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Bbc (Injunction)

Volume 124: debated on Wednesday 9 December 1987

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4.28 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I inquire whether there has been an application from the Prime Minister or the Attorney-General to make a statement on the Government's litigation in the courts against the BBC?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware of the matter which I raised on Monday, when I asked specifically whether, if I mentioned the name of Mr. Peter Day, the media might be in difficulty in reporting that name? You replied that it was a hypothetical matter. I am informed that on Monday evening, when "Today in Parliament" was reported, part of my observations dealing with the name of Peter Day was excluded on legal advice. That, therefore, is the reason why the Government returned to the High Court today to ask for a variation in the order that they obtained on Friday. Even this Government realised that they had encroached far too much on the liberties of this House. What happened on Monday exemplified exactly what I surmised might happen—that it would put the BBC in fear of being in contempt if it reported that name.

Does the Government's right hand know what the left hand is doing? The Government obtained an injunction on Friday regardless of the injunction that had been changed in the House of Lords on 30 July, when a proviso was allowed so that proceedings in Parliament could and would be reported. Is that an indication of the way that the Government are, either deliberately or in ignorance, muzzling this House?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I can confirm that in the High Court this morning judgment was reserved, but a proviso was added by consent in these terms:

"Provided that this Order shall not prohibit—
  • (a) fair and accurate reporting of proceedings in open court in England and Wales;
  • (b) fair and accurate reporting of proceedings in either House of Parliament whose publication is not prohibited by that House;
  • (c) publication of any facts concerning the Security and Intelligence Services, including the identities of present or former members, already made public with the authority of the Crown.
  • Until further Order."

    Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may remember that on Monday, when these points were raised with you, you said that it was for the broadcasting authorities to decide what they reported. Clearly, they were acting under legal advice —hence the variation order. Surely the points that were raised on Monday by my hon. Friends and myself are of crucial importance in the preservation of parliamentary reporting and, indeed, parliamentary democracy.

    Now that the Government have been forced to retreat, will you, Mr. Speaker, use your good offices to ensure that on no future occasion will the BBC again be placed in the position—as it was today when reporting "Yesterday in Parliament" — of not being able, on legal advice, to report the remarks of a Conservative Member of Parliament? At a time of growing Government censorship of the media, it is absolutely essential that what is stated in this House can be reported in the media, including the BBC. Clearly, that was not the position until the variation order was obtained in the High Court. It is a disgrace.

    Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I inform you that it was I who, last night, tabled a parliamentary question asking for the injunction to be varied in the way that it then was in the application made by the Government this morning? In part, that derives from a difficulty that I raised with you a week and a half ago, when I asked for a public ruling on a point of order. You very kindly wrote a reply —

    Order. The hon. Gentleman must not refer to a matter of privilege about which I have written to him.

    I had not intended to do so, Mr. Speaker, but only to refer to a date that you gave in your reply of 30 July. I followed that through, and in the injunction that the Government took out against The Observer and The Guardian at the end of July I found a proviso under paragraph 3. I then examined the injunction taken out last Friday and found that that proviso was missing. It was on that basis that I tabled a question asking for the inclusion of that proviso.

    Had it been possible for your ruling to have been public, Mr. Speaker, I believe that much embarrassment could have been avoided because we would earlier have been able to identify the fact that the proviso was missing. It was because of that that the BBC felt embarrassed and could not publish freely in the way that perhaps you, Sir, thought that it should.

    The hon. Gentleman wrote to me on a matter of privilege and I replied to him in terms that he well understands.

    Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should be grateful if you could confirm that under the terms of the altered judgment—which, as the Leader of the House made plain, was a judgment by consent—the position of the House has not changed by consent between the Attorney-General and a judge—or, indeed, any member or all of the judiciary. The statement by the Leader of the House implied that the consent was an agreement to restore the position of absolute privilege for hon. Members of this House and qualified privilege for the newspapers and broadcasting media to report the terms of our debates, which may contain the use of our absolute privilege. It would be a tragedy—as I am sure you would agree, Mr. Speaker—if it was thought by anyone that the terms of this House could be agreed by consent between the Attorney-General and a judge in an attempt to give some sort of legal status to a power that they do not have to change our position in this House. Our position is that we have absolute privilege to speak as we like, without fear of libel actions against us, and that the media has qualified privilege to report those terms.

    I seek your support, Mr. Speaker, in confirming that position, and to stop the Government attempting to erode, by legal means, the powers of this House. We represent an important bulwark against any Executive trampling on the rights of this House and, through it, the people outside.

    Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As matters develop, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is widespread concern about the consistency of public policy on confidence in the security services. There is also increasing concern about attempts, through applications for writs, to impose censorship on the newspaper and broadcasting media.

    As you know, Mr. Speaker, on Monday I applied for a debate under Standing Order No. 20, together with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), whose application was heard. You indicated that if applications were made later this week, you would listen to them with concern and interest. Following the statement by the Leader of the House, will you accept from me an application under Standing Order No. 20 to discuss a matter that is specific and important, and which should have urgent consideration, namely,
    "the applications for writs that stop the media giving the public information about the organisation and activities of the security services"

    Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We are dealing not only with an attempt at censorship, but with incompetent censorship. Had the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) been taken up, the Government's embarrassment now would not be such as it clearly is.

    When I originally raised this matter with you, Mr. Speaker, on Monday, and asked whether the BBC would be absolutely free to broadcast in its programmes "Yesterday in Parliament" and "Today in Parliament" anything appertaining to the matters surrounding the injunction and the programme "My Country, Right or Wrong", you said that it was hypothetical and that, therefore, you could not give a ruling. Notwithstanding what we have heard from the Leader of the House, will you either make a ruling today—or consider giving such a ruling·that makes it absolutely clear that the BBC is at complete liberty to broadcast anything said in this House if it so chooses, and that the only determination bearing on its choice should be that of editorial discrimination and freedom and not the terms of an injunction awarded by a court to the Government?

    We can deal with the matter. I confirm what the hon. Gentleman has said. The privileges of the House are absolute. There should be no doubt about that. I fully accept the concern that was expressed earlier this week about this matter. The media do not have absolute privilege, as the hon. Gentleman correctly said. They have to consider what they put out or publish. That is riot a matter for me.

    Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A new point is developing in this mini-saga. We have absolute privilege, and we would turn to you, Mr. Speaker, if any attempt were made for that privilege to be qualified in any way. If the Government are to trample on democracy in the way that they have done in relation to this case, it seems that they have some responsibility to report to Mr. Speaker when they take steps that may lead to that privilege being qualified.

    It is one thing for the Government to try to qualify that privilege, but they have other interests in the matter. They just want to get their own way. I should have thought that Mr. Speaker has the responsibility to ensure that, at all times, that privilege is unqualified. Therefore, it would be within the bounds of decency for a Government spokesperson to go to Mr. Speaker and say, "By the way, we are taking action in the courts today or tomorrow. The result may be that we shall qualify privilege in the House of Commons. Since we are decent chaps, we thought we should let you know."

    This business has shown that those on the Treasury Bench, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House, do not give two hoots about democracy and are not interested in Mr. Speaker, either.

    Order. If the hypothetical matter that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned were to occur, I should be the first to come back to the House and report it. It has not occurred. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it will never occur as far as I am concerned. It is my duty to ensure that the absolute privileges of the House are always maintained.

    On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will the Leader of the House now respond and further consult with either the Prime Minister or the Attorney-General so that we may have a proper explanation before the House rises and so that we may know why there has been a variation and what the Government's general position on censorship is?