§ Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)
I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give members of the public the right to reply to allegations made against them in the press, or on radio or television,; and for connected purposes.
The concentration of press ownership has gone so far in Britain that five groups now control 95 per cent. of the circulation of daily newspapers and 96 per cent. of the circulation of Sunday newspapers. As Mr. Baldwin said, they have power without responsibility. One man, Rupert Murdoch, ownsThe Sun, TheNews of the World, The Times andThe Sunday Times, as well as newspapers in America and Australia.
On 27 April, the latest available date, the circulation ofThe Sun was 3,845,575 copies. That means an estimated readership of about 10 million. A story appearing in its columns can do untold damage. The Bill aims to give the public a limited safeguard. I declare an interest as a former reporter on theManchester Evening News and theDaily Herald, and as a lifelong and continuing member of the National Union of Journalists.
I take a typical case of the distortion practised by several national newspapers. The front page headlineCancer patients sent home to diewas published during the "winter of discontent", 1978–79. It would be difficult to imagine a report more damaging to the hospital and the union concerned—indeed to the whole Labour and trade union movement.
I have checked the facts carefully with the union concerned, the National Union of Public Employees. The facts are that the decision was taken by the director of radiotherapy, not by the area health authority, nor by the union. The most serious cases were not sent home. The area health authority and the union issued a denial. Some papers printed it, but it appeared in a couple of sentences buried in the midst of a long story.
What remedy has an aggrieved individual, company or organisation? Precious little. It can take the Press Council months to announce a decision, and by that time it is too late; the damage has been done. Moreover, the Press Council has no power to require the newspaper concerned to print that decision. In two recent cases the paper refused to do so. A poor person has the utmost difficulty in suing for libel, although Sir James Goldsmith has no such problem. Legal aid is not available for libel cases.
The Bill aims to provide a legal right of reply. Britain has been lagging in this respect behind many European countries. Such a law has operated successfully for many years in West Germany, France and Denmark. I am grateful to the ambassadors of those three countries in particular for providing me with details, and to Tom Baistow, a highly respected British journalist, who has inspired the proposal in this country.
Under my Bill an individual, organisation or company will be able to require the editor of a newspaper which has carried a factually inaccurate or distorted report involving that individual, organisation or company to print a reply within three days. The reply must be printed free of charge and be of equal length to, and in the same position as, the original article. If the editor refuses, the case will go to court, and the court must decide within 10 days. If the complainant's right of reply is upheld, the editor will be required to print it immediately and also to pay a fine 793 varying between £2,000 and £40,000. In election periods the three-day limit will be reduced for daily newspapers to 24 hours.
The same right will apply where there has been a misrepresentation or distortion of fact on the radio or television. This is vital, as damage can be done on these media before an even wider audience than the readership of a newspaper. The existing libel laws will continue and in no way be changed.
The Bill is on almost identical lines with the French law. In that country in the case of television there have been, in the years 1976 to 1979, 19 instances where the right of reply has been exercised by private individuals, and 13 instances on Radio France. In addition, the right of reply has been exercised three times on French television by Opposition parties.
The question may be asked, why go to all this trouble for 35 cases? The answer surely is that the law has meant that hundreds or thousands of other cases have been prevented because TV and radio have become more responsible and more cautious.
I expect that if leave to introduce the Bill is opposed, two arguments will be used. The first is that the Bill would interfere with the freedom of the press. Certainly, it would hinder papers from telling lies without any recourse by those calumniated. It would greatly increase the freedom of the individual. This is an extension of democracy, not a curtailment of it.
The second argument, I fancy, will be to ask who would decide that a story was false, misleading or distorted if the editor denied that it was so? This objection has not proved insuperable in other countries. In West Germany, if required, a court of law decides. In Denmark, the appeal may go to a corrections commission. In France, a case involving the press goes to court. In an appeal involving radio or television, which is evidently considered more serious, a case goes to a five-member commission attached to a Minister and consisting of two members of the Conseil d'État, two members of the Cour de Cassation, roughly the appeals court, and a member of the Higher Council for Audio-Visual Affairs. These gentlemen may not be connected with radio or television companies. Under my Bill, in the case of dispute, the issue would be left to the court.
The Press Council has received many complaints about the failure of editors, as the present law stands, to publish letters correcting misreporting or deliberate misrepresentation. The TUC last autumn overwhelmingly voted for a right of reply for victims of media bias or distortion. The Labour Party media study group, composed of working journalists, broadcasters and other media experts, unanimously supports the proposal.
I am not suggesting that this Bill is a panacea. It is a limited but positive measure. The bias against the Labour, trade union and peace movement will continue in most of the British media for as long as ownership remains as it is. However, the Bill will draw some of the claws of the media magnates. It will help people of all political persuasions and of none. I need hardly add that Conservative Members too, can be misrepresented in the media. It has happened.
794 Some of the more serious effects of editorial bias could be quickly—I stress the word "quickly"—prevented by this relatively simple Bill. It would be a deterrent to newspaper owners who flout the Press Council's limited powers with impunity. I hope that hon. Members of all parties will carefully consider the Bill and its objectives which affect all of us. I am confident that, even though this is only a first airing of the proposal, it will eventually—like the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965—become part of the law of the land. I seek leave to introduce the Bill.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Frank Allaun, Mr.Alexander W. Lyon, Mr. Phillip Whitehead, Mr. Arthur Davidson, Mr. John Tilley, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Laurie Pavitt, Mr. Robert Edwards, Mr. David Watkins, Mr. William Wilson, Mr. Dennis Canavan and Miss Jo Richardson.