§ Order for Second Reading read.9.36 am
§ Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before going into the substance of my speech, it is appropriate to thank those who have assisted me with the Bill. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), who introduced the Bill last year and thus pioneered the way, and to Mr. Frank Allaun, who introduced such a Bill in the past and has struggled for the concept it embodies for years. If it will not damage his political career or mine, this week, I thank also my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who has also done valuable work on the right of reply in the past.
I pay tribute also to the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, which has given me substantial assistance in introducing the Bill. I thank my sponsors, who come from all parts of the House—and particularly those with a journalistic background. They include hon. Members who would not have introduced such a Bill in the past, in the hope that voluntary methods would work, but have been convinced by deteriorating standards in some sectors of the press that the Bill is necessary.
I start by referring to two cases, both of which feature Mr. Robert Maxwell. On 2 December 1988, a headline in the Glasgow Herald read: "Guardian pays Maxwell damages." In The Guardian on 1 April 1986—and I did not choose the date—a headline statedMaxwell follows Murdoch behind the wire.The article argued that it was hypocritical of Mr. Maxwell to criticise Mr. Rupert Murdoch for the measures taken by Mr. Murdoch's companies at their Wapping premises when Mr. Maxwell, it was alleged, had taken similar measures himself.
After a considerable period, a statement appeared saying that it was wrong to draw a comparison between two very different situations. To Mr. Maxwell's credit, he donated the damages paid to him to the National AIDS Trust. The point I make is that those who control the press are not all happy to tolerate the robust comments of other newspapers; they seek redress themselves. A similar story appeared in the Glasgow Herald, in which a former Scottish Conservative MP, Mr. Michael Hirst, attacked Mr. Robert Maxwell over his treatment of the work force.
The story said:What cannot be the acceptable face of management, is to bluster around sacking, re-engaging, and sacking again employees who have given years and years of loyal service. This creates desperate insecurity among the families of those who work in these newspapers. How can a workforce be expected to show loyalty and co-operation when they are the victims of irrational and dictatorial demands by the proprietor?Some time later in the Glasgow Herald, Mr. Hirst said:Mr. Hirst wishes to make it clear that comments which concerned Mr. Robert Maxwell,…were not intended to be a criticism of Mr. Maxwell's personal integrity and apologises if his remarks were so construed.
Newspaper proprietors are keen to go to court to rectify damage which they see as having been done to them. One 547 might be struck by the moderation of Mr. Hirst's comments and those in The Guardian compared with some of the statements about people made in the press.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
Has my hon. Friend noticed the almost complete absence of reporters in the Press Gallery this morning? It is as if there is a conspiracy of silence so that the public will not get to know about the Bill. That is the attitude of the press.
§ Mr. Worthington
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I failed to notice what I am not allowed to see, but if I had been allowed to see it I would have seen it.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)
It is fair to tell the hon. Gentleman that three of the national papers have long leaders about the Bill. There is extensive coverage in this morning's press.
§ Mr. Worthington
I am astonished that the Minister has had such a sleepless night; that must be the case if he has had time to read the newspapers.
I shall now deal with a typical story from The Sun. In the issue dated 20 January there is a headline which says, "Apology: the Navy and drugs". The apology says:On February 10, 1987 we published an article entitled 'HMS Junkie' in which we alleged that certain members of the Royal Navy, whom we named, had been involved in taking and dealing in drugs.We now recognise that these allegations"—seven naval ratings are then named—were totally unfounded and that those men have never had any involvement with drugs.
We would like to sincerely apologise to them, and to the Royal Navy, for those false allegations and for any distress and embarrassment caused.That apology is on page 16 of the newspaper and deals with a story published on 10 February 1987.
It was difficult to find a copy of The Sun for 10 February 1987, but with the invaluable assistance of the Library I managed to do so. The headline of the story says, "drug parties on the ocean wave". I shall not read the whole story, but it mentions HMS Ark Royal, HMS Juno, HMS London and the minehunters Wilton, Hubbertson, Iveston, Bronington and Bossington. It is alleged that these are "ships of shame".
It would certainly be of interest to the public if Her Majesty's Navy had at the helm people who were crazed with cocaine, hashish or other drugs. However, it is unforgiveable that the story seems to be based entirely on the account of one disaffected seaman. There seems to be no evidence of any checking and the story names "seven shameful sailors our source says have been involved in the Royal Navy's drug dealing scandal:". Although the ratings are named, there are no details of any allegations.
It is unforgiveable that, for nearly two years, the integrity and honour of those naval ratings have been slurred. Clearly, the ratings first had to persuade the Navy that the allegations were untrue, and they would certainly have been subjected to considerable investigation by the Navy. Then they would have had to persuade the Navy to 548 take up their case. The Navy against Rupert Murdoch is a fair fight, but seven naval ratings on their own against Rupert Murdoch is not a fair fight.
§ Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman intended but has omitted to tell us on which page of The Sun the original article was published. How much of the page did the article take up, and what prominence did the newspaper give to it?
§ Mr. Worthington
I regret that I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's first question because all that I can find is a photocopy from a newspaper library. Unfortunately, the photocopy does not contain the page number. However, the story is given considerable prominence. It took nearly two years for a meaningless retraction to appear on page 16 of The Sun.
§ Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)
I am interested in the two-year interval that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Presumably a full inquiry had to take place and representations had to be made to the newspaper or the Press Council. That would take some time. How would the Bill speed up the process? To my mind the Bill merely seeks to extend the time during which people can make complaints through the various channels that will be open to them. Like our ombudsman system, the whole thing could become clogged because of too many applicants.
§ Mr. Worthington
A newspaper would be challenged to produce evidence. If it failed to produce that evidence, which The Sun clearly failed to do over two years, it would have to give speedy and similar prominence to a right of reply by the people who had been defamed. The Bill refers to the time scales involved. The Bill does not seek to replace the courts, because people could still go to court—if they have the resources. The Bill would give what is admittedly a second-class form of law to the great majority of people who currently have no protection from the law.
The Bill's provisions are different from existing laws, in that it does not cover broadcasting; there are two reasons for that. Hon. Members will be aware of the difficulties about time for private Member's Bills. I know that major changes in broadcasting are envisaged, and the Minister will probably say that, given the legislation proposed for next year, the Government would not want my Bill to go in ahead of it.
The other change from previous proposed legislation is that my Bill is simplified to refer only to factual inaccuracies. There might be difficulties because of misrepresentation, partiality or omission, which are difficult to deal with in the framework. That increases the Government's difficulty in rejecting the proposal.
§ Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)
How does the hon. Gentleman's remedy compare with the existing remedy of complaint to the Press Council? He accepts that his remedy only corrects an inaccuracy and that that may be part of a much wider complaint.
§ Mr. Worthington
I am grateful for that intervention. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be happy if I deal with it later. I have quite a full section on the Press Council. I hope to be able to answer his query then.
When will the Minister recognise that self-regulation is not working? What excesses will have to occur before the Government say that they must do something about this? What has been so striking in preparing the Bill is that no 549 one now says that there is not a huge problem. What is the problem, and why are the proposals to refer to the Press Council so inadequate?
A market problem is at the base of the issue. After the domination of television—and television is the major means by which people get information about the world—newspapers have had to choose between news, analysis and entertainment. Some have chosen entertainment. Some newspapers such as The Sun and the News of the World have shown that they can be extremely popular and successful in terms of readership by going down market. By following that commercially successful route, they are putting obligations or pressures upon other newspapers to do the same. That means that papers require a diet of ever more outlandish stories, featuring familiar topics such as royalty, sex, soap stars, and so on.
To attract readers, one has to be ever more outrageous. The logical outcome of that pursuit of readers and outlandish stories has now appeared, and it is called Sunday Sport. We used to have the old dictum that "dog bites man" is not a story. "Man bites dog" is a story, and now the logical outcome of that is "man has baby". It is difficult to see how much further one can go in an attempt to find a story.
Because they are newspapers and not comics, they must use real people. I am told that adults on the Tokyo underground read comics. Adults on the London Underground read tabloids—not all the tabloids, but some tabloids—with stories about real people.
Fact is expensive to produce. Fiction is cheaper. In the market war there is a new meaning to the old phrase "necessity is the mother of invention". People are now being used as bait to get more readers. It is right that newspapers should compete in the market. No Opposition Member would argue that they should do anything other than compete. But the Minister himself said last year that even in a free market it is wrong that the press should be able to defame with impunity. That is happening at the moment, and we must change the rules.
The market is impelling newspapers to behave in that way. They have chosen a style that sells newspapers. There is no way that they will stop that style because of a future sermon by Louis Blom-Cooper QC. It will be a good, estimable sermon from a man whom I deeply respect, but it will have no impact on market forces.
Kenneth Morgan, the director of the Press Council, has admitted that the Press Council and its work has been put at risk not by extreme politicians of Left and Right but by the conduct of the press itself. The tabloids are in a circulation war driven by market forces. We must change the nature of that market.
If papers invent news—lie about people—then, and only then, must people be given a right of reply with the same prominence. That would considerably lower the appeal of such newspapers, but it is by the decision of those newspapers if the right of reply is printed. Many newspapers get their stories right and practise good journalism. Those which invent stories about people do so because of incompetence or malevolence, not because they are honourable pursuers of the traditional and important role of the fourth estate in seeking to expose inadequacies in society.
Hon. Members might say that the press will learn its lessons from recent damages in cases in which juries have shown their disgust. The Elton John case award was £1 million. I refer also to the Carmen Proetta case, the Queen, 550 and, going back a little now, the Jeffrey Archer award of £500,000. Such people can use the courts because they have resources behind them. There is now a great risk that papers will realise that it is too expensive to attack those with resources, and will turn more on the defenceless, and ask "Is this person able to sue?"
They already do that. In my research for the Bill I was shocked by how often I heard the expression "you cannot libel the dead". People wrote to me about the distress which the demolition of the reputation of their loved ones had caused them. We are seeing simply the worst kind of bullying journalism. Not only the dead but the majority of people in this country fall outside the protection of the laws of defamation.
At the moment, all we have is the Press Council. No one with money and sense would use the Press Council, because there is an alternative route. I say that because the Press Council is owned by newspaper proprietors, and half its membership comes from the newspaper world. But that does not include journalists from the National Union of Journalists who, as a vote of no confidence some years ago, withdrew from the Press Council. It has never worked properly. It disobeys the fundamental rule of justice that the judge or jury should be distant and impartial and should not be connected with those who bring forward a case.
The Press Council's first legitimate objective is to defend press freedom. It cannot also be the body that defends people against the press. I could not propose the abolition of the Press Council. The Press Council has a legitimate role to defend the press or lay down decent standards of conduct for journalists, but it cannot be the body that protects those who are abused by the press. Because of its methods, the Press Council is massively flawed.
§ Mr. Renton
I agree that the withdrawal of the NUJ from the Press Council was an important but retrograde step. Has the hon. Gentleman seen the letter from the docklands branch of the NUJ that appeared in The Times on 27 January, which not only advocated the return of the NUJ to the Press Council but said that NUJ membership of the Press Council would be debated by the union's delegate meeting in April, proposed by the docklands branch and representing many journalists on national newspapers?
§ Mr. Renton
Perhaps that is the answer.
Would the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) like Labour Members who are members of the NUJ to use their influence to persuade the NUJ to return to the Press Council? There is clearly some movement in that direction.
§ Mr. Worthington
The Press Council would be strengthened by the presence of the NUJ, but I doubt whether that would strengthen the Press Council's adjudication role. The structure of the Press Council is fundamentally flawed, and while the presence of journalists on it might be welcome, it would not remedy those flaws.
In 1988, the Press Council received 1,395 complaints, 888 of which were withdrawn. I am convinced that the major reason for that withdrawal was lack of faith in the 551 procedure. Not only were 888 complaints withdrawn, but 228 were disallowed; well over 1,000 of the 1,395 complaints made did not come before the Press Council. A mere 4 per cent, of complaints were upheld.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Press Council goes to some lengths to persuade people to withdraw their complaints? Sometimes people have not withdrawn complaints voluntarily but have been given many reasons why they should do so. The 78 or so cases that were successful is a large increase compared with four or five years ago, when the figure was seven, eight or nine. That change occurred only because of the pressure brought about by measures such as the one that my hon. Friend is proposing.
§ Mr. Worthington
I was unaware of the efforts that the Press Council made to persuade people to withdraw complaints.
§ Mr. Ashton
I have been before the Press Council, losing one case and winning another—somebody took me to the Press Council and I took them before it. People tend to believe that they will have an interview at the Press Council. That is not so, because they have to write evidence, receive it and write back. It involves typing many thousands of words, which the average person in the street has not the secretarial help to do.
§ Mr. Worthington
That leads directly to my next point. The Press Council does not investigate itself; it merely passes correspondence. Some newspapers deliberately refuse to reply promptly. That is not only my view but that of the outgoing chairman of the Press Council, Sir Zelman Cowen. He said:Editors and those working with them must respond quickly to Press Council procedures on complaints. There are too many cases of delayed response, some of them quite disgraceful, and this contributes significantly to delays in adjudication.
What other faults are there in the Press Council's procedures? If one complains to the Press Council, one must sign a waiver saying that one will not take legal action. Newspapers have all the legal assistance they require, but the complainant cannot be represented by a lawyer. An oral hearing can be allowed at the request of newspapers, but not at the complainant's request. Above all, the Press Council has no teeth, only moral authority. I confidently predict that the Minister will say that we should wait for the new chairman to put these things right, but he has already said that he wants no teeth for the Press Council.
The Press Council has existed for 35 years. In 1962, a Royal Commission on the Press said that either the Press Council should reform itself as a matter of urgency or the Government should step in to establish a statutory body. In 1977, another Royal Commission said:It is unhappily certain the the Council has so far failed to persuade the knowledgeable public that it deals satisfactorily with complaints against newspapers.It will be difficult for the Minister to convince us that tomorrow will be the answer; mãnana wears off after a while.
In 1973, some editors said that the Press Council was feared, respected and obeyed. Today, it is not feared, respected or obeyed. The part remedy must be a statutory right of reply, with no ifs, buts, by your leave, or by 552 permission of the editor. If a newspaper tells untruths about someone, he should have the right to have it corrected by the same newspaper, with the same prominence. I wish to stress that I am convinced that this will be preventive, and that newspapers will be more careful. Many of them will be completely unaffected by this legislation. It is clear from complaints to the Press Council, which are only the tip of the iceberg, that many newspapers do not bother the Press Council and give rights of reply.
I can foresee no future in newspaper-appointed ombudsmen. The job must be distinct and objective. The ombudsman must be distanced from the body against which a complaint is made. It lacks credibility for newspapers to appoint their own managing director as their ombudsman. This is not window dressing, but shows the cynicism and depths to which some standards have sunk.
Some ombudsmen appointments have more credibility. The Times of India recently appointed an ombudsman—the former Chief Justice of India. It agreed that it would abide by his decisions, and his remit includes even the news that was not printed. Its editor hopes that his paper will be run so successfully that the ombudsman will not be necessary.
Many journalists will welcome the Bill. It has been striking in preparing the Bill that, after I have given interviews, journalists have said, "I hope it succeeds." They are conscious of how difficult it is to work within a framework in which the editor or proprietor is not seeking the truth but asking the journalist to find a story.
The Bill is against not good, investigative journalism but false accusations. We are in favour of investigative journalism when the facts have been checked and corroborated.
The Bill is a modest measure that follows the example of other countries: my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) will deal with that aspect later. It deals only with factual inaccuracies.
It is interesting that in 1985 the Guild of Newspaper Editors said that there were difficulties about issues such as misrepresentation. It said that factual errors may be speedily established and remedied. Let us not hear it said that the Bill is not workable. It is an attack not on press freedom but on those few proprietors and editors who abuse their power. It is an extension of press freedom, whereby the wrongly accused can answer back, and in future that will be regarded as an essential civil right.
Another feature of the Bill is to set up a press commission. The Press Commission would have 21 members and would be set up in the way that we set up many tribunals. It would hear cases in which there is a dispute between an editor and a complainant. It would be independent. I see it as a relatively small body, but its size, once again, would depend on the newspapers. If the body had work to do, it would have the staff to do it; if there was no work, it would have no staff. The system will be self-regulating. If the newspapers behave, they will not have to go to the Press Commission.
The Bill also provides for a right of reply adviser, for the reasons described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). Many of the people who complain to the Press Council are not lettered, accustomed to go to court or to deal with official bodies. It is important that such people should receive assistance in the preparation of their case as a good piece of consumer 553 legislation. It is also important that the right of reply adviser should be separate from the adjudication function of the Press Commission so that it is clear that there is objectivity.
Another feature of the Bill is that the rectification of the inaccuracies of an original statement should be given prominence in a newspaper and that there should be speed. We propose a maximum of 28 days. Other proposed legislation has suggested seven or 14 days and we recognise that that might be too tight, but we must have pressure to receive a reply quickly.
I shall deal fairly quickly with the other points in the Bill because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. Legal aid should be introduced for defamation cases. We shall hear a speech from the Minister,—I am sorry to be prescient, but I have heard it before—saying that that would be too expensive and that, apparently, in the constituencies of other hon. Members there are many people who are unhinged or unbalanced and who will use legal aid to spend public money in an irresponsible way.
I am perfectly willing to listen to the Minister explaining how a quick route in defamation cases can be introduced or that a screening device can be worked out for excluding meretricious cases. But it is unacceptable in a free democracy that 70 per cent, or 80 per cent, of the population have no redress under law. If the Government say that they cannot accept legal aid for defamation cases, they are saying that we live in a society that excludes the majority of people from legal redress in defamation cases.
§ Mr. Worthington
To my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), but I have no prejudice against the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller).
§ Mr. Darling
Is my hon. Friend aware that when anybody applies for legal aid, no matter what the subject, he has to establish probable cause, so that if someone sought legal aid to raise an action for defamation, he would have to satisfy the legal aid committee that he had probable cause? That screening would stop vexatious or frivolous complaints. There is no reason, therefore, why legal aid should be denied in this category when in many cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has rightly said, it is a case of David against Goliath, in which the odds are heavily stacked in Goliath's favour because David does not have the stones to throw.
§ Mr. Waller
I agree with the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) that it is unsatisfactory that such a large proportion of the population should be disqualified from bringing defamation cases because of financial circumstances. But it is correct to say that Governments of both parties have been reluctant to embark on the step he has suggested because of the cost. Has the hon. Gentleman considered the Green Paper on contingency fees that was produced recently by 554 the Lord Chancellor's Department? Does he agree that contingency fees might be one acceptable way not only to screen out those cases where there is no basis for going to court, but to proceed without considerable costs falling on the public purse?
§ Mr. Worthington
I am grateful for that intervention. There are ways of solving the problem. For the Government to say that they are willing for the majority of people to have no legal redress is simply inadequate. I hope that the Minister will give some deep thought to that issue, because many hon. Members recognise that the present law is wholly inadequate in that respect. For the Minister to say, "We can't afford it," or, "Public funds can't be made available for that purpose," is a deeply inadequate reply.
Clause 9 is included on the assumption that the rest of the Bill is passed. It is recognised that, at present, some of the awards for alleged damage are frankly excessive. A growing body of opinion is upset about the amount of damages given to some "public" figures compared with the damages received in criminal damage cases or for industrial injuries. At present, the only deterrent for defamation is the amount of damages that juries are handing out. If the law were rectified and the Press Commission were established, there could be a case for saying that judges should decide the amount of damages. Clause 9 is dependent on the rest of the Bill.
I hope today that the Minister, in his cheery way, will not give us the Home Office's 35-year-old speech on the topic.
§ Mr. Worthington
If the Minister were to look in "Roget's Thesaurus" for synonyms for vintage, clapped-out would be one of them. What shall we hear in his speech? We shall hear that some newspapers are deplorable, but that we must wait for the Press Council to get its act together. He will say that the Government may have to act one day, but not yet, and that there is a new chairman of the Press Council, so he must be given a chance. But patience and moderation do not work with some personalities. The school bully does not recognise reason. Patience and moderation do not work against the sheer power of market forces in which the tabloid newspapers are trapped. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when he will recognise that matters have gone too far. The sponsors of the Bill recognise that matters have gone too far and the Minister must do better than he did last week, when his speech reminded me of "Alice in Wonderland".
We must take action to prevent ordinary people from being abused. Such abuse is not a necessary evil of a free society, as the hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) said in 1983 when he was Minister of State, Home Office. The much respected Hugo Young of The Guardian said this week:The very function of journalism is being denied by the reckless transgressions of the biggest operators.No good newspapers will be affected by this legislation. Good journalists have nothing to fear.
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Gentleman referred to the respected journalist Hugo Young. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that in Hugo Young's column the week before last he said that if newspapers went on the way they were 555 now, politicians would soon come to be believed more than journalists. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that would be a good or bad thing?
§ Mr. Worthington
There we have a trailer for the Minister's cheery reply.
In any questioning democratic society there is the expectation that people will legitimately be sceptical and cynical about politicians, and that is quite right. Journalists, some of whom consider themselves to be on the side of the people, have achieved such a reputation that they rank below politicians in the public opinion polls. I see no reason for that state of affairs, and I should like to end it.
The Scottish editor of The Sun, Mr. Jack Irvine, recently wrote to The Times Educational Supplement Scotland of a journalist's obligation to check his facts and to endeavour to produce a balanced report. Mr. Irvine has it absolutely right when he says that no journalist who did that would ever appear before a press commission. Those who do not should be obliged to give the right of reply to those about whom they have been wrong.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. In view of the large number of hon. Members who are seeking to catch my eye, I appeal for brief speeches.
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
I hope that I shall set an example with my brief speech. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) on two grounds. First, I extend the traditional congratulations on his good fortune in coming high enough in the ballot to have a chance of introducing legislation which may be passed by this House and, in due course, by the other place—a good fortune that I enjoyed some years ago. Secondly, the whole House will congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the reasoned and reasonable way in which he advanced his argument. Those arriving in the Chamber with neutral opinions—I am a romantic, and assume that that happens from time to time—will have found themselves persuaded by his eloquence.
I do not regard the Bill as a change of law. It is merely a change of structure to enable us to establish what is already the law of the land—that people shall not be traduced or libelled in public print. That must remain the law of the land. In practice, however, the right under that law can be exercised only by a minority—arguably a small minority—of the population. We have created a structure and said that this is the law, yet in every real sense we have denied people the opportunity of exercising their rights under that law.
The Bill sets out what should be a quick and relatively simple system to replace a system that does not work. Of course it will be possible to point to inevitable grey areas here and there; it has already been suggested, for example, that the process may take a little longer than envisaged. We accept that, but we nevertheless need to establish the structure. We know for certain that the Press Council does not deal, and has not dealt, with matters properly or—perhaps a greater criticism—even fairly and that the time for waiting for it to reform itself must surely be over.
556 One question that we must all ask ourselves is how much influence newspapers have in moulding opinion. After all, if they have no influence at all, we might all be spending our Friday mornings doing something else. A survey conducted in 1986 showed that 50 per cent, of people did not believe what they saw on television; only 25 per cent, believed what they read in the tabloids and only 2 per cent, believed what they read in what might be termed the saucy end of the tabloid market. That was before the emergence of Sunday Sport, so we can only guess at what the percentage might be now. The fact remains that people who have been libelled, who consider themselves to have been seriously misdescribed, understandably believe that the message in the newspaper goes out to a large number of people by whom it is believed in whole or in part.
The Bill has already been described in some quarters as an attack on press freedom. I do not see how one can accept that argument unless one considers that freedom to be the absolute freedom to write anything, any time, about anybody. I do not think that any hon. Member in the Chamber believes that. I reiterate that, in theory, the law already provides for the defence.
No responsible editor or journalist would object to correcting matters of fact. Some time ago the Guild of British Newspaper Editors announced that it supported the principle of always correcting errors. We are talking again about errors of fact and not about opinion. A newspaper may describe one of my constituents in a variety of ways that suggest a strong opinion but may not adduce false facts in doing so. That distinction is critical.
One of our main purposes in the House is to protect those who cannot protect themselves. In a sense, all of us are here not to protect the powerful, who do not need our protection, but to protect those who cannot protect themselves. The Brazilian philosopher Frere said that to be neutral in the battle between the weak and the powerful is to side with the powerful.
This is a small Bill, simple of intent but necessary and overdue. It has my full support as a sponsor; I wish it godspeed and I hope that we shall shortly send it on its way.
§ Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)
I hope to follow the commendable example set by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) by being brief. I am a fellow sponsor of the Bill and, like him, I begin by sincerely congratulating the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), not only on the drafting and presentation of the Bill but on the very acceptable manner in which he presented his arguments to the House.
Throughout our history, it has been an essential and paramount role of the House of Commons to check from time to time the imbalances of power and the abuses of power in society. In previous centuries we had to curb the powers of the monarchy and the barons. In the past decade, we have repeatedly been asked to pass legislation changing the balance of power. between trade union bosses and others. If there is one striking imbalance of power in our society today, it is the growing power of the press barons, and it is entirely right that we should address 557 ourselves to whether their power has become excessive in relation to the rights of the ordinary citizens, whose rights we are here to protect.
It is no coincidence that two hon. Members who have drawn top places in the ballot for private Member's Bills this Session have chosen issues relating to the press as their subject. I, too, believe that the power of the press barons has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished.
The ordinary concern that has been expressed, and will be expressed later in the debate, about the power of press ownership will be exacerbated when we debate the White Paper on broadcasting next week. It appears to me that that White Paper contains open opportunities for that power to be further extended into other areas of mass communications.
When we consider two events that have happened in recent days, it is clear why so many of us object to the cross-fertilisation of ownership between broadcasting and the press. Let us take "Death on the Rock". There is no doubt in my mind that the coverage of, and the attack on, that Thames Television programme by Mr. Murdoch's Sunday Times was related to his desire to weaken the prestige of the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the existing programme contractors. Unquestionably there was a correlation between the two.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is not here as I mean no attack on him, but the only story occupying the front pages of two of yesterday's tabloid papers, Today and The Sun—wiping out everything else in this country and the world—was the news that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby had been sacked from a position on the Opposition Front Bench which most of us did not know he possessed. It is malign and dangerous that newspapers of that power and circulation should give such prominence to trivial stories for one reason only—that it gives publicity to the launch of the Sky channel.
I know that the Minister of State, Home Office, is also responsible for broadcasting. The House will have to be extremely vigilant over the next two years or so when legislating on broadcasting matters. I am very glad that the Home Office has already backtracked slightly from the text of the White Paper, but it has a long way to go and both sides of the House will come down on the Government on this matter.
§ Mr. Renton
I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but I must correct him on his point about backtracking. That is not right. We made it absolutely plain in the White Paper on broadcasting that we were laying down a set of principles to militate against cross-media ownership and a concentration of ownership. However, we also made it clear that they were only principles and that we welcomed thoughts and comments from outside to enable us to add more facts and more flesh to those principles. That is the course on which we are engaged at the moment.
§ Mr. Steel
I am delighted to hear that. I have just given the Minister some facts and illustrations which I hope will assist him in that desirable process. However, he has still a long way to go and we shall continue to assist him to move in that direction.
I said that I would be brief and I have digressed slightly from the immediate purpose of the Bill. We all welcome the new vigour of the Press Council and its new chairman. 558 The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie went through many of the defects of the Press Council's composition and procedure and there is no need for me to repeat them. Many serious newspapers suggest that we should not advance the Bill and we should not legislate because we should give the new chairman of the Press Council a chance. I have great admiration for him and I wish him well, but the message that must go out from the House today to him and his colleagues in the press and the Press Council is that time is running out and we, as elected Members of Parliament, are not prepared to sit by and watch the constant abuses of the citizenry of this country by the press and do nothing about it.
The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie referred to the Younger committee on privacy. The right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) will correct me if I am wrong, but I recollect that the Younger committee came into being partly because at that time there were three private Members' Bills about the press. The Younger committee concluded:on balance there is no need at present for a general law of privacy.I think that the words "on balance" and "at present" were very important. Since that committee reported in 1972, the excesses of the press have become worse. That is why I am attracted by the proposal in the Bill for a statutory Press Commission to investigate and check the behaviour of the press.
I give the House two examples. I was appalled to hear that at Lockerbie some representatives were running round offering children money if they would obtain photographs of their dead friends. Such behaviour is utterly unacceptable to the House and something should exist to stop it.
If I may make a personal reference, some years ago two journalists appeared in my village pub, which is just across the road from my house, and started asking questions about my family. The publican very sensibly said, "If you have come here hoping to get any gossip about the Steel family, you are wasting your time." She got the response, "Would it make any difference if we showed you our cheque book?" Her reply was., "Yes, you can get out now." But not everyone is that strong minded and we have to be vigilant about such behaviour by the press.
Moreover, there is a new development about which I should warn the House, which is sub-contracting in the press so that newspapers can say perfectly honestly, "It was not us." Freelance agencies, which are not employed by newspapers, go round offering money, knowing that if the offer of money and the plying of drink obtain a story they will be well rewarded by the newspaper in question, and if they do not succeed, the newspaper can disclaim any responsibility. A press commission should look into such behaviour.
There are many objections to leaving matters as they are. One is that the delays in getting redress from newspapers are colossal. In my own case, of which many right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, it took one year and three months to settle out of court an action against The Sun and the News of the World. Justice delayed is justice denied, and one benefit of the system that the Bill proposes with a Press Commission is that such cases would be removed from the courts. If redress can be achieved quickly through a press commission, the administration of justice in this country might be pushed along a little more swiftly.
559 There is also the issue of the excessive costs. It is very expensive to pursue a case of defamation. In my case at the very last minute there was a good deal of argument about the enormous legal costs. The argument was not about the cost of the settlement but about the legal costs. Of course the costs incurred by the other side must also be considered. I agree with the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), who mentioned the Green Paper on contingency fees, and perhaps that will be relevant to our consideration of the Bill. In the meantime, the proposal in the Bill for an extension of legal aid to cases of defamation is sound, as is the proposal that the Press Commission should be able to insist on what is called similar prominence of any correction in the newspapers. Far too often, as we see in the Press Council's adjudications, some glaring and obvious prominent wrong is put right by an obscure paragraph tucked away in a subsequent edition of the paper.
Even as a sponsor of the Bill—I had nothing to do with its drafting—I do not pretend that it is absolutely perfect as it stands. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie will have to accept an amendment in Committee to make sure that we eliminate trivial complaints. The Bill as drafted is also wide open to the green ink brigade to raise trivial complaints against newspapers, but I am sure that that can be dealt with in Committee.
The Bill is well worth a Second Reading and further examination in Committee. If we keep up the pressure on the press to put its own house in order, the Bill will have served its purpose, but I very much hope that it will succeed in becoming legislation.
§ Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)
When I first joined the publishing house of which I am a director, there was in the reception area—I think that there still is today—a large poster stating:"This is a Printing office
Crossroads of civilization.
Refuge of all the arts, against the vagaries of time
Armoury of fearless truth against whispering rumour
Incessant trumpet of trade
From this place words may fly abroad
Not to perish on waves of sound
Not to vary with the writers hand
But fixed in time having been verified in proof
Friend you stand on sacred ground
This is a Printing office."
Many publishers would like to put forward such a notion. I speak as a publisher and as a liveryman of the Stationers and Newspaper Makers of the City of London. That is the sort of notion that we like to put forward and that the newspapers romantically put forward about themselves.
Hugh Cudlipp, writing a book about 50 years of the Daily Mirror, wrote:This book is the story of the newspaper with the world's greatest daily circulation—London's Daily Mirror… Millions cherish that tabloid journal, swear by it, regard it as their daily Bible; others loathe it, curse it, reject its news and views as the modern works of Satan.
I suspect that for many years—when the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and others were first involved in journalism—newspapers were like that. However, things then changed. Newspapers had to start to compete with television and commercial radio. That had a double effect because they had to compete for both 560 entertainment value and advertising revenue. As we all know, a large percentage of the cover price of newspapers is subsidised by advertising revenue for which newspapers now have to compete. As the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) said, many people now read newspapers as much for entertainment as for news, and often the two aspects become blurred.
A French newspaper editor conducted a survey of the way in which the French press presented the British royal family. It is not very different from the way in which the British press presents them. He produced the following statistics: between 1958 and 1972, French newspapers reported that the Queen was pregnant 92 times, had 149 accidents, nine miscarriages, took the pill 11 times, abdicated 63 times, was on the point of breaking up with Prince Philip 73 times, said to be fed up 112 times and on the verge of a nervous breakdown 32 times, and so the statistics continued. I suspect that the British press does not contain such a high number of reported problems, but it is not too different from the French. Those of us who watch the difficulties caused by the press to the Princess of Wales are amazed that she and other members of the royal family have the patience to put up with some of the innuendos and lies reported by Fleet street. According to Fleet street, she is constantly suffering from numerous bouts of slimmers' disease, severe post-natal depression and continuous violent rows with her husband, the Queen, Prince Philip and the Princess Royal, and gets ticked off for her misbehaviour on formal occasions.
When the press cannot legitimately include any innuendo in its story, it makes it up. One example appeared in the Daily Mirror—a newspaper that is often somewhat self-righteous. In 1983, it published a front page exclusive headlinedDiana and the little old ladyIt began:Princess Diana regularly visits an elderly woman who lives in a tiny terraced house. It is one of Diana's best kept secrets and she looked taken aback when she was spotted leaving the house in a London suburb yesterday. She said, 'I have been to see an old lady friend.' The detective walked with her towards the black painted front door which was unlocked. Diana pushed it open and closed it behind her.That is the type of fairy-tale that we expect about the royal family. The following week, the News of the World published an exposure and correctly reported that Princess Diana had been attending dancing classes in a studio in Chiswick. It appeared that the little old lady was 46-year-old Merle Park, the ballerina who runs the studio.
For those, like myself, who become slightly confused about fact and fiction in relation to the royal family, it becomes more amazing in relation to some of the soap operas on television. I have a confession to make. I sometimes wonder whether I am culturally qualified to be a Member of Parliament. The last time I saw an episode of "Coronation Street" was when I was in my teens and I do not think that I have ever seen an episode of "Neighbours". The way in which Fleet street treats programmes such as "Coronation Street" is amazing. Fleet street creates an off-screen soap opera of the actors' lives. Over a short period, Mr. Peter Adamson, who played Len Fairclough in "Coronation Street", was charged with assaulting two small girls in a swimming pool but later acquitted, Violet Carson, who played Ena Sharpies, Jack Howarth, who played Albert Tatlock, and Peter Dudley, who played Bert Tilsey, had died, Doris Speed, who played 561 Annie Walker, suffered a prolonged illness, Pat Phoenix—Elsie Tanner—was stricken with pleurisy and left the series and Anne Kirkbride, who plays Deirdre Barlow was prosecuted for possessing cannabis.
Those facts may have been mildly interesting, but they did not deserve front page stories sprinkled with words such as "shock", "trauma", '"drama", "disaster", and "tragedy". Fact and fiction can become merged. For example, one day The Sun's tantalising stories such asBig Mac Boy Killed By Laughing Knife ManiacandRiddle of Wife in Death Ride on M1were surpassed by front page headlines such as "Hilda Ogden Mugged." Was that the preview of some future script in which the indomitable Mrs. Ogden would be set upon, or did it refer to an event that had actually taken place? The answer is that Jean Alexander, not Hilda Ogden, had been robbed of a wedding ring. It was not her own ring but the worthless brass prop that she wore in the role of Stan Ogden's wife. Is that worth banner headlines on the front page?
Sometimes, the confusion seems to affect the actors. When Peter Adamson, who played Len Fairclough, heard that he was to be written out of the script, he said that he thought that the future story line would suggest that he was having a secret affair. He said of his television death and secret affair devised by his bosses:It's nothing more than a cheap, ridiculous, smear campaign. Their motive is to blacken my name even further. They want any sympathy the fans had for me to be destroyed—to make the name of Fairclough a dirty word.The idea that Granada television was plotting a "sex smear campaign" against Mr. Adamson was preposterous, and even if it was doing so against the fictional character of Len Fairclough, it would hardly reflect on Mr Adamson. Fact and fiction merge so that people like me who do not have time to watch such programmes become confused. That may not be too terrible. The question of whether Len Fairclough the character and not Peter Adamson the actor was involved in the "sex smear" on "Coronation Street" may not hurt too many people.
The situation becomes serious, however, when newspapers resort to straight lies. Many hon. Members will recall one such example involving Mrs. Marica McKay, the widow of Sergeant Ian McKay, who was posthumously awarded one of the two Victoria Crosses of the Falklands campaign. When the awards were announced, the Daily Mirror and The Sun carried interviews with the widows of the dead soldiers. The Daily Mirror presented the article as an "exclusive" while The Sun, always wanting to be one ahead, announced that it had a "World Exclusive". That was the newspaper's first lie. Under the headlineThe Pride and Heartbreak of Two VCs' Widowsthe story began:VCs widow Marica McKay fought back her tears last night and said: 'I'm so proud of Ian, his name will remain a legend in the history books forever.'…Hugging her children at their home in Rotherham, Yorkshire, she said: 'I'm proud of Ian's Victoria Cross … but I'd exchange all the medals in the world to have him back.'If one were to reflect whether someone in Mrs. McKay's circumstances would say of her dead husbandhis name will remain in the history books forever",the answer would be no. What had happened was that some secretaries in The Sun's offices were asked to think up 562 quotations of what they would have said in the circumstances and some obliging sub-editor fitted them into the text.
One would have thought that The Sun, found guilty of an obvious fraud, would apologise but it nearly escaped without criticism. The story came to light only because the editor dated the story by the phrase:fought back her tears last night.On the night in question, Mrs. McKay was not at her home in Rotherham but in the Howard hotel in London talking to representatives of the Daily Mirror. Not a little jealous of its own exclusive, the Daily Mirror in a leader entitledLies, Damned Lies The Sun Exclusives",castigated The Sun for its cheap fabrication.
The affair was only referred to the Press Council by The Observer's diarist, who encouraged his secretary, Caroline Metcalfe, to complain to the Press Council. It was then that The Sun topped the lot and displayed a loose grasp on reality. Instead of admitting and regretting the falsehood, The Sun attempted to mitigate its action by complaining that its journalists had not been able to talk to Mrs. McKay because she was with the Daily Mirror reporter. The Sun's editor said that the staff were under strict instructions not to allow any harrassment of the widow and went on to describe an unpleasant scene at the Howard hotel. Sadly, it did not occur to anyone at the Press Council to point out that the unpleasant scene at the hotel was almost certainly caused by the appearance The Sun reporters.
I have a little more to say about Mrs. McKay and the way in which she was treated by the Press Council because it was to the Press Council that Caroline Metcalfe, The Observer secretary, addressed her complaint—a case of dog eat dog. How does the Press Council treat these things? How does it respond? The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) had occasion not long ago to make a complaint to the Press Council in which he was successful. He made the complaint against a newspaper called the Midland Chronicle. The Midland Chronicle, in a sensationalised article—so the hon. Member complained—had alleged that several hundred of his constituents who lived on a local estate had been branded as prostitutes, pornographers and wife-swappers.
The complaint was resoundingly upheld by the Press Council which, in one of its most uncompromising adjudications, inflicted the severest censure on the newspaper. On the basis of admissions by the editor, it found that the article had been totally inadequately researched and was a deplorable example of sensationalised journalism of a kind likely to bring the British press into disrepute. That adjudication is among the strongest ever issued by the Press Council, and one would expect that if anyone were satisfied with its performance it would be the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East. On the contrary, however, he was largely dissatisfied with the experience—for very much the same reasons, I imagine, as those of the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel).
For a variety of reasons, it was more than nine months before the actual hearing, and there was a further delay of six weeks before the decision was announced. Obstruction and delay were occasioned by the Press Council's formulation of the complaint. There was an initial exchange of three letters. The complaints secretary asked repeatedly on what basis the complaint was being made. I 563 should have thought that when a constituent has complained about the people of a whole estate being branded as prostitutes, pornographers and wife-swappers, it would be fairly obvious on what basis the complaint was being made.
The report of the upholding of the complaint was not given prominence comparable with that of the original distortion: the offending newspaper tucked the report of the decision in an inside page although the original story had been a front page lead. We all ought to reflect that those people were fortunate in having the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East as their champion—not everyone would have been so fortunate.
That takes us back to Mrs. McKay and the way in which the Press Council dealt with her. By any account, the reference to an interview that had never taken place, on a matter of some importance, was a straightforward lie. When Mrs. Metcalfe wrote to the Press Council about the Daily Mirror and The Sun she said—and it is the clearest letter—I would be grateful if you would regard this as a formal complaint and take the appropriate action.What reply did she get from the Press Council? This is what the Council said:Thank you for your letter…which is not being treated at this stage as a formal complaint but as an inquiry.It is not clear from your letter whether you wish to complain against The Sun, the Daily Mirror, or both. Could you clarify this?I would ask you to bear in mind that a complaints committee would be no better placed than yourself to assess the truth of two conflicting newspaper stories unless it is provided with independent evidence supporting one version. If you wish to pursue a complaint, would you be able to provide such information for the complaints committee?The original letter was clearly expressed as a formal complaint. The Press Council, unhelpfully, treated it as an inquiry to be parried with a request for clarification of the obvious. The Press Council, with all its claims to respect and obedience in Fleet Street, indicated that it was no better placed than an ordinary member of the public when it comes to discovering what goes on in newspaper offices.
The other point that emerges is that it is quite clear that the Press Council does not treat these as matters for investigation. It says that it investigates cases, but it makes it the accuser's job to prove the story. In the context of the case I have just mentioned that would not be very difficult. One has only to pick up the telephone and ask Mrs. Mckay whether she actually made the complaint. In fact, in the end it was not the Press Council which eventually proved conclusively that what had been said was a lie; it was The Observer, which managed to get in touch with Mrs. Mckay, who said, "I have never spoken to The Sun—I know that, they know that, and you can imagine what I think of the paper." So eventually the truth came out.
Two points need to be made about the Press Council—points which, perhaps, have not been made with sufficient force in this debate. First, the constitution of the Press Council states that its first objective is the preservation of the estabished freedom of the British press. As a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers, I appreciate that all organisations of this kind throughout history have been set up to protect their members' ancient rights and privileges, and clearly that is what the Press Council is seeking to do in another guise. So the Press Council, which has no powers beyond 564 the force of its own arguments, devotes much of its publicity to resisting those who would thrust legal powers upon it.
So far as I am aware, in recent history there has been only one significant study of the press. I refer to the report of the Third Royal Commission on the Press, which was published in 1977. That commission concluded that, unhappily, it was certain that the Press Council had so far failed to persuade the knowledgeable public that it dealt satisfactorily with complaints against newspapers, notwithstanding that this has come to be seen as its main purpose. That was in 1977. The McKay incident occurred in the mid-1980s, and I am sure that other hon. Members will wish to refer to other cases.
What is the best way forward? Legislation is being debated today. It is fair to point out that the Third Royal Commission on the Press in 1977 said:We believe that the press should not be subjected to a special regime of law, and that it should neither have special privileges nor labour under special disadvantages compared with the ordinary citizen. That argues against a special measure for ensuring a right of reply. We prefer a non-legal method of securing corrections.That would be fine if one had confidence in the way in which non-legal methods worked.
I believe that the Bill should be given a Second Reading, and at this stage I look upon it wearing my hat as a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers wishing to see the highest standards of press journalism. Wearing my lawyer's wig I will reflect, when the Bill comes back for Report and Third Reading, on whether what it does is enforceable. If it were within the power of the hon. Member proposing the Bill, I would suggest that he might think about referring it to a Select Committee, because one of the other useful things that the Bill could achieve would be for the House to call to account some of the press, the Press Council, the Guild of Journalists and others as to their specific views on this measure. That would be a useful exercise, but it is a matter for the hon. Gentleman.
I enter this caveat, and I give the hon. Gentleman one piece of information, with which I shall conclude. The caveat is that, clearly, journalism is not a profession—it is the exercise by people of the right to free expression. That right being available to all cannot really be withdrawn from some. The last time that the House, so far as I can discover, sought to impose duties upon newspapers as to what they might or might not print in this way was attempted by Cromwell in 1643, when he appointed 27 licensors chosen from "the good and the wise"—schoolmasters, lawyers, ministers of religion and doctors—who ordered books and newspapers containing political errors to be burned by the public hangman. As hon. Members can imagine, that system became a means of fraud and political favouritism and was abolished in 1695. Historical precedents of attempts to regulate the press by law are thus not the happiest. Nevertheless, it is clear that a considerable body of opinion in this country and in the House is perturbed about the way in which the press operates today. There is a widespread view that the Press Council has not been discharging its duty properly, and in those circumstances the Bill is entitled to have a Second Reading.
Finally, I want to share with the House one piece of information that I discovered in my research for this debate. Consistently, and for a very long time, the number 565 of viewers of "Crossroads" has been very much greater than the number of votes that the Labour party ever gets at a general election.
§ Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)
Those of us who have been participating in this longest running relay race are delighted that at long last my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) seems to be taking up the baton for the last stage and reaching the finishing post today. We sincerely hope so, because this has been going on for a long time. With the increasing evidence that a wide body of opinion wishes to see some such restraint placed on the press, it would be invidious if the House were to reject that strong public feeling.
As one who has both worked for the press and, at various times, suffered at its hands, I fully appreciate that in an industry where people are writing for that day's edition mistakes are occasionally made. Most are genuine errors because of the speed at which journalists are expected to work. With the growth of new technology, that speed has increased. I fully understand that genuine mistakes are made while writing quickly for that day's edition.
Today I had the misfortune or perhaps the good fortune to pick up The Sun. It is not usually my first choice of reading, but it was drawn to my attention that there was a full-page editorial on The Sun speaking its mind. It is headed, "Your right to know". There is a cartoon with a three quarters naked body and a sign up saying, "Minister of Bonking" with Big Ben in the background. Obviously, The Sun photographer is placed at exactly the right spot. The caption reads:Why we will fight the hypocrites and humbugs of society.
The suggestion is that Members of Parliament are particularly interested in protecting their own good name and that the Protection of Privacy Bill last week, which was unfortunately defeated, and today's Bill are simply ways that they have put forward to protect their good name. All hon. Members can discount that. We are perfectly capable of protecting ourselves. We are speaking for the vast number of people who are wholly unable to protect themselves against the excesses, particularly of the tabloid press.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)
As the hon. Lady is not a regular reader of The Sun, did she notice how well it protected itself at this time last week? Immediately following the debate on privacy when The Sun was savagely criticised for specific examples from all directions, its response was to exercise a curious right of silence and not to allow a single word of the debate to appear in its columns the following day.
§ Mrs. Clwyd
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I thank him for drawing our attention to that omission.
Again, today, The Sun has omitted to explain what this debate is about, although today's editorial is about the right to privacy. It is worth reading some of its more hypocritical lies. It states:So what about the Sun? Do we make mistakes? Of course we do. Sometimes they are our own fault. Sometimes we are deceived by liars and phoneys.And by God do we pay for them!566Whatever the cause, we accept full responsibility any inaccuracy in the columns of this newspaper. We try to put things right as fully and quickly as possible.To help do this better in the future we have appointed an independent Ombudsman to investigate complaints. The Sun publishes around 20,000 news items a year. They produce a handful of libel suits.The Sun wholly omitted to mention that few people can take out libel suits. That is our point today.
Four years ago I was forced to take out a libel action against Private Eye. Had I been able to get a quick retraction of the inaccuracies which appeared, I would never have embarked on the long action against it. It took two years and a considerable sum before I got a retraction and, naturally, compensation. But that never fully compensates for the damage that such an attack does to the person involved and his or her immediate family. Most people want a quick retraction. They do not want to go through the pain and trauma of a libel action if that can be avoided. The whole point of the right of reply is a quick retraction of the inaccuracies that have appeared.
The Sun's suggestion that a libel action is open to everyone who feels maligned by The Sun is a distortion of the truth. It is that paper which today is guilty of hypocrisy and humbug, not Members of Parliament who are attempting to do something about an intolerable situation. The editorial ends:For the Sun's part we shall fight to stay exactly as we are.It is not just our struggle.It is the struggle of all those concerned for freedom in Britain.We all know what sort of freedoms The Sun believes in—the freedom to attack innocent people without giving them the chance to reply unless they take out an action for defamation.
I have the dubious distinction of having been both a journalist and a Member of Parliament—the two most derided professions in Britain. I read a nice piece of doggerel by Humbert Wolfe which is worth repeating:You cannot hope
To bribe or twist
Thank God the
But, seeing what
The man will do
No occasion to. While I would defend the majority of members of the National Union of Journalists, a growing number of journalists are forced, for one reason or another, for example, pressure from proprietors who want to increase sales, to denigrate the standards of their profession.
Like my hon. Friend, last year I attempted to introduce a right to reply Bill. We never had the opportunity even to debate it in the House, but there was much opportunity' to debate it outside. I wrote to all local newspapers asking people to write to me if they had examples of the way the press had treated them or of not having replies printed to correct inaccuracies. I received hundreds of letters from people all over Britain, giving examples of how they Felt they had been maligned, ill treated or unfairly presented. They were not from Members of Parliament, business men, big organisations or powerful people, but from ordinary people who felt that they had not been given a fair deal.
The examples are good, but I do not want to cite them by name because these people have suffered enough. One man lost his business, home and reputation, and was forced to make 250 employees redundant after a television 567 news story attacked the product that his company supplied. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that we have legislation that forces broadcasters to be more responsible. Sales plummeted by 70 per cent. overnight. People refused to pay for work completed and the man received countless demands from past customers to take back the work done. The result was disastrous; a lifetime's work destroyed, he said. He took his complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. It was upheld, but the result was a tiny correction at the back of one of the broadcasting magazines a year later. Five years after the event, the news story's claims have been shown to be groundless.
Another case concerns a family from Wales who were shocked and deeply distressed after they saw the headline of a news story reporting the inquest into the death of a son's common law wife. They felt that the headingDivorcee 34 dies after Drink and Drugs Sessionwas at best meaningless and irrelevant and at worst tantamount to a smear, which could only cause great pain to those closest to her who were already suffering inconsolable grief. The coroner found no evidence that the woman, who died from a combination of anti-depressant drugs and a small quantity of alcohol, had intended to take her own life. The family's letter of complaint to the local newspaper was printed, despite being marked "Private."
There are countless similar cases that I could recount, but let me take a few lines from some of the hundreds of letters that I received last year:I think the Bill is of considerable importance and long overdue in the light of the quite appalling depths to which much of the tabloid press has sunk.I support absolutely—right up to the hilt—your efforts to obtain redress for everyone (rather than those with the money to buy it.)These quotations come from individual letters:The introduction of such an Act would be a democratic step forward, putting us in line with many other western countries.The Haemophilia Society is particularly concerned about the quality of reporting, especially with reference to AIDS. We therefore welcome any attempts at a Right of Reply.A statutory Right of Reply ... would do a great deal to break down the current dominance of the media by restoring equally important democratic rights to those who are reported about and to the consumer.The Press Council doesn't have the teeth it should have. When it comes down to it fair play is simply something that is at the discretion of editors. Sometimes you get it, more often you don't.The Press Council in my considerable experience is totally unhelpful and unresponsive to the individual complainant and is wholly geared up to treat the Press with advantage.
§ Mr. Roger King
I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady, but I am not clear about how the Bill will put those problems right. Those reports will still appear in newspapers and they will still cause pain and hardship, if they are inaccurate. It will take some time before any redress appears in the press, by which time the damage will have been done. Surely we should aim at improving the standards of journalism in the first place, which must mean beefing up the Press Council instead of having recourse to all this additional red tape.
§ Mrs. Clwyd
The hon. Gentleman is determined to be King Canute this morning. He is ignoring all the arguments for change that have been put forward. There is an overwhelming feeling that the Press Council cannot 568 do what it was set up to do, that it cannot protect the ordinary consumer. If the hon. Gentleman has not learnt that lesson, he has not been listening to the debate.
§ Mr. Ashton
Is it not a fact that the thought of having to print two or three pages of letters replying to allegations and having to clutter up newspapers with replies will be a severe deterrent to any editor once the Bill becomes law?
§ Mrs. Clwyd
That is absolutely right. The aim is to obtain a swift reply. That is the whole point of the Bill. We want a swift reply to that which is inaccurate, and that is what the Bill would achieve.
I can give another example to show how the Press Council dealt with a very serious complaint and how ineffective its ruling was. It concerns a professor at Oxford University, Professor Colin Blakemore, who was subjected to bomb scares and threats after the Sunday Mirror published an article that was found to be exaggerated and unfair.
Professor Blakemore was subjected to a front page story and a centre page spread in the Sunday Mirror. The Press Council said that the Sunday Mirror article was exaggerated, unbalanced and unfair. During the year, or even longer, that it took for the Press Council to make its ruling, Professor Blakemore and his family were subjected to the most extreme vilification. Reporters camped on their front door step; photographers with long lenses went into their garden; they received obscene telephone calls; all sorts of nasty things were posted through their letterbox. When the Press Councill finally published its ruling, it was to be found on page 39 of the Sunday Mirror, along with the gardening tips and the bingo. Unless one is interested in gardening and bingo, there is no way in which one would turn to page 39 of the Sunday Mirror. It was a deliberate attempt to suppress a very serious condemnation of that newspaper.
I spoke to Professor Blakemore at the time and found that he was so incensed by the treatment of his complaint that he was considering taking out an action for defamation. However, he did not realise, as many other people do not realise when they go to the Press Council, that if one does not like the Press Council's ruling one can no longer take out an action for defamation. One's rights are waived. He was doubly incensed, both by the length of time that the Press Council had taken to rule in his case and by the fact that at the end of the day he received very paltry recompense for all the suffering that had been caused to him and his family.
After a further protest to the Sunday Mirror, it eventually published—in lower case print on the second page—the Press Council's ruling, but at no time did the Sunday Mirror apologise to Professor Blakemore for the distress that had been caused to him and his family.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie made a very strong case against the Press Council. My dealings with the Press Council, particularly with Ken Morgan, have been very amiable. I pay tribute to the considerable amount of work he has done for the Press Council over the years, and I know that it is much to his personal regret that the Press Council does not have more teeth. I wish that I had the same optimism as the Minister of State, Home Office. I suspect that he will exude the same optimism today—he will say that everything will be all right because the Press Council has a new chairman. The Minister has been telling us for some time that 569 legislation will be introduced in response to the failure of the press adequately to regulate itself on a voluntary basis. I know that many Ministers have expressed their support, both in public and in private, for a Bill of this kind, and I am certain that if Conservative Members were allowed a free vote on this issue there would be overwhelming support for it.
I intend to deal briefly with the experience of other countries. In a conversation that I had with the Minister of State a year ago, I remember that he expressed reservations about the way in which the system was working in other countries. At least eight other European countries have the equivalent of the right of reply. The fear of the British press is neurotic. I have talked to the Guild of British Newspaper Editors and to the editors of national newspapers, both quality and tabloid, during the last 18 months. Their neurotic fear is that a legal right of reply would swamp newspapers in a tide of time and space-consuming complaints, but that fear is not borne out by the long experience of countries such as West Germany, where the system works perfectly well and does not impinge on the true freedom of the press to investigate, report and comment honestly.
§ Mr. Ground
I am aware from the last Royal Commission report that West Germany has operated a right of reply successfully for some years, but as the hon. Lady referred to other countries having operated such a right of reply successfully, will she tell us which other countries have done so?
§ Mrs. Clwyd
Certainly. They include Canada and the United States, where there is either a right of reply or an independent ombudsperson, and France: I shall illustrate my point later by explaining the experiences of those countries. It is regrettable that the Minister has not drawn on the experience of other countries during our previous debates—not even to argue against the right of reply—but I think that he will find that experience proves the opposite of the case that he puts.
In France, the right of reply for both private citizens and representatives of organisations has been enshrined in law since 1983. Under article 13 of the Press Freedom Act editors are required to insert, within three days of receipt, the replies of any persons named or referred to in a daily newspaper or periodical article, on pain of a fine. The reply must be inserted in the same place and type as the article to which it refers and there must be no alteration. During elections, the three-day limit laid down for insertions is reduced to 24 hours for newspapers.
Since 1975, the law in France has been extended to broadcasts on public radio and television, although it applies only to individuals, not to representatives of organisations. During the three years before 1979, the right of reply was accorded to only 19 people on television and 10 on radio. It could be said that to introduce a law that applies in only 29 cases is not a strong argument for that law, but the important point is that its supporters say that its very existence has probably stopped hundreds of such offences being committed on air.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, a right of reply is central to state press laws—and has been so since the time of Bismarck in 1871. Any person affected by a factual statement or printed work can send the editor a signed 570 statement of reply within three months. The reply must appear in the same section and typeface as the original offending text and will be printed as a letter to the editor.
The largest selling newspaper in West Germany is Bild with a circulation of about 5 million a day. It is owned by Axel Springer, whose editorial policy is hostile to the Soviet Union and hawkish in relation to arms negotiations. However, despite that, the newspaper estimates that only 50 counter-statements are published in Bild each year. The magazines—Der Spiegel and Stern—are both popular and report that they draw 80 demands for publication of a counter-statement each year, but that only 15 appear as such. About 20 are changed by mutual agreement and appear in the letters page and about 4.5 do not appear, either because the individual or organisation does not bother to pursue the issue once the publisher has refused to comply or because they lose the injunction procedure after taking the case to court.
In six West German states the right of reply has been adapted to radio. The reply must be broadcast in the same reception area and at an equivalent time as the original. As in the case of the press, the broadcasters are not swamped with demands for air time. Whatever the reason for the small number of complaints in France and West Germany, the figures should allay the fears of newspaper proprietors in Britain that there would be a flood of complaints if such a measure were introduced in this country.
As we know, the right of reply has been introduced many times as the subject of private Members' Bills and has been defeated every time. I appeal to the House to put right what is clearly a serious wrong in British society. No one wishes more than myself and, I am sure, all former journalists in the House, that newspapers would put the matter right themselves. But how much longer can we wait?
I appeal to the Minister to take heed of the enormous feeling among the British public that they can no longer tolerate the excesses of especially the tabloid press, but also of some of the quality press. Broadcasters are certainly not excluded from that criticism. The growing problem of cynical and deliberate misreporting and misrepresentation and of the editorialising of phoney facts is too serious to be left any longer to the owners of the press in our country.
§ Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)
I am mindful of your plea for brevity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and recollect that Disraeli said, "When I am preparing for a five-minute speech, it takes me two weeks; a ten-minute speech takes me three days, and a two-hour speech takes almost no preparation at all." I shall try to avoid that trap.
In the previous Parliament I introduced a ten-minute Bill on the law of confidence to try to give some legislative weight to the recommendations of the Law Commission on the law of confidence. As co-chairman of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, I have always maintained that, along with a strong freedom of information Act—I trust that the House will pass one one day—there should be adequate protection for the individual citizen in relation to both his privacy and the accuracy of reports about him.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), not so much on his good fortune—I have always thought it odd to congratulate an 571 hon. Member simply on the spin of a wheel or the dexterity of a Clerk's arm in drawing a particular number from a hat —as on the cogent way in which he introduced his Bill.
The Bill reflects widespread concern, of which several examples of evidence have been cited. In my own approach to this I should like to bear on the observation of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), who said that he is still sufficient of a romantic to believe that some of us have come to the debate with an open mind. I do not see this as whipped business—it is very much a matter on which hon. Members of all parties can be open minded and take their own view. We can do that because so much of what has been said is unexceptionable to many hon. Members. There are unarguably appalling examples in the popular press of cynical, unwarranted, cruel and damaging reporting. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) and other hon. Members have given illustrations of inexcusable and appalling reporting which, as we know emanates from one section of the press—but they are no more excusable for that.
I have often thought that if there were any way in which the Post Office could be persuaded to withdraw the category of "registered newspaper" from a number of those journals and treat them as the comics they are, and if we could ensure that when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is considering extending VAT he draws a clear distinction between newspapers and comics and puts the latter—The Sun, the Daily Star and the Daily Mirror—in that comic category, he would be doing us all a favour. However, unfortunately, that is not a precise enough definition to assist us today.
I should like to draw a distinction in the examples that have been given so far. Some are matters merely of value judgments by editors. It is often said that one will never lose money by under-estimating the taste of the American people. Whether or not the same applies in this country is not something I would want to discuss with my constituents. Suffice it to say that in our endeavours to restore accuracy, we should never confuse our arguments for that with the right of editors to make value judgments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, who, sadly, is not in his place—but I do not criticise him for that—made a jolly amusing speech, in which he cited the way the popular press confuses the characters in soap operas with the real life actors who portray them, and how they interweave reality and fantasy in a way that is nonsensical, if amusing. However, provided such newspapers do not stray into printing inaccuracies and telling lies, people should be free to buy them if they choose.
The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) should be careful when he gives the recent example of the stories carried on the front pages of two tabloid newspapers concerning the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) because, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me saying so, that story was, as far as I know, factual; secondly, it taught me something that I did not know before—that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby held an Opposition post. Those stories also made interesting observations about the Leader of the Opposition's rather schizophrenic attitude to the management of his Front Bench team and to the interface between that team and the free market. The Sun and Daily 572 Mirror did us all a political service by drawing out the important lessons to be learned from the unfortunate episode in question.
I admit to having a love for a certain brand of Sunday journalism. Several marvellous examples of it have already been given. My favourite, which appeared in the News of the World many years ago, was a story headlinedNudist welfare man's wife runs off with Chinese hypnotist from Co-op bacon factory.What I love about that item is that, far from confusing me, it tells the whole story in its headline. It also contained every single element that sells the News of the World. It was marvellous. If that is the kind of newspaper people want to buy to read with their Sunday lunch, so be it. That is not a matter for us, and I urge right hon. and hon. Members not to concern themselves with amusing but irrelevant examples of an absence of taste, questionable judgment and the interweaving of fantasy with reality that makes up so much of the bulk of the popular press.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
The hon. Gentleman's speech is amusing, and much of it is to the point. However, does he agree that newspapers such as the News of the World are often guilty of gross invasion of the individual's privacy when they print titillating gossip? Such items may be nothing more than passing fantasy to those of us who glance at them, but they can do lasting damage to families, and often to the children involved. I believe that, coupled with a right of reply, there should be a restriction on invasion of privacy by newspapers.
§ Mr. Norris
I can honestly tell the hon. Gentleman that there have been few occasions during my time in the House when I have found myself in complete agreement with him. However, this is one of them. I was sorry that the Protection of Privacy Bill did not succeed in getting a Second Reading. Such legislation, combined with a measure of statutory ground for the law of confidence to underwrite the extraordinarily inadequate legislation we already have relating to people's privacy, is essential.
The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head because, in discussing the Bill, we may overlook those occasions when the press publish something that is true but is none the less extraordinarily damaging personally to the individuals concerned, and where it must be plain that that damage far outweighs any notion of public interest that might be served by such disclosures. Goodness knows, right hon. and hon. Members are vulnerable enough to such practices—where what is of interest to the public must be distinguished from what is in the public interest. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) is right when he asserts that the right of privacy is so important, because that goes beyond factual accuracy, as defined in clause 1 of the Bill, and can touch on the argument that accuracy per se is not in dispute.
I believe that, so far, the whole House is in accord. I hope that we shall not hear any speeches seeking to present the complacent view that really there is nothing to worry about. I say to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) that she can be certain that no Conservative Member takes lightly the present state of the gutter press—which is what it so often invites itself to be called. In any event, I wish to advance the debate further than merely exposing the extent of the nonsense that is often published. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie posed the more important question of what remedies are available now that the problem has been identified.
573 Reference has been made to the work of the Press Council. It is common ground between right hon. and hon. Members, and it is indefensible to argue otherwise, that, so far at least, the Press Council has proved singularly toothless. I cite as an example the Terry McCabe case involving The Sun, when it was clear that The Sun wholly and cynically disregarded the Press Council's findings—but it did worse than that. It reached the stage of rejecting the only authority that the Press Council has sought unto itself, which is the moral authority of its own pronouncements. The Sun said, in effect, "Fine—we understand all that the Press Council says—but the man is still a rogue," and so on. Such behaviour is insupportable. Given that there is no evidence—certainly not from the appointment of The Sun's own ombudsman—that that newspaper is changing its fundamental attitudes, one must question whether changes in the Press Council are likely to bring about the improvements that are needed.
Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper has an immensely difficult task. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie suggest( d that Mr. Blom-Cooper's words would be fine and his message cogent and one which the overwhelming majority of people would want to hear—and hoped that the press also would listen to it. However, the hon. Member was also right to introduce the important concept of profit. As long as the Press Council says it does not wish to impose financial penalties on offending newspapers, whatever chairman is imposed on the Press Council or invited to serve it—and Mr. Blom-Cooper may feel that it is an imposition—and however powerful may be that chairman's words, and no matter how frequently they are repeated, the Press Council's efforts will be as naught compared with the desire of newspaper proprietors to continue selling their salacious newspapers.
§ Mr. Roger King
My hon. Friend mentioned The Sun's appointment of its own ombudsman in rather dismissive terms. It may be a dismissive appointment, but as that ombudsman has only just been appointed, is it not reasonable to allow him a little time to see whether he has any teeth?
§ Mr. Norris
I acknowledge my hon. Friend's observation, and in a few moments I shall expand on some of the practical difficulties of implementing the Bill, which may mean that in the immediate future we shall have to hope that the reorganisation of the Press Council and unilateral endeavours of one kind or another by newspaper proprietors to put their own houses in order will produce improvements. I am somewhat cynical on both counts. As long as such rubbish sells newspapers there will be proprietors who will want—as the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie acutely observed—to use fiction rather than truth because the stories are juicier, there is much more public interest and they sell more newspapers. We must consider what we can do about that.
What are the remedies? I have dealt with the Press Council, but there is also the law of defamation, which has not been much spoken about so far in the debate. Why is the law of defamation not used more? The first reason is time and the second reason is cost. I shall deal with both those matters. It is not necessarily important on Second Reading to go into the minutiae of a Bill. One of my reservations about the hon. Gentleman's Bill relates to the 574 sheer impracticability of clause 4(4), which says that 28 days will be allowed for dealing with complaints. However, there is an escape section in the clause:unless it is not reasonably practicable to do so within that time limit.
That escape section would need to be deployed very quickly, or an army of officials will need to be appointed to the proposed Press Commission. This is not an easy matter and I fear that the Bill poses a dilemma about time. There is no qualitative test in clause I, no qualification on triviality or seriousness and that flaw in the Bill would need to be rectified in Committee. If it is not, thousands of people will go to the Press Commission saying that they want an opportunity to put matters right. However, access will be restricted to cases in which a judgment is made by the commission about seriousness and the Bill may well exclude the very people who are worst affected personally and who most feel the emotional consequences of misrepresentation.
§ Mr. Worthington
We recognise that in the early stages of any Bill there is likely to be a test period, and that during that time there may be more complaints about the Bill than there are later when things settle down. Does the hon. Gentleman accept the Bill's prime intention, that when newspapers know that when they get things wrong they will have to print a reply, they will make an effort to get things right? That would staunch the flow of complaints to the Press Commission.
§ Mr. Norris
I shall try to answer the hon. Gentleman exactly because I have reached that matter in my speech. In endeavouring to fulfil the romantic desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) I did not approach this from a partisan standpoint. I am attempting a logical analysis. I recognise the accuracy of the description by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale of the green ink element. He amusingly described that in an article as the "white plastic carrier bag" phenomenon. We all know about constituents who arrive at the surgery with burgeoning bags of letters.
We all understand that phenomenon, and to some degree it is a rather sad fact of life. Many people believe themselves to be the subject of some grievance or other, some great wrong or injustice. I can see such people flooding to the Press Commission to ask it to put right what they see as a massively important grievance. Those people will have no difficulty whatever in defining the terms of clause 1(1) about the correction of "any inaccuracy in editorial material" affecting them. We are into that dangerous field of misrepresentation, partiality and omission. What is the truth? We have been asked to keep our speeches short, and if any hon. Member attempts to define truth he should bear in mind your sensible stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The clause sensibly attempts to deal merely with factual accuracy. That is commendable, but there is a lack of qualification of the degree of seriousness. If the clause is to have any import it will have to be revised. My hon Friend the Member for Northfield was accused by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) of making a Canute-like intervention. Canute's rather interesting and long-lasting exercise on the coast was to show his court the fallibility of a mortal king, but it is taken to convey the 575 idea of trying to resist the irresistible. If we are not careful, the Bill's proposers may put themselves in the position of King Canute.
§ Mr. Roger King
I should like to hear my hon. Friend's views on a major issue. Will he consider investigative journalism and the reporting of accidents of which we have had so many recently, the last one being the M1 aircraft crash? The banner headlines that day might well have said, "Engine explodes", or "Engine failure causes accident". Does my hon. Friend think that, under the terms of the Bill, Pratt and Whitney would have been entitled to say in banner headlines the day after the M1 accident that the engine did not explode? That is how I understand the Bill and why I say that there will be problems if we allow it to proceed.
§ Mr. Norris
I hope that my hon. Friend will develop his argument if he is lucky enough to be called. The important issue that he raises is one of the reasons why I want to give the Bill a Second Reading. The Committee will have to do a great deal of work to resolve that matter.
§ Mr. Worthington
How could one possibly believe that, if a false headline accused Pratt and Witney of being responsible for a crash, Pratt and Witney would go to the press commission? It would go to the courts.
§ Mr. Norris
That allows me to move immediately to the final part of my speech. As I have said, there is an existing remedy for such cases. However, the difficulties with the remedy are temporal—I have dealt with that—financial. That is the simple risk that an ordinary citizen must take if he or she wishes to commit the massive funds that may be necessary to mount an action of defamation against a large international newspaper group.
The answer to the problem lies in the recent Green Paper on the reform of our legal services and the concept of the contingency fee. A litigant will go to his professional advisers and say, "I believe that I have an absolutely clear case in law. I do not have the resources to prosecute the case, but, if you are sufficiently persuaded by the evidence that I can lay before you, can we arrange for you to deal with this case on a contingency fee basis?" In simplistic terms, it is no win, no fee, which will minimise the risk to the litigant.
That achieves two objectives. First, it sifts the trivial and vexatious—the green ink and the white plastic bag—from the serious. That is a welcome mechanism. Secondly, it allows a wronged person to have practical access to that important part of a newspaper proprietor's anatomy to which it is necessary to have access if one wishes to change facts and attitudes, and that is the area immediately adjacent to his pocket. Of late, with the Archer award, the Elton John award, the Koo Stark award and others, the courts have shown that they are prepared to deal with cynical trivialisation and lying. That is where the practical remedy lies.
I commend to my right hon. and hon. Friends, first, the idea that the Bill should be given a Second Reading, because it deserves one. We deserve to see whether some of the real difficulties in the Bill, which I am sure that its sponsor himself acknowledges, can be put right. Secondly, I ask my hon. Friends to press for the implementation of the Green Paper proposals so that litigants who currently 576 do not have resources can have a mechanism by which they can take on the press barons and start rectifying the great wrongs that are currently being done to them.
§ Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North)
I support this modest and long overdue Bill. I shall say some serious things about this serious Bill, but I shall begin on a lighter note. The last time I debated the press was at the Oxford Union, where I moved a motion criticising the role of the British press. I say that with some embarrassment, because I do not think that that is a place where Left-wing Socialists should find themselves. It is a story against myself. Opposing me in the debate was a former Member of the House, the then editor of The Daily Telegraph, William Deedes. In the debate, I referred to the misreporting by The Daily Telegraph of a 1983 election rally that I addressed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). The article referred to fighting that had broken out in the gallery at that meeting. My right hon. Friend will know, as I know, that no such thing took place, but it was given great prominence in The Daily Telegraph.
I telephoned and demanded a right of reply. I got as far as the assistant editor. Six months later, at a debate I flung the incident at Bill Deedes and demanded an answer. I got it. He said that he entirely accepted my version of the story, and that, at 10 o'clock on Monday morning, he would summon people to his office. "Heads would roll," he said. "At 12 o'clock," he said, "the NUJ chapel would call a strike and I would have to reinstate them."
I made my name in the city of Bradford in a discussion on the press. It concerns the National Union of Journalists and two cases that illustrate what this debate is about. To establish myself in the Labour movement in Bradford, I joined the Bradford trades council. We had a resolution from the NUJ dealing with a case in Brighton. It involved two foster parents who had cared for a young girl for several years. That resolution became a big issue in the press. A press campaign was waged to change the law on the rights of foster parents. That may have been correct. It was obscurely reported in the newspapers that the mother neglected the child and was completely irresponsible. In a serious paper we read of the life of the women who had been subject to enormous strain and problems. We certainly had two sides to the story. The other case was never put. The NUJ went to the Bradford trades council and demanded that the law be changed. I felt that it should be done in a more careful and considered manner. The chairman said, "Does everyone agree with that? Is it unanimous?" I said that I opposed the resolution.
I referred to a women called Mrs. Raum. She became involved in a mass media campaign. She was a landlady—a widow—who drew income from rent. She became a national hero in the popular press. It said that she had a terrible tenant who paid her only modest rents, would not accept a rent increase, and took her to the rent tribunal. The tenant's side was never put. The tenant was an east European refugee who came to this country as a victim of Hitlerism. He had a modest job as a waiter, working in a restaurant. He was hounded by the press and physically assaulted, his house was broken into, he was harassed at 577 work, but his side of the story was never put. I raised the matter at the trades council. After discussion, the resolution was withdrawn.
That happened 20 years ago. That waiter was incapable of defending himself. The same was true of the mother who wanted her daughter back. People are hounded. They do not have the right to reply, and they have no means of reply. The situation is far worse today.
I shall slightly upset my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), as I shall say a few words about the power of the press. Hon. Members do not want a succession of politicians dealing with their own personal experiences, but my family became the centre of press attention. It is an awesome, terrifying experience to have 50 people camped outside one's modest house in a small village. Those people terrified not only my family but the neighbours. Some people were camped outside all night. They thrust cameras through the windows and hounded my children. My son was badly beaten by Fascist cowards who could fight only on the basis of four to one. His jaw was fractured and he had to be put into hospital. My daughter's education was ruined because of the hounding that she received at school. My wife was spat at and refused service in shops. We received hate mail with razor blades sewn into envelope seals. I have received letters containing swear words and communications addressed to "the Trotskyist bastard, Bradford." It is a terrible experience for one's family to live through that.
I am a politician and a member of a movement. I have some ability and some experience of how to reply. How much worse is that experience for an ordinary member of the public who is not used to conversing with the media, debating or expressing an opinion or is unable to turn to friends and allies for support? It is much more important that people have the right to reply in those circumstances.
I should like to make some criticism of the parliamentary lobby and the Press Gallery. One of the accusations that we often make is that journalists do not read clause 3 of the NUJ code of conduct—which says that they should check their stories—or other clauses in the code. How many stories emanate from correspondents talking to hon. Members not about hon. Members but about constituents? In the past, those stories have been taken as gospel and retold in the local press.
Some years ago, I attended a meeting in Newcastle. Over the previous four or five years, the only time that I had been to the north of England was to visit the firm Corning, which is better known to Sunderland as J. A. Jobling or perhaps to hon. Members as Pyrex heat-resistant glassware. I went there purely as part of my job and intended immediately to travel home. When I arrived, I found the television and radio, press, and accounts in the local press saying that I was part of a Left-wing plot to pinch the seat of an hon. Member in Newcastle, Gateshead or Sunderland. Following her bitter experience in 1982, my wife was not prepared to let this issue go. She phoned every editor and television and radio company involved. She tracked down the story to a lobby correspondent, and by using threats of going to the Press Council and of suing—we certainly could not have afforded to sue—we tracked down the lobby correspondent, who said "I got the story in good faith from a Member of Parliament and I will not disclose his name." I do not think that people have a right to such protection.
Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)
I should like to underline the point that my hon. Friend is making. Some lobby correspondents get the correct story, but deliberately issue it as a false one. I have a good example of that. My hon. Friends who represent Liverpool constituencies sent a letter to the Soviet ambassador asking whether, when Mr. Gorbachev visits Britain, it will be possible for him to visit our city. The letter was sent to most lobby correspondents so that they knew what we were doing. The article in the local paper—in inverted commas and under the name of a lobby correspondent here—says:And the MPs ... also made clear they also wanted Mr. Gorbachev to be made aware of the 'unjust decision in imposing surcharges on Mr. Hatton and the 48 ether councillors'".Of course, Mr. Hatton was one of the 48 councillors involved, but we never mentioned his name or invited Mr. Gorbachev to see Mr. Hatton, who is no longer in the Labour party—and I am not, saying whether that is right or wrong. That part of the article is in inverted commas and appears to be a quote from the letter, but it is untrue. My hon. Friend is right to say that that is the sort of thing with which we must deal.
§ Mr. Wall
One must give a little flavour of one's experiences with journalists and the way in which they operate. During the period that I was under attack, I went to a party—an entirely non-political party—that was being held by a friend of mine of many years. I was talking with two female neighbours of his in the kitchen and it suddenly dawned on them who I was. They said, "You're the fellow who has been in all the papers." I was a little embarrassed and reluctant and said "I am, but I do not want to discuss politics." One of them said, "Did you know that the Daily Mail sent a reporter to knock on every door in our village"—which is adjacent to mine—"to ask whether anyone knew anything against you or your wife?" When I challenged the Daily Mail about this some weeks later, the reporter merely said "You were clean, weren't you?"
I was given a substantial pay rise by the newspapers, which implied that I was a well-paid Socialist who had a company car. I was quite pleased, but even that had its problems. My colleagues went to the firm's personnel department and demanded the same money as I was getting and all hell broke loose. My bank manager wrote to me and said "If you are earning all that money, and as you have an overdraft with me, why do you not pay the money to us?" My wife wanted to know where I was keeping the other woman.
A reporter telephoned the chief executive of my company, who is a highly successful man and has made an even bigger name for himself recently. He was not sure whether it was the Daily Mail or the Daily Express that telephoned him. The reporter, a fellow trade unionist from the NUJ, asked him, "Why have you not sacked him?" He said, "He is not employed here as a politician but as a houseware buyer. He does his job well enough and we have no reason to interfere with his political life." He then asked the chairman of this £180 million a year company, "Are you a Trotskyist?" That shows the sort of journalist with whom we must deal.
The power of the press is being more and more concentrated. I am sure that in last week's debate attention was drawn to the well-known fact that we have six multi-millionaires running newspapers—Murdoch, 579 Maxwell, Lord Stevens, who runs United Newspapers, Viscount Rothermere, who runs the Associated Newspapers Group, Conrad Black and Tiny Rowland. There are also the Guardian group and the Independent group. Six multi-millionaires who represent multinational companies have enormous control and ownership of not only the national press but the local press, magazines, printing, independent television and radio and, tomorrow, satellite television. I am not sure that we shall hear so much opposition to satellite television, given that two fellow hon. Members have achieved salaries of £30,000 a year. Nevertheless, that is an awesome concentration of power.
That power is used to defend a system that gives the owners their privileges and income. The Maxwell group says that it supports the Labour party, but its support is limited by the condition that the Labour party adopts and carries out policies according to the interests of Maxwell and the ideas with which he agrees. It is difficult enough if that awesome power is used against a political party, but it is a terrifying power when it is used against the individual. The least that we can do is defend the individual's right of privacy and give him the right of reply.
I believe—this is not Labour party policy—that we must devise a democratic alternative to one-party state control—such as is used against the media in eastern Europe and other countries—and what we have in Britain, which is an unbridled press run by unbridled commercialism and dominated by a handful of multi-millionaires and the large advertisers.
This is my view, not the view of the sponsors of the Bill or of the Labour party. We must move towards public ownership of the printed medium, we should subsidise it publicly and we should allocate money on a basis such as a percentage of the vote that each party receives at the previous general election. We shall never have fairness for the individual until we have such a system. The least that we can do is to support the Bill.
§ Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)
Every hon. Member who has spoken has his stock of inaccuracies that were either not corrected or corrected too late. Every hon. Member has a stock of stories about objectionable journalists. I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) when he said that there was something to worry about, and every speech that I have heard this morning supports that proposition. I asked the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) what the relationship would be between the Press Council and the Press Commission that he proposed. I did not receive a clear answer and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to be in the Chamber at the moment. However, I see his hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) nodding to the effect that he will convey messages.
I am still puzzled by the roles of the Press Council and the Press Commission as they emerge in the Bill. Many stories were told, including those of the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall) and the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), who referred to examples of thoroughly bad conduct by journalists. But it is important to realise that the examples 580 of reporters at Lockerbie trying to obtain information from the relatives of victims and the objectionable investigative journalism to which the hon. Member for Bradford, North referred will not be caught by the Bill. The Bill is confined to the correction of inaccuracies. There will still be a role for a body such as the Press Council with power to investigate more general complaints about the conduct of journalists. I should be worried if the Bill were passed in its present form without alteration of the powers of the Press Council or clarification of the roles of the Press Council and the Press Commissison. The public would be confused by the two competing rights to complain to the Press Council or the Press Commissison.
§ Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham)
My hon. and learned Friend is right. An additional problem is the relationship of the new quasi-judicial body to the libel laws. Has my hon. and learned Friend any views on that?
§ Mr. Ground
The question of libel and the power to get to the bottom of allegations and to investigate the truth thoroughly are matters that we shall consider in the debate. I shall touch on them later in my speech.
One matter that should be considered if the Bill receives a Second Reading is whether such powers should be given to the Press Council rather than to the Press Commission. I can see a case for giving them to the Press Council, if the House decides that it should continue to exist, but whether it is right to create such powers in an additional body—the Press Commission—is a matter about which I have reservations.
I was concerned to hear the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie refer to providing a second-class form of law for those who have no protection at present. It is attractive, when the present system is inadequate, to do something that is better than nothing. But that is a dangerous principle when we are considering people's rights to which we attach importance. One of my problems about the Press Commission is how it will decide the accuracy and inaccuracy of matters in contention. I am worried about the limitation on the number of witnesses that is proposed and I want to know how the Press Commission is to arrive at the truth when there are matters in contention.
I wonder whether the sponsors of the Bill were encouraged by the number of complaints in France and West Germany, to which the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) referred, and whether that has led them to think that it would be an easy task to perform here. I wonder whether a number of part-time members, who would be entitled to a reasonable amount of time off, might find the time off that was available was pretty unreasonable when they had finished considering complaints.
§ Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
The hon. and learned Gentleman talks about having time off, but I have never seen him before.
§ Mr. Ground
It shows the degree of inattention that some hon. Members have shown to our proceedings. I 581 resent the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman has made. The attention that he has paid to debates may be somewhat at fault.
§ Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)
I am sure that, as a lawyer, the hon. and learned Gentleman would rather that all these matters went to court and provided more revenue for lawyers, but if these matters went to court rather than to the commission the result would be long delays, inordinate expense and an uncertain pattern of judgments.
§ Mr. Ground
I have no objection to creating tribunals for the enforcement of rights. Much of my practice as a barrister is before tribunals—the hon. Gentleman may object, but they, too, provide work for lawyers. That is not the point about which I am concerned. I am concerned about the provision of a satisfactory remedy. I accept that a tribunal with adequate powers would be perfectly adequate for that. But the proposer of the Bill set it up on a second-class basis and we are entitled to wonder whether that is what we want.
The last Royal Commission on the press was surprised by the number of complaints that had been received and by the huge amount of correspondence that the Press Council had had in connection with complaints. In its report in 1977 it said:The files also show that a considerable number of letters is often needed before a case can be considered by the Complaints Committee.The commission will be bound to go into a great deal of correspondence and there will be considerable work. The hon. Member for Bradford, North and I have many Asian immigrants in our constituencies and we are aware of the many publications in immigrant languages. Those immigrants show a lively interest in controversial matters, on which they can be quite argumentative at times and on which they often have very different points of view. They would certainly want to be included in any right afforded under the Bill. The commission would therefore need facilities for translating from immigrant languages such as Punjabi, which would further complicate and add to the burden of the commission. I seriously wonder whether the task of the commission has been underestimated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) quoted from the Royal Commission's remarks about the Press Council. Not much has been said in favour of the Press Council today and it is therefore fair and right to record the fact that the Royal Commission report was in some respects quite complimentary about the work of the Press Council. Paragraph 20.3 said:Though we make many criticisms in this chapter, we emphasise at the outset that their virtues are great and we record our recognition of the service which the Press Council has given to the community for nearly a quarter of a century.All hon. Members will have seen huge numbers of corrections of inaccuracies in newspapers-in part they are the result of the work that the Press Council has done or of its presence to adjudicate upon complaints.
The Royal Commission carefully considered the question of the right to reply. I am somewhat surprised that no hon. Member has so far dealt with the reasons why the Royal Commission concluded that it did not want a right of reply in the press. There are sound democratic reasons connected with freedom for that decision.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman is not intending to 582 quote selectively from the 1977 Royal Commission report, and he is making an interesting and constructive speech, but the very paragraph that he quoted went on to talk about the right of reply in the following terms:Since the system has worked for a number of years in West Germany, we see no practical reason why it should not do so here. The right provides a prompt remedy, acts as a sanction and promotes accuracy of reporting.I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will concede that that was also the commission's view of the right of reply.
§ Mr. Ground
I agree that the report was critical of the Press Council in a number of respects and accepted that, if the system worked well in Germany, it could be made to work here, although not necessarily so easily. I accept the principle that if we wanted it to work, it could be made to work here.
Although the Royal Commission was very worried about abuses by the press and the inadequacy of the Press Council, it failed to conclude that we should have such a legal right of reply because it was anxious about the interference that that would involve in the ultimate freedom of the press. It therefore shrank from the idea of any form of intervention in the operations of the press by a third party. That is an important constitutional consideration which the House should be examining. One has only to remember the debates that we have had in the House this week to realise that the idea of appointing Home Office nominees to issue corrections to factual inaccuracies in the press is a constitutional innovation about which we should be very careful. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie back in his seat. I suggest to him that, if the Bill goes further today, we should seriously consider whether the power should be given to the Press Council rather than to a body that will be the creature of the Home Secretary and composed of nominees. That would be constitutionally less objectionable because the Press Council is set up in the tradition of self-regulation which has been an important feature of our constitution and way of doing things for many years.
Difficult questions are involved in determining whether legal aid should be granted for defamation actions. The right course for private clients who have been wronged by newspapers or on the radio is often not to spend their money and time on bringing proceedings. That applies even to those who have money, who have a good case and would get damages. That is a perfectly proper decision for the private individual to make. It is questionable whether legal aid should be granted for defamation cases, given the present availability of legal aid.. There are many cases that come before tribunals—for example, the social security commissioners—for which legal aid is not at present available even though they involve important benefits and professional representation could be extremely beneficial.
Several Governments have shown considerable sympathy for the idea of extending legal aid to the social security commissioners' decisions and to other tribunals. The inspector who decided on the Windscale inquiry recommended that there should be some form of legal aid, or at least public funding, for objectors to a proposal for the processing of nuclear waste. When people have had fears about the use of nuclear power and there have been important questions to be ventilated the objectors have often not had the resources to canvass their objections at an inquiry. Serious suggestions have been made that public funds should be made available to such objectors. At 583 present none of those causes has legal aid and in my hierarchy of priorities they are stronger causes for legal aid than the pursuit of every action for defamation which would be recommended in accordance with the principles of legal aid.
I was also puzzled by the comments of the proposer of the Bill about juries. He told us that he wants the press to be punished in some way or at least rectified in its bad behaviour, but when in a few isolated cases the courts awarded substantial damages for defamation he suggests that the decision on those cases should not be in the hands of juries. If those damages had been wholly wrong or so unreasonable that they were completely out of line with other decisions on damages, the victims of those awards—the press—would have had a perfectly good right of appeal. It is interesting that the newspapers concerned either did not exercise that right or were unsuccessful in a number of cases. I ask the proposer of the Bill to consider that aspect of the matter because it seems to conflict with his main objectives.
I am not altogether convinced about the Bill. I see considerable difficulty and constitutional objections on the lines that I have discussed, but I am still listening to the arguments because the matter requires pretty urgent consideration by the House and by the bodies responsible for the press.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
Like other hon. Members, I welcome the Bill, which is long overdue, and congratulate the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) on introducing it. As a journalist of 20 years, I believe that all serious journalists will support the measure. I know that many journalists are deeply ashamed of the discredit brought upon the profession by the behaviour of some of its members.
The press has had many years to put its house in order. It has chosen not to do so, so it is not entitled to object to the fact that the House is now taking such measures. I am also a former editor of Tribune, a modest but distinguished publication, an honour that I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). We always corrected mistakes as soon as they were drawn to our attention. That tradition was passed from editor to editor. Furthermore, however rough the going got—and my right hon. Friend and I had our differences—we always gave the right to reply to anyone of any political shade who wished to respond to anything we published in the paper.
I welcome the Bill as someone who briefly displaced my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) in The Sun demonology as the most odious man in Britain. My attempt to secure justice for the six innocent men convicted for the Birmingham pub bombings—which, I must be fair, received a fairly sympathetic press—provoked a front-page lead in The Sun headed:Loony MP Backs Bomb GangI made no complaint about that. Indeed, I have it framed and hanging on the wall of my study. However, it is certainly one of the functions of the lower end of our press to hound dissidents. In a free press we expect journalists to dispute people's views, but it is unacceptable for journalists to go searching through the private lives of 584 people who take a position of principle outside the consensus in the hope that they can be discredited or smeared in some back-door way.
Anyone denounced in that way will know that such denunciations trigger off a huge wave of hate mail from some of the disturbed people who read papers such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Sun and the News of the World. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Wall) gave us some rather graphic examples from his own case. Such letters are sometimes accompanied by threats of violence and may even result in actual physical assaults.
To illustrate my point, I shall quote two of the most extreme examples that have come to my attention in the past few years. The first concerns a young man, Peter Tatchell, with whom I was on the same parliamentary short list for Bermondsey in 1981. He is a decent, hard-working young man who would have made a good Member of Parliament. He lives modestly in the council flat in Bermondsey where he has always lived. His selection provoked an unprecedented wave of hatred, during which no falsehood was too outrageous to repeat.
I shall quote from a recent article in The Independent, which some hon. Members may have seen, in which Peter Tatchell set out the effect that the campaign had on his life subsequently. He described it at greater length and more graphically in a good book, "The Battle for Bermondsey". In the article, Peter Tatchell described what happened to him in the years following the campaign. He said:For the journalists who wrote the stories I am now old news and they have largely forgotten me: the bigots whose prejudices they aroused have not. Over the last six years I have experienced organised campaigns of harassment in which people have had such things as carpets, refrigerators, hearing aids, kitchen cupboards and encyclopaedias delivered to my home. Bricks have been thrown through my windows, swastikas painted on my front door, my locks have been jammed with superglue and nails, and rubbish has been dumped on my doorstep.I have received everything in the post from dog droppings to bullets, razor blades, white feathers, sexually sadistic diagrams, invitations to my own funeral and newspaper photographs of myself embellished with drawing of daggers in my throat and guns blowing out my brains.My phone has brought me a stream of obscene late calls and death threats, including middle-of-the-night calls where the caller very calmly and quietly utters a single word associated with death, such as coffin or morgue, and hangs up.I have been punched and spat at in the street, threatened with knives and broken bottles on the Tube: I have had cans, wood, screwdrivers fruit, coins, paint and stones hurled at me from passing cars …While riding my bike I have been driven into the gutter by motorists shouting abuse, usually along the lines of: `F--- off back to Russia, you communist poor … . Since returning to my pre-Bermondsey employment as a freelance journalist I have found that my ability to earn a living has been damaged. On one occasion, when seeking a job as a television researcher, it was suggested that though I had good professional credentials the 'negative public perception' of my character made employing me a problem. I did not get the job".
He said that it is impossible for him to beselected again as Labour parliamentary candidate. Even those within the Labour Party who tell me they think I would make a good MP have hesitated to support my selection because they fear the Press coverage during the Bermondsey by-election has made me unelectable.
That is a shameful episode in recent political history. Many people of all persuasions, including other candidates in the Bermondsey by-election, have remarked upon it.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
I was the Conservative candidate, otherwise known as the sacrificial lamb, in the Bermondsey by-election. It brings great shame on all journalists that members of the press treated Peter Tatchell in such a way and deliberately lied, particularly since they knew what they were doing—they admitted as much to me. Those who did so included people whom I had otherwise thought to be respectable journalists and some now work on heavyweight newspapers. I agree with all that the hon. Gentleman said.
§ Mr. Mullin
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is to his credit that, despite any political differences we may have, he recognises such behaviour for what it is.
One point that has not been mentioned very much in the debate is that such behaviour is not, I regret, confined to journalists who work for the popular press. There are journalists who work on the so-called heavy newspapers who succumb to such behaviour.
The low point in the campaign against Peter Tatchell was the front page headline in The Sun which read:Red Pete goes to Gay OlympicsThat was an entirely false story. On other occasions, photographs were touched up to make him appear effeminate, and all sorts of false suggestions were made about him, with the result on his life that he has described.
No attempt was made to correct any of the untruths, despite the fact that they were repeatedly drawn to the attention of those responsible for them. The Press Council, even though it was told chapter and verse about the matter, took months to reply to complaints and refused to intervene. It suggested that the matter should be taken up with the newspapers concerned, even though initial letters to it had made it clear that that had already been done without success. The result of the election is a matter of record.
The other example I wish to quote arises from a strike of train drivers in 1982. Any prominent trade unionist involved in an industrial dispute knows that he or she and his or her family are liable to become the target in a carefully organised wave of hatred aroused by our so-called free press. We know that it is the press that inspires the hatred because many of the death threats and much of the abuse are accompanied by newspaper cuttings.
In the spring of 1982 the train drivers' union, ASLEF, invited me to look through the hate mail prompted by the media coverage of its dispute with British Rail earlier that year. The hate mail filled nine thick files, and it was an enduring monument to the dark forces that are at the beck and call of our free press.
The hate mail began on 4 January, when The Sun and the Daily Mail printed pictures of the cottage in Essex of Mr. Ray Buckton, who was then the general secretary of ASLEF. It was headedWho has two homes, three cars and does not go to work by train?That was the headline in The Sun over a grossly misleading account of Mr. Buckton's lifestyle. The facts were that Mr. Buckton rented from the union a modest house in Edgware, owned a cottage in Essex and had one car.
The arson threats began immediately:What a lovely little swallow's nest for a petrol bombwrote one Daily Mail reader. We know it was a Daily Mail reader because he had taken the trouble to append the cutting. Across the bottom he had writtenWon't that thatch burn.586 Many of the arson threats were delivered direct to the cottage; the Daily Mail had thoughtfully provided its readers with the address. The telephone calls to ASLEF's head office—incidentally, this was well before the strike began—started a few days later. "We hope he has got a good insurance policy on his cottage," said one caller on 12 January. "We know where the cottage is. It will be up in smoke" said another.
The first strike took place on 13 January, and the Daily Express got in on the act with a front-page story headedNo wonder Ray Buckton is smiling—rail strike leader goes to work by car.Underneath was a picture of a smiling Ray Buckton, who was said to benot unduly worried about being tagged the most unpopular man in Britain".This prompted, among the more printable letters, one which saidDear Mr. Buckton,How does it feel to be the most hated man in Britain? I think you and your drivers are the most selfish, traitorous, despicable, opportunist bastards in the community. I know what you look like and I am going to wait outside your union office one evening and when you emerge I am going to smash your face in.Between them, the Mail, The Sun and the Express sell 8 million copies a day. From the day on which that strike started, the readers of these papers were not permitted access to a dispassionate discussion of the issues involved. I appreciate that we might disagree about the issues, but the readers were not offered either side of the story. Instead, they were fed a daily diet of lies and misinformation, and in some cases they were openly incited to violence.
To begin with, most of the poison was directed at Ray Buckton personally. By contrast, no newspaper thought that the lifestyle of the British Rail chairman, who was then Sir Peter Parker, relevant to a discussion of the dispute, and it is a fair bet that Sir Peter had a friendlier postbag.
Meanwhile, letters from angry commuters all over the country poured into ASLEF. They came mainly from addresses in Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire, and seemed to be written by fans of the BBC's "Any Questions?" Anonymous letters were variously signed "Taxpayer", "Pensioner" or "Disgusted of Claygate". General Jaruzelski seemed to have a number of admirers in Surrey. One person wroteIf you were in Poland at the moment, you would probably be shot, and a jolly good thing too.Many Daily Mail and Daily Express readers seemed to be under the impression that ASLEF was a tool of the Kremlin. The level of debate was not very high.Horrible Red, go back to Moscow",one Daily Mail reader scrawled across a cutting from the paper.Dishonest rat, go to Russia",another had written across a Cummings cartoon from the Sunday Express.
By the time the strike entered its third week The Sun turned even nastier and launched a major campaign to criminalise all train drivers. On 2 January under the front page headline, "Taken for a ride", the paper carried allegations suggesting that train drivers were fiddling work rosters and drinking on duty. The source of the allegations was two young assistant drivers who apparently had been offered up to £300 for their story. One is quoted as saying: 587Thanks to Ray Buckton and ASLEF…a driver or assistant due to work on his rest day is paid double time for lying in bed asleep.The story was also given two inside pages under the headingThe drivers earn double time just by lying in bed",which was printed in letters l½ in high. No sub-editor saw fit to clothe the quote in quotation marks or even to introduce a hint of qualification. The message was clear; all train drivers are on the fiddle.
By the next day cracks had started to appear in the story. It emerged that one of The Sun's sources, Max Wallace, had appeared in court that very week charged with falsifying work records. That embarrassing news was broken to readers in a story tucked away at the bottom of an inside page, ingeniously headed:Accused Max stays firm over fiddlers.Pride of place was given to a story across two pages headed in letters 2 in high:Whose head do I kick in?That was alleged to be a quote from an anonymous train driver, summing up his mates' reaction to the Sun's revelation. The message was clear: train drivers are not only fiddlers, but they are violent.
A few days later it emerged that the other source of The Sun's story, Geoffrey Leighson, had twice been sacked by British Rail for unsatisfactory work and bad time keeping. That news was witheld from readers. At King's Cross railwaymen hit back, in the only way they knew how, in defiance of their union. They blacked the handling of Murdoch's newspapers—a far more effective method than complaining to the Press Council. As a result two ASLEF officials were awarded a half page right of reply in The Sun for the five pages of vitriol which had previously appeared.
§ Mr. Roger King
The hon. Gentleman is recounting stories of about seven years ago. I expect that he will be bringing forward more up-to-date stories. Will he, for example, denigrate the vilification of P and O management by newspapers for its alleged conduct over the Townsend Thoresen disaster? Will he join in the defence against the vilification heaped on London Regional Transport executives, who were somehow considered wholly responsible for the King's Cross fire? In the event they may well have had some responsibility for it, but they were tried in the press without any right of reply. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in saying that they, too, should have had a fair hearing.
§ Mr. Mullin
Yes, I hope that what unites the hon. Gentleman and me is the belief that anybody, however strong or controversial his views, should be allowed a fair hearing. The basis of democracy is the free flow of information. The electorate is permitted access to all views contending for recognition and can choose between them. That cannot occur if only one view is presented. I shall be as robust as the hon. Gentleman in defending anybody who suffers in the same way. I am sure that the management of P and O did not suffer as some of these people did. Whether or not it did, I shall certainly defend anybody denigrated in this way.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)
I wonder whether my hon. Friend or the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) has any evidence whatever that the 588 P and O chairman ever made a complaint which was not published. That would be very different from the railwaymen.
§ Mr. Mullin
I do not know about that, but if the hon. Member catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, he will undoubtedly help us on that.
The hon. Member for Northfield said that the stories happened seven years ago. They did, but matters got a great deal worse and today hon. Members have described many incidents that have happened since then.
I shall resume the story of ASLEF. Two detailed accounts show the effect that this has on people's lives. The Sun felt that it deserved to be congratulated. It published a page of readers' letters under the headline "Well done our Sun", which was subtitled:At last someone has had the courage to tell us the truth.It had been a great week for British journalism.
By now the hate mail was flooding into ASLEF's head office. The switchboard was jammed with abusive telephone calls. The staff had to be locked into the building. For them it was nothing new. In past disputes they had had excreta and bloodstained rags pushed through the door and eggs thrown into the building. Several newspapers carried incitements to violence against train drivers—even the Sunday Telegraph, which is not a popular paper or one that we associate with the gutter press. In the Sunday Telegraph of 17 January 1982 Auberon Waugh advised train travellers to carry a stout length of ropein case it becomes necessary to hang the driver.
§ Mr. Flannery
To bring matters up to date, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) wants, some time ago I asked a Minister a perfectly civilised question about what had happened in Gibraltar. The following day in The Times—which has the same owner as The Sun—a huge cartoon appeared that showed me with a bottle of blood in my hands. On it was printed the word "Victim". It also showed my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), who had asked a perfectly ordinary question about Gibraltar. All hon. Members who ask similar questions are subject to that treatment. I shed a little blood in the last war and I would defend liberty in this country once again, as I did before.
§ Mr. Mullin
Whatever may be the intention behind incitement of that kind, we know the results. The results are violence and people are threatened. On 2 February 1982 the Daily Mail carried a cartoon depicting a courtroom scene in which the jury were garlanding with flowers a man who had been accused of beating up a train driver.
I have gone into the matter in some detail because it is important to understand the kind of an effect that such stories can have. That story could be replicated, if properly documented, hundreds of times over. Anybody in this country who raises his head over the parapet on what appears to be an unpopular issue is liable to be on the receiving end of similar treatment.
I suspect that some hon. Members on both sides of the House—I do not say this by way of criticism, but it is more likely to happen to Opposition Members than it is to 589 Conservative Members—have been subjected to similar treatment: The people who control our media know that they have at their beck and call some very dark forces that can be unleashed at the drop of a hat and that can make a misery of the lives of anybody with guts. It does take guts, sometimes to raise one's head over the parapet.
§ Mr. Mullin
Forgive me. I have given way a couple of times and, as other hon. Members wish to speak, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), I am afraid that I cannot do so. I want in particular to accommodate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw.
We should be deluding ourselves if we thought that only The Sun and the Daily Mail were guilty. It is not just a handful of gutter newspapers that are involved. I recollect the attempt by the Evening Standard in an unscrupulous front page headline a year or two ago to link CND with the IRA. In a free country it should be possible to believe in the removal of nuclear weapons without being branded as a supporter of the IRA. That is a very modest ambition. No supporter of the removal of nuclear weapons from this country—I am glad to say that those supporters include a few Conservative Members—will complain if their views are debated robustly in the press, but they do not expect to find themselves associated with terrorists.
Some of the best smears appear in The Times, which is also a Murdoch paper now but it was not always so. I recollect a regular smear. I recollect also that it cropped up during the debate on the Common Market referendum. A diary story appeared in The Times suggesting that one of the children of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was being looked after in the private wing of a hospital. What that had to do with the debate on the referendum God alone knows.
I recollect also that in 1981 at the time of the deputy leadership elections for the Labour party, The Times ran what affected to be a full-page profile of the three candidates. I should point out that the journalist who wrote the article was not responsible for the following incident. Indeed, he told me afterwards that a paragraph had been removed from his story and the following paragraph inserted. It affected to list the assets of the candidates and stated:City sources speak of a Stansgate Trust registered with the Bank of Bermudaof which members of the Benn family were supposed to be beneficiaries.
That appeared in a full page article in The Times, but was not put there by the journalist who wrote the rest of the story. When I rang the Bank of Bermuda to check, it said that the story was not only not true but that nobody from The Times had telephoned the bank to find out whether there was such a trust. It proved extremely difficult to obtain a retraction from The Times and when it appeared, it was modest. I do not know the explanation of where that story came from to this day. Perhaps it should have been referred to in our recent debate about the security services.
When I first went to Saigon as a journalist to cover the Vietnam war, I was surprised to learn that the person who for years had reported from Saigon in The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph under the name of John Draw was not John Draw, but Nguyen Ngoc Phac, a captain on the general staff of the Saigon army, responsible for press 590 relations. In case anyone could be in any doubt about that, I should add that he could be seen appearing at the Reuters office to file his copy, still in his uniform.
I was a young and naive journalist and when I got home I took that matter up with the editor of The Daily Telegraph, then Mr. William Deedes. After some delay I received a reply stating that it was true that Mr. John Draw was really Nguyen Ngoc Phac, but that the editor did not believe that he was an officer on the general staff of the Saigon army. However, The Daily Telegraph forgot its lie later because someone else wrote in, pointing out the same thing, and received a reply saying, "Of course, it is all true. It is old hat—we told Mr. Mullin about it years ago."
§ Mr. Mullin
It was a giant fraud perpetrated on the readers of The Daily Telegraph—a newspaper which claims the highest standards.
I welcome the Bill although there are certain omissions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw pointed out, there are no mechanisms for dealing with the last of those several examples, although I concede that there is a mechanism for dealing with the other examples. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) referred to cheque book journalism, with which at the moment there is no mechanism for dealing. Perhaps that will be dealt with in Committee.
The Bill is not the whole solution, but it is a step along the road towards a free press. However, in due course we must look at some wider issues, such as whether in a democracy it is right that most of what we see and read is controlled by half a dozen multinational companies or extremely wealthy citizens. Although that omission is not relevant to the Bill, I give notice that that subject must be dealt with in due course.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)
It may be for the convenience—
§ Mr. Renton
I heard that. I can assure the House that it is not the same.
It may be for the convenience of the House if I now explain the Government's view of the Bill— [Interruption.] Well, that paragraph is the same.
I agree with the extremely interesting remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris). There is little point in congratulating the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) merely on his success in winning the ballot, but I join hon. Members of all parties who have congratulated the hon. Gentleman warmly on the reasonable and moderate way in which he commended his interesting Bill to the House.
Today's debate on a Bill that will give the public the right of reply, to correct inaccuracies in the press or in broadcasts, may be described as the second round in a three-round boxing match between the House of Commons and the press. The first round was last Friday, when my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) failed by a mere two votes to get a closure and therefore a Second Reading for his Bill, which dealt with the intrusion of the press into the private lives of 591 individuals. Today's debate is the second round. If it ends in time—after the speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), that is less likely than it was—we shall enter the third and final round, with the Bill of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) to remove pornography from the press and the work place.
Everyone who has taken part in the debates on both Bills so far will agree that the fact that the House has devoted two consecutive Fridays to matters of the press is a healthy reminder to editors and proprietors of Parliament's close interest in press standards. As I said last Friday, I have great sympathy with those who complain about press hounding of individuals, be it by invasion of their private lives or by publishing wholly inaccurate remarks. The truism,It must be true—it was in the papers—is one that we all ridicule today, but the fact remains that if a comment appears in the newspapers many people remember it and may come to assume that it is true.
It would be wrong for the House, in its current and justified burst of indignation against the press, to think that this is a completely new area of concern. A friend in the press, knowing that I was to speak in last Friday's debate and today, kindly lent me a copy of a book entitled "The Life and Death of the Press Barons"—and the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick, and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) used the phrase "the press barons" in his interesting contribution. That book brings home to me that, from the very beginning of popular journalism, there has always been a wish to increase circulation by publishing sensational and even prurient news.
"The Despatch" started in America in the 1830s, and its radical publisher gauged the tastes of an expanding market to perfection, with the promise that his newspaper would bea repository of all the gems and treasures, and fun and frolic, and news and occurrences of the week. It shall abound in police intelligence, in Murders, Rapes, Suicides, Burnings, Maimings, Theatricals, Races, Pugilism and all manner of accident by flood and field. In short, it will be stuffed with every sort of devilment that will make it sell.
§ Mr Renton
The truth is that in search of circulation, sometimes to pander to salacious interests, sometimes for power and to shake Governments, and sometimes for sheer devilment, ever since popular journalism started in the last century newspapers have regularly published stories that intrude on people's privacy and reputation.
Such practices were not confined to the tabloids. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South rightly reminded the House in his lengthy speech, The Times itself played a considerable part in the history of popular journalism. In the last century, its famous editor Delane claimed that it resembled the church in the middle ages—Enlightener of the people's consciences, a check against the abuse of power, a monitor against the vices.That was Delane's boast. His tactics worked, and The Times sold twice as many copies as all its rivals put together. One must face the fact that the story today is not greatly different. Sales of The Sun and News of the World 592 soar, while those of more serious newspapers stagger. To paraphrase Hilaire Belloc, their sins are scarlet but their papers are read.
§ Mr. George Walden (Buckingham)
I am interested in the historical perspective, which causes one to look at the future. Given that the printed media and broadcasting tend to influence one another, does my hon. Friend believe that the Broadcasting White Paper to be introduced next week will tend to raise or lower the standards of the British popular press?
§ Mr. Renton
My hon. Friend tries to lead me down an interesting path. I should like to follow him but we are to have a debate on Wednesday on the broadcasting White Paper, and it would be more convenient if I dealt with such matters then—if I am fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye.
The question of the powers and responsibilities of the press has as long a history as the press itself. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said in his interesting speech that papers were becoming ever more outrageous so as to attract readers. I hope that I have got his words right. Standards change in books and magazines just as they change in newspapers. Many things are printed today in all three of those areas of the media that would have greatly shocked and surprised many people a generation ago. Because of the change in standards it is hard to find a test of obscenity that can keep up with the pace of the times. That was why two of my hon. Friends tried to redefine obscenity in private Members' Bills that failed to get the support of the House.
The question before us is whether standards have changed to such an extent that it is right to look beyond the self-regulation of the Press Council, with which I shall deal later, to a novel form of legislation. I think that we all agree that those of us in public life are prone to public agitation about press matters. To appreciate that, one has only to look at the history of Bills which sought to change this area of the law. There was a great deal of debate about that last Friday. In many cases we have only ourselves to blame. How many times has an assiduous Member sent the text of his remarks to a local paper, only to find that the well-crafted paragraphs of his beautifully structured argument are left out in favour of the unwitting double entendre in the opening sentence? A former hon. Member, making a serious point in which he believed passionately, once began by saying, "There's a lot of bloody fools out there—and they deserve representation…". Fortunately, I do not think that he took himself so seriously as to demand a right of reply to the columns of humorous coverage that ensued.
No one denies that a problem exists, and that the question before us is that of how to deal with it. Before I move to the general principles of the Bill I shall spend a few minutes dealing with the practicalities or impracticalities of what it proposes. This takes up the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest and in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King). They spoke of the dangers of newspapers being flooded with trivialities. We have to consider seriously what could happen to the front page of a newspaper if the precise restrictions of the Bill were followed through. Clause 1(3) of the Bill says that when a person exercises his right of reply to correct an inaccuracy, 593The correction must be printed free of charge, it must be given the same prominence as the original item, and appear at the same place in the publication.What would he the effect of that on our national press?
I have with me a copy of yesterday's front page of The Times. The top headline says,Mitchell cannot work for Sky, says Labour leader".In heavy one and a half inch print there is the headline,Kinnock sacks top aide for taking TV job".I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) in the Chamber and hope that he will catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. The third headline says,'Hypocrisy and…bigotry' anger Tebbit".Those three headlines take up about eight inches of space. At least three people could demand a right of reply to that conjunction of headlines. First, the Leader of the Opposition could claim that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, with all due respect to him, was not a top aide.
§ Mr. Renton
I am coming to that.
Secondly, the Leader of the Opposition could claim that it was not because his colleague worked for Sky, the Murdoch channel, that he was sacked, but because as quoted lower down on the same page,the sight of a senior Labour front bencher interviewing and attacking and generally trying to take apart Labour colleagues and policies was inappropriate and would totally confuse the viewers.I rather doubt that it would confuse viewers. I think that viewers are already utterly confused about Labour policies—for instance on defence or the future of trade unions. The editor of The Times would be able to argue that part of his report was factually correct, but at least there would be a serious case for the Leader of the Opposition to argue that he should have the major headline in tomorrow's issue of The Times stating, "Mitchell sacked to keep Labour colleagues intact".
Then there is the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. He was a journalist with Yorkshire Television and the BBC. He is the author of several good books including "Can Labour Win Again" and "Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party". To him is attributed the reply on television that he did not belong to an organised political party, he belonged to Labour. He must have a case for demanding a right of reply. As for the hypocrisy and appalling bigotry which so angered my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), it is unclear whether that allegation applies to the leader of the Labour party or to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, who would surely want to clear himself of the possible accusation that it was he who was the appalling bigotted hypocrite.
I say this to the House in all seriousness because it is the type of consideration that the House must bear in mind. There is, finally, the position of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford. The third headline clearly implied that he was angered. Was he? He is one of the most prominent men in our party and he is well known for his calmness, his quiet nature, and his smoothness of behaviour. Having taken a job on the same current affairs programme as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, he may well wonder whether his own reputation will suffer as a result of the headline attributing anger to him.
On the basis of the hon. Gentleman's Bill, one could expect three correcting headlines tomorrow morning—all on the front page of The Times and occupying a great deal 594 of space along the lines of, "Mitchell not allowed to savage Labour", followed by "Tebbit: I am never angry", and last, perhaps as a counterweight, "Hattersley allowed to take job with Maxwell".
§ Mr. Worthington
I am grateful to the Minister, who is fulfilling my prophesy about his cheeriness but irrelevance on this. Several issues are involved. Why did the Guild of British Newspaper Editors say in 1985 that factual inaccuracies would be easy for them to deal with whereas misrepresentation or partiality would not be easy? Why is it that in no country in which right of reply legislation has been introduced is there a scenario such as the Minister described? Why does no country want to get rid of right of reply legislation on the basis that it is unworkable?
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Gentleman cannot dismiss my comments—which might be a little light-hearted given that it is a Friday afternoon—as not going to the heart of the problem. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) and the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) raised earlier the possibility of the right of reply being used to correct matters that are, in essence, trivial and not serious, but about which they felt deeply. I do not think that the Bill addresses that, and if it reaches Committee it should be closely examined. The serious principles of the Bill are one thing, but it is another whether the hon. Gentleman's proposals are practical.
§ Mr. Roger King
The scenario that my hon. Friend depicts may be worse than he suggests. The headlines retracting yesterday's headlines in The Times may appear not the day afterwards but in four or five week's time. By the time a complainant has gone to various committees and commissions and permission has been given to print a retraction, we would be reading revised headlines about something that happened months before.
§ Mr. Renton
I take that point. It is one of the aspects of delay in the bureaucratic processes that the Bill suggests.
There is a serious core to this subject. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale mentioned the disgraceful incidents following the Lockerbie accident. I have sympathy with those who have expressed dismay, not only in this debate, about the willingness of some editors to print ill-researched, factually inaccurate reports and their reluctance and subsequent great delay in printing corrections or retractions. We have heard many well-known examples of that in today's debate. Although we accept that the newspaper industry is competitive, competition should be able to take place without damaging lives, reputations and families through insensitive and misleading reporting.
The motives behind the Bill can be admired, but the subject does not lend itself to straightforward or uncontroversial legislation. We shall not oppose Second Reading, as we did not oppose the Protection of Privacy Bill last week. I assure the hon. Member for Cynon Valley that there is no question of the Government trying to whip votes on this.
The Government have a number of reservations about the philosophy of statutory control over the press and the procedures set out in the Bill. In some measure, the principle of the right of reply is rather like motherhood 595 and apple pie: everyone agrees with it in principle—it sounds very nice in the broad—but the problem lies in how to make it work in detail.
It is clear beyond doubt that a person who is the subject of inaccurate reporting in the press should have an opportunity to set the record straight. That, as the chairman of the Press Council said in 1978, was a "moral entitlement." It is questionable whether moral entitlement should be turned into a statutory right, as the Bill seeks to do.
Three Royal Commissions since the last war have argued strongly against giving responsibilities to the Government or Parliament for the conduct of the press. The most recent, in 1977, recommended against a statutuory right of reply. It said:The Press should not be subjected to a special regime of law, and should neither have special privileges nor labour under special disadvantages compared with the ordinary citizen.I should point out to some supporters of the Bill that if the Government had introduced a measure on the same terms as that put forward by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, the Opposition would certainly have attacked us bitterly on the grounds that this wicked Government were destroying the cherished freedom of the press. Let them look carefully into their own hearts before assuring me that that is not so.
I have further reservations about the establishment of a statutory Press Commission. Do we really need another quango alongside the Press Council, or does the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie envisage the Press Commission replacing the Press Council? Could we be sure that a body born of legislation would attract greater responsibility from, or foster greater responsibility within, the press?
My fear is that there would be, on the contrary, a danger of any idea of self-discipline being abandoned and of everything being treated as acceptable that did not render editors actionable in law. There is the further point, made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston, that the 21 commissioners on the Press Commission are to be appointed by the Secretary of State for Home Affairs. That is a generosity on the part of the honourable Member, but it rather surprises me. I remember certain concern being expressed by the Opposition when we recently appointed Lord Rees-Mogg to be chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council. More recently, there has been a little dispute about the appointment of Lord Chalfont as the deputy chairman of the IBA with, particularly, the new leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats working himself up into a froth of indignation about the so-called patronage that lay behind this appointment. If my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, despite his well-known impartiality, good judgment and sense of discretion, were to be given the powers to appoint all 21 members of the Press Commission, I would bet my bottom dollar that within a day or two after the chairman had been announced by my right hon. Friend we would have an early-day motion signed by a large number of Opposition Members complaining bitterly that the chairman of the Press Commission had been chosen only because he was a poodle of the Government and that he was bound to have an interest in the suppression of the rights of Members of 596 Parliament, quite apart from being a director of all sorts of companies which clearly had South African business interests. There is nothing surprising about that. It lies within the natural order of things that Opposition Members will tend to become steamed up, at least about sensitive appointments made by the Government. When they do, they tend to forget that the deputy chairman of the BBC is a former and very senior Labour Treasury Minister.
Would a statutory body be any more likely than the current Press Council to secure the involvement of journalists? The best service that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie could do to his cause would be to seek to bring the National Union of Journalists back to membership of the Press Council, from which it withdrew at the start of the present decade. He may be interested to note that the NUJ has displayed a penchant towards self-regulation, having set up its own ethics council. I am pleased to see a recent letter in The Times from the chairman of the docklands branch of the NUJ.
§ Mr. Renton
Yes, the Wapping branch, which is leading the NUJ where the rest of it fears to follow. The chairman writes:The Ethics Council is now generally admitted not to have been a success.That is a statement with which all hon. Members can agree.As a result NUJ membership of the Press Council has returned to the agenda of both bodies and a Motion to that effect is to be debated by the Union's national delegate meeting in April, proposed by the Docklands' branch which represents journalists on the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Sunday Times, the News of the World and the Sun. The branch believes that ordinary journalists should have the right to refer issues to the Press Council.That is an attitude that I, as a member of APEX—the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff—thoroughly support the NUJ in believing.
That leads me to the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston. He asked how the proposals that we are debating fit in with the Press Council. I still believe—these are the remarks that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie rightly anticipated—that the present system of voluntary self-regulation for the Press Council, however imperfect, is a more effective and appropriate form of control than could be provided by legislative action at present.
§ Mr. Michael Brown
I do not understand how my hon. Friend can stick to the line that he took last Friday, especially in view of the "That's Life" programme last Sunday, which dealt with the case of a mother who had had to put up with a story in the Sunday Sport alleging that her daughter had turned to stone. The mother raised the matter with the Press Council but the council did nothing. And what about the actor who committed suicide because there was no redress in the case of the News of the World? The Press Council cannot help. Two incidents reported on "That's Life" last weekend pointed to the failure of the Press Council.
§ Mr. Renton
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) has had the opportunity to make those remarks—in case he does not 597 get in later in the debate. I fully understand his point. Hon. Members have said today—and in our debate last Friday, for which my hon. Friend was also present—that the Press Council is a toothless tiger and some have made remarks even more uncomplimentary. To my hon. Friend it is self-evident that the concept of self-regulation has come under very great strain as a result of certain newspapers' attitudes towards the council.
I fully agree with the remarks that have been made about the appointment of an ombudsman. If a newspaper is to appoint an ombudsman to examine complaints from readers or from those who feel that their privacy has been damaged by what it has printed, there is no point whatever in its appointing someone from its own ranks, such as a managing director or senior editor. If the ombudsman is to have any credence at all, he must come from outside. He must be an established person with an independent reputation. Otherwise, he is being asked to be poacher one day and gamekeeper the next, which will not work in the newspaper world any more than it works in other walks of life.
§ Mr. Worthington
I wish to return to the case referred to by the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown)—the case of scleroderma in which it was alleged that the patient had turned to stone. That case was put to the Press Council and was turned down. It was featured on the Esther Rantzen "That's Life" programme last weekend. In this week's edition of the paper there will be a declaration that the Sunday Sport now accepts that it was wrong. It will give the right of reply to the Raynaud's society and money will be paid to that society. But the point is that the Press Council upheld the Sunday Sport's decision in the first place.
§ Mr. Renton
I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, which is clearly endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes. The hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks that he thought that the Press Council was fundamentally flawed. In that respect I do not agree with him. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said, there is a difficult task ahead for the new chairman, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper—a man for whom the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said that he had deep respect. The Press Council is openly anxious to improve its image and procedures, and that must lead to improved effectiveness.
§ Mr. Renton
With respect, my hon. Friend has not been here for the whole debate. Many other hon. Members wish to speak. I think that I have been generous in giving way.
The new chairman, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper, has already begun to develop radical and imaginative ideas for reform. I know that it will not be popular on either side of the House if I say that I believe that he should be given a chance to make his influence felt and raise the profile of the Press Council before we take action that could effectively undermine the future of self-regulation of the press.
The Bill also seeks to extend legal aid to actions for defamation, for which it has never been available. That is because such actions are intrinsically precarious and uncertain and more likely to prove trivial or ill-founded. How many of us would at some stage have sought to 598 avenge in court a minor slight, an error or inaccuracy about ourselves, our wellbeing or competence, if legal aid had been available? I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about a reasonable case. I am not a lawyer, but I understand that that concept is clearer in the Scottish courts than in the English courts. The Government's view is that even if the general mechanics against unmeritorious proceedings could be strengthened in defamation cases, they still could not provide against the potential waste of public funds on ill-advised proceedings.
I have outlined briefly a number of reservations about the Bill as it stands. Of course I remain conscious of the interest that the topic has for hon. Members, particularly as the debate comes only a week after that on the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. To return to the point that I made earlier, those who live by the press in the interests of press freedom must be prepared occasionally to be wounded by the press, to suffer a misquotation or an allusion to the less flattering aspects of their anatomy, and those cases must be distinguished from those in which the urge for ever more intrusive investigative journalism or sensationalism cause genuine distress.
I do not believe that the Bill will make that distinction, with its attendent problems of what is or is not accuracy in editorial material. I do not consider that the Bill will necessarily help to improve matters. The thought of calling in 21 press commissioners to determine the question of factual accuracy, with a right of reply adviser providing assistance to complainants, all adds up to a picture of bureaucratic complexity in an area that is essentially one for very personal, subjective and speedy judgment.
This is a matter in which the House of Commons, however aggrieved it feels on behalf of its own Members and constituents, must keep a sense of proportion. I had a good deal of sympathy with the Sunday Express two weeks ago when it wrote:Are there not far more effective ways of punishing editors who invade privacy unnecessarily? Like refusing to buy their rubbishy newspapers".I know that life is not that simple—I cited the increasing circulation of The Sun and the News of the World earlier—but I suspect that the answer lies with a more effective and quick moving Press Council, and I ask the House to bear in mind, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) did, the difficulties that are inherent in the Bill as it stands.
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
I am grateful for the opportunity to put the Opposition's view on the Bill. With some caution, I am pleased that the Government will not formally oppose it at this stage, although I am concerned by some of the Minister's remarks and I shall return to them later.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) on choosing the subject, drafting his Bill so shrewdly and on a really excellent speech which has received compliments from both sides of the House. The House should also pay tribute to the sponsors of the Bill, several of whom have spoken well in its defence. Others have waited all morning to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. That shows the genuine interest and support that the Bill has received in all parts of the House. In particular, we should pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. 599 Clwyd) who has done so much to further this cause. I was also delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie paid tribute to a former Member of the House, Mr. Frank Allaun, who tried to introduce such a measure in 1981 and 1982 and has continued writing about the issue in the press.
It has been an excellent debate and hon. Members have given some moving examples. There has been little serious disagreement, and hon. Members who have disagreed have generally made interesting and constructive suggestions. The House agrees that there is abuse by the press which does great damage to individuals, and that the inability of individuals to put the public record straight is an injustice that often produces sad and dangerous consequences. I do not wish to weary the House with too many examples but in case anyone is in doubt, I shall cite one example with which Conservative Members may have sympathy.
A Conservative county councillor, who does not wish to be named because his case is still before the Court of Appeal, was a rising star of his local authority and chairman of several committees. In May 1987, four newspapers—three national, The Sun, the Daily Mirror and Today and one local—ran a story claiming that the man had been absent from council meetings because he was being treated for AIDS.
The councillor did not have AIDS, nor was he HIV positive and he has medical proof of that. There was absolutely no truth in the rumour. However, he could not obtain a retraction from the newspapers.
He won his case because he had sufficient resources to take it to court. He was awarded compensation and costs, but two of the newspapers have appealed.
In order to pursue that case, the man had to sell his house and now stays with friends and relatives. He had to leave his job because of the constant phone calls. His health has broken down and his career in local politics is finished. He has been broken by a completely false report in the press. That cannot be right.
There seems little disagreement in the House about the fact that the present system does not work. Tributes have rightly been paid to the integrity and record of the new chairman of the Press Council, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, and the earnest and sincere work of the director, Mr. Ken Morgan. However, most people agree that the present system does not work well, and that includes those who are sceptical about the alternative. The House must decide whether there is a better system and, if so, whether the Bill provides it. Most hon. Members agree that there must be a better system and that the present one is not adequate.
The case for the Bill is simple. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie kept it short and simple. He has limited it to factual inaccuracies in the press. Much of what has been said in the debate has not taken that into account. The key element of the Bill is that there must be legal aid. The Minister criticised that. My hon. Friend has sought to present the Bill in the most reasonable way so that the House can accept the legal right and place it on the statute book.
The Bill is not a weapon to be used against the press and it will not punish them—though sometimes, as hon. Members have said, they push us dear to want a punishment. Mr. Richard Ingrams, the publisher of 600 Private Eye said, smugly, that his motto was "publish and be sued". That may be an amusing and epigramatic remark for the publisher of Private Eye to make, but if the publisher or editor of a national newspaper were to take that sort of cavalier attitude he could do considerable damage.
The Bill is not a charter for aggrieved pedants who are willing to go to court over every dot and comma. There are dangers of that happening, but I believe that they can be worked out.
Many of us will think that it sad that the Bill will not raise the quality of press reporting. It will not stop some of the malpractices that we have heard about today such as door-stepping and cheque book journalism. It is concerned solely with factual inaccuracies. Many of us, such as my constituent Mrs. Denise Morse, would like it to stop such practices. She is a young woman who is dying from leukaemia and has raised £1 million while fighting the disease. She has been tortured by the press some of whom have sat on her doorstep for the past three months. When she sought to celebrate Christmas with her children early because her doctors said she would not live to see it, the press thought that it made a good story. They went to her door, knocking on it all day, asking: "Can we have a picture?" Her home and her marriage are now broken. Is that right?
The Bill will act as a deterrent, a bench mark. That is the intention. Its success will be that it will not be operated very much. Contrary to what the Minister said, it will not clog up the works enormously. Certainly, all the indications from other countries where the right of reply works are to that effect. Hon. Members have already touched on that aspect, and I do not think I need to elaborate.
Germany and France have had the right of reply for over 100 years. Belgium, Austria, Greece, Finland, Norway and Sweden all have different characteristics in this respect—there is not a uniform right of reply—but none of those countries has problems, such as the Minister touched on, about the press being too pedantic, too impossible, and simply having the papers full of rights of reply. Indeed, when one talks to journalists from those countries one gets the impression that the opposite is the truth.
In France, opinions differ about the effectiveness of the system, but it is not used very much. It is not that the hersant press in France is not very strident and sensational; it is, but it is probably not of the same quality, or lack of quality, as the popular press here. The point is that the system acts as a deterrent, and certainly most people on the continent would feel that the conclusions to draw from its lack of use there is that it is effective as a benchmark and a deterrent.
§ Mr. Ground
Is it not the case that Sweden actually has a press ombudsman who is a judge and who goes back to work as a judge after he has done his stint as ombudsman?
§ Mr. Fisher
As I understand it, Sweden has both a press ombudsman and a press commission. Indeed, some Conservative members will take comfort from the fact that those are voluntary, rather than statutory, arrangements. I am not saying that there is a uniform system, but all those countries have legislation enshrining a right of reply.
I believe that my hon. Friend has proved the need and has proved the good sense of his measure. But obviously 601 we have to take into account the case that has been made against it—and there has been some criticism, some of it, as I have said, very interesting and contructive.
There has certainly been great criticism outside the House. It is noticeable that even the libertarian press, the quality press—the Minister referred to three leaders this morning—while discussing the matter, has almost unanimously said "We understand, we sympathise, but not now. We must find a voluntary way." Traditionally, the press has been enormously hostile to any legislation. The best part of the press adopts that attitude, because it fears a gag on press freedom.
But this is not about the freedom of robust, interesting and even partisan comment; what we are talking about is the freedom to report factual inaccuracies. That is no freedom at all. As Adlai Stevenson said, "You have confused the free with the free and easy"—and that is a very big distinction indeed. But the press, traditionally, has been very critical, and obviously we have to take that into account. That, indeed, is the context. It is interesting that, in spite of that barrage from the intelligent press saying "Don't do this", hon. Members throughout the House have said that we ought to go ahead.
Let me come to some of the very interesting criticisms. Some have said that this is going to be too cumbersome and too slow. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) at the beginning of his intervention, seemed to be saying that 28 days was far too slow. In contrast, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) said that he feared that it was too fast and would not lead to good decisions. That sort of thing can be worked out. The hon. Member for Epping Forest also said that there would be too many complaints—a case made by other Members also. But that is not the experience abroad.
Some of the most interesting points were made by the hon. and learned Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground), who raised specific queries about the relations there might be between the Press Council and the commission, the problems of trivia, which undoubtedly is a serious one, how inaccuracies would be decided, the limitations on witnesses, and the procedures of the Press Commission. These are all important and interesting things that must be given proper consideration in Committee, but I do not believe that any of them damage the principle of the measure, and I believe that, though they are worthy of great consideration, they should not deter us from giving the Bill a Second Reading.
Both the Minister and the hon. Member for Epping Forest queried the idea of the Government appointing press commissioners. I sympathise with the Minister. I suspect that if the Government did that, I would be one seeking to table an early-day motion. But that is because this Government's record on abusing Government appointments of governors of major bodies is poor. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The Minister, charming man that he is, waves that aside. Interestingly, Mr. Ludovic Kennedy's autobiography documents the story of how his wife, Miss Moira Shearer, was proposed for the board of governors of the BBC and was accepted by everybody all the way up as a highly intelligent, interesting, objective person, but, we understand from Mr. Kennedy, the Prime Minister said, "She's not one of us and she can't have the job." That is a cramped, crabbed view of who should represent the public interest. The Government's record is not good. I am afraid that I must disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, because while this 602 Government are in office I should be reluctant to give them power to appoint more people. Again, we can argue the toss about that later.
The Minister's remarks concern us because if we do not get the support or lack of hostility of the Government, the measure is lost. The Minister has a delightful manner. He seemed to suggest that he had sympathy with the principle of the Bill, but some of his remarks were less constructive. I am glad that he will not oppose the Bill and I hope that his remarks were noted by his hon. Friends, particularly the hon. Member for Northfield. Any attempt by Members to talk out this measure after the unanimity of this debate would wholly misjudge the mood of the House, and it would be viewed badly by both sides. It is one thing to disagree with it and wish to pursue it in Committee. We respect that, but to talk out the Bill would be to misjudge the mood of the House.
The Minister said that the Bill would not be practicable and he used the what-if-everybody argument, taking as an example an interesting news story yesterday and saying that many different aspects of it could provoke the right of reply. He knows well that that is a long-standing debating trick. He must also know that the record of right of reply legislation abroad does not give any credence to that argument. He cannot find a single example in the foreign press to substantiate what he said. He asked whether the measure would work and what effect it would have on headlines. We can discuss that, but that is no reason not to give the Bill a Second Reading.
There are few criticisms of the principle of the Bill. Hon. Members asked whether the laws on defamation and libel were not already adequate. They are not. They are only for the better off. One has to have access to considerable resources to make use of those laws. Although the new ideas on contingency fees being floated by the Government are interesting, they are only in a Green Paper.
There is scepticism about a statutory body, and that is a fundamental problem. The Minister saw constitutional problems with legal aid. We recognise that they are substantial and are of principle rather than practical application. Nevertheless, it appears from our debate that the problem is large enough to make us tackle those problems in Committee. We need to consider this measure further.
It has been argued that the press can get it right by themselves. There is no sign that that is the case. Everything that has been said suggests that over the past 10 years the abuses of the press have grown worse rather than better. Such indicators as we have, for example the number of complaints to the Press Commission rising considerably to more than 1,000 a year, bear that out.
A case has been made for a press ombudsman. That undoubtedly exists on American papers, such as the Washington Post. It is interesting that The Sun is introducing it. It is hard to believe that anyone appointed by Rupert Murdoch will be fearlessly independent I suspect that the House will wait with bated breath to hear the first independent judgment of The Sun ombudsman, taking his master fearlessly to task. If we hold our breath that long, we shall all die of suffocation. There is no evidence that the press will get it right. Sir Zelman Cowan, the former chairman of the Press Council, said:If newspapers persist in such behaviour, they will surely jeopardise…the future of self-control in British newspapers.603 The mood of this debate suggests that they have already jeopardised their future and that we need to do something about it.
The Minister made the most substantial point of all. He said that we should give the Press Council one last try, particularly as it now has a very distinguished and well-respected chairman in Sir Louis Blom-Cooper. He commands great respect and it is no reflection on Sir Louis Blom-Cooper when we say that we do not believe that the Press Council will be able to get it right. The Press Council's structure is too cumbersome, bureaucratic and timid. It is not the right vehicle. It is a council for the press to defend the interests of the press. The council was not set up to defend the rights of the individual.
The 1962 Royal Commission said that the press should reform itself or statutory changes would be imposed. The 1977 Royal Commission said exactly the same. The 1984 Royal Commission introduced fast track corrections to improve matters but they have not done so. Both the House and the country are now impatient with the Press Council.
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Gentleman says that fast track correction is not working. Does he not think that the reason for that is that the existence of the fast track correction system is not well known enough?
§ Mr. Fisher
Details about the Press Council are generally not well known enough and not well understood. That has been illustrated by many remarks. The Press Council does very little to make itself user friendly or available. I should welcome the Press Council giving greater publicity to its activities and helping people to make use of its facilities. However, I do not believe that the Press Council is the right vehicle or body, or that it has been given the right powers to address the many problems that face us. Surely the time has come for us to address those problems and place something on the statute book.
We are discussing whether the Bill should be considered in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie has done everything that he can, both by his manner of presentation and by the skilful and shrewd way in which he has pitched the Bill, to make that easy. The Bill gets to the nub of the problem; there ought to be a benchmark, a right of reply for individuals, to protect individuals. I suspect that that is the mood of the House.
If we are to protect people such as that Conservative councillor whose case I mentioned, we need to protect them by means of a measure such as this. The Opposition support it. We believe that it should be part of a package of press reform to protect the individual. There should also be a right of privacy Bill, though not the Protection of Privacy Bill that was introduced last week, a freedom of information Bill and reform of the law of confidentiality and of the official secrets law. In addition, there should be moves to curb the concentration of newspaper ownership, but in that package the right of reply for individuals is absolutely essential.
The House will decide today whether it is right to legislate now. Newspapers are abusing their power. Individuals are getting hurt unnecessarily. Can the House help? The answer must be, yes—by ensuring a fair right of reply to correct factual inaccuracies.
604 The question for the Government, particularly in Committee, is whether they really care or whether their free market philosophy in other matters is also to apply to this question. If they do not back a measure such as this they will be opening up the free market to distortion and inaccuracies. That is not what the Minister or the Government ought or should want to do. It is not a matter of leaving it to the free market, because in this case the free market hurts. The House ought to legislate. Readers outside Parliament expect us to do something about it. We owe it to them to do it.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) made a telling point when he said that the purpose of the House was to raise grievances on behalf of individuals and to try to protect the weak against the strong. Very few people in our media are stronger than the press barons and we have seen today that, in relation to them, individuals are weak. We, the House of Commons, owe it to those people to try to correct the imbalance. I hope that all hon. Members will join us in the Lobby, if we are given the opportunity, and support the Bill by giving it a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
I rise to give the Bill broad support. I say "broad" because I recognise that there are great difficulties in trying to do anything on this issue.
The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) must take note of some of the comments made, especially by his hon. Friends, some of whom have verged towards what I would call censorship and seek to interfere in the interpretation of newspaper stories rather than dealing with newspaper stories that are completely inaccurate or fictitious. We should concentrate on the latter two categories—not on the interpretation of newspaper stories.
The Member for Clydebank and Milngavie referred to the footnote problem and to the fact that footnote corrections to newspaper stories can appear years after the original article. However, as other hon. Members have said, there is more to it than that. One important point is that the footnote is so small and is hidden away. If there is to be a right of reply, it must be a suitable right of reply. If The Sun, the News of the World, the Daily Mirror or The Sunday People—Maxwell's newspapers are at least as bad as those produced by Rupert Murdoch—devote three or five pages to smearing and telling lies about an individual they must know when they do it that the right of reply will involve three or five pages, including the front page. If such newspapers found that several times a month they had to devote their front page to an apology, in big letters, with big lurid photographs of the editor, perhaps they would think twice about smearing members of the public.
We need to protect individual citizens—that is one of the jobs of Members of Parliament. Hon. Members can largely look after themselves, but stories nevertheless appear about them. I shall refer to one. I apologise to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), who is not in his place, for not having cleared this matter with him. Two weeks ago he was smeared in the News of the World. I do not know or care whether the article was true. However, as the article appeared on three pages of the News of the World, it hardly matters whether it was true because everybody will believe it because he has read it in 605 the newspapers. If a reply is justified and if the hon. Gentleman asks for a right of reply, it must be given the same weight.
I refer now to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I heard him speak at great length, both this week and last week, about what the Press Council could do to improve itself and that we must give it a chance. If the Bill goes into Committee and we discuss this matter in the future, I hope that my hon. Friend will elaborate on what he wants to see from the Press Council. If the Press Council can do the job of protecting individual citizens, I want to hear how, because it must be acknowledged that it is not doing so at the moment. We need either the route that to which the Minister referred or the route suggested in the Bill. At the moment there is nothing.
I should like to make two points about the press. First, too many journalists drag down the standards of the majority who seek to report the truth. I shall relate two stories which illustrate the problem of journalists who do not understand the difference between truth and fiction.
When I worked for BBC television news, I spent some time in Montevideo during the Falklands war, and was present when the first of the hospital ships returned carrying a number of wounded British soldiers and seamen. After I filed a story to London, I got into terrible trouble with the BBC's foreign desk because I had missed "the key shot." I was told that the front page of The Sun—the newspaper that backed our boys—carried a close-up photograph of a sign reading "Hello Mum". The caption to that picture stated that the sign was held aloft by a pathetically wounded British soldier managing to summon strength enough to hold up his sign for the cameras. I was asked where that shot was in the BBC bulletin that had gone out the night before.
When I examined the video material that we had shot, I discovered where that sign was to be seen. It was in a shot that we had used—held aloft by a burly rating with arms like Popeye's, smiling at the cameras—just having a bit of fun, and there is nothing wrong with that. The journalist who filed The Sun story knew that he was lying. It may not have been an important item, but the fact remains that the journalist knew that he was lying. If he lied on that occasion, no doubt he will lie on others—one cannot rely on that journalist to tell the truth.
My second example adds to the remarks of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), with which I thoroughly agree, about the Bermondsey by-election. I intended to make much the same comments. As a candidate of a party that would have great difficulty in winning the Bermondsey by-election, I naturally had great difficulty in persuading the press to take seriously anything that I said. I do not complain about that. After the by-election, however, a journalist who is still a member of the press lobby said, "I am sorry about the way that we treated you—I really want to apologise, but we had to ignore you so as to make sure that we got the result that we wanted and that the Labour party did not win that by-election." That was his job. He did not mind about the truth—he had a job to do, and he went ahead and did it. One cannot rely on that journalist, either, to tell the truth.
Many journalists are too lazy to tell the truth. I will criticise a journalist whose work I enjoyed reading, in a newspaper that I enjoy reading. I refer to Colin Brown and The Independent. Mr. Brown writes marvellous and interesting stories about the House, but I have yet to read 606 one of his reports in The Independent without finding a silly inaccuracy, when anyone working in the House or in the press lobby ought to know better. They are usually unimportant and trivial mistakes, but they still mean that Mr. Brown, like many other journalists, is too lazy to find out the truth. If such journalists cannot be trusted, the Bill is needed.
It is not just right hon. and hon. Members who need protection from the press but the public—and it is they whom the Bill seeks to protect. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and will consider and amend it in detail in Committee, as I wish to do.
§ 2.3 pm
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
Madam Deputy Speaker, you will remember an old guy called Bill Blyton who used to be a Member of the House and eventually finished up in the Lords. In Annie's Bar, he took every new Member of the House to one side and said, "If you want to get your name in the papers, go down Whitehall arid take your trousers off—and if you want to get your photograph in as well, let them have a look in your pockets." He was absolutely right.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have courted publicity. The Bill is not about protecting politicians, the famous, or others who have open to them every avenue for self-protection. The Minister dos not do the Bill justice with his tales of Kinnock, Tebbit and Sky Television. The Minister knows damn well that that is not what the Bill is about. Politicians and those in show business who look for publicity, and thrive on it, know the mechanics and how to look after themselves.
The hon. and learned Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) referred to the libel laws. We should start asking ourselves a few questions about those laws. Why do the more famous cases such as that involving Jeffrey Archer get to court in 18 months, whereas those involving even famous politicians such as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) take three years? Others take even longer. Who jumps the queue?
Then there is the matter of paying money into court. The Minister knows that the system works only for the famous. It works because newspapers are terrified of what juries will award and settle out of court. We have had the Koo Stark settlement and the Jeffrey Archer settlement and the rich and famous are making more money than they should. That is no consolation or help to the ordinary housewife and other people who are suffering. A headline in last week's News of the World says,My 3-day blind date sex romp".That is a story about an ordinary housewife who went on a blind date and then went to bed with the guy. Another headline says:Blind date Judy was such fun in bed.That woman's life is destroyed. Probably the guy with whom she went on a blind date went to the News of the World and sold his story. There is a picture of her in the paper and all her neighbours and people in her town now know about it. There is also a picture of two nice-looking children. Those young lads will have to suffer innuendo at school and their lives have been utterly destroyed. Those people are not rich or famous, and that has been done to them for the sake of a cheap headline in a national newspaper which has probably 12 million or 13 million readers.
A story in The Sun yesterday says: 607Sorry boys, your daddy was a girl.Three men turned up to their 74-year-old father's funeral—and found out for the first time that their old man was really a woman.The boys were adopted and the story said that their father had,switched sex in the 1950s so he could work with all-male jazz bands.Think how it destroys a family when at a time of grief they know that everybody in the street, in the pub, their families and those with whom they work have read such stories. They are devastated by such cheap-jack stories. In The Sun on Monday, there is a headline that says:Telly snooker ref, 57 falls for cutie of 24. John cheats wife".Nobody had noticed before that he refereed snooker matches on television. Such headlines and stories appear time and again and they are destroying innocent people.
We heard in the debate about a Member of Parliament who was mentioned in the News of the World. He is a friend of mine and I hope that he goes to law, takes the News of the World to the cleaners and is awarded devastating damages. That avenue is open to us and we know what we are doing, but the people that I have mentioned do not. As the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) said, people are treated in much the same way now as they were treated in the 15th or 16th centuries when people were tortured, locked in dungeons or had their heads chopped off. The newspapers are judge and jury, there is no trial and psychologically the punishments are every bit as savage as the torture that was carried out in olden days.
The newspapers do not carry stories only about the loony Left, although they did during the run-up to the last general election when they carried stories about councillors in London. Those stories were disproved in the famous "Hits and Myths" book published by Goldsmith's college, which showed that stories about black bin liners and other such stories were outrageous lies and inventions and that journalists were being paid to invent stories to denigrate London councils and councillors.
We heard earlier about the story of a man who became involved in a picket line dispute and because of that his past was revealed. Many years before he had been convicted of an offence but it was well out of time. He went to the Press Council but got no satisfaction. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie and I were on a programme about this on Birmingham television, and the studio was full of people with complaints. I do not have much respect or time for Sarah Keays, but she was right to confront the Daily Mail woman who rang her and told her that the paper wanted to do a piece about her. Miss Keays said that she did not want to comment and was told, "Even if you don't we shall still print the piece about you, so you might as well say something." Miss Keays's comments were turned upside down and she was faced with a large article in the paper inviting readers to,Tell us what you think, address your letter to Keays.In addition to the "non-interview" the paper got three pages of letters.
The newspapers pull every stunt in the book. Yet, it is amazing how thin skinned journalists are when such things happen to them. The lady from the Daily Mail was very upset when she was confronted about what she had said. 608 There was also the famous instance of the editor of The Sun being upset because he was not satisfied with his double glazing. He bored everybody stiff, telling them what a rotten firm it was. Sir John Junor of the Sunday Express was stopped by police on his way home. What a tragedy it was. The editor of The Mail on Sunday was stopped in his car by the police the other week. There were 4,000 words in reply. He went on the Kilroy show. Robert Maxwell sues for libel as soon as anybody says a word against him. They are firm believers in retaliation. When it comes to anybody else, anything goes.
The Minister might examine the suspicion of a sinister connivance between the police and some tabloids in getting stories. For instance, how did the tabloids manage to get the news that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's wife had been breathalysed, within hours of its happening? She did not put it in the newspapers. No reporter or press agent was hanging around. Somebody at the police station—whether for money or otherwise—tipped them off.
There is the case of a famous football manager. I shall not mention his name as it would be embarrassing for him. He was cautioned for kerb crawling—cautioned, not charged—and he denied the caution. It was splashed in four-inch letters across the front page of The Sun. He had a £90,000 a year job but because of the publicity he was sacked. He would have been better off going to court. At least he could have defended himself. He could have had a lawyer, but instead he was tried by innuendo. Who tipped off the paper? He was cautioned at 9 o'clock. He said that he was looking for a place to park. Maybe he was—he had a perfect right to do so. The following morning, it was splashed all over the front page of The Sun. That man had no rights. He took legal advice and his lawyer said, "You might not have been found guilty if you went to court, but you were cautioned so you cannot sue for libel." That man has no recompense. There is no way for him to appeal or complain.
That is the cheque-book journalism that was mentioned earlier. It is not often done by people employed by newspapers—it is done by freelance bounty hunters who concoct stories, knowing that there is a ready market, even if their story only involves Mrs. Brown down the road.
I know of two cases. The first—I will not say where it happened—involves a miner who was fined for parking in the wrong place. There is nothing wrong with that. The only thing was that he was wearing silk stockings, a suspender belt, and other women's clothing.[Interruption.] It is funny—OK—but that man had to quit his job at the pit and move to another town. He had to uproot his wife and kids and take them somewhere else just because of a £20 parking fine. We see that sort of thing all the time.
Another case involves a woman whose husband was mentally unstable. She was at a new year's eve party and she was doing the can-can. He went outside and committed suicide. That point came out at the inquest, and a local paper splashed it across the front page. It was not enough that her husband committed suicide she was made to look like a tart who had forced him to do it. That is a 20-year sentence for people. They have no right of reply and no right to complain. They cannot go to court. They are isolated.
We have heard how the press can surround and literally lay siege to a person's house. Hon. Members have told us what can happen. There is absolute licence to vandalise. Gengis Khan killed people and ruined lives. Hon. 609 Members have seen the lack of attendance in the Press Gallery. There have been virtually no reporters present. There will be nothing in the papers tomorrow. They will say, "Play it cool, play it quiet, say nothing," and go back to their old habits next week.
As hon. Members know, I am a journalist, and I was taken before the Press Council by somebody who complained. I thought that I had made a serious point about gipsy children—how half of them do not reach the age of five because of pre-natal neglect—but somebody objected. It is a complicated business, but I lost.
I complained to the Press Council myself when a newspaper splashed across its front page,Ashton's vote gives £11,000 pay award to MPs.There was a majority of one, but the newspaper said that it was my particular vote. In reality, the increase was only £8,000, but that did not matter either. On that occasion, the Press Council found in my favour. Reading The Daily Telegraph three months later, one would have thought that it was the other way round; it was impossible to believe that I had won the case.
It is almost impossible to look casually at a report by the Press Council and see what the outcome of a case was. The Bill will not prevent people taking libel actions in court, but will be a deterrent to editors, who may have to cut up their papers with letters from people saying "You have got it wrong, this is unfair, I am not having it and I demand that you print my side of the story." Any journalist knows that space in a tabloid newspaper is at a premium. If a tabloid wants a story containing 500 words and the reporter sends 510 words, it will chop 10 words—usually the last 10, which makes a nonsense of the story. Space is valuable for advertising, so the last thing that editors of tabloid newspapers want is to print a page full of letters of reply. That will stop this sort of nonsense. The competition is so ferocious that the tabloids will go more and more down-market. We must hit them where it hurts—in their valuable advertising space.
§ Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfields)
I have listened to all the speeches, apart from when I had to make one or two excursions outside, with much interest. Although I understand the motives behind the Bill and fully sympathise with them, I do not think that it will correct misreporting or improve poor editorial standards, which is so desperately necessary.
My hon. Friend the Minister presented the Government's view cogently and hit the nail on the head many times. In theory, the Bill will solve the problems, but in reality I do not think that it will. Hon. Members have recounted previous press excesses. We heard of the Bermondsey by-election. We had a trip down memory lane about the fraught conflicts with the National Union of Railwaymen, with all that that meant for public relations, attitudes to the electorate, people in the community and union workers.
None of the problems will be resolved by the Bill. Some dreadful remarks were made and published at the time of the Bermondsey by-election and such reporting will continue. Bad stories and had journalism will occur irrespective of the right to reply. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) recounted stories such as "Your dad was a mum." That may have been factually right. It may have been a devastating shock to the family to read about it on the front page of a tabloid with a circulation 610 of over 4 million, but the fact remains that the story might have been right. Although we can condemn it as appalling journalism and bad taste, there is little right of reply to correct what has been said.
If there is a need for a right to reply, the press will not concede it readily or willingly. It will have to go through the new procedure that is proposed in the Bill, which will take time. The press will concede readily that it has someone's age or surname wrong and it will, no doubt, offer a retraction in the newspaper in the same space, style and prominence in which it appeared in the original article—which was probably insignificant. But newspapers will seek to uphold the main story through every avenue that is open to them under the Bill. That process will be long if newspapers keep asking for more time to produce evidence. The damage will have been done, the report will have been written and the publicity will have been felt up and down the land, so it will be of small benefit for those who have suffered the heartache of misreporting to have a correction put in months later.
Hon. Members have mentioned periodicals. They can literally be published periodically—weekly, monthly, quarterly or even half-yearly. I suggest that there would be difficulty in obtaining corrections that were still timely and relevant to the indiscretion that might have been committed by a journalist in an organ because they might take months to happen. That would mean that the right of reply of the person who had been misreported would he almost worthless. It will not mean anything because the damage will have been done.
We have not tackled the root cause of what we consider to be bad journalism. We should re-emphasise through the existing or a strengthened mechanism the effect of the Press Council. That is where there is public pressure and, from what my hon. Friend the Minister has said, I hope that Government pressure will continue to be exerted. I hope that the new chairman of the Press Council can continue to make his influence felt to ensure that the excesses that we have all suffered or heard reported do not continue to take place.
Some reporting is colourful or sensational and we may not want to be reported in that way, but it is legitimate to do that if it sells newspapers and if it is a way of reporting items that are considered to be newsworthy. We need, of course, to uphold factuality by ensuring that reports are factually correct. It is not right or proper for any hon. Member to endorse or support any newspaper or newspaper management that deliberately reports inaccurately and does not check facts first.
§ Mr. King
My hon. Friend mentions the Sunday Sport and I have no truck with that rag. It is a deplorable organ. However, the mechanism exists within the press system to bring it under control. The mechanism may need overhauling or revising, but we should not accept a Bill that reduces it to the right of reply. We are dealing with clever people who can get round actions such as those suggested in the Bill and can find ways of delaying matters.
We have talked for much of today about the tabloid press, but I am more interested in the effect that the Bill may have on what we call the serious press. I mentioned in a couple of interventions that we lead Europe in the investigative role of our newspapers. I strongly refute the impression that our way of life, press, system of society 611 and politics are identical to those in the rest of Europe, so we can have identical legislation. But the role of the serious press in this country has increasingly become the role of a policeman of many of the excesses that have taken place in Government and in many companies and international organisations. The roll of honour is substantial. Under the Bill, would the Thalidomide scandal ever have broken? It might have become bogged down in a lawyers' paradise of asking for the right of reply and the manufacturers, Distillers company, would have left no stone unturned.
§ Mr. King
Yes, but it would not have to go to court during the course of the report. If a page or two appeared in The Sunday Times condemning the company publicly, the company, as a body of people, would be entitled to seek redress the following week, with a sponsored article by the company's lawyers. Would that be a worthwhile procedure for the betterment of public knowledge?
In an intervention, I referred to the depressing difficulty of reporting accidents and disasters, of which, alas, we have had far too many recently. When we had an accident on the London Underground the press was certainly not slow to come forward with condemnations, and neither were Members of Parliament and others in responsible positions. The result was that London Regional Transport was tried publicly in the media before the official inquiry even opened.
In the case of the M1 air crash—
§ Question put, That the question be now put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 120, Noes 0.612
|Division No. 74]||[2.25 pm|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Buchan, Norman|
|Allen, Graham||Buck, Sir Antony|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Campbell-Savours, D. N.|
|Ashton, Joe||Canavan, Dennis|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Cash, William|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)|
|Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)||Clelland, David|
|Bennett, A. F.(D'nt'n & R'dish)||Clwyd, Mrs Ann|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Cohen, Harry|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Corbett, Robin|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)||Corbyn, Jeremy|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)||Cousins, Jim|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Cryer, Bob|
|Cummings, John||McNamara, Kevin|
|Darling, Alistair||Madden, Max|
|Dixon, Don||Marek, Dr John|
|Doran, Frank||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Dunnachie, Jimmy||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth||Martlew, Eric|
|Evans, John (St Helens N)||Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)||Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)|
|Fisher, Mark||Mullin, Chris|
|Flannery, Martin||Murphy, Paul|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Nellist, Dave|
|Forman, Nigel||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Foster, Derek||Pike, Peter L.|
|Foulkes, George||Prescott, John|
|Fraser, John||Richardson, Jo|
|Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Godman, Dr Norman A.||Rooker, Jeff|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Ruddock, Joan|
|Gould, Bryan||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Short, Clare|
|Haynes, Frank||Skinner, Dennis|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Heffer, Eric S.||Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)|
|Hinchliffe, David||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|Hogg, N.(C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Spearing, Nigel|
|Holland, Stuart||Squire, Robin|
|Holt, Richard||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Hood, Jimmy||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Howells, Geraint||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Hoyle, Doug||Strang, Gavin|
|Hughes, John (Coventry NE)||Summerson, Hugo|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Tredinnick, David|
|Ingram, Adam||Walden, George|
|Irving, Charles||Wall, Pat|
|Jessel, Toby||Wareing, Robert N.|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Wilson, Brian|
|Leadbitter, Ted||Winnick, David|
|Leighton, Ron||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Livingstone, Ken||Worthington, Tony|
|Macdonald, Calum A.||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)||Mr. Tony Banks and|
|McLeish, Henry||Mr. Ian McCartney.|
|Tellers for the Noes:|
|Mrs. Teresa Gorman and|
|Mr. Roger King.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Question put accordingly, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills.)