

“Neither my recommendation (nor, as I read it, s. 40) ‘forces’ news publications to pay costs when they win”, and

“the Act does not require an adverse award of costs against a successful organ of the press which is not a member of an approved regulator”.

I put to him the argument made by some that the recognition system constitutes state regulation. He replied:

“I simply do not understand how this assertion can be made”.

He continues:

“As I understand it, the Royal Charter was specifically designed to ensure independence—independence of the press and independence of politicians”.

He then concludes that

“the suggestion that it is some kind of ‘state regulator’ of the press flies in the face of all that it was set up to do”.

Another argument commonly made is that the problems the inquiry addressed are now out of date. Sir Brian is scathing on this point. He says:

“My Inquiry was set up … to make recommendations inter alia for a new more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press … while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards. Allegations of libel, invasions of privacy, misuse of personal data remain equally as relevant today and are as pressing as ever”.

I conclude from that that the reason that national newspapers are opposed to the Leveson recommendations is because they are opposed to the principle of accountability. It was never about political interference nor the financial risk to publishers, objections which Sir Brian Leveson confirms in writing have no basis in fact.

My Amendments 83, 84, 85 and 86 would allow the partial repeal of Section 40. They would ensure that publishers inside an independent regulator would be protected from vexatious litigation while allowing the part of Section 40 which would disadvantage unregulated newspapers to be repealed. In other words, these amendments would retain the carrot of Section 40—that is, the protection it affords regulated publishers—while dispensing with that element which would provide access to justice for victims of press wrongdoing to which national news publishers so vehemently object. It is a heavy compromise, designed to meet concerns of the national press that many of us find somewhat disingenuous. However, given the Conservative Party manifesto commitment to repeal Section 40, it is a way, perhaps, of ensuring that we can still make some progress. If my amendments are accepted, there will be no detriment whatsoever to the interests of the national press, even if it declines to join an independent regulator.

In addition, my amendments support regulated, independent and local newspapers in addressing the threat of vexatious litigation known as SLAPPs. If His Majesty’s Government oppose them, can the Minister explain what specific objection could justify blocking the prospect of such a potent defence against SLAPPs for the local press? Indeed, my amendments go further than Section 40 in protecting press freedom from SLAPPs. They would also protect individual journalists from the threat of litigation where they have written for regulated publishers.

This package of amendments which I am supporting today would introduce unprecedented protection for our free press and the journalists working every day to expose the truth. These amendments would all retain compelling incentives for newspapers to abandon the industry-controlled IPSO and join a genuinely independent and effective regulator instead, and in doing so, they would protect members of the public who have been affected by intrusion, harassment or lies at the hands of the press. They would do so without threatening detriment or disadvantage to any publisher which refused to do so other than the reputational consequences of declining to make themselves accountable for what they publish.

Over 200 local and independent newspapers have sought the protection afforded to them under Section 40 by joining Impress, the independent regulator approved by the Press Recognition Panel. Your Lordships should not be in any doubt: repealing Section 40 in full would undermine the freedoms and interests of local and independent newspapers.

I commend Sir Brian on his intervention. He does not engage with the politics of the matter but has chosen to engage on the accuracy of the debate. He was sufficiently concerned to respond to my letter and to remind us of the facts. I hope that His Majesty’s Government are listening and will take the opportunities offered by these amendments to think again. I hope that the next Government will have higher aspirations for a safer and more ethical culture and an accountable press. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour

My Lords, I speak in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, whose name was to the amendment just so ably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. He had a back procedure this morning, is in great pain and has gone home. As he and I have been comrades in arms on this, I am glad to make myself a poor substitute for the great man.

Since we started this debate on the Bill this afternoon, the whole picture has been dramatically transformed by the Prime Minister’s announcement. There is to be a general election on 4 July. Why so? The Bill cannot complete its parliamentary passage by next Thursday, when the House is dissolved. That has a straightforward consequence: it goes into a procedure—I think it is called wrap-up, or it might be wind-up or whatever.

Noble Lords:


Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour

I thank your Lordships very much. It goes into a procedure, called whatever everybody shouted a minute ago, and the fate of this clause, along with the rest of the Bill, will depend on what arises from that procedure.

I have no insider information whatever on what view my party will take in those negotiations. However, it would be quite bizarre if it permitted this clause to go through unamended. First, it never belonged in this Bill in the first place. It may be that government lawyers ingeniously found ways of claiming that it could be put into this Bill, but it did not belong here. It was on a quite different subject from the rest of the Bill, and it is a great pity that the procedures will now allow it. I hope my party will oppose it rather than let it through.

Secondly, although I cannot say that my party’s line on these matters has been a completely straight line all the way through, in any case it has never come out strongly in support of this thing, so why it could conceivably think of letting it slip through via this procedure without it even having completed its parliamentary stages is quite beyond me.

Therefore, we may have seen the end of this attempt to repeal Section 40, and it will be for the next Government, rightly so, to decide how we are to go forward on press regulation. Of course, it may be the same Government; do I see faces of optimism, and nodding on the Benches opposite? I do not think I do. However, the Minister is loyal to his Government and nods still.

There is another reason why we should oppose this. It is so transparently clear that putting this repeal into the Bill is nothing to do with its merits but all to do with the Government trying to get the support of the press for the election that is now coming—I spoke on that at length at Second Reading. If the Government had a good reason for doing this, you would expect them to have said so. However, the only definitive statement of their position I can find is from the impact assessment on the Bill:

“it was envisaged that news publishers would become members of PRP-approved regulators. However, the vast majority of publishers have not joined a PRP-backed regulator. There now exists a strengthened, independent, self-regulatory system for the press. The government recognises there has been a raising of standards across industry and commencement of s.40 is no longer necessary to improve regulation of publishers”.

That is very thin. Not one word of evidence is given for any of the propositions about the improved performance of the press. It is true that hacking has probably passed its peak, but that is because people have been fined large amounts of money by the courts protecting privacy, not because of anything the Government have done. That is the only reason we get less hacking today than we used to.

At least that proposition makes more sense than the Government’s other argument in the impact assessment, namely that as most publishers have not joined PRP, the section is not needed. That is the exact opposite of the truth. It is needed precisely because most publishers have not joined the PRP and because, without this section remaining on the statute book, the public—so the Government say—can rely on the PRP to be replaced by IPSO. Therefore, if this clause goes through, the public must mostly look to IPSO for redress.

When I say “public”, I do not mean Harry and his friends. They have got the cash. I mean ordinary persons whom the press has harassed and libelled to an extraordinary extent. If I had infinite time, I would go through the long list provided by the PRP in its superb publication on IPSOs performance. It lists individual case after individual case where a member of the public has been left powerless in the face of this gigantic machine designed to approve everything that the press does. I am sorry—the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, will have a chance to talk later—but IPSO is an appalling regulator, a mockery, the substitution of a house-trained regulator for a real regulator.

The PRP’s document deserves close reading. How the press and IPSO treat those who complain is a catalogue of shame. I will not ask everybody to read this long document, because a short one has been made available by the Hacked Off campaign which lists IPSO’s shortcomings more briefly. IPSO does not possess regulatory powers. It is controlled by newspaper executives and not by anyone impartial. It uses a standards code written by newspaper editors. It has never fined a newspaper. It has never launched a standards investigation into a newspaper. It takes five to six months to process the complaints that it receives and upholds precisely 0.3% of them—that is three in 1,000. That is what we have in IPSO.

If the stand part amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, falls later, that deformed body will be the sole protection that those whom the press persecutes can fall back on. Rather, they could go for a legal action on privacy or libel but, unfortunately, that leads to complete inequality of armaments. The complainant does not have the cash; the newspapers do have the cash. Prince Harry can go to court; Joe Soap cannot. The status quo which the Bill preserves is one law for the rich and another for the poor.

I conclude with one observation. There is nothing personal in this; I am a great admirer of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and if we must have a Tory chairing IPSO, I cannot think of anybody who would be better. However, if we go back to Leveson, one of the great fears was that going down this line would create a politicians’ pansy press, because IPSO will invariably back what the press wants it to back.

What is IPSO? One thing we can say is that the noble Lord who chairs it, as is true of previous noble Lords who have chaired it, was a Conservative politician in this House. There are only some things wrong with that; there is not a lot wrong with it, because the noble Lord is perfectly entitled to be. However, it is clear as a bell that it is quite wrong that anybody who is or has in recent years been an active politician should be given the job of regulating the press; I am sure that not many people would take it on that basis. We now have a body whose job is to regulate the press chaired by a man who until recently was a Conservative politician. As I said, it is nothing personal, because there were previous examples, but the ref is wearing the shirt of the team that he is supposed to be officiating over. That alone should move the House to back the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others.

Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Conservative 6:15, 22 May 2024

My Lords, my Amendment 87 is grouped with the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness. I also have Amendments 92 and 94. We have all been somewhat distracted by our mobile telephones concerning the next general election. I have been even more distracted by just having received the result of the 5.30 pm race at Kempton, where my horse came last. I hope that is not an omen for the future.

At Second Reading, I gave a full explanation of why Section 40 should remain on the statute book, so I will now address some of the misconceptions in that debate. It is worth remembering first that the inquiry led by Sir Brian Leveson was concerned that individuals without substantial means caught up in public interest events were unable to seek redress for defamation or unlawful intrusion into their privacy simply because they could not afford to litigate against an all-powerful press. At the core of the inquiry was the importance of the freedom of the press and the vital importance of freedom of expression.

At Second Reading, it was claimed that creation by royal charter is state control. It is the opposite. Royal charter was designed specifically to ensure independence for the press and independence from politicians. The Press Recognition Panel’s charter can be amended only by a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament. That is rather a high bar. I cannot see any way that it could ever be amended and for those three bodies to agree.

Sir Brian Leveson came to a meeting organised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. It was extremely useful and helpful to hear what he had to say, particularly on Section 40. One thing he said was:

“It is important to underline that the Act does not require an adverse award of costs against a successful organ of the press which is not a member of an approved regulator (or indeed against an individual—oligarch or otherwise—who does not avail himself or herself of available arbitration provided by an approved regulator”.

In the Act, Section 40(3)(b) clearly allows the judge, where

“it is just and equitable in all the circumstances of the case to make a different award of costs or make no award of costs”.

Sir Brian concluded that this provision deals with so-called SLAPP litigation fairly and appropriately, thereby providing a way of defeating an oligarch intent on pursuing aggressive expensive litigation in an effort to silence criticism.

The second contention, repeated by my noble friend the Minister, was that Section 40 could stop publication of stories for fear of being taken to court and having to pay both sides’ costs. Sir Brian and the noble Baroness have addressed this issue. Sir Brian said:

“Section 40 does not force news publications to pay costs when they win. The recommendation encouraged news publications to establish an independent arbitration mechanism to resolve disputes which would then protect them from those intent on going to court in SLAPP type legislation while also allowing those without means who have been libelled or whose privacy has been invaded to seek redress without incurring vast costs which could not be afforded”.

Therefore, failure to attempt mediation can be taken into account in cost arguments. Sir Brian added:

“In any event, as I recommended, there is an overarching discretion so that the judge can reach a just and equitable resolution of any costs issue”.

Section 40 does not threaten small publishers who would not be able to fight libel and privacy cases. The reason to join a recognised self-regulator is to allow small publishers to offer an arbitration and therefore protect themselves from adverse orders for costs if expensive litigation was chosen in an effort to force them to retract irrespective of the merits of the case.

It is clear that those without financial means are unable to take on the press. However seriously they have been defamed or their privacy has been invaded, they are denied a remedy. We have seen how many millions have been paid in damages against those who have been able to take on newspapers; we do not see the ones that have not been able to. We saw the case recently of a famous actor who had to withdraw a case because of the threat of costs.

They do not get a chance of redress, and certainly do not get one from IPSO. Section 40 provides a warning to wrongdoers to behave; take it away and I believe we will be back to a free-for-all. I believe that my noble friend Lord Black is wrong when he says that Section 40 would be holding a gun to the head of the free and independent press and claims that it would be incompatible with our commitments to the ECHR—as much as I often dislike that court. I do not think Section 40 impinges on press freedom. It is quite the reverse; it protects the citizen and protects the press.

I am afraid IPSO has not worked as well as it should. It is too similar to its predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission. It has never investigated or fined a newspaper; it lacks independence and, many say, effectiveness. It is important that Section 40 provides a useful deterrent that works. The final argument used against it is that it was a manifesto commitment, as my noble friend the Minister quite rightly said. But we have had three Prime Ministers since that manifesto, and most of them totally ignored the manifesto commitments of their predecessors.

Photo of Lord Watson of Wyre Forest Lord Watson of Wyre Forest Labour 6:30, 22 May 2024

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and say to him that, while he unwisely backed the wrong horse, I know he is a very skilled and wise politician—too skilled to back the outcome of an election on day one. As I will talk about transparency today, I should declare an interest to the Committee, albeit a left field one: I am a current claimant in a voicemail interception litigation against News Group Newspapers.

To add to the surreal nature of this debate, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, I will address directly the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, on the wash-up. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was a fantastic substitute for the noble Lord, Lord McNally, whom we wish well with his back procedure, particularly because he appears to be the only senior leader of any political party who has shown spine in this basket of amendments. I hope to convince both Front Benches to follow in the footsteps of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, this evening.

It is appropriate to ask both Front Benches whether they intend to follow the convention of Parliament to not rush through controversial clauses in Bills in the wash-up procedure. We are probably all united in the Committee that, whatever we think about Clause 50, it is certainly controversial. I will offer two other arguments about why we should proceed with caution in the wash-up procedure on this. First, much of the Bill will interfere with a regulated market, and in doing that we owe it to the consumers and providers within that regulated market to give full parliamentary scrutiny at all stages. I warn the Front Benches that the last time I remember Parliament deciding to interfere with regulatory matters in a wash-up was in 2005 with the Gambling Act, of which the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, will be aware. Some 20 years later, we are still dealing with the consequences of that rushed-through legislation. There is a third reason why we should proceed with caution in the wash-up. To add to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about washing up: the electors now have us under the microscope, and if these clauses and amendments are rushed through by the Front Benches of both main parties, they will be airing their dirty linen in the wash-up, and that is a terrible start to a general election.

I have had sight of the letter from Sir Brian Leveson, quoted in this debate by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and others, and I can confirm that it is damning about the disingenuous arguments employed by the opponents of reform on this issue—and, it must be said, the Government. I speak to this group of amendments to make the case that, despite two manifesto pledges, in light of recent evidence not easily available to the Government at the time, the Government should pause to reflect on their proposal of Clause 50.

Many failures have been attributed to IPSO in this debate. I add one other: it failed to protect ordinary people thrust into the media spotlight after a bereavement. IPSO was recently found by the independent Press Recognition Panel to be failing children and the victims of crime caught up in newsworthy events. The Press Recognition Panel was set up by royal charter, under a system backed by all parties in both Houses where there is no input whatever from politicians in its appointment. It is far more independent than Ofcom or any other regulator. Do not forget that IPSO members are appointed by a panel that it appoints itself, and it is chaired by a former Government Minister. The IPSO board also has former editors appointed by the industry who have the power to veto, just like the old PCC. It is no wonder, then, that it sits idly by while some newspapers are still neck deep in disinformation, inaccuracy, intrusion and the monstering of innocent individuals.

As noble Lords have said, in its 10-year history IPSO has done a total of zero investigations of the type that Ofcom does all the time, and thus there have never been any sanctions—no investigations and no sanctions ever. It is true that the PCC did not have the power to investigate; IPSO has been given that power but has never used it. Nobody is holding these hugely powerful people to account. They do exactly as they like, with scant respect for basic human decencies, let alone their own codes, and there are no consequences. They have no predators, and that cannot be good for our country.

We know that some newspapers were hacking the phones not only of well-known people and their friends, employees and relatives but of murder victims and politicians, not because of some tip-off of corruption or wrongdoing but for two reasons, neither of which has a shred of public interest justification. The first of these was to sell newspapers: the privacy of thousands of people was sold for profit by newspapers systematically. The second was to manipulate politicians, as we appear to be seeing in the wash-up of this process today.

We now know that serious allegations have been made against News UK that members of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, including me, were hacked while it was investigating the company from 2009 to 2011. Gordon Brown has recently said that he believes he was hacked while Prime Minister and, even more egregiously, that News Corporation claimed, absurdly, that he and I were involved in conspiracy to acquire stolen company emails, which was why it deleted millions of emails and scratched its back-up disks during the police reinvestigation in 2011. Some newspaper groups have treated Parliament, the Leveson inquiry, the public and their own readers with contempt, and no one can have any confidence that IPSO, just a rebranded version of the discredited PCC, has the powers, or even the inclination, to identify and expose wrongdoing such as phone hacking or illegally obtaining private medical information or itemised phone records.

There is another serious issue that has come to light since Parliament set up Section 40: the way that some newspaper groups were found to have misled Parliament or lied to a public inquiry—or stand accused of doing so—and appear to have done so with impunity thus far. In the recent judgment of the High Court in the case of the Duke of Sussex and others v Mirror Group Newspapers, which is now owned by Reach plc, the judge found that members of the board and then legal department egregiously knew about, concealed and allowed to continue the industrial-scale criminal hacking and blagging that took place from the mid-1990s until at least the end of 2011—that is, during the Leveson inquiry and the Select Committee inquiries themselves.

The legal department was found to have lied to Leveson, and the evidence in the 2023 trial was rejected by the judge, who also found that the editors at the time knew about wrongdoing and concealed it—“without doubt”, in his words—and many lied to the Leveson inquiry.

As for News UK, in 2011, it was exposed as having lied for years, claiming that phone hacking was by only one rogue reporter on the news desk in 2005 and 2006. It was found in 2014, the year after the legislation that we are proposing to repeal today, that from 2000 to 2006 the whole news desk and the features desk were involved.

In 2014, after a public inquiry and passing that Bill, we learned that scores of people who had been convicted in stings by Mazher Mahmood, the “fake sheikh”, could have been innocent, when the trial of Tulisa Contostavlos collapsed and he was later convicted of trying to frame her. Dozens of his victims are appealing their convictions, and many bring hacking claims. Mr Mahmood was instructed to tail me for days when I served on the committee that started investigating phone hacking.

In 2016, the Privileges Committee of the Commons found that two senior executives had lied to the CMS Select Committee. Only yesterday, the managing judge in the News UK and News Corp hacking litigation allowed amendments to the claimants’ case to allege—these allegations are currently untested and denied or not admitted—that two very senior executives and several others lied to the Leveson inquiry and gave misleading evidence to Parliament.

I could go on, but I hope I have demonstrated that the suggestion that the press has cleaned up its act is for the birds, and that there remains a rotten core to many of our newspapers and a culture of impunity when it comes to their illegal behaviour.

For those reasons, I have tabled Amendment 87A and support the others in this group. They are compromises, all intended to move us closer to universal press membership of an effective, independent regulator which would protect the public from press wrongdoing in all its forms. Amendment 87A would introduce a new right of reply for the British public against misrepresentations in the press where the publisher is not a member of a truly independent and effective regulator.

Photo of Lord Watts Lord Watts Labour

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that speech from someone who has had direct contact with the media over many years and has been abused by them himself, but there are many other people who have been abused in a similar way. I support this group of amendments, but I must be clear that I would prefer Section 40 to be maintained and to cover the issues that we are all addressing now. It is better than nothing, but it is not really the sort of protection that we should offer the public.

The press barons say that there is no need for regulation. They point to IPSO and the courts, and ordinary people are supposed to use one of those organisations. Quite frankly, as we have heard, IPSO offers no protection. In the investigations it has carried out, 0.3% cases are upheld, so the accountability is non-existent there. It can fine up to £1 million, but it has not fined anybody so far. It is quite clear that it is not effective for anyone who has a case of abuse.

I will not talk about celebrities, but I will talk about a woman called Mandy Garner. I have done this before and will again. Mandy’s daughter, unfortunately, was the subject of a hit-and-run accident. That is a tragic affair anyway, but it was made worse when the Daily Mail got involved. It sent a reporter down to the area and secured CCTV coverage of the child’s death from one of the shopkeepers. It then carried the story and put the link to that child’s death online for its readers. When Mandy objected to that and took a complaint to IPSO, it told her to go and see the Daily Mail. She contacted it and, after six months, she had made no progress with her case at all and went back to the regulator. She told it that she was even more stressed out now because she had made no progress whatever over six months. What did IPSO say to that woman? It told her that, if she was stressed, perhaps she should drop the case and not proceed with it. That shows the level of independent calculation going on with that body.

We need protection not for celebrities, because they can go to court and can afford to spend millions of pounds on legal fees, as we have heard, but for Mandy and many hundreds of people like her who cannot. I ask the Minister, the Government and our Front Bench this: what protection are they going to give to the public—to a future Mandy? Quite frankly, in what is proposed today, there is no protection for Mandy and people like her. It is a disgrace on Parliament that politicians are bullied and threatened to act in a way that is counterproductive to having justice in our society.

Photo of Lord Black of Brentwood Lord Black of Brentwood Conservative

My Lords, it will not surprise many colleagues to hear that I oppose this group of amendments. I declare my interest as deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group and director of a regulatory funding company, and I note my other interests as set out in the register. I have been very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for taking the time and trouble to talk these amendments and other issues through with me, and for his ongoing commitment to constructive dialogue, which I welcome. I wish him well and hope that he is better soon.

I will have some specific comments to make about Amendment 87A, but the main reason that I am opposed to everything in the group is that all the amendments derive their terms of authority from the concept of an approved regulator. That concept is something that I, as I have made clear many times in this House, find abhorrent and anathema to any concept of a free society, because, whatever Sir Brian Leveson may now say, the approval derives its authority from the state. I know that there will always be those who resort to sophistry to claim that the method of approval through the Press Recognition Panel is apparently independent of the Government but, in my view, that is plain nonsense. The concept of approval is set out in legislation: the Press Recognition Panel derives its authority from a royal charter, the terms of which are set by the Privy Council, the ultimate expression of state power and authority. It also receives taxpayers’ money, so it is in part funded by the state and therefore in part accountable to it. It is a state body. Regulators that seek approval from it are therefore irrefutably state-approved, and that is repugnant in a free society.

The press can never be free of the state in any form, whether Parliament, Government, Privy Council or a faux-recognition body doing their bidding if it is involved in any way in content regulation. That is why successive post-war Governments of all political colours, dating back from the Attlee Government in response to the first Royal Commission on the Press in 1947, have, for 65 years, up until Leveson, backed self-regulation by the industry. Section 40 and the introduction of the concept of approved regulation sought to change that by introducing the first form of what is, in effect, licensing since 1695. Fortunately, better sense has prevailed since that legislation was rushed through Parliament without scrutiny or consultation. We have looked into the abyss and decided not to fall into it. That is why Section 40 must go in its entirety. Whether it be carrots or sticks, the approval of content regulation of a free press is alien to a free society and the proper functioning of parliamentary democracy.

Amendments 84 and 85, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, seek, perversely, to retain the incentive for publishers to join a state regulator, while repealing the provision that would effectively bankrupt publishers that print the truth. But even this leaves publishers with an insidious choice between shielding themselves from government influence and limited protection from SLAPPs. As the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and I have discussed, it is of course right that Parliament takes an interest in press regulation; no one disputes that. If noble Lords or Members in the other place want to have that debate, let us do so, but this Bill is not the place for it. This is an important Bill, and it is important that it goes through in the wash-up in its entirety, including the Government’s manifesto commitments.

The media world has moved on in every possible way since the Crime and Courts Act 2013. The way in which the press operates and is regulated has fundamentally changed, and its long-term future is probably under greater threat than ever before. We need to get rid of Section 40, lock, stock and barrel, and not keep it lurking in the dark like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, as these amendments would do.

A whole host of international press freedom organisations, including the authoritative Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Global Witness, and English PEN, have pointed out another reason for getting rid of Section 40 now: the signal it sends throughout the world. In a statement released yesterday, they said:

“Repressive regimes will be sent a clear message that the UK stands squarely behind freedom of speech. Freedom of speech with no strings attached. That message is critically important in the uncertain and dangerous world we all now live in … Never again must the UK go down this dangerous road”.

I want to say a particular word about Amendment 87A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Wyre Forest. I must admit that I was slightly surprised to see that he has put an amendment down relating to, in effect, a statutory right of reply to inaccuracies, given his own track record. Those he falsely accused of crimes —with stunning inaccuracy, to put it mildly—never had a right of reply.

I do not think any serious proposals in this area have been put forward since the mid-1980s, when our former colleague Lord Soley introduced them in a Private Member’s Bill. There is probably a good reason for that. Since 1990, there have been mechanisms for the redress of inaccuracies through a system of independent self-regulation, operating under a tough code of practice, on top of the laws of defamation. Today, IPSO has a strong record of getting inaccuracies corrected in a timely and prominent manner, along with an apology if appropriate. Furthermore, there already exist carefully delineated circumstances where the law provides for a right of reply—for example, following a defamation case—and data protection law, in addition to the Defamation Act, requires inaccuracy to be redressed. So, there is simply no need for such a measure as that proposed by the noble Lord.

Quite apart from that, the noble Lord’s proposal is wholly impractical. It would have the same effect as Section 40, had it been implemented, in simply allowing individuals to launch spurious and unfounded complaints against newspapers in order to gag them. It would be another version of SLAPPs, but without even having to bother a court to look at the merits of the case. It would be used by the rich and powerful to close down ongoing investigations and muzzle the press, and in doing so would weaken the public’s right to know and undermine investigative journalism. Frankly, this is simply another attempt to find some way to bully the press into a system of state-approved regulation.

It is time to move on from debates that are long past their sell-by date, to recognise the fundamental changes in the media in the last decade, to turn our backs on any attempts to impose state regulation on the media, and to get rid of Section 40 lock, stock and barrel. This Bill is an important piece of legislation for so many organisations and areas of the creative economy, and it is very important that it now goes through.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I strongly support my noble friend, but first I declare my interests as set out in the register. As colleagues will know, I was the independent founding chair of the Independent Press Standards Organisation. I have listened carefully to the speeches that have been made, but I strongly agree with my noble friend that we are really going back over the debates we had a decade ago.

I want to go back to the first principles that my noble friend enunciated. In many ways, free expression is the bedrock of our society, but it is also a privilege—one not enjoyed by many millions of our fellow human beings, and which therefore must be matched by a sense of public duty and responsibility.

We are all familiar with all those egregious cases. As chair, like my noble friend Lord Grade, of the Press Complaints Commission, I found that it was powerless in many cases. I had to have face-to-face meetings with victims to hear for myself their harrowing accounts of their experiences. The PCC was powerless in many cases, particularly where criminal acts had taken place; it was up to the police. One of our sadnesses was that the police seemed so slow to act. Most of the phone hacking cases have now been resolved in the civil courts, but that should not blind us to the fact—I say this to all those who have spoken—that serious criminal acts took place, not just regulatory breaches. So far as regulation is concerned, the key question we have to answer is how to police culture and standards while maintaining independence of thought and deed. It is a very difficult balance.

The rock on which the system is built is the editors’ code, a living document that, as I understand it, is still recognised right across the world as an excellent code. I believe that IPSO has been very effective at holding publishers and publications to account. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, said that IPSO had not been effective because there were a relatively low number of adverse adjudications, and those who have mentioned that have given specific examples. However, press behaviour has improved over the last period. The Press Recognition Panel, which has been lobbying us—lobbying me all the time—pretty hard, largely in its own interests, is funded by the taxpayer, as my noble friend pointed out. I am all for trenchant, highly politicised contributions to this important debate, but I wonder whether it is fair to ask the taxpayer to fund them.

Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Conservative

My noble friend says that the PRP is funded by the taxpayer, but IPSO is funded by the newspaper industry. Which does he regard as the more independent process?

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

When I gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson pointed out to me that it was up to the industry to fund the regulator. When I first gave evidence to him, he asked me to sit down with the main newspaper groups and find a way forward whereby they would fund an independent regulatory process. My noble friend is quite right: it is very important that the industry itself funds the regulator, but the regulator should be independent. That is what I reported in my second line of evidence to the Leveson inquiry, and that is what I believe I managed to achieve.

The proponents of statutory regulation invariably nod sagely and sympathetically when I say all this, but honestly, they have no answers. I believe that state interference is not the answer. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Watson—he sits on a committee with me and I have great respect for him—that Amendment 87A is state regulation in all but name. The system proposed would grind the free press into the dirt with both statutory interference into editorial decision-making and the prospect of endless and often frivolous litigation. Experience also tells us that the principal beneficiaries of such an arrangement would be not individuals who had been misrepresented or traduced but deep corporate pockets and their expensive lawyers, who want to challenge the press at every turn in a war of attrition.

I am sad to hear the news about the noble Lord, Lord McNally, because he and I have had so many debates and discussions on this issue, and I wish him a speedy recovery, but the situation we currently contemplate is the result of a rather messy compromise at the time of the coalition Government. The royal charter was intended to be a way of avoiding statutory regulation—a sleight of hand—but these provisions in the 2013 Act retained a potential element of statute which, it is fair to say, appealed more to those on the Liberal Democrat Benches who proposed them than to those of us in the Conservative Party.

Abolition of Section 40 is a clear commitment of the 2019 Conservative Party manifesto, and critics will ask why on earth it was not done sooner—I wish it had been. They will also repeat the old canard ad infinitum that it is all a cynical ploy to appease newspaper proprietors—in particular now that the general election has been announced for 4 July. The reality is that there is a genuine and deeply felt political and philosophical dividing line here. If a party of government sees a measure on the statute book for which it believes there is no good case and which it should never consider triggering into life, then abolition is the right policy, and let us get on with it.

With a couple of notable publishers who are now signed up to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, we really do have in IPSO a system of independent-led, press paid-for self-regulation that works. This country has always been, and must be, a beacon for freedom of expression exercised in the public interest but, above all, with restraint.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Non-affiliated 7:00, 22 May 2024

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest that I chaired a local newspaper company which also defamed me. In addition, I am a trustee of the Public Interest News Foundation.

My view of these amendments and the subject matter behind them is that, whether or not Section 40 remains on the statute book, the outcome will not be satisfactory. Freedom of expression is clearly very important. There is a whole range of activities that we are properly free to engage in, but the law of tort steps in when people step over the mark and start hurting others. In my view, the way in which the world has developed, and within it the press, has meant that, under certain circumstances, that boundary is stepped over, and that we collectively, as a society, ought to have effective remedies to deal with the consequences. Indeed, that is what this debate is all about.

That is not easy, as we know, but it is important that we remember that, although a number of big names, including participants here in the Chamber, have been affected by this, what really matters are the small men. In fact, it is not only the individual citizens but some of the very new, small media companies that are setting up. There are two slightly separate aspects to this subject. The first is the relationship of what I might call the small plaintiff versus a large media company. The other way round is if you have a small media company versus a large plaintiff. When I chaired the media company that I did, we had a defamation action against a very, very rich man who liked litigating. We found ourselves in a position when it was jolly nearly a matter of risking going bust or standing one’s ground and holding the position in the courts. Our opponent withdrew at the very last minute, but it was a bad moment to be at, and it was not a satisfactory position for a media company to be in.

My view is that Section 40 is a near miss. There is a case for having a proper, enforceable regime that is independent of the state. I do not buy the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Black, that if there is regulation it therefore follows, because of the nature of the society we live in, that that regulation is state regulation. After all, the common law was not put in place by the state. What we are discussing is an extension of old common law principles into circumstances that are very different from what they were in the Middle Ages.

Therefore, I think the right way forward is that the Government—whoever they will be on 5 July—should revisit this whole subject, because neither having Section 40 nor not having Section 40 is a satisfactory outcome. We need a form of regulation that is independent of interference from media companies, from celebrity and other pressure, and from any other outside concerns, and which is not only genuinely independent but recognised by everyone as such. That is at least as important, from a societal point of view, as making sure that the thing is not impugned.

Photo of Baroness Fleet Baroness Fleet Conservative

My Lords, I speak in opposition to these amendments and will voice support for the repeal of Section 40, which is long overdue. I heard the attack of the noble Lord, Lord Watson, on newspapers. I wonder what Lord Brittan might have replied.

As a former newspaper editor, my support for repeal is predicated on the simple principle that any state control or direct influence over a newspaper’s editorial content is anathema to a well-functioning democracy. A newspaper’s fundamental purpose is to speak truth to power and to expose wrongdoing. The very existence, let alone the implementation, of Section 40 puts that key democratic function at risk.

We must remember that we are debating this pernicious provision in the context of a legal environment where newspapers already have to self-censor and spike stories due to the threat of financial ruin, with the rich and powerful bringing strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, as they are known. Section 40 would amount to state licensing of these lawsuits, with the rich and powerful able to force newspapers out of business for having the temerity to print the truth. This “truth tax” would be particularly devastating for local publishers, but even the better-resourced national titles would struggle to stay afloat if exposed to unlimited legal costs, even in cases that they won.

Criminal tycoons have frequently used the libel laws to silence their critics, control adverse publicity and suppress the truth about themselves. Among the worst offenders were Robert Maxwell and Mohamed Al Fayed. They set the scene and have been followed by others. To conceal their own criminality, global corporations, law firms and Russian oligarchs have threatened the media by exploiting Britain’s libel laws. Fortunately, some media owners, including Rupert Murdoch, risked millions of pounds to defeat those seeking to assert that their lies are the truth, but Section 40 would make any resistance futile: the rich would own their “truth” and newspapers would pay for criminals to peddle their lies.

Of course, the other side of this debate will claim that Section 40 attempts to protect publishers by giving state-regulated titles protection from legal costs. Yet Section 40 would in fact force publishers to choose between freedom from the state and freedom from the rich and powerful who try to bury their wrongdoing through abuse of the UK’s legal system. Therefore, even Amendments 84 and 85, which seek to repeal the part of Section 40 that penalises independent publishers while retaining the cost incentive to become state regulated, should not be countenanced.

SLAPPs require a legislative solution, and there is a Private Member’s Bill currently going through Parliament seeking to do just that, but the idea that fundamental press freedoms should be sacrificed to achieve this is repugnant. As a group of press freedom organisations in support of repeal, including RSF, English PEN and the Society of Editors, said yesterday:

“Journalists face a myriad of threats and challenges but their mission of holding power to account and reporting difficult or uncomfortable truths has never been more important”.

By repealing Section 40, we will not remove all those myriad threats, but we will at least ensure that it will not be the British state itself that inhibits a newspaper’s ability to print the truth without fear or favour.

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated

My Lords, I think my interests have already been well and truly declared in this debate but, for the avoidance of doubt, I have been the chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation since 2020. I am not sure how appropriate it is for a regulator to extol its own virtues in a debate, and I do not propose to do so, but in view of the very trenchant attack on IPSO from a number of quarters, I think it may be helpful to the Committee if a few facts were presented before it.

IPSO regulates 90% by way of circulation of the newspapers published in this country. There was an attack on the organisation and, effectively, on those who work there. The young men and women who conscientiously look at complaints without any political bias or anything other than the conscientious approach you would expect from young people like that would be surprised and disappointed by many of the allegations that have been made against them.

The decisions that are made by IPSO are all published on its website. Details of the reasoning behind those decisions are available. IPSO provides advisory notices which help people, not only well-known people, but ordinary people who fear intrusion by the press, which I think is a successful aspect of what IPSO does. There is a board and a case committee, a minority of which has press experience. These are people whose identity is capable of ascertainment by looking at the website. Anyone can see what a wide variety of people they are. To suggest that they are somehow in the pockets of the press is unworthy.

Recently, there was an independent review of IPSO by a distinguished civil servant, Sir Bill Jeffrey. I invite critics of IPSO to read his report and his view of its independence. Independence is, of course, extremely important in a regulator.

As to the suggestion that effectively we reject the vast majority of complaints, of course many of the complaints that are made—

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour

Who appointed Mr Jeffrey?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated

The appointment of Sir Bill Jeffrey was the result of a decision by the board. The identity of the board is available to anybody who seeks to find out who is on the board. If by that question it is suggested that Sir Bill Jeffrey was some sort of tame civil servant, I think he would be surprised to hear that, and his history of accomplishment and independence is something which I would be surprised could be satisfactorily impugned.

I was dealing with the suggestion about a vast number of complaints being rejected. Of course, a case has to come within the remit. A number of people are discontented with things they read in the press, but they do not come within the remit of a complaint which can possibly provide a breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The editors’ code comes from a body where the minority is of press interest. Very few people criticise the editors’ code, whether they criticise the press or the regulator.

Of those complaints that warrant investigation, two-thirds are either upheld or resolved with the publisher directly or some form of satisfactory remedy is achieved. The problem of the statistics is that, for example, if one article merits more than 20,000 complaints that means that there is only one resolution that upholds the complaint, but it is wrong to extrapolate from those figures the very low percentage put forward earlier in the debate. Of course, IPSO is not in the business of trying to achieve a particular target in terms of the number of complaints. Complaints are simply adjudicated on their merits, and IPSO invites scrutiny of those decisions.

The Press Recognition Panel, set up in the circumstances about which we heard in the course of the debate, was, I understand, set up to stand back from the fray and decide whether a regulator which applied was approved. I have to express some surprise to see that body—whatever its financing, which we have heard about—expressing such strong views about a particular provision. I wonder whether that is quite what Parliament expected of a body standing back. That is a matter that the noble Lord might wish to take into consideration.

We then come to the question of SLAPPs and Section 40. I think there is agreement across the Committee that SLAPPS have been a remarkable evil. There is a great deal of cross-party agreement for a Private Member’s Bill that has government support, which was originally an amendment to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, and I hope it will continue whatever Government are in power. All that I can say is that if I were one of the people identified in an excellent book by David Hooper about the problem with SLAPPs, if I was inclined to bring one of these strategic cases, I would be reassured by the provisions of Section 40, even the modified provisions suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, knowing that newspapers would be trembling at the possibility of a Section 40 provision or something similar, or the right to reply in the circumstances put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Watson. We should not automatically assume that those who publish newspapers, whether local or national, have bottomless coffers. We must get away from the concept of powerful press barons against the poor minnows who sue them. It is not as straightforward as that.

Photo of Lord Watts Lord Watts Labour 7:15, 22 May 2024

Is it not the case that 80% of our media is owned by five billionaires?

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated

I am not precisely sure of the figures. Certainly, the ownership of the press is a matter of record. I am not in a position to respond to that. It is perfectly true that it is a relatively minor group of people. I am not sure quite what that has to do with Section 40. We are talking about whether someone can make a complaint adequately and whether that regulator is independent. I ask the Committee to express the view that it is an independent regulator. There is a manifesto commitment. It is time that this provision is repealed. I understand from what I have read in an interview with the shadow Secretary of State that the Labour Party does not intend to amend the current system of press regulation. I look forward to hearing reassurance that this important Bill, including this provision, will be the subject of discussions in the wash-up.

Photo of Baroness Stowell of Beeston Baroness Stowell of Beeston Chair, Communications and Digital Committee, Chair, Communications and Digital Committee

My Lords, I will just speak briefly, because I know that we want to get to Front-Bench spokesmen. A lot of detailed arguments have been advanced by those who have tabled amendments in this group and I think they reflect the detailed nature of the measures proposed. I have listened to those arguments and also heard some of the examples of people who have had bad experiences of the media. I sympathise with a lot of what has been said but, when it comes to matters of principle—and I believe that freedom of the press is a matter of principle—I also have the view that there are some circles that cannot be squared.

It is worth us just remembering that, only a couple of months ago, when we were debating foreign power ownership, Lord Ashcroft did a poll which showed that two-thirds of British people do care about freedom of the press. I think we can all agree that people might not always love or approve of everything done in or by the British media, but the principle of a free press, free from government interference, is something that matters to them. I believe it is a principle that serves the public interest and therefore one that Parliament must uphold. For that reason, I cannot support any of the amendments in this group and I will support my noble friend the Minister in resisting them.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

My Lords, I begin by saying that, while I disagree with a great deal of what the noble Lord, Lord Black, said, I agree entirely with him in his view that this Bill is not the right place for discussing Section 40. I am enormously grateful for the best wishes for a speedy recovery that have been passed to my noble friend Lord McNally and I know that he is bitterly disappointed that he cannot be here. He would have been proposing a very simple way forward —that Clause 50 should not stand part of the Bill. The implication of that would, of course, have been that Section 40 would have continued to be on the statute book. But he would have gone a stage further and argued that it would be certainly the view of these Benches that it should not only be retained on the statute book but also should have been implemented.

There have been all sorts of debates about and criticisms of the proposal that came from Sir Brian Leveson. We should accept that a great debt needs to be paid to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, for the way in which she has forensically gone through many of those criticisms and debunked them. The one criticism that has not been debunked by her is that it is no longer necessary to have protection of the type that was proposed by Leveson because there is not really a problem now with what the press is doing. I think the noble Lord, Lord Watts, put it very clearly: there are still many examples of wrongdoing by the press. We need to be well aware of the implications of removing Section 40. There would be virtually no access to justice for victims of press wrongdoing. Ordinary people who find themselves defamed, have their privacy invaded or their grief intruded on by wealthy and powerful newspapers in search of higher circulation or clickbait will find themselves virtually helpless.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, may well be right that the degree of wrongdoing has reduced. That does not alter the fact that it still exists and there needs to be a mechanism to help in particular those who do not have deep pockets to ensure that they can get justice. Therefore, it requires the Government—were they to be continuing—to make very clear what their alternative is to provide the protection for those very people. There may not now be the opportunity, given the announcement about the forthcoming election.

We have heard many alternative solutions put forward in the various amendments before us today. There is not now time to go through all the detail. So, on these Benches, we are very clear that the best way forward now would be for the Government to accept the view of the noble Lord, Lord Black, that this is not the right place for a discussion of Section 40, that Section 40 should remain on the statute book and that a future Government—whichever party is in charge—should have an opportunity to discuss the right way forward to continue to provide the protection that is still going to be needed. I give way.

Photo of Lord Black of Brentwood Lord Black of Brentwood Conservative

Can I just make it clear that I did not say that this was not the place to deal with Section 40? I said this was not the place to open a whole debate about self-regulation. I was crystal clear that Section 40 needs to go in its entirety and I hope its repeal will go through with this Bill immediately.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Justice and Home Affairs Committee

I apologise profusely to the noble Lord if I misquoted him. Let me say therefore that it is very firmly my view that this Bill is not the right place for a discussion of Section 40 and all the ramifications.

With those relatively few remarks, I very much hope that the Government will consider that the removal of Section 40 should not form part of this Bill, should not form part of the wash-up discussions and should just be kept as it is and we can debate it at a future date, whether we are on the same side of the Chamber or the opposite side.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

My Lords, I thank all those who have already spoken, outlining their rich and often diverging views on this important clause. I understand completely that there are very different views around the Chamber and we have heard them for the last hour or so. I will outline the Opposition’s view on Clause 50 and Section 40.

The Leveson report is now over a decade old. Responding to, rightly, the concerns of the time, Brian Leveson’s aims were to balance the competing concerns of protecting the free press—which the noble Lord, Lord Black, spoke eloquently about—while ensuring high press standards. We have heard noble Lords championing those during the debate this afternoon.

Therefore, while the inquiry helped bring about a press regulator, it did not enforce mandatory membership for news publishers. Rather, it made membership voluntary but introduced incentives for publishers to join, including consequences if they did not. Section 40, which has never been commenced, would make publishers who had not signed up to the regulator vulnerable to paying the costs of those they face in legal cases even if the wider case was ruled in their favour. Press groups have long pointed out the impact this imbalance would have on their ability to undertake free and fair reporting.

The media landscape is now much changed, although some of the issues that were present then clearly are today. It is to be expected that that would be the case some 10 years on. Challenges from the rise of social media, online consumption of media and the consequences of falling advertising revenue mean that we have seen a significant impact on the ability of the press to compete in the market and undertake its vital work.

Additionally, a self-regulatory system for the press now exists—something not anticipated ahead of the creation of Section 40 in the 2013 Act. This alone makes the situation different from 2013 and, taken together, these changes mean that it is right that Section 40 should not remain in the Act as it is. Thus, and for those reasons, we cannot support the clause stand part proposition tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and so ably and so colourfully supported by my noble friend Lord Lipsey.

On Amendment 87A from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I am very grateful to my noble friend for his contribution, but we are unable to support his amendment. I know he will be disappointed at that and he made very powerful arguments and a powerful case in putting his amendment to the House.

In our view, Amendment 87A risks wrapping up publications in sometimes spurious legal disputes and opening the door to sometimes repeated and vexatious claims. It would also put the onus of determining factual inaccuracies on the High Court. We do not believe that to be the right place for this to happen.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, as ever, for her carefully thought-through contribution. I pay tribute to her for the work that she has done, very ably and passionately, over many years. Outside your Lordships’ House, I look forward to digesting what Brian Leveson has had to say on this issue and, by extension, his contribution to this important debate. I shall speak to one of the noble Baroness’s amendments in particular: Amendment 84 presents an advantage in keeping parts of Section 40 that provide positive incentives to join a regulator and protections for those that do, while removing the part of Section 40 that has caused so much concern. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on this.

It is absolutely right that we hold our press accountable for its actions while allowing it to continue in a changing and challenging media landscape, and protecting it from vexatious claims that threaten its ability to do the right thing—and to do its job in holding the powerful to account. I also note that beyond the measure introduced in the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Act, we have had no further concrete update on extending anti-SLAPP measures from the Government. In drawing this important debate to a close, can the Minister take the opportunity to update colleagues on that? It is a very important subject to cover.

This has been a richly illuminating debate, passionate and critical to the vitality of our democracy—a debate on a day when we have learned from the Prime Minister that we are to have a general election. No doubt the press will play its part in that, and I hope it plays a responsible one.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 7:30, 22 May 2024

My Lords, I turn first to Amendments 83 and 86 tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, which, if taken together, would intend not only to keep Section 40 on the statute book but to amend its subsections (1) and (2), so that the protections offered by subsection (2) apply not only to relevant publishers but to individuals employed by relevant publishers. This would protect journalists employed by news publishers which are members of regulators recognised by the Press Recognition Panel from having costs awarded against them in legal claims based on news-related material published by that publisher, regardless of the outcome.

As I understand it, the noble Baroness’s intention is that Section 40(3), which would make publishers that are not members of a PRP-backed regulator liable for costs in claims made against them, should not apply in the case of claims made against individual journalists employed by such publishers. If subsection (3) were to apply to such journalists, they would be unfairly held liable for the costs of claims, in contrast to their counterparts employed by members of a PRP-backed regulator. This is likely further to exacerbate the risks to media freedom and quality journalism posed by commencing Section 40.

The noble Baroness spoke powerfully against strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs, which the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, invited me to say more on. We know that they are used as a deterrent to pursuing stories which expose wrongdoing due to the high costs involved with these lawsuits, making defending the case beyond the reach of those targeted by this form of litigation. The intention of her amendment appears to be to provide protection for only the cost of claims awarded against journalists employed by publishers that are members of regulators backed by the Press Recognition Panel, where material subject to the claim is news-related material published by the relevant publisher. As only one regulator, Impress, has sought approval by the Press Recognition Panel thus far, if enacted as amended in this way, Section 40 would protect only a small number of news publishers and journalists for the time being.

The Government believe that all journalists should be protected from SLAPPs, which are a pernicious form of litigation. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, mentioned, the Government have supported the Private Member’s Bill introduced by Wayne David MP in another place, which had its Second Reading there on 23 February. Furthermore, it is why the Government have committed to protecting media freedom and the invaluable role of a free press in our society and democracy more broadly. As part of this, we are committed to independent self-regulation of the press. For this reason, we do not consider that measures penalising publishers which are not members of a Press Recognition Panel-approved regulator are necessary or proportionate. Their commencement would constitute an intrusion by the Government into the freedom of the press.

I turn to the other amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. Amendments 84 and 85 intend to remove only Section 40(3) of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and to commence the remainder of Section 40, including subsection (2). Subsection (2) would protect publishers which are members of regulators recognised by the Press Recognition Panel from being liable for court costs awarded against them in legal claims, regardless of the outcome. The amendment is to commence subsection (2) within two months of this Bill gaining Royal Assent. Accepting these amendments would be at odds with the Government’s clearly stated position to protect media freedoms and to repeal Section 40 in its entirety.

I turn to the amendments tabled by my noble friend Lord Astor, whom I commiserate on his misfortune in the 5.30 pm race at Kempton Park. The Government have committed to a free and independent press and do not interfere with what the press can or cannot publish; that extends to endorsing regulators of which they should become members. Consulting on, with a view to creating, other incentives for the press to join a Press Recognition Panel-backed regulator that a consultation might identify would conflict with the Government’s position.

Indeed, the Government consulted on the repeal of Section 40 in its entirety in 2016 and the vast majority of respondents to that consultation backed repealing it. That was reflected in our last two manifestos. We therefore cannot delay repealing any part of the legislation that risks providing incentives for membership of an approved regulator. Incentivising a publisher to join specific regulators in any way is incompatible with protecting independent self-regulation of the press in the UK.

These amendments are unnecessary as the press regulation landscape has evolved since Section 40 was passed, as noble Lords have noted, with the establishment of two new press regulators and the decision of some publishers to use their own regulatory systems. In practice, as I say, the amendments would incentivise membership of Impress, as the sole UK regulator which has sought approval by the PRP. It is likely to lead to a chilling effect on publishers which choose not to join Impress. Accepting these amendments would not be compatible with the Government’s policy, so I cannot support them.

Amendment 87A tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Wyre Forest, would introduce a requirement on publishers which are not members of a Press Recognition Panel-backed regulator to publish a reply or a correction where they have published information containing a “significant factual inaccuracy”. The requirement is triggered by a demand made by an individual to whom the information relates. If the individual seeking the reply or correction is not satisfied with the publisher’s response, he or she would have the right to apply to the High Court for a determination of whether the publisher has complied with relevant parts of the section. The court may order the publisher to print a reply or correction, or to make another order as appropriate.

In practice, this amendment would incentivise membership of Impress and, as with the commencement of Section 40, it could disadvantage publishers which choose not to join it. For the reasons I have set out, I am not able to accept the amendments brought by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, or my noble friend Lord Astor and hope that they will not press them.

Photo of Lord Watson of Wyre Forest Lord Watson of Wyre Forest Labour

As this may be the final opportunity before a possible change of Government, can I thank the Minister for his service to the country? He enjoys the support of all political parties on the creative industries. His contribution is immense and is deeply appreciated, particularly his support for the music sector. Can I press him a little on my question about whether the conventions of the parliamentary wash-up will be respected when it comes to controversial legislation?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the noble Lord for his kind words; he might be getting a little ahead of himself. It has been a pleasure to serve as Minister and I hope to continue to do so. I look forward to campaigning in defence of the arts and creative industries in the general election ahead. He will appreciate that I have been in the Chamber since the announcement was made, so I will have to disappoint him by saying that the discussions will be had in the usual channels and announcements will be made in the usual way.

Like other noble Lords, I was sorry to hear about the operation that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is having. I am sure we all wish him a speedy recovery, so that he can be on the campaign trail soon. His amendment, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, seeks to remove Clause 50 in its entirety. I refer noble Lords to the comments I made earlier on why the Government do not believe that an incentive to join a PRP-backed regulator is needed. The failure to repeal Section 40 in its entirety would be at odds with the Government’s manifesto commitment. For this reason, it is important that this clause stands part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Watts Lord Watts Labour

Can the Minister deal with the question I raised on how poor people can pursue a case if they do not have the legal means to get satisfaction through the courts?

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

The landscape has changed a great deal since these debates were had. There are multiple routes for people to do it, and we think that that is right. The debate is one that has gone on for a great deal of time. Passionate though the contributions have been today, they have not significantly added to the debate that has gone on for a long time. I have little more to add.

Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Baroness deals with her amendment, I ask that my noble friend the Minister, when he finishes this debate and the letter from Sir Brian Leveson is placed in the Library, might look at it carefully. He was asked whether a regulator recognised by the Press Recognition Panel must be regarded as a state regulator, with all that that implies about government interference and the powers of censorship. He points out that he simply does not understand how this assertion can be made, as the recognition panel simply does not regulate the press. He goes on to say that Section 40 does not force newspaper publications to pay costs when they win. I think the Minister would find it helpful if he read that document. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, would find it even more helpful because—who knows?—in July he might find himself dealing with that issue from this side of the House.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport)

I will certainly read the correspondence. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, for quoting from it. I think it bears reading in its entirety, which I will be glad to do.

To continue on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Watts, there now exists a strengthened independent self-regulatory system for the press. The majority of traditional publishers are members of IPSO. Despite Section 40 never having been commenced, both Impress and IPSO offer arbitration schemes for legal claims relating to defamation, privacy and harassment. These schemes are either free, through Impress, or low-cost, through IPSO, for claimants. We do not think it likely that the repeal of Section 40, to which we have long been committed, would have an impact on access to low-cost arbitration.

Photo of Baroness Hollins Baroness Hollins Crossbench

My Lords, I thank everybody who has spoken in support of these amendments. The distraction of live election news during my speech probably contributed to me being misquoted by some noble Lords, so I repeat that my amendment would cause no detriment to the interests of the press. I am sad that the Minister has offered no options for protecting ordinary people. I trust that my arguments, and Sir Brian Leveson’s letter, will be read carefully, because a number of things that have been said are just not true. I hope that this will be reviewed carefully before proceeding to wash-up. It would be wise to remove Clause 50 before allowing an otherwise good Bill to pass. I hope that the Opposition have the courage to insist on this. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 83 withdrawn.

Amendments 84 to 86 not moved.

Clause 50 agreed.

Amendments 87 and 87A not moved.

Clause 51 agreed.