§ 3.29 p.m.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter rose to call attention to the First Annual Report of the Press Complaints Commission for 1991, and subsequent events; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a very appropriate day on which to discuss the press and the media in general. I draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, to the fact that the impartiality of the BBC is at issue once more. Yesterday it announced on television, Radio 4 and the World Service that I was one of the sponsors of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. That was an inaccuracy which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, may regret, as indeed may the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher.
§ In addition, this debate is taking place soon after the first annual report of the Press Complaints Commission. In June 1990 the Calcutt Committee recommended that the new Press Complaints Commission should be given 18 months in which to show that non-statutory regulation can be made to work effectively. That period ends in July and presumably the Government are now making up their mind about whether the press has passed that stiff test. It is, therefore, appropriate that today we should be able to debate what we believe should be done in this area before the Government reach their conclusion and while they are making up their mind. It is even possible that our discussion may influence them.
§ On 23rd June an interesting event took place. It was reported in the Guardian and in the Independent. At Aspen, Colorado, the News Corporation held a management conference on the threat to democratic capitalism posed by modern culture. Whether it discussed the Sun and the News of the World in that 777 context is unknown to me. The important conference was attended by Mr. Murdoch, by the US Secretary of Defence, Mr. Cheney and by Mrs. Cheney. During the course of a speech on censorship, Mr. Chao, the newly-appointed president of Fox Television Network, produced a male stripper to illustrate vividly and in all his glory some point that he was trying to make. It was reported that Mrs. Cheney was visibly shocked. The editor of the News of the World, Miss Patsy Chapman, asked for the stripper's telephone number. Mr. Murdoch was not amused and Mr. Chao was sacked on the spot. The incident was not reported in the Murdoch press. Later Mr. Murdoch said, "There are limits".
§ Those words might well be the theme of our debate. There are limits, there must be limits and we must decide where they are drawn. There must be limits on intrusions of privacy, on manifest political bias, on the concentration of ownership and, above all, on cross-media ownership.
§ There are few people who would deny that the right to privacy is important in principle. But all too often, when that is practised, some well-worn excuses are produced. The most frequently used is that the revelation is in the public interest. That, I take it, is the first excuse to be used in respect of the recently prominent revelations about the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Princess Diana. We are told, for example, that before the war the British public were, to their detriment, kept in the dark about the relationship between the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson. But even if it is in the public interest to be informed that all is not well with the marriage of the heir to the throne —and the opposite could well be argued—we do not need to be told about it in such detail; and in such intimate, trivial and unsubstantiated detail at that—
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, but when such reporting has upset a digestion which, in respect of such matters, is as strong as that of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, there is genuine cause for anxiety.
A second excuse is that the trivia has already been published in a book. I respond simply by saying that there is a difference between the circulation of the Sunday Times and most books; that because it has been published in a book it is not necessary to publish it in a newspaper and, above all, as all free-marketeers know, that by paying £250,000 for such trash a market in garbage has been created. All too often the intrusion is not a matter of public interest but is concerned with invasions of the privacy of obscure and vulnerable people.
That having been said, there need to be limits to manifest and unbalanced political bias. That demands of proprietors an acknowledgment that ownership of a newspaper carries with it responsibilities which are different from the ownership of a fish and chip shop or membership of the Stock Exchange. Indeed, that was 778 acknowledged specifically in the Fair Trading Act 1973. In this case, however, the excuses that have been wheeled out are less plausible.
The excuse produced for the blatant political bias of the tabloids during the previous election, including the Daily Mirror, was that it was harmless and that readers aim off for bias. That excuse was produced in the Independent. It was also stated that to say that readers are influenced by the tabloids is to insult their intelligence and that the blitz, as it was described, against Mr. Kinnock during the last four days of the election campaign had no impact. Frankly, I must confess that I find it preposterous to argue that newspapers indulge in political bias and propaganda which has no effect whatever; that Conservative Prime Ministers distribute honours to proprietors and editors who have no influence whatever; that advertisers advertise, publishers send books, cinemas and theatres send free tickets and dictators censor newspapers all for nothing whatever. That is an incredible proposition which I cannot accept. If, indeed, the wholesale distortion of news had no effect would the noble Viscount, Lord Rothermere, the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, and Mr. Murdoch indulge in it?
It is argued that despite political bias there have been times since the war when the Labour Party has won elections. But because someone has overcome a handicap does not mean that the handicap is less unfair or undesirable. In addition, I would add that the situation has deteriorated. In 1966 Mr. Wilson, as he then was, had the support of 43 per cent. of the press in circulation terms. By 1980 at least three-quarters of the press was Conservative. If in addition to that one owner—in this case Mr. Murdoch —has 31 per cent. of the daily circulation, 37 per cent. of the Sunday circulation and also controls Sky TV, not only does one have a highly-concentrated ownership, which is undesirable, but also cross-media ownership, which is also undesirable.
When the Broadcasting Bill passed through Parliament some of us argued that cross-media restrictions were fixed to accommodate Mr. Murdoch and that that brought with it apparent dangers which we tried to set forth. Recently in an important speech to the Royal Television Society Mr. Gregg Dyke gave his account of the negotiations for the television rights to the Premier League. He said:There is no doubt, and I repeat no doubt, that the Murdoch organisation offered Rick Parry, the Chief Executive of the Premier League, the support of Rupert Murdoch's, and I quote, '40 million copies of his papers a week' for the Premier League if BSkyB got the Premier League deal. BSkyB have denied this, but they would wouldn't they? Unfortunately, Mr. Parry did not understand the significance of what had been offered and he told a meeting of 22 club chairmen that that is what was offered. In other words, if BSkyB got the contract the editorial policy of the Murdoch papers would be organised to support the Premier League and with it the commercial interests of BSkyB".That is precisely what News International said it would never do, both to the Sadler Committee and when the Bill was going through Parliament.
That is an example of a situation which can only be regarded as undesirable and dangerous. I should add that although Mr. Dyke is a significant and senior 779 member of London Weekend Television and although he was speaking to the Royal Television Society, his speech was not reported in the Murdoch press.
But we need not despair; there is hope yet. During the Committee stage of the Broadcasting Bill, David Mellor, who was at that time in charge of the Bill and who is now responsible for broadcasting in a more elevated capacity, said:I do not think it right in principle to impose restrictions on the ownership of Sky Television or MTV, Mr. Maxwell's venture, straight away".He conceded that, therefore, there was a time when legislation on cross-media ownership might be necessary and that it might be reasonable to require that Mr. Murdoch should keep either his newspapers or his television interests, but not both.
The criterion which he set forth was profitability. Today BSkyB is making a trading profit and, according to it, has a great financial future. Mr. Mellor went on to say in the same debate:Who knows what the future may hold? We are principled about this, in the sense that all the ownership restrictions are in a schedule to the Bill and any one of them can be changed by an affirmative resolution of both Houses".He went on to say later:I am at some pains to say that I understand that there is a case on the other side of the argument,"—[Official Report, Commons, 9/5/90; col. 256.]—That is the other side of the argument to which he was speaking.
Mr. Mellor is now in charge of broadcasting. I look forward to hearing whether he will live up to his words. I look forward to hearing this evening the way in which the Government's thoughts are moving. Although I understand that there are pressures in many quarters for a privacy Bill, on balance I believe that the dangers to which it would give rise outweigh the benefits which it might deliver.
I understand also that unrestrained political bias is undesirable, unfair and gives rise to much indignation. It is difficult to see what the law can do to curb that bias without endangering other more important liberties. By drawing attention to that we can try to urge upon the proprietors, above all, a measure of self restraint which is in so many fields the best bulwark of British liberties.
On the other hand, cross-media ownership is a totally different matter. There the law can and should operate and, indeed, it does operate within the United Kingdom. Only Mr. Murdoch is exempt and that is a matter which can and should be rectified as soon as possible. The question is whether or not Mr. Major dare strike, given the debt which his Government owe to the Tory tabloids for their support in the last election.
My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Stevens of Ludgate
My Lords, it gives me little pleasure, as your Lordships can imagine, to find myself rising once again in this House to discuss the issue of press behaviour. I am the chairman of United Newspapers which owns Express newspapers. Sadly, I am not a proprietor; I am a mere employee. It is sad that the press is once more under attack. And there are 780 those, as ever, who would like to exploit recent unease at some aspects of press behaviour to impose new restrictions.
In May 1989, when we held our last major debate on this topic, I said that legislation was not the answer. I believe that as strongly now as I did then. Since then we have had the review of the Calcutt Committee. We have seen, on its recommendation, the establishment of a new regulatory body—the Press Complaints Commission—successor to the old Press Council.
Eighteen months ago the then Home Office Minister responsible warned that the press:was drinking in the last chance saloon".One more supposedly false move, he implied, and on would come the handcuffs. I believe the Calcutt review and the setting up of the new watchdog body, under the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, forced the press into a useful process of self-examination and improvement.
Yet, here we are going round the same course again. I wonder why. Two recent events, it seems to me, provide the impetus for renewed calls for legislative action: the general election and the recent publication, with accompanying excitement, of Mr. Andrew Morton's book on the Princess of Wales. I should like to deal with these points in order. In taking the first, I assure noble Lords that although my remarks are of necessity about politics I do not wish to be party political.
It is no secret that many members of the Labour Party, and not a few in the Conservative Party, believe the Government were re-elected largely because of the efforts of their traditional supporters in Fleet Street. That is not my analysis of why the Conservatives won. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Labour Party leaders indicated their belief that much of the blame for their loss rested on the way the press represented or misrepresented Labour's programmes and policies. I believe that the Private Members' Bill tabled in another place—Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill—is born of this exasperation; though, of course, its rationalisation affects to address wider and more disinterested concerns. Like similar Bills before it, this one assumes that the heavy hand of the law can be used to force newspapers to uphold some arbitrary standards of impartiality and balance, as though in a vigorous and diverse press those matters can be measured by the centimetre.
The Bill, like others which support its aims, overlooks the practical difficulties involved in enforcing so-called rights of reply and the printing of lengthy corrections. Labour leaders alleged that the party's central economic policies had been distorted by the Tory press. Now, with passions cooling, some are starting to admit that the message, not the press, was at fault.
The concept of freedom of the press has always been consistent with the acceptance of partisanship on the part of individual newspapers. I assume that the Labour Party was happy about the partisan role of its newspaper supporters during the election. If the Labour Party really wishes to pay more than mere lip 781 service to freedom of the press—a bulwark of our free society—it should be prepared to accept the partisanship of others in a cause other than its own.
Restrictions such as those favoured by this Bill and almost certainly by any other legislative process would be totally impractical to operate and would seriously impair the vigour, vivacity and diversity for which the press in this country is both famed and envied.
I turn now to the recent press coverage of the Princess of Wales and her marriage. I think it important to draw attention to one crucial point that seems to get brushed to one side in the rush to condemn the press. The whole controversy about reporting the state of that marriage was stirred by publication, and serialisation, of Andrew Morton's book. Yet hardly anyone, as far as I am aware, has ever thought it fit to suggest that the right to publish such a book be restricted by anything but the existing laws. Do would-be censors think that the press should not be free to report on the content of books that are legally published? As my noble friend Lord Glendevon said in his letter to The Times, this story was handed to the newspapers on a platter.
It seems odd to imply that information available to those willing to pay the price of a book should be withheld from the millions who pay over their 30p, or whatever, for their daily paper.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord to ask whether he is justifying the serialisation of the book, as well as the publication.
§ Lord Stevens of Ludgate
My Lords, I am justifying the fact that it is correct for newspapers to both serialise and publish the book. As a competitor I wish the circulation of the Sunday Times was the same as that of the book.
To suggest that the press should have ignored the book, with its strong and apparently substantiated claims to special authority, is unrealistic and insulting to the public. The claims made in Mr. Morton's book —and not denied by Buckingham Palace, let alone any of the principals—are clearly of intense and legitimate interest. How could a free press worthy of the name ignore them?
Freedom of expression, of which freedom of the press is a part, is a precious and indispensable part of our open and democratic society. And we really must get over the habit of crying "foul" whenever the exercise of that freedom causes embarrassment or offends against the sense of people's sense of propriety. Occasional abuse is the price we pay for all our freedoms, not only freedom of the press. Let us not forget that there are already restrictions on this particular freedom. There are laws of libel, which many think already too repressive; laws governing contempt of court, and rules to protect our over-generous definition of official secrets. Above all that hangs, like a sword of Damocles, the power to turn the Press Complaints Commission into a statutory body. Yet some of those urging restrictions often talk as though we started from a position of total licence.
Let us make no mistake, laws to gag newspapers 782 —albeit passed out of some well-meaning wish to protect privacy—would cripple newspapers' ability to unmask wrongdoing. Privacy laws, drafted to prevent intrusive and speculative reporting, might well protect the privacy of some blameless individuals, but they would undoubtedly succour wrongdoers as well.
I do not, or course, believe that press behaviour is at all times exemplary. It is a rough business, as it always has been. But the behaviour of most of this country's 2,000 or so newspapers gives, I believe, little cause for concern. If your Lordships think I speak from bias, allow me to quote a disinterested student of our scene, Mr. David Flint, chairman of the Australian Press Council, who concluded in a letter to The Times of 22nd June this year:Whatever their weaknesses, the British media need no new legislative shackles.Finally, not only do I question the justification for these latest calls for action but I doubt their timing. In the present political circumstances, the last thing the Government should be doing is contemplating, even tentatively, misguided measures to weaken the press's capacity for frank and fearless reporting. For a government that has just won a fourth term to pass or allow legislation restricting press freedom would be a most worrying signal.
I believe that this latest upsurge of animosity towards the press is partial and exaggerated. Ministers should not be misled into thinking that it represents feelings widely or deeply held by the majority of the British people who, as always, will be best served by a press able to go about its task in a free and responsible manner. That does not mean that I do not believe that the press goes too far on occasions; and I also believe that in the case of Mr. Morton's book that it did so. We, the press, should, while maintaining our existing duties and obligations, try to avoid hysteria and the desire to follow the pack. We should be more pro-active and less reactive. The main criticism I have, and would accept, of recent events is that of tone rather than content. We for ourselves will seek to improve that.
§ 3.54 p.m.
§ Lord Ardwick
My Lords, I am glad to see so many newspaper people engaging in this debate. There are quite a number of "old lags"; people who have, in Kipling's phrase, "given their heart to the old black art".
I agree with some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens. For most of his speech I thought he was saying that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds; though he admitted that occasionally things are not so good, when someone steps out of line and so forth. However, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, is far too complacent.
I shall not engage on the political front. Many years ago the noble Lord, Lord Cudlipp, and I, and the late Lord Jacobson, got up to some pretty good tricks on the Daily Mirror in support of the Labour Party. The criticism of the press in its political conduct today is not so much what it does, but that so much of it is 783 Conservative and so little supports the opposition parties. It is those proportions about which people are concerned.
I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for initiating the debate, but not too heartily. I should have preferred to wait until the Government had fulfilled their promise to look at the way in which the commission was working and the response it was receiving from the press. Indeed, I hoped that the noble Lord would analyse the work of the commission and express a view about it. As far as I can recall, he said very little in that regard.
The Government's judgment is still to come. We shall probably discuss the commission again after October. By that time we should be able to see matters in perspective. The danger at this moment is that the anxieties aroused by the way the media have publicised the problems of the Royal family will swamp the discussion and we shall lose track of the progress made by the commission.
I regard the Royal story as an extraordinary event; something that may happen only once in a generation and perhaps not even once. It is clear that the marriage of the heir to the throne is under severe strain and neither the Prince nor his wife are concealing that fact. What is the press to do? Should it remain silent? Should it tell all? Or should it tell only some of the story? I shall return to that in a moment.
Problems concerning privacy, which is what the debate is all about, are not the only ones with which the commission is concerned. The voluntary code of practice which the Press Commission uses as its guide is also concerned with accuracy, fair opportunity to reply, the use of subterfuge to obtain information, harassment, payment for information, intrusion into grief or shock, interviewing children, the victims of crime, race and religious prejudice and financial journalism. That is plenty, is it not?
Anybody reading the commission's reports must be impressed by their clarity and concision, and the general reasonableness of the judgments. It is not afraid to turn down an MP or to condemn a practice of recent years when newspapers present collated information as though it were the result of an interview. The commission is not afraid to reject the complaint of a great bank. Some of the good work of the council is in resolving complaints directly without the need for adjudication by bringing the complainant and the newspaper together with a view to some form of satisfaction of the complaint being found.
Noble Lords may have heard on television or radio today the complaint of a Wimbledon star that a newspaper had published her address and members of the public had been exercising undue curiosity. In the current report of the commission the secretary of a football club made the same complaint—that his address was given in a newspaper. He was told by the commission that newspapers are generally entitled to publish names and addresses of people in the news and to do so is no breach of the code under which the commission operates. Harassment is often the price of fame.
All that is useful work. Perhaps it is asking too much for perfect consistency in the judgments, but to 784 say a good word for the commission does not mean that all newspapers are behaving like angels. Here I am at one with the noble Lord, Lord Stevens. We have to remember that the democratic system is a pretty rough trade. Newspapers are an essential part of that system. They are also part of the roughness. Smooth them down and out goes democracy.
I return to the Royal problem. It is of course tragic that two such attractive young people with a young family and who carry out their public duties assiduously and with charm, should develop a serious incompatibility as apparently they have. We must all hope that it will be resolved in reconciliation. But, faced with this development and this story, I have to ask myself what I as an editor would have done with it. I should certainly have published the news. The fact that it was broken by the impending publication of a book was only incidental. The public conduct of the Prince and Princess was a sufficiently clear pointer to the marital situation and anything might have sparked off the news.
This may not be a constitutional matter, but it is one of considerable public interest and concern. However, if I had been presenting it I hope that I would have done so more gravely. It is not justifiable to report in detail every spat and every act of apparent coldness or rejection. It is even less justifiable to go into the details of the Princess's nervous symptoms and allegedly suicidal despair. When this is over newspapers should think about the ethics of Royal reporting. For the law of libel—the ordinary citizen's defence against untrue defamatory statements made against him—is virtually inoperable for the Royal Family.
A good deal of indignation is felt about some aspects of the behaviour of all the media, and not just the newspapers. I refer to the electronic media as well. Although no government are likely to legislate, some Private Member may find his privacy Bill speeding on its way through one of the Houses of Parliament. I have no faith in any such Bill. If it were effective it could only damage the serious newspapers making impossible the serious inquiries which have to be made in the public interest. I do not know of any acceptable sanction that the law can provide which will deter multi-millionaire companies from publishing the scandals that they know the public eagerly want to read.
§ 4.3 p.m.
§ Lord Wyatt of Weeford
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, began his speech by the rather stale old repetition of attacks on Mr. Rupert Murdoch for being so successful. With that he coupled me, although I could not quite hear what he said. Therefore, I shall not bother to reply to that. I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, addressed some of the real issues facing the discussion of the Press Complaints Commission. However, I do not for once agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, though I usually do.
Since the Press Complaints Commission was set up it has made a pretty good job of enforcing most of the 16 clauses of its code of practice. Where it has failed, 785 and will continue to fail, is with enforcing Clause 4 which deals with intrusions into privacy. Nine of its 16 members are closely associated with the press as editors or directors of press enterprises. A tenth member who, sadly, has recently died, was previously in charge of news and current affairs at the BBC, which did not give me much encouragement.
Circulations are falling. Intimate details of the private lives of the well-known or the unknown suddenly shot into prominence, are circulation boosters. It is against human nature to expect editors voluntarily to restrain themselves when they know that other editors will not. A slap on the wrist from the Press Complaints Commission is a small price for a quick circulation uplift of 200,000 to 300,000. When the Press Complaints Commission issued a statement condemning intrusions into the private lives of the Prince and Princess of Wales, editors laughed. They carried on as before. They knew that their rivals would do the same. They knew, too, that a Press Complaints Commission dominated by the media is, and must always be, a toothless dog in matters of privacy.
Editors will always vigorously pursue, with the aid of photographs, intrusions into privacy concerning intimate personal, family and sexual matters. Even the so-called quality newspapers like the Sunday Times do it all the time. Sir Ralph Halpern, when head of the Burton Group, was subjected to prolonged newspaper accounts of his sexual prowess with a bimbo. Apart from the severe distress it caused his family whatever he did with a bimbo, or she with him, had nothing whatever to do with his efficiency as head of an important company.
Present, or about-to-be, Members of your Lordships' House have suffered this kind of treatment —they know what I am talking about—and so have those in another place. The leader of the Liberal Party and his wife were monstrously tortured by the media over their private lives during the last election, though these could not in any sense have been a political issue. A lady in another place, the Member for Birmingham Ladywood, complained over a particularly virulent campaign about her sex life in the News of the World, for which I write weekly. Condemnation from the Press Complaints Commission was certainly printed but cheerfully shrugged off. Conduct of privacy issues appears not to have been altered by it.
Recently, a married football manager, while in and out of hospital, was hounded by sensational revelations that he had a mistress. When cricketers stay at hotels we get titillating gossip from female hotel workers about their after-play sexual play: bowling a maiden over and so forth. That has no connection with their cricketing or footballing skills. Footballers, cricketers, golfers, tennis players and every kind of sportsman or sportswoman are victims of lurid accounts of their sex lives. When chess becomes a mass sport we shall doubtless hear that in the evenings the chess players plot their next scandalous move in bed and not their next brilliant move on the chess board.
Sudden and spectacularly tragic and traumatic events in ordinary people's lives are instantly followed 786 by intrusions of privacy. Even hospitals are invaded. Reporters and photographers burst into the homes of people innocent of the ways of the press. They report with glee the immediate disjointed reactions of those under great strain. They are bounced into saying things they would never say if they had had 24 hours' reflection first.
The Calcutt Committee on privacy reported in June 1990. It recommended a Press Complaints Commission. It said that this would be one final chance to prove that voluntary self-regulation could be made to work. The 18 months which the Press Complaints Commission was allotted to show that the media can behave decently ended yesterday. I have been writing articles for the press since I was 16. I love newspapers and I like most editors I meet. By nature I am an optimist, not a cynic, but I am certain that it will never be possible to ensure the right to privacy without a law to back it.
In France, it is a criminal offence to breach anyone's privacy in intimate, personal, family or sexual matters. Criminality began to take shape in the law in 1858 after intrusions into the privacy of the famous singer, Elise Rachel, who died of consumption that year. The criminal law in France has been invoked in numerous cases. Some have involved notabilities, such as Brigitte Bardot, Marlene Dietrich and a President of the French republic, but the law applies to all from the humblest to the highest. In France it is criminal even to send to the printing press anything which is a breach of privacy.
The French are amazed that the notorious book by Mr. Morton, Diana: Her True Story, got as far as the printing press, let alone was published and serialised. In France it would have been aborted before birth. That book is not only doing a great disservice to the Princess of Wales, whom it claims to support, by portraying her as slightly barmy, but it is also most unjust to the Prince of Wales. Naturally the public like to read such stuff. Indeed, I am very interested in other people's quarrels and should very much like to hear all about family arguments among my neighbours, but I have no right to a report on them and nor do they have the right to a report on the rows in my family. There is no right whatsoever to eavesdrop pointlessly for titillation. Such activities have nothing whatsoever to do with the public interest, only with what interests the public. That is a completely different subject.
The law in France does not affect investigations into the activities of scoundrels and wrongdoers and nor does it prevent publication of a true story of, say, a Cabinet Minister who is having an affair with a beautiful foreign spy or of a story about a Defence Minister being an alcoholic and therefore unfit for his post.
I am not a lawyer but I am sure that there are many lawyers both in your Lordships' House and outside it who could draft a satisfactory law of privacy preventing invasions of privacy. One such person is Mr. Justice Hoffmann. Such a law should protect children from being pestered at school by photographers and reporters or from reading about true or false shocking details of their parents' marriage, which must have a fearful and lasting effect on them all their 787 lives. Such a law should include preventing the printing of transcripts of tape recordings of private conversations and of unauthorised photographs of people in private places. What possible excuse could there have been for printing a full-length photograph of the Princess of Wales in her swimsuit while bathing recently in the swimming pool of the British Embassy in Cairo? None.
The law that I envisage would not protect rogues like Mr. Robert Maxwell—the law in France does not provide protection for them—if his sex life came into significance because he was financing his bimbos with money stolen from the pension funds. That would be a perfectly legitimate subject to follow.
There is much feeling among the public that it is the Government's duty to bring in a Bill enshrining the right to personal privacy for everyone without affecting the essential freedoms of the press. As I have just said, the public enjoy reading such stuff, but they know perfectly well that they would hate to have it written about themselves. They think that it is utterly intolerable that such things should be written about people who are in no position to protect themselves and who cannot do anything about it, except bringing a libel action after the story has actually appeared.
If the Government do not bring in such a Bill, one should be promptly introduced into your Lordships' House. I believe that it would have all-party backing both here and in another place. I also believe that the public would greatly welcome this curb on the press. In saying that, I am unlike the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate—once my noble friend—who thinks that that would be a way of censoring the press. The law that I am envisaging would have nothing to do with censoring the press when they are in pursuit of their legitimate interests—and nor would there be anything in it to stop the press following up reasonable and pertinent inquiries into people's lives, as happens in France. We are kidding ourselves if we believe that the poor little Press Complaints Commission will ever be able to satisfy the need for personal privacy.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Thomson of Monifieth
My Lords, I am not unsympathetic to the points that the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, has just made about particular examples of press excesses. However, in the remedy that he proposes, he seems not to have considered the fact that these matters were closely examined by the Calcutt committee, which came out firmly against a law that would create a tort of breach of privacy, and against a statutory right of reply as being impractical. However, the committee proposed that there should be a law to deal with physical intrusion in relation to the media and I support the committee in that.
The speeches that we have heard from a noble Lord who is a press proprietor and from another noble Lord who is a former distinguished editor illuminate the fact that this debate (which is, in effect, about the future of the Press Complaints Commission) goes right to the heart of one of the dilemmas of democracy. There can be no free society without a free press, yet all experience shows that it is impossible to 788 have a free press without there being some abuses of that freedom from time to time. In extreme cases, these abuses can distort and undermine the very democracy that the free press is there to serve.
There is nothing particularly new about this situation. It is as old as parliamentary democracy. It was summed up a long time ago by the civil servant turned poet, Humbert Wolfe, who said:You cannot hope to bribe or twistThank God, the British journalistBut when you see what he will doUnbribed—there's no occasion to".The difficult question is how society can limit the inevitable excesses of a free press and keep them within acceptable levels.
It is necessary to bear in mind another dilemma. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, who was a distinguished investigative journalist in his day, might ponder this dilemma—what one person regards as an outrageous invasion of privacy may be regarded by another person as a crusade in the public interest. It all depends on how one defines the public interest.
In our debate earlier this week on media intrusion in mental hospitals, I quoted the wise words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, the Master of the Rolls, which were reported in the Calcutt committee's report. The noble and learned Lord said:The media are an essential foundation of any democracy. However they are peculiarly vulnerable to the error of confusing the public interest with their own interest".As has been made clear in some of the speeches that we have heard already today, the press interest is to make profits in a highly competitive commercial business. The tabloids justify their excesses by saying that they are merely catering for the interests of their readers. However, as Stanley Baldwin once remarked of the press lords of his day, that is the argument of the harlot down the ages. It has nothing to do with any serious definition of the public interest. It may well be argued that the marriage of the heir to the throne is a legitimate matter of public interest, but that definition of the public interest cannot conceivably be extended to encompass the way in which the once reputable Sunday Times has turned tabloid over the book about the marriage. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, said about that aspect of this issue.
As a former chairman of the IBA, I was saddened to see ITN showing the peeping torn pictures of the Princess of Wales in the private swimming pool of the embassy, and then to see ITN publicly seeking to justify that as being a matter of public interest. Equally, how can obstructing the public highway by erecting scaffolding in order to allow cameras to peer over the walls of a school to see small children at their sports day be said to be in the public interest? It is such excesses by the press that have raised the issues we are debating today.
In tackling these issues the practical choice for Parliament and government lies, as the Calcutt Committee spelt out, between what it called a reformed non-statutory mechanism—the present Press Complaints Commission—and a statutory tribunal with statutory powers to implement a statutory code of conduct. It has to be said straight 789 away that one of the many paradoxes relating to the media is that, although for the Government and Parliament to seek to regulate the press is basically repugnant to our traditions, the best way to encourage effective self-regulation is to threaten statutory regulation. That is what worked with the present Advertising Standards Authority, in which I declare a modest past interest as a former chairman. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, has modelled his new Press Complaints Commission on the tried structure of the Advertising Standards Authority. It is worth looking at it as an example of how self-regulation can work.
If self-regulation is to be more than simply a cosmetic exercise—it can be made more than a cosmetic exercise—three things are essential. First, there is a need for an automatic source of funding through some kind of annual levy. One weakness of the former Press Council was that it had to go with a begging bowl to the newspapers of the country which it was supposed to regulate seeking the funds to enable it to do its job. The new organization—Pressbof—deals with that.
Secondly, there must be means of applying effectively an agreed code of practice. I am glad to see that the code lays down that when a complaint is upheld, the publication concerned is duty bound to print the adjudication which follows in full and with due prominence. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, who knows about these matters intimately as a regular columnist in the News of the World, said that the newspaper he decorates chose to shrug off the complaint that was upheld against the News of the World in the case of the Member of Parliament, Clare Short. The News of the World printed some 3,000 words of the very full adjudication that the Press Complaints Commission gave on that matter. Nevertheless, more severe sanctions, including financial sanctions, may need to be considered as part of the weaponry of the Press Complaints Commission.
That brings me to the third and perhaps most important essential—a will to make self-regulation work on the part of the professional members of the commission. I found at the Advertising Standards Authority that the advertising industry members of the authority were as jealous as the lay members—and perhaps even more jealous—of the observation of its code of practice. Being more experienced than the lay members, they knew the tricks of the trade and therefore they were more effective.
The present Press Complaints Commission is still in its early days. It is suffering a baptism of fire and should be given more time to prove itself, encouraged no doubt by the continuing threat of legislation if it fails. But its success or failure will depend—I address my words to the noble Lord, Lord Stevens—on the editorial members and the press proprietors who are represented on the commission. It will depend on them being ready to back the code of practice in the spirit as well as in the letter.
If ever there is an area of democratic life that cries out for effective self-regulation, it is the media—not in the interests of the press; or even in the interests of the 790 victims or targets of the press, legitimate or not legitimate. The real public interest, as properly defined for this country, is the interest in the principle of free speech and a free society. It would be a sad day if Britain felt compelled to resort to some form of governmental regulation of the press. It was on the very principle that the present Government withdrew some years ago from UNESCO in the face of a proposal of some kind of new world information order that would have meant direct intrusion by government into the way the press behaved. All over East and Central Europe a revolution is now taking place. The old state-controlled and state-censored press has disappeared. East and Central Europe is full of people trying to establish a free press for the first time. They now come here in considerable numbers to seek advice about how we try to combine freedom of the press with positive efforts to maintain standards. They come to the Press Complaints Commission in considerable numbers to seek advice there. It would be a great retreat to resort to statutory intervention at such a time.
I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter in his opening speech. There is one area of the media where government intervention is legitimate and necessary—and that is to prevent excessive concentrations of media ownership, including cross-media ownership between the printed press and the broadcast media. In the recent Broadcasting Act the Government conceded an extraordinary degree of privilege to the Murdoch press in terms of its ownership of satellite broadcasting. Now the BBC is joining forces with the satellite broadcasters of the Murdoch press. Sporting events which previously the BBC and ITV in their different ways provided freely to viewers in this country will have to be paid for. Meanwhile, the new commercial television regime trembles on the edge of takeovers and mergers and the creation of mega regions.
These are issues of fundamental importance to the future freedom and diversity of our media. They are matters where the Government have a legitimate and necessary responsibility. I very much hope that the new Secretary of State for National Heritage will show a great deal more interest in accepting these responsibilities than his predecessor did at the Home Office.
§ 4.27 p.m.
§ Lord Deedes
My Lords, I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, about the diversity of the media but I think I am right in saying that this afternoon we are addressing ourselves primarily to the sins of the newspapers.
I begin by adding my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for initiating this debate. In the light of recent events there is indeed a need for a public discussion of some of the issues. I share many of the anxieties expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Thomson and Lord Wyatt of Weeford, not least because I am still a modest practitioner. I do not altogether share the contentment of my noble friend Lord Stevens of Ludgate. I prefer the realism of my noble friend Lord Wyatt of Weeford.
791 There are a good many things that are wrong and it is not difficult to produce a washing list of what we have a right to hold against the press of today. But it is a great deal easier to recite what troubles us than to prescribe the right remedies. In the short time I intend to speak in this debate I prefer to dwell not upon the catalogue of our sins, not all of which I deny, but upon possible solutions.
As things stand, newspapers are under some sort of ultimatum. In the words of the Press Complaints Commission's annual report:By general parliamentary agreement, the Press, and the Commission with it, were both put on probation until the middle of 1992".That takes us to where we are now. Failing the required level of conduct—we are to suppose—the Government will consider whether statutory under-pinning is required. That is generally accepted to mean —I accept the interpretation put on this by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford—restraints, by legislation, primarily on privacy. I accept the point. Privacy is the one area in which the Press Complaints Commission has a difficulty and has perhaps shown weakness. For at least two reasons I regard that position —the ultimatum—as unsatisfactory.
First, at the risk of causing hurt looks from my own Front Bench, I see no likelihood of this Government giving much encouragement to legislation which will antagonise the press. It is better to be blunt. The press did the Government pretty well in the previous election. I make no bones about that. No government in their senses bite the hand they feel has fed them. For that and other reasons, into which I shall not enter this afternoon, this talk of legislation (the ultimatum of the threat of immediate legislation) carries with it a great deal of bluff.
But let us suppose that it is not altogether bluff. Let us suppose that the Government are in earnest about this, and, if necessary, will support, or even initiate, a law on privacy. Then—speaking not as a lawyer, which I am not qualified to do, but as a practitioner —I advise your Lordships that the Government will be putting their foot into extremely slippery sand. I paid attention to what the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, said. I accept his point. With ingenuity, it might be possible to draft legislation which would meet some of your Lordships' anxieties about privacy and the invasion of privacy by the press. It could be done. It has been done. Drafts exist. What I doubt is whether the legislation would be easy to enforce.
My earlier training in the Home Office taught me that a law which satisfies public requirements but which is unenforceable in some respects is a thumping bad law. Even if the Government were willing—which I doubt—and the law could be drafted—which is possible—and could be made enforceable—which I doubt—there would be another hurdle to carry. How does one devise and enforce a law which protects the privacy of the individual without, at the same time, affording some refuge for rogues?
§ Lord Wyatt of Weeford
My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me, he is making an interesting speech 792 and I go along with a great deal of it. However, will he explain why it is that a law similar to the one I seek works in France?
§ Lord Deedes
My Lords, I am not being in the least didactic about this matter. I do not assert that a law that would defend privacy would necessarily pave the way for rogues. I am saying merely that there is a risk. If the existing law of defamation is buttressed by a law of privacy, there is an element of risk that more rogues will get away with what they are doing. I say bluntly that men such as the late Mr. Robert Maxwell would have reason to rejoice.
I do not say that we have played the role of watchdog with distinction in the past because, frankly, I do not believe that we have. That was a good example of where we failed in our duties. But it is a role that we should play and I should be sorry to see it handicapped by inadvertent legislation. So I come to this view: the Government would do themselves some good if they stopped pretending that they could, by legislation, control the ethics of the press. I am not defending the ethics of the press. There is a great deal about them which causes me, as a professional of some years standing, anxiety and unhappiness.
I should prefer to see the issue turned a little more towards the public's judgment. There is—shall I say? —a certain flaccidity today in public attitudes towards the press. The public deplores the cruel reporting of certain events which have been mentioned but reads about them avidly. I am for inculcating a degree more public responsibility into all this, which will not be exercised while the public supposes that the Government are willing to act on its behalf.
I should like to hear Ministers say a little more loudly to the newspaper-reading public, "This is a government who believe in choice. If you abhor certain journalistic practices, as you have every right to do, then abandon the newspaper which indulges in them. Vote at the newsagent! Do not look too much to government to determine what you or your children should or should not read. It is, in large degree, for you to decide. We will provide"—the Government have provided—"a Press Complaints Commission to deal with your grievances. After that, it is largely up to you".
I speak not on behalf of the press but in defence of the Government. A government who are induced to start putting ring fences around ethical behaviour can land themselves in the most tremendous pickle. I took the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, that there should be limits. It was a good story. I accept that there should be limits. The only question is how far the Government should involve themselves in setting those limits. I should be sorry to see the tremendous pickle that I forecast for a government who move too far towards the control of ethical behaviour happen to this Government. My earnest advice is—here I am not defending my profession, I am defending the Government—that the Government should keep out of it. We of the press do not offer much, but at least we offer choice. Let us tell the public bluntly that to a large degree it is up to them to choose.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Putney
My Lords, I find myself in the awkward position of following a group of experts. Everyone who has spoken has known what he was talking about. I am not sure that your Lordships will wish to listen to someone who is not as certain of his position in the matter as previous speakers have been; so I come to the subject with a certain amount of humility.
I speak as a consumer rather than as a participant. Although I have done a little rather contemptible spare-time journalism, I am in no way attempting to associate myself with the level of expertise to which we have just been listening. What strikes me about the press, for some organs of which I have considerable admiration, is its immense flexibility. It is that immense flexibility which is personal to journalists as well as to the press itself which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the process of self-regulation to work.
As regards that matter I find myself in the surprising position of agreeing more with the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, and, to some extent, with the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, than with—I was about to call him my noble friend, because I believe he is—the noble Lord, Lord Thomson. He believes that self-regulation can and should work, if I have not wrongly interpreted him. I fear that I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that in this area it cannot work, it is not working and will not work. Therefore we must approach the question of regulation very carefully. If we do so and assume that it is not the Government but a body created by them which is responsible for regulation, if that body is careful, we could enter the field of regulation without censorship. That is extremely difficult to achieve, which is the precise problem. However, because it is difficult to achieve it does not mean that it ought not to be attempted.
In the present unsatisfactory situation with the previous examples of self-regulation, I am not as great an admirer of self-regulation as the noble Lord, Lord Thomson. I take leave to be less of an admirer of its successes and more conscious of its failures in advertising than perhaps he is. An example of the flexibility of the press is the different attitudes taken by editors when they are in the position of judge in an editorial and when they are in the position of wishing to increase the sales of the paper.
Noble Lords will forgive me for quoting an article but it is necessary for the argument. An editorial on 24th June 1990 in the Sunday Times states:There is no denying, of course, that the behaviour of some tabloids has made all newspapers fair game for regulation. Never have the few unwittingly done so much damage to the reputations and freedoms of the many. The worst offenders have trampled on the weak with impunity, made gross intrusions into the private lives and assassinated the characters of public figures with no excuse of public interest or anti-social behaviour, but solely the belief that it sells newspapers. Good tabloid newspapers need to be controversial … That does not mean that they have to publish sleaze, distort the truth (or, worse, print downright lies) and pander to the worst prejudices of the public. But that is exactly what some newspapers have done …It is unnecessarily intrusive, for example, for public figures, such as the royal family, to be subject to the never-ending scrutiny of the telephoto lens when they are 794 doing no more than sunning themselves on a beach. Even the highest in the land should have the right to be left alone when they are doing no harm; press freedom should not override the right to privacy for no good reason".That is what the Sunday Times said a couple of years ago.
In practice, a newspaper changes its view when it wishes to increase its circulation by embarking on the sins which have been so clearly described. The press man and, I am afraid, the editor can easily turn from gamekeeper to poacher and from poacher back to gamekeeper. If the editor is put on a regulation committee, he can condemn what he himself will permit in his editorial position. That is precisely the problem with self-regulation of the press.
As for the report which is the basis of this debate which has been so properly introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, it is remarkable for its absence of detail. There is not a great deal in it. The report gives us some little designs which show that the number of complaints is small compared with the circulation of newspapers. It tells us about the number of complaints by type of publication, with a design to illustrate it. However, it reaches no conclusion and gives little information about what, if anything, has been achieved.
The report includes the code of practice which the commission seeks to operate. From the code of practice at the back of the publication, one must reach the conclusion that the Press Complaints Commission has been ineffectual in implementing in any way the code of practice of which it is supposed to be in charge. The report reads more as though it is setting out aims for the future rather than what has been implemented by the Press Complaints Commission day by day.
Taking any of the items in the code of practice, one sees that they ought to be the case but unhappily they are not. For example, on the first point dealing with accuracy, the code of practice states:Newspapers … should take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material".By and large, it is true, newspapers succeed in doing that. However, one has only to read the headlines of newspapers to notice that they distort their material. It is not at all infrequent to read the headline of a column in a newspaper and then to find that the text below is directly contradictory to that headline. I could go through the code of practice, but it would take too long. I merely note that every point is laid down as an aim to be achieved rather than something which has been achieved. If that is so, then the Press Complaints Commission's report tells us that something needs to be done to bring the code of practice into actuality rather than to leave it as an ambition.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Lord Hemingford
My Lords, I must begin with a declaration of interest. I am the secretary of the Association of British Editors. I have been a journalist for most of my working life, both in the national newspapers and latterly in local and regional papers.
I wish to say a word on behalf of the approximately 2,000 newspapers to which the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, referred and which do not 795 normally figure in our debates. Perhaps I should also declare that I was hostile to the findings of the Calcutt Committee which subscribed to the idea that the press should be put on probation and given one last chance to avoid regulation. I took that view because it seemed to me that it put the entire press—the good and the responsible as well as the others—in hock to the maverick editor who might offer politicians the opportunity to say that self-regulation had failed.
Certain sections of the press succumbed too readily to the Calcutt formula. We should have had more debate on it before it was implemented. The code which the PCC now administers was written in secret by a small committee of editors and was only published a mere three weeks before the PCC came into existence. Understandably, the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, who is chairman of the PCC, has stressed the legitimacy of the code. He could not do otherwise, or he would have nothing to enforce.
I must concede now, after the passage of time, that the passive acceptance which the code has received from editors probably entitles it to a legitimacy which I did not think it deserved at birth. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, said, I believe that there is evidence that the relatively few editors about whom there has been intense concern have modified their behaviour. I am not an apologist for the Press Complaints Commission but I believe that is the case. I do not particularly welcome this debate because I believe the present situation surrounding the Press Complaints Commission is unhealthily political already and that what is needed is a reduction in the political hysteria about a few newspapers who offend but whose popularity, paradoxically, does not suggest that there is a general and widespread public concern about all newspapers. I suppose I am saying rather less well what the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, said about keeping the politics out of these matters.
Newspapers will always be controversial, and so they should be. There will always, unfortunately, be some bad journalists. I do not wish to dwell on that because others are quite happy to do so. However, one must recognise that fact. Journalism will always be likely to rank low (although possibly not as low as politicians) in the popular ratings. As has often been said in these debates, the price of a free press is some bad newspapers. However, a press which operates under a complaints commission that has been described with relish in my hearing by senior politicians as a sword of Damocles—that phrase has been used already in this debate—is not as free as it should be in an advanced democracy, if indeed we can claim to be an advanced democracy at all. That is very dangerous territory.
I attended the Commonwealth Press Union conference in Edinburgh last week and I heard it said that the British press had exercised a high degree of self-censorship during the recent general election. Whether one thinks that is a good thing or not probably depends upon the extent of one's political involvement. However, I find it worrying.
The Government, no doubt, would like to avoid introducing legislation regulating the press. I am prepared to give them credit for realising that 796 statutory interference with the press is wrong in principle. However, the reality of political life, I fear, is that if the baying of Back-Benchers is considered to be dangerously loud, the Government might bow to that pressure. That is an unsatisfactory climate for the PCC and the press to work in.
There will, rightly, always be tension between politicians and the press. At present the politicians are too far in the ascendancy. I hope that this House, which can take a more measured view than those in another place—that has been demonstrated today—will contribute to trying to lower the temperature so that we avoid making bad laws on the basis of hard cases. After all, another reason for opposing a statutory Press Complaints Commission is that it would bring lawyers into the picture. With the greatest respect to the noble and learned Lords in this House, there is no evidence that lawyers would make a better job of editing newspapers than editors. Nor do I share the confidence that the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, has expressed about their ability to draft a privacy law which would not fall foul of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, about allowing rogues to escape.
§ 4.54 p.m.
Lord Belhaven and Stenton
My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for introducing this subject at a time when many of the thinking British public are concerned about it. The noble Lord spoke with his usual clarity and sometimes he spoke with passion. As an ordinary reader of the press I agree with most of what he said.
I speak as a mere reader of the press and I am in no way connected with it. But having said that, I confess to a certain puzzlement when I read the report of the commission. I read the whole report although that was quite hard work. Certainly it was published before recent scandalous reports and publications had come to light. For that reason it seems to me to bear little relationship to what I believe is the public perception of what the press is up to now.
We have a limited time in which to speak in this debate and I do not have the knowledge of the press that is possessed by most noble Lords who are speaking today. Therefore I shall speak briefly. My main purpose in speaking in this debate is to ask Her Majesty's Government a question which has bothered me for a long time. I believe the question has been asked before but it has more weight at the present time than it ever has had, or possibly is ever likely to have. The question is: ought it to be possible for a foreign national to own a large portion of the British press and media? We have had some pretty unpleasant press barons in the past but at least until fairly recently there was not one who would have been unable to take the Oath or Affirmation which every Member of your Lordships' House and the other place have taken recently.
I do not think there are many countries that would allow the Murdoch press, or its equivalent, to own such a large segment of their media. A person who does not live here and who owes no allegiance to the 797 Queen or to the country ought in my view not to have the kind of influence which a press baron can, of necessity, exercise. As far as I can see, that influence and power far exceeds that of any Back-Bench Member of another place and of most Members of your Lordships' House—certainly in the latters' capacity as Members of this House.
A foreign press baron has no stake in this country other than the money he can make out of it and owes no obligations to its institutions. Neither he nor his sons can be called up if there is a war and he suffers no loss, other than possibly financial, if this country is conquered or overrun by a hostile power. The state of the nation has no effect upon his or his family's future because they hold another allegiance. If he wishes to undermine the regime he can do so with perfect freedom of conscience as far as he personally is concerned. He will not be affected one way or another by any repercussions caused by his trying to impose his views.
Does my noble friend agree that Her Majesty's Ministers have a duty to protect the sovereign and the succession? Does he consider that that duty is being performed while the Murdoch press is being allowed to make an unprecedented attack on our constitution and, I would go so far as to say, on the security of the realm?
§ 4.58 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, I rise to offer firm support to the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, and to offer my sincere congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, on what he published on behalf of the Press Complaints Commission about the maltreatment of the royal family.
Things have moved on a little since I opened a debate on the tabloids in this House five years ago. At that time I said the tabloid press had deteriorated, was deteriorating and would continue to deteriorate. My noble friend Lord Mishcon was kind enough not necessarily to agree with every word I said but to say some generous words about me. Those words stick in my mind, as generous words always stick in my mind.
At any rate, I remember that debate well. I remember that the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, whom I have just applauded for his fine announcement on behalf of the Press Complaints Commission, made an interesting speech in the debate five years ago. He said:I hope that the Government will feel able in relation to the Press Council … quietly to twist the arms of the proprietors".—[Official Report, 18/2/87; col. 1183.]That was as far as the noble Lord went five years ago. I am glad to say that now, as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, he is a great deal more outspoken. He now says on behalf of the commission:The most recent intrusive and speculative treatment by sections of the Press (and, indeed, by broadcasters) of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales is an odious exhibition of journalists dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls".798 Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, has advanced a good deal in those five years. I suppose that one must correlate that with a still further deterioration of the press in the five years in question.
I am glad to think that the Government have also progressed in their recognition of the dangers. Winding up that debate five years ago the much esteemed noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, said:We have no intention to introduce statutory oversight of the press and we do not believe that present circumstances can justify our changing this policy".—[Official Report, 18/2/87; col. 1196.]That may be for all time, perhaps. Now the Government are adopting a different tone towards the possible control of the press, I am glad to think. I am pleased that the Leader of the House of Commons recently came out very strongly in support of the statement by the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, on behalf of the Press Complaints Commission. He said that,there will be very widespread support in all parts of the House for the comments made by the Press Complaints Commission yesterday".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/6/ 92; col. 144.]Therefore, the Government have come out very firmly and denounced the recent treatment by the press.
I am sorry to have interrupted earlier. The trouble with these short debates is that one has only a few minutes and it is bad form to interrupt. However, it is a pity if that convention is absolute, and I could not help asking the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, whether he justified the serialisation of the Morton book. I gather that he did, but perhaps I took him unawares and tomorrow he may think of a better answer.
That is where we are now—the Press Complaints Commission denouncing the behaviour of the press recently and the Government supporting the commission. I hope that I can say that that is the general view of the leaders of other parties.
In relation to the Morton book, the noble Lord who spoke last was very severe on Mr. Murdoch. I should not have thought that it was possible to be too severe on Mr. Murdoch; however, I thought that the noble Lord was. I would not have gone as far, although I have criticised Mr. Murdoch. I did so in the previous debate five years ago, perhaps more gently than the noble Lord felt able to criticise him this afternoon.
Perhaps I may say one thing in favour of Mr. Murdoch. He owns many newspapers, including The Times. Recently The Times published a review of the Morton book by a lady who is, to say the least, not unknown to me. She referred to the book in the words of Bismarck, translated into English as "stinking more than somewhat". That seems to be an apposite comment. However, it was printed in a paper owned by Mr. Murdoch, and I must point out that in order to be fair to Mr. Murdoch, who has received bad treatment today, although defended resolutely by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt.
If one can stink more than somewhat then I believe that the Sunday Times qualifies. It is one thing to publish an awful book—and I have written a few in my time—and one would not blame everybody for what they write in books, but the Sunday Times is a so-called quality paper and my noble friend Lord 799 Jenkins very appositely described the attitude of the Sunday Times towards the tabloid press only two years ago. That paper has sunk to the depths. We can join in the condemnation.
What can we do about the problem? It is a difficult question. It has been suggested that there might be a privacy law. I cannot imagine voting against a privacy law but I do not believe that it would do much good because of the ambiguities involved, which were contained even in the support of such a law by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt.
I put forward one thought in that context which is not usually considered. When someone is dead we expect a biography to go into his or her private life. A biography which did not refer to Gladstone's interest in salvaging prostitutes or did not deal with Disraeli's sex life would be thought a very inadequate affair. Where does one draw the line? Does one say that while the man is alive everything has to be hushed up but as soon as he is dead any self-respecting author may blow the gaff? The issue raises very difficult questions. I do not believe that we shall ever see an effective law on privacy.
What is left? The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, made one point which interested me greatly. He pointed out that the majority of the members of the Press Complaints Commission are representatives of the press or the media. We have to think about that for a moment. Without going as far as statutory controls, which involves many difficulties, one could envisage a Press Complaints Commission which was an advisory body but on which there was not a majority of representatives of the press. I believe that that possibility is worth exploring. Presumably such a body would include considerable press representation, but it would he in a stronger position and more likely to offer candid criticism than the present body.
Until that happens we are left with the present situation. There has been horrifying misbehaviour by the newspapers in many cases. I have admired the Sunday Times for many years and I regarded it as a quality paper. However, in my view it has gone down the drain. If I thought that withdrawing my subscription would make any difference I would do so, but as the paper has increased its circulation by 250,000 copies as a result of those enormities I do not suppose that it would be noticed. I believe that the newspaper is a disgrace to journalism and to the quality press.
In the end it is up to all of us. In the last resort that means the Press Complaints Commission and, among politicians, first of all the Government. Perhaps I may for a change congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, and draw his attention to the fact that I applaud wholeheartedly the attitude which the Leader of the House of Commons has taken in supporting the Press Complaints Commission in its condemnation of the disgusting behaviour by so many elements of the press.
§ 5.7 p.m.
§ Lord Colnbrook
My Lords, my reason for taking part in the debate is that I am a member of the Press Complaints Commission. I must declare that at once.
800 It is our report which your Lordships have been discussing this past hour or so. I thought that it might be helpful to refer to one or two matters which have come up in the course of our discussion because I have direct personal knowledge of how the Press Complaints Commission works under the expert and very agreeable guidance of the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, whom I may now call my noble friend even though he sits on the opposite side of the House.
Everyone knows the origin of the commission, in the Calcutt Committee, and how the commission has been set up by the press itself. It has nothing whatever to do with the Government. It is initiated, appointed and financed by the press. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, said a moment ago, I believe that the balance of the Press Complaints Commission is about right. There are seven editors and eight people who are not editors.
§ Lord Colnbrook
My Lords, of course they are connected with the press; but should knowing something about the subject be a bar to serving on such a body? That does not seem to me to make sense at all. The people who have responsibility for what appears in the newspapers, which is what the Press Complaints Commission exists to consider, are the editors. Other people may have a financial interest in newspapers; they may have been editors or they may have been connected with other sections of the media. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, mentioned one member—Sir Richard Francis—who, until he unfortunately died last week, was connected with the BBC. I cannot see that that could conceivably be thought to be a bar to being a lay member of the Press Complaints Commission. Having seen the work of such members, I consider it an advantage. Does the noble Lord wish to intervene?
§ Lord Wyatt of Weeford
My Lords, I do not quite understand why the noble Lord was trying to make out that the Press Complaints Commission is not dominated by a majority of people connected with the press. The balance of the nine members is made up by people who, if they are not editors, are directors of newspapers and have some editorial say in them.
§ Lord Colnbrook
My Lords, the noble Lord knows more than I about the responsibilities of editors. I am open to correction, if I am wrong; but it was my understanding that the editor's decision is final. However, we shall leave that point aside. That is the situation, and I shall return to the issue of how we work in a moment, because it is important.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, quite rightly said that it was necessary for the code of practice to be agreed. It is. It was drawn up by the press and not by the commission. The commission had no hand in drawing it up. It was done by a group of editors of newspapers and has been publicly subscribed to by the editor of every newspaper in the country. They have agreed to abide by it. That is its strength. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, mentioned 801 that very point. It matters that it is the press's own code and all members of the press have subscribed to it.
That is not to say that the code cannot be altered. A moment ago the noble Lord, Lord Hemingford, said that he did not think that the code of practice was very good. I expect that it could be altered. The Press Complaints Commission cannot alter it but we can recommend alterations to those who drew it up. We have already done so on two occasions and it has been altered twice. If any Member of your Lordships' House has suggestions to make for altering it, we shall be only too glad to consider them and put them forward if they are right. The basis of the code of practice is that it is the press's own code and the press subscribe to it.
Noble Lords who have read the annual report will have seen that more than anything else when the commission receives a complaint it seeks to get it resolved amicably. Therefore we try to bring together the complainant and the editor to see whether they can resolve the problem in some way that is satisfactory to both parties. That seems to me to be far and away the best way of dealing with complaints, if it can be done.
Perhaps the extent of the commission's success or otherwise can be seen in the annual report. That indicates that four times as many complaints were resolved directly as had to be adjudicated on by the commission sitting as a whole. It cannot be bad that complaints should be amicably resolved. If they have to be adjudicated on, then that is done. Incidentally, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, said that the annual report did not give enough information about the operations of the commission. From what he said it seems that he does not receive the monthly report. I am sorry and shall arrange for it to be sent to him. He will see that the report, which every month we send to as many people as we believe want it, goes into very considerable detail about what the commission does. I shall arrange that from now on the noble Lord will receive it. I hope that it will not be necessary for him to make that complaint again.
I return to the question of method and the press and the lay members. What has impressed and delighted me when we consider complaints upon which we have to adjudicate is the total lack of difference between the editors and the laymen. In my ignorance I had assumed that there would be occasions —perhaps a number of occasions—when the lay members would take one point of view and the editors would take another. I have sat on the commission for 18 months now and that situation has yet to arise. If a complaint is made against a newspaper whose editor sits on the commission, that editor withdraws and takes no part in the matter. In fact, I find it encouraging that there has been no difference between us at all in the whole of the 18 months that I have been there.
I shall not go into the report. Noble Lords have read it and may make what they like of it. Of interest to everybody is, as has been said already, what the 802 future holds. What happens now that the 18 months' probationary period is up, theoretically at any rate? I can see only three ways forward.
One way is that there should be legislation, as was envisaged by Calcutt. Certainly the noble Lords, Lord Wyatt of Weeford and Lord Jenkins of Putney, think that there ought to be legislation. My impression from listening to the debate was that nobody else thought so. On the whole, it was not thought to be a good idea.
My noble friend Lord Deedes advanced the very compelling argument that the remedy is the hands of the public themselves and if they do not like what they read they should not buy the publication. Perhaps the noble Lord will have a word with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who has apparently still not withdrawn his subscription from the Sunday Times. Incidentally, I have done so. I do not know whether that ideal solution will make the press behave in the way that the public want it to behave. I hope that your Lordships will excuse me if I express a modicum of doubt about whether that will happen.
The third way is to continue as we are; in other words, to have a complaints commission which, admittedly, has no power. The only power that it possesses is to require the newspapers to print adverse reports about themselves. Somebody mentioned earlier that the News of the World, having criticised a Member of the other place and been adversely commented upon by the Press Complaints Commission, had shrugged the matter off. The News of the World devoted an entire page of their newspaper the following Sunday to printing the commission's adverse comment word for word. I do not think that that newspaper has done it again yet.
As I said, the commission has no major power. The success or otherwise of the system at present in operation depends entirely on the press. I like to think that the press is taking some notice of the commission and maybe what it is trying to do will work. However, I fully realise, as we all do, that that is not for the commission to judge but for the Government, your Lordships and Members of another place. Until they judge otherwise, the commission will go on doing the best it can.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, your Lordships have been so economical with time that an interval is available. I hope that I shall be allowed to fill three minutes of it by addressing one narrow point rather than the many points that I should have liked to make had I thought that I would be here at the end of the debate. I want to address an assumption which has been made by most speakers and which I believe is not sound; namely, that it is not proper or possible to legislate for the protection of privacy because freedom of speech is generally good and it is generally good that it should not be curtailed.
My noble friend Lord Deedes provoked my return from the far door when I was behind the Woolsack and induced me to come into the Chamber. He most plainly made the assumption that it was right that justice—if that is what it is to be—should be achieved not by legislation but by the effect of market forces; 803 that is to say, the public behaving unlike the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I do not consider that that is a correct assumption. In fact our time is spent in legislating for the control of things which of themselves are good and which people can use harmfully. We legislate against what people want in the way of speed in built-up areas, which is harmful to other people. We legislate against the use of otherwise beneficial drugs because they are harmful to the user. There seems to be no argument in philosophy why one should not legislate for the protection of private individuals whose lives may be destroyed by the intrusion of the media.
I do not want to speak with undue heat at this time because there are particular cases before the public eye. However, I beg your Lordships to remember that one does not need to be a national figure in order to he devastated and have one's family devastated by publication of facts which are properly one's own property and nobody else's and which in many instances may not be true. We all know that truth lives at the bottom of a well and emerges only with her nakedness clothed with newsprint. But that is a generalisation which journalists would not like me to use.
I merely say that on my last recent visit abroad, I went to Singapore, which is not far from the Straits of Malacca. On the front page of the Sunday Times I read a story telling me that the British Government were about to make a proclamation against piracy on the high seas and send units of the Royal Navy to control piracy in the Straits of Malacca. I established with the Foreign Office that there was no truth in that story. However, a good deal of umbrage was being taken at the other end of my trip when I arrived. I refer to that in parenthesis. It is not relevant to privacy; it is relevant to the fact that what is printed may not be true and may therefore be doubly harmful and lead to people being judged on statements about them which are false.
If there can be regulation in France—and I was unaware that there was—we should consider such provision in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I hope that this is not the last occasion on which we shall address the subject before it is put to bed by a decision by Her Majesty's Government. That is my reason for intervening. I hope that the Government will not be precipitate in coming to a conclusion on a subject about which many people feel more exercised than many of the speakers in this debate.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, over 25 years ago, the House of Commons debated a Motion calling for the appointment of a Royal Commission on the press. That Royal Commission recommended the creation of a press council, the forerunner of the present Press Complaints Commission whose report we debate today.
Anyone who reads the report of that debate in Hansard will be struck by two features. The first demonstrates that the anxieties then expressed were very similar to those which have been touched on in 804 the debate today; that is, the concentration of ownership of the media. The other feature is that hardly a word was spoken about the issue on which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has touched; namely, the intrusion into people's privacy by newspapers.
In 1946 the debate primarily related to an issue which was seen by the then government Benches as the unacceptable conduct and power of a handful of newspaper proprietors, primarily the late Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Kemsley. Yet it was significant that many who supported the Motion that there should be a Royal Commission conceded that the political sympathies of the national press at that time did not represent an intolerably unfair weighting in favour of the Conservative Party. Indeed, some rather friendly things were said about the press. In the report in Hansard on 29th October 1946 at col. 549, Mr. Morrison, speaking as Leader of the House of Commons, said:I do not under-estimate the fact that the popular press of today is a press of, on the whole, a better standard, catering for a better degree of education, than the same popular press did 20 or 25 years ago".I wonder whether anyone in this House would make such a statement today.
There has unfortunately been a substantial deterioration in the quality of the tabloid press in the past few years. We have seen in a number of tabloid newspapers gross intrusions into personal privacy, payment to criminals and the associates of criminals, and other serious malpractices. During the recent general election campaign—I do not refer exclusively to the Conservative tabloid press—even less of a serious effort was made to give an honest account of the activities of politicians whom they did not favour.
Like my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter, I have found it richly comic to hear the protestations of some of the editors involved denying that in the last election their activities had any discernible effect on the result today. Indeed, we heard an echo of that from the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate. Perhaps I may touch on what was said to the Royal Commission by a rather more candid witness, the late Lord Beaverbrook. When he was asked about his position on the matter he stated:I ran the paper for propaganda and with no other purpose".Then, slightly less plausibly, he added:The policy is that there shall be no propaganda in the news. There is a strong stern rule and the most tremendous attempt is made to carry that rule into effect. But we do stumble. It is terrible how we stumble. It is heartbreaking sometimes".I am sure that that was a deeply sincere statement.
He said that the Beaverbrook Newspapers were united in support of the Empire. The late Lord Beaverbrook said that if editors diverged from that, "I talked them out of it". I do not believe that Mr. Murdoch has to spend an immense amount of time explaining his views to his editors or talking them out of any position that they hold which is not his own. I do not believe that Mr. Murdoch—unlike the late Lord Beaverbrook—has any clear view of the world that he would like to see. He sees his newspapers, perfectly understandably, as a source of financial power.
805 He has been highly successful in commercial terms. The Sun —to take the most obvious example—was an abject failure under its previous ownership. Under Mr. Murdoch it has been a notable commercial success. But of course the price has been immensely high. He has created a vulgar and brutish newspaper and in so doing has driven the remainder of the tabloid press still further down market. At one level its loud-mouthed xenophobia is more a cause of amusement than irritation until one remembers those sad young men in Malmo and Stockholm wrapping themselves, sometimes almost literally, in the Union Jack, and winning for this country the reputation of possessing some of the nastiest soccer hooligans in Europe.
However, in a free society we have to put up with the Sun and its stablemates. But we have the right to demand that they observe the standards they set for themselves in the code of practice of the Press Complaints Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Colnbrook, reminded us that the editors were consulted about the matter and both editors and proprietors, including Mr. Murdoch, committed themselves to accepting the code.
In my view the publication by one of Mr. Murdoch's newspapers of the serial rights of a book concerning the Prince and Princess of Wales was entirely unacceptable. In my judgment it was a violation of the section of the code of practice relating to personal privacy. No doubt in commercial terms Mr. Murdoch is a happy man. One of his newspapers sold a further quarter of a million copies as a result and it cost it only £250,000 to buy the serial rights. Mr. Murdoch operates in a free society. He is entitled to behave in any way that he considers appropriate. But we have to bear in mind, as the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, reminded us, that Mr. Murdoch, formerly an Australian citizen, is now a citizen of the United States. In that context, it seems a little odd that we as a country have given Mr. Murdoch—who in my view has debased journalistic standards—almost everything that he asked for. As my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter pointed out, that is what we did during our debates on the Broadcasting Bill. With the general election now out of the way, he clearly believes that there is even less likelihood that Ministers will do anything to obstruct him.
His newspapers have demonstrated an almost unique reputation for bullying any politician who gets in their way. The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, and my noble friend, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, referred to one case. Ms. Clare Short, a Labour Member of Parliament, introduced a Bill concerning the publication of photographs of page 3 girls—an indispensable feature of every edition of the Sun newspaper. The Sun and its stablemate the News of the World then ran a campaign directed against Ms. Short. For instance, the News of the World published a story about an advertisement in Tribune. It was headed "Anti-porn MP's ex-aide quizzed over porn". The Press Complaints Commission, in the first of its monthly judgments, stated that Ms. Short's name had 806 been dragged in irrelevantly and unwarrantedly largely on the basis that she was a reader of Tribune. It stated that that story—and a second story to which I shall refer in one moment—raised an inescapable suspicion that the newspapers were pursuing their private interests against Ms. Short to embarrass her in retaliation for her campaign against them.
The second News of the World story related to a man with whom Ms. Short had a friendship in the early 1970s. During the course of the newspaper's investigations it interviewed Ms. Short's former husband and attempted to obtain from him photographs of her in a nightdress. The Press Complaints Commission stated that the News of the World's dealings with Ms. Short's former husband were indefensible. I am sure that that judgment will be shared by everyone who has read the report.
That is only one example of the treatment accorded by Mr. Murdoch's newspapers to anyone who gets in their way. Yet this is the media organisation which, as regards those issues and others whose guidelines we are debating today, clearly believes that Ministers will at worst give it a light tap on the wrist. It does not believe that its immense power is under the slightest threat from the Government. The reasons for that are self-evident and were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Deedes.
I find the prospect of a statutory Press Commission with members appointed by Ministers a deeply objectionable idea. In spite of its advocacy by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, I am also not attracted to a Bill dealing with a general right of privacy. That would be an immensely more complicated issue than he suggested in his speech. For reasons that I set out in considerable detail during our debate on the subject in April 1989 I do not like the idea. But I find it extremely difficult to believe that we should passively accept still further power being transferred to Mr. Murdoch's media empire. Its tentacles already extend far too wide. It is time that that power was diminished.
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Baroness Birk
My Lords, I speak as a former journalist on a national newspaper, as the originator of Nova magazine and as one who considers herself to be a friend of the press in the present and who is against legislation in the future. However, as has been made clear by all noble Lords who have spoken today, the press is trying the patience of its good friends.
I do not wish to dwell on the furore caused by the publication in the Sunday Times of "that" book, which has been exhaustively covered. Any further comment can only increase the sales of the book or the demand for the Sunday Times. However, I must say that it would have been less hypocritical if those responsible for publishing the excerpts had spent less time on arguing the case of the constitutional importance and that old, all-purpose standby "public interest", because publication was a godsend for drooping midsummer circulation. In that, I agree with my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth.
The noble Lord, Lord McGregor, in his foreword to the first annual report of the Press Complaints 807 Commission, points to the astonishingly small number of complaints made against newspapers in general—fewer than 1,400—and popular national dailies and Sundays in particular. The noble Lord, Lord Colnbrook, as a member of the commission was helpful in explaining some of its work. Is the smaller number of complaints than expected due to the fact that all are reformed characters or that people now accept what would have been unprintable even a decade ago? I believe that there has been a greater liberation—some may call it licence—in society and in the press. The two are interlinked. My noble friend Lord Ardwick will know, too, that under Sir Hugh Cudlipp the Daily Mirror was lively and entertaining but that it had a serious streak which made it practically compulsive reading for all Members of Parliament. That shows what can be done with genius such as his and a different ownership.
The Press Complaints Commission claims evidence of its own success. By means of an advertising campaign and the circulation of publicity material to organisations such as the citizens advice bureaux it intends to take steps to inform people how it works and can be used. Those are encouraging features. It will be interesting to see whether there is a great flow of complaints or whether when people can take a structured action they do nothing except perhaps tell friends. I believe that the latter may be the case unless the incident is gross and has a personal effect.
I accept that the commission had some success during its first year of operation. Unfortunately, that has been tempered by the excesses which have occurred since publication of its report. The tabloids alone must not take the blame for what are considered to be the faults of today's press. Self-described quality papers may not originate stories more shocking than those in the popular papers but they reproduce them, often with some pictures and with an air more of sorrow than delight. I am reminded of the famous Fleet Street editor of a Sunday newspaper who in the 1940s obtained pictures from an Italian agency. They showed a member of the Royal Family in a particularly revealing swimsuit. In those days the Royal Family was not the fair game that it is today. But at last he had an inspiration which enabled him to use the pictures. "Shocking Pictures", or similar words, was his headline. Underneath he wrote: "It is our duty to reveal these disgraceful pictures of our princess, which foreigners are gloating over". He then blamed the "evil cameramen". The upmarket papers feed from the tabloids, as sucker fish feed from a whale, and then publish readers' letters deploring what is happening at the other end of the market.
I do not like to put myself in the position of sounding priggish or prudish about the press, whether quality or tabloid. However, the change not only in the tabloids but in the self-described quality papers is a culture shock. That is not to excuse for one moment the harassment and intrusion into privacy, which in general is perpetrated by the tabloids, as the Press Complaints Commission's case histories illustrate. That point has been made by most, if not all, noble 808 Lords today. Some of those case histories are horrendous and there is no point in pretending otherwise.
We then come to the question of whether to legislate or not. Most of your Lordships' contributions—except that of the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt—put the case both for and against doing so.
My view is that taken by the noble Lords, Lord Bonham-Carter, who has given us the opportunity to discuss these matters, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and Lord Harris of Greenwich. It is a seductive idea to have legislation restricted to dealing only with invasion of privacy. That would deal with one of the worst features of the press today. However, as has been pointed out by various noble Lords, it is an almost impossible task. I do not believe that legislation is the answer because there is the grave possibility that it will not achieve the desired aim. To draft such legislation would be extremely difficult. Personally, I do not believe that it would work.
Also, it would have an adverse effect on the freedom of the press. It is extremely interesting to glance back 200 or 300 years to see some of the stirring articles that were written about the importance of press freedom at that time. In my view, the opinions expressed then still obtain today. If we hit the problem with a statutory hammer, we shall hit not only the freedom of the press but also the freedom of the individual. Curiously enough, it is much more essential in a democratic society to have a press which constantly scrutinises both the government and what they are doing and executive and governmental agencies. It should be free to do that without fear. I do not trust any government of whatever colour to play fair as regards this matter. A government will always give reasons to avoid playing fair, and we hear that and see that nowadays.
As the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, and others have pointed out, legislation may catch important investigative journalism as well as the foot-in-the-door excessive behaviour. It is impossible to make an unarguable distinction between news and comment, although it would be very nice if that were possible. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, gave us an extreme but amusing example of that when he referred to Lord Beaverbrook.
While we are dealing with and hoping for a responsible press, we must accept that we pay a certain price for that in a democracy; that is, having to tolerate some irresponsible areas of the press. That does not mean that we should not try to do something about it but I do not believe that legislation is the answer.
The Press Complaints Commission has an important role to play. I hope that role will improve and increase with time because we should remember that the commission has not had long to prove itself. However, the role is a negative one, as I am sure the commission itself accepts. We need a changed climate in which the press can play a positive role. Incidentally, that was the implicit thrust of the letter from the editor of that vigorous, sparky, local paper the Hampstead and Highgate Express in The Times yesterday.
809 I believe that we badly need a freedom of information Act. We are an extremely secretive society, although we boast about our openness and freedom. However, that openness and freedom are not all they seem to be. Moreover, libel and contempt laws badly need changing. Gagging injunctions, which prevent publication without knowing whether or not material will be libellous when it is published, are a disgrace. It is time that something was done about them because that affects what is going on in the press and it affects readers' views and reactions.
Libel damages have become ludicrous. In criminal cases the jury decides on guilt but not penalty. In a libel case the jury should decide whether or not libel has been committed but the question of damages should be left to the judge.
It should be made easier and less expensive for people to take on the press. Something on the lines of a small claims court with an upper financial limit might be helpful. Often people who have quite a serious grudge against the press or have been badly treated feel that they cannot take action because they do not have the necessary funds. A small claims court, or something like it, would remedy that situation.
I shall not say much about cross-media ownership because a great deal has been said, most of which I agree with. It is unhealthy to have such enormous slices of the media in the hands of one person, as the concentration of views is associated with a concentration of interest. It is essential that there should be plurality in the media. So many noble Lords have dealt with that subject that I do not believe that I have anything more to say, other than to add my voice to warn against what is an extremely dangerous and unhealthy situation. We argued this out during the passage of the Broadcasting Act, when it was recognised that no regulations would control satellite TV, and unfortunately we were proved right.
In considering the Press Complaints Commission's first year's record, it would be wrong and dangerous if the Government allowed themselves to be pushed into legislative sanctions. I believe that financial sanctions should be considered for the commission if they are not too difficult to work out and do not involve the intervention of too many lawyers. I have toyed with that idea. However, the commission needs longer to prove itself and particularly to see whether the committee of editors under the chairmanship of the editor of the News of the World, against which a very bad case has been quoted many times, makes a real impact on standards. It is laughable in a way but it may be that we shall see that the poachers turn into the most admirable and strictest of gamekeepers.
§ 5.48 p.m.
My Lords, we are all extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, for initiating this debate on a matter of great public and constitutional importance.
The debate that we have had this afternoon has been unusually stimulating and of the highest intellectual quality. I have listened with great interest to all the contributions which have been made. Today 810 we have heard from a chairman of a newspaper publishing company, my noble friend Lord Stevens of Ludgate, from three former editors of national newspapers, and from other noble Lords who have great experience in the world of journalism and broadcasting. I shall have more to say later on the particular points raised, and I shall try to respond to some of them.
Perhaps I may begin by saying that the debate has highlighted with particular vividness three points: first, the enormous importance of the subject as regards our basic rights and freedoms; secondly, the great difficulty of reaching a satisfactory accommodation in a free society between the rights of the press and those of the individual to be left in peace; and, thirdly, the very wide range of opinion which is held by your Lordships on what the Government might now do in that sensitive area.
Today is an apt day for the debate as today is the day which follows the 18-month probationary period which the Government set the press within which to prove that press self-regulation, overseen by the Press Complaints Commission, was an effective means of preventing press misbehaviour. It may help your Lordships for me briefly to recapitulate some of the history which led to that probationary period being imposed.
I quote from 1782:How shall I speak of thee, or thy power addressThou god of our adolatry, the Press?By thee, religion, liberty and lawsExert their influence, and advance their cause;By thee, worse plagues than Pharaoh's land befell,Diffused, make earth the vestibule of hell".Anxiety about the power of the press is certainly not new. The report of the third Royal Commission on the Press, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, included that quotation from the poet Cowper.
But the modern period begins with the first Royal Commission on the Press of 1947–49, which recommended the establishment of a General Council of the Press. The second commission of 1961–62 recommended that the general council should be reconstituted, while the third Royal Commission, to which I have already referred, recommended further improvements to newspaper self-regulation. The third commission reported in July 1977, almost exactly five years after the report of the Younger Committee on Privacy which the commission followed in recommending against a statutory right to privacy.
Since the Younger Committee and the McGregor Commission reported, there have been numerous allegations of declining press standards and of growing intrusion into individual privacy. The immediate background to the appointment of the Committee on Privacy and Related Matters, under the chairmanship of Sir David Calcutt, was the extent of parliamentary support during the 1988–89 Session for two Private Member's Bills in another place, one on protection of privacy and the other on the right of reply. The Government could not support those Bills for reasons of principle and because they were technically flawed; but on 21st April 1989 we 811 announced the setting up of the Calcutt Committee to look at possible means of redress for journalistic intrusions into privacy and related matters.
The committee reported in June 1990. It recommended, first, the establishment of a non-statutory Press Complaints Commission to replace the old Press Council; secondly, three related criminal offences of unwarranted journalistic intrusions; thirdly, extended court reporting restrictions in criminal cases; and, fourthly, that if non-statutory press self-regulation failed to work, a statutory system for handling complaints should be introduced.
The Government accepted the general approach proposed by the committee, making it clear that the proposed Press Complaints Commission would be reviewed after 18 months' operation to see whether it should be put on a statutory footing. The newspaper industry duly established the Press Complaints Commission on 1st January 1991. As my noble friend Lord Colnbrook, a member of the committee, said, a code of practice was drawn up by the industry itself, with which the press was expected and agreed to comply.
The three related criminal offences of unwarranted intrusion remain under consideration. The proposals for extending reporting restrictions were given effect in part in a handout Bill in another place which reached the statute book on the last day of the 1991–92 Parliament. The fourth recommendation, for a statutory system of handling complaints if self-regulation failed, depends on the outcome of the review.
The probationary period of 18 months to which I referred has just expired. The task now facing the Government is to review the experience of press self-regulation, and in particular the part played by the Press Complaints Commission in enforcing compliance with the industry code of practice, over the past 18 months. We must consider whether the press has kept to its own code.
I am not in a position today to tell your Lordships precisely how the review on the 18-month period will be carried out, nor by whom, nor over what timescale, but the Government hope to be in a position to make an announcement soon. Nor am I able today to anticipate or guess the outcome of the review; indeed, it would be quite wrong of me to do so. I can however give your Lordships an assurance that the views expressed here today will be taken fully into account in the review.
Reconciling the freedoms which the press ought quite properly to have with the rights and freedoms of others is an intractable issue. The architect of the European Convention on Human Rights must certainly have thought so, for a study of the relevant provisions of the convention does not get us very much further forward. Article 10 guarantees, among other things, freedom to receive and impart information and ideas without interference from a public authority. But Article 10 quite properly says that the exercise of those freedoms, since it carries duties and responsibilities, may be subject to restrictions or penalties in order to protect, among other things, the reputation and rights of others. One 812 such right is of course the right to respect for privacy in Article 8, which guarantees—again subject to qualifications—the right to respect for privacy and family life, home and correspondence.
Coming closer to home, I think we could agree with Junius that:The liberty of the press is the Palladium of all the civil, political and religious rights of an Englishman".But I fear that we would also have to agree that newspapers have at times abused the power that press freedom confers, not to secure and defend rights, but to breach them. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, reminded your Lordships of the quote in regard to the proprietors of certain newspapers, which accused them of,power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages".We should perhaps treat with caution if not suspicion, editors' claims that they are merely messengers, especially when publication of a message of doubtful service to the public interest gives a great boost to circulation. The question must he posed as to whether the committee of editors is satisfied with its own code.
The dilemma we all face is that we want a lively and reliable press and a well-informed public, but not at our own expense. As the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, reminded us, we are readier to read about others' private affairs than to read about our own. We are often voyeurs of the troubles of others. But we should always distinguish between the public right to know and what the public delights to know.
Some of your Lordships have suggested that recent press intrusions into privacy have gone too far, and the time has come for the Government to introduce statutory controls. I do not wish to comment on specific cases, and it would be wrong of me to anticipate the outcome of the review of press self-regulation to which the Government are committed. But I should like to underline the great difficulty there will be when it comes to considering remedial action, in making decisions about precisely how far is too far. Somehow or other, those who believe that legislation is the right course will have to draw a line between what is acceptable, or at least tolerable, behaviour by the press and what is unacceptable and intolerable and adds nothing to the legitimate public interest. I thought the remarks of my noble friend Lord Deedes in that regard were most interesting.
Many of us would, I believe, accept that the private lives of public figures, especially if they have chosen or courted publicity, have somewhat different boundaries from those of people not in the public eye. We would also accept that intrusion into privacy, however undesirable in itself, can sometimes be justified, whether in the wider public interest or to protect a more pressing need of others.
Perhaps I may venture as a third proposition, the point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, that public perceptions of what is private and what journalistic activities are acceptable change rapidly just as society's views and values change. Linked to that, the rapid circulation of news made possible by technological advances makes it even more difficult 813 than it used to be for the citizen to restrain damaging publicity. News is now flashed around the world in seconds.
I make these points to illustrate the difficulties of defining what we mean by the abuse of media power. The first difficulty is that, as the debate has clearly shown, we may not all see eye to eye on where the line between public and private should be drawn. The second is that even if we could reach such an agreement, defining that line in such a way that it covers all possible contingencies is a complex legal task. These difficulties of definition go to the heart of the reasons why the Government have been reluctant to see either an individual right to privacy or indeed any form of statutory control over the press. It is worth recalling that we have had no peacetime control of the press since Charles II. We have no press laws in this country. But proprietors, editors and journalists are subject to the general law—whether it be on defamation, prejudicing of legal proceedings, obscenity, trespass or copyright—in exactly the same way as any other citizen; they enjoy no privileges or exemptions. By and large, the freedom of the press has served us well, even if we do not always like the consequences.
The noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, and my noble friend Lord Elton have suggested that a possible way forward is to enshrine in English law a general right to privacy together with a general public interest defence and leave the courts to develop suitable case law as in France. I understand it is the case that the law of privacy in France developed largely at the initiative of the courts in the 1950s and 1960s in response to the excesses of the press.
I am not a constitutional lawyer, but I believe that such an approach would be completely contrary to our traditions. In this country we have preferred to proscribe or remedy particular evils rather than confer general rights. The enactment of general rights would leave to the courts the precise definition of those rights and the determination of conflicts of interest arising in relation to them. No doubt in time courts could evolve a suitable jurisprudence; but in the meantime, I suggest there would be great uncertainty with no citizen quite sure what his rights and obligations under the law amounted to. That does not seem to me to be a very satisfactory approach. Surely, it is far better for Parliament to seek to define precisely in statute what is meant by rights to privacy, and such slippery concepts as the public interest.
Many of your Lordships have commented on cross-media ownership. The Broadcasting Act 1990 imposes a number of restrictions on controlling interests in both the newspapers and licensed television or radio services. The Government keep arrangements under careful review, but so far have seen nothing which would seem to justify changing them. However, I shall bring all of your Lordships' comments to the attention of the Secretary of State.
I realise that perhaps I have posed as many questions as I have answered; but I must emphasise that the Government remain extremely reluctant to intervene in the traditional freedoms enjoyed by the 814 press. Any change in this long-standing policy would be of great constitutional significance. But we have heard many voices this afternoon which claim that the present arrangements do not and sometimes cannot he made to work. We shall certainly take to heart all the anxieties raised.
I appreciate that press treatment of the marriage of their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales has caused anger and dismay among your Lordships and the public at large; and I am sure that the recent strong condemnation of it by the Press Complaints Commission will have been widely welcomed. I am also sure that I speak for all your Lordships when I say that we hold and will continue to hold the Monarchy in the deepest affection and respect in this House. We will give very careful consideration to the views of the Press Complaints Commission and of your Lordships in the review of press self-regulation which now needs to be undertaken.
§ Lord Bonham-Carter
My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I thank the noble Viscount for answering so many questions. I suppose I should also thank him for giving so few answers. I should not be disappointed that he cannot tell us when and how the review will take place, when it will report or who is undertaking it. I should not be surprised that, having looked at cross-media ownership, he sees no reason to persuade the Government to change their view that nothing need be done. I suppose that is par for the course. However, I thank him for running so true to form and beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.