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Bbc (Injunction)

Volume 124: debated on Monday 7 December 1987

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3.38 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your advice because, three or four weeks ago. I appeared on a BBC programme together with the former Lord Chancellor. Last week, much to my surprise, I learnt that the programme had been banned. I understand that the BBC is to oppose the injunction and that we might be in for a long legal case. Would I be in order, under the sub judice rule, if I repeated what I said on that programme, which has been banned, on the Floor of the House?

If the right hon. Gentleman is called in the debate tomorrow, what he says in his speech will be entirely a matter for him. What we do not allow in the Chamber is the reading out of excerpts.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance, following your earlier reply. You said, in answer to a point of order from my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) that should anything be said in the Chamber it would be in the public domain. Will you confirm that if it is in the public domain, if the BBC reports it, and if any action is taken by the Government following that reporting, you would regard that action by the Government as a gross contempt of this High Court of Parliament?

I am not responsible for anything that the BBC may or may not say. The BBC will have to take the advice of its legal advisers and make up its own mind as to what it reports from this place. I repeat that everything in the High Court of Parliament is in the public domain.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a very important point and you, Mr. Speaker, with respect, are the guardian of the liberties of the House. Of course, anything that is said in the High Court of Parliament is privileged. What we want to ensure is that no one will be adversely affected if he reports anything that is said in the House, including, in particular, if he names anyone who is or has been in the security services. At present, the media, particularly the BBC, are inhibited from so doing, in accordance with the terms of the injunction. It would be a grave incursion into the liberties of the House if action were taken against anyone who reported the proceedings of the House in that way.

That would not be a matter for me. I am responsible for order in the House and for what goes on here. I am not responsible for what the BBC does or does not put out on radio or television.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, I applied today, under Standing Order No. 20, for a debate on the injunction preventing the media from giving the public information about the activities of the security services. I heard your reply to the application made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris). We are placed in some difficulty, because the Leader of the House replies to the debate on the motion to adjourn for Christmas, and on many occasions you have heard the Prime Minister refuse to add anything to the statements that she has made on these matters.

What lies at the heart of our concern is the alleged inconsistency of Government policy on the confidentiality of the security services. The difficulty is that we cannot have any debate unless you grant one in which the Prime Minister, who is responsible for Government policy in these matters, is required to answer to the House. I therefore ask you, Mr. Speaker, to reflect on that difficulty and indicate whether, on reflection, you believe that an application under Standing Order No. 20, such as has been made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon or by me, would facilitate such discussion.

We believe that the accountability of the security services is of major public importance and that the House should be given an early and full opportunity to discuss that issue. We cannot obtain that debate unless you grant it. That is why there is urgency in this important matter.

Order. I well understand the concern of the House about this issue, but under the standing order I must have regard to other opportunities which the House may have to debate or discuss matters. I have already indicated to the House that there will be an opportunity tomorrow to raise the matter in the debate on the motion to adjourn for Christmas. As to who answers it, it is not my responsibility, but that is the immediate opportunity to discuss this issue.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to trespass even further on your generosity, but I raise, I hope, a matter that comes within your specific responsibilities as the guardian of the liberties of the House.

My understanding is that the BBC has been given the privilege of broadcasting the proceedings of the House. In particular, it has been given certain facilities within the precincts of the House. I understand that the BBC is now enjoined by the injunction of another court that it should not report the names of persons who either are or have been in the security services; for example, the well-known author of the book "Spycatcher", Mr. Peter Wright. If that name were to be mentioned this afternoon — we have been mentioning it backwards or forwards for the past six or nine months—if the BBC were to use our facilities and report that through the machinery that it now has, and if an action for contempt were brought against the BBC by the Attorney-General, would not that be an inhibition of the rights granted to the BBC by the House?

Order. It is a hypothetical matter — —[Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Gentleman said "if". Surely that is hypothetical.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. You referred to the matter being hypothetical, but there is no other means of defining action in the House except by postulating a situation. We are asking you, Mr. Speaker, to say that you will protect the rights of the House in so far as we have the right, under privilege, to have the proceedings of the House reported outside. That is not a hypothetical matter. It has affected us every day in the past and will affect us every day in the future. We want that assurance from you, Mr. Speaker.

Order. Allow me to give that assurance. The hon. Gentleman and the whole House know that anything said in the House, provided it is in order, is the responsibility of the hon. Member concerned. The reporting of them outside is not a matter for me.

Order. I have dealt with the matter. I cannot say any more. I am not responsible for the actions that others take outside the House; I cannot possibly be.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. We entirely accept what you have just said, that you are in no way responsible for the editorial judgment of the media, whether or not it is the BBC, but surely you are responsible for seeing that that editorial judgment is not inhibited by the Government.

Further to the point of order, M r. Speaker. As you will recall, many years ago the BBC was given the power and the right to record our proceedings, provided that it was done in a fair and responsible way. That meant that it should be at the convenience of the House and that, as its head, Mr. Speaker would be in charge of monitoring in the event of the BBC's not carrying out proper and responsible reporting of the proceedings. I see you shaking your head, Mr. Speaker, but if you look at the record you will see that the BBC was given that power only on condition that it carried out fair, responsible and balanced reporting.

The truth, as we now know, is that the reporting is not balanced. We know that what the Attorney-General did last week means that the BBC cannot carry out the remit that it was granted, in about 1974–75, to broadcast Parliament. If the BBC is not carrying out that balanced reporting it seems to me that you, as Mr. Speaker, and all of us for that matter, must see to it, in some way, that that remit is carried out. Therefore, in my opinion, that in itself is a matter for you and for the House of Commons.

I suggest that on this issue it is important, and convenient, for the House to see to it that the BBC's reporting is at all times fair and balanced, and if there are discussions about the Attorney-General's injunction and they are reported in Parliament, that should be carried on the BBC air waves, because it would be fair and balanced reporting.

Order. It is perfectly right, as the lion. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has said, that it was laid down at the time that reports should be fair and balanced, and a Committee was established in the House to ensure that that occurred. It has never been the responsibility of the Speaker to decide which parts of our proceedings should be broadcast. Frequently I have been informed by the BBC that it intended to broadcast certain parts of our proceedings. It is not for me to tell the BBC what it should broadcast.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been following the wise words of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Conservative Members appear to make light of a potential invasion of our liberties such as has not taken place in this century. They should, perhaps, remember that they have a duty to the people who elected them—and to those who did not—to sustain the liberties of the House and the freedom of the BBC to report what goes on here.

Having said that, I would be grateful if you, Mr. Speaker, would undertake further to consider the points that have been made and the application under Standing Order No. 20 by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris). In view of the points that have been made this afternoon, and of the deep concern that is felt by Opposition Members and, I suspect, by one or two of the quieter Members on the Conservative Benches, and certainly by the BBC, I hope that if there is no further development that is favourable to freedom of speech you will be prepared to consider favourably a further application under Standing Order No. 20.

Order. We have a busy day ahead of us. I undertake to reflect on what the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has said.