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Press Self-regulation

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

I thank those hon. Members who have remained behind for this Adjournment debate, which is rather later than expected. There has been some speculation on the internet today that the debate would be about super-injunctions, so I must apologise to hon. Members who have turned up to be titillated by stories of the exotic adventures of premier league football players as they will be sorely disappointed. It is not about that; it is about the self-regulation of the press—hon. Members are leaving immediately!—and particularly about the Press Complaints Commission and the editors code of practice.

Mahatma Ghandi said:

“I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.”

On that point, I disagree with the great man. If anyone is attending this Adjournment debate expecting an all-out assault on the printed media in the Chamber tonight, they should leave now. That is not my intention.

The printed news media, which from now on I shall refer to simply as the press, have the right to publish anything they want, so long as they do so fairly and accurately. The press is free to be partisan, although it must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. I will fight to ensure that it continues to enjoy those freedoms. I value the freedom of the press, the right of journalists to criticise or praise and the right of photographers to do their job, because the freedom of the press is a cornerstone of our democracy.

There has always been tension between those who argue for press freedom and those concerned with a range of other issues, including the invasion of privacy, the restriction that complaints can be made only ex post facto, and the practice of newspapers paying for stories. The case for the defence of the press is more often than not that a story is in the public interest, but who decides what is in the public interest and how do they arrive at that decision?

The stand-off between self-regulation and statutory controls has been around for decades. A 1947 royal commission recommended in 1949 that a General Council of the Press should be created as a governing body to regulate behaviour, but it was not until the threat of statutory regulation was mooted again in 1953 that the General Council was set up. The friction continued and by the time of a second royal commission in 1962 the General Council had been the subject of considerable criticism. The General Council became the Press Council. This organisation stumbled on ineffectively until the Calcutt report in 1990, which recommended the formation of the Press Complaints Commission.

The PCC was originally given 18 months to prove that self-regulation could work, with the threat that if it failed to do so, a statutory system would be introduced. It passed that first test and has continued to evolve. The code has changed 30 times since its formation, the last revision taking place in January 2011 on the question of the prominence of corrections, an issue that I will touch on shortly. It is right for the press to work within a voluntary code, but evidence is emerging of problems that need to be addressed.

The most disconcerting issue is that these challenges are not new. They have been around for some years but no solutions have been found, despite genuine attempts to look for them. These problems have been parked, but I believe the industry must get into gear, move on and find solutions, for it would be a major advantage to the industry if, as well as being seen as a champion of self-regulation, it were seen in the vanguard of promoting and introducing change. That, more than anything, would consign to the dustbin of history the period I spoke of earlier, when the stick had to be used more often than the carrot. If we can achieve that, those who feel compelled to complain to the PCC will have more confidence in the system.

Right now there is a serious lack of confidence in the system. My views are based on my  personal experience of dealing with the PCC editors code of practice which, sadly, I have had to do in my short spell as a Member of Parliament. It will come as no surprise to Members in the Chamber this evening that  my first dalliances with the PCC were in relation to the first batch of expenses published by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

The code states:

“The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.”

Paragraph 1(i) states that the press must also

“take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”.

One of my local newspapers printed a story stating that I had claimed expenses for hotels in London, while at the same time claiming rent for a London property. The story was trailed on page 1 and appeared prominently on page 9. If it had been true, it would have been a sensational story and helpful to the paper’s dwindling circulation, but it was a complete and utter falsehood that had been fabricated in an attempt to mislead readers and to destroy my reputation.

The newspaper then refused to publish the truth or to apologise, and I was forced to complain to the Press Complaints Commission. The PCC carried out a full, thorough and professional investigation and found that the code had been breached, but the adjudication that was eventually printed was placed at the bottom of page 9, much less prominently than the original article, and there was no trail on the front page. It was said to have been given due prominence by the PCC; I contend that it was given less prominence.

The PCC further took the view that, as the misleading words had appeared on page 9 and not on the front page, the page 9 adjudication, less prominently placed, was sufficient.

My hon. Friend makes a powerful argument in favour of press freedoms as the cornerstone of our democracy, but I am sure he will agree that with press freedom there should equally be press responsibility. I cite the example of the worst sporting disaster in British history, when 96 football supporters were killed at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989. In the immediate aftermath of that human tragedy, press reporting hit an all-time low. Despite the huge loss of life, that most despicable of men, Kelvin MacKenzie, used the front page of The Sun newspaper to peddle lies about Liverpool supporters under the banner headline “The Truth”. When the scurrilous claims that it made were proven to be—

When the scurrilous claims that the newspaper made were proven to be entirely fallacious and without foundation, Kelvin MacKenzie refused to print a banner headline of a similar size and font, with the same page prominence that my hon. Friend talks about, stating quite simply that they had lied, something for which he and his former newspaper will never be forgiven in Liverpool. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that if editors were forced to give equal prominence to retractions, they would be think carefully before fabricating stories and besmirching the reputations of individuals or of great cities such as Liverpool?

I agree. My trials and tribulations with the press pale into insignificance when compared with the grievous claims that that publication made against the people of Liverpool. I agree wholeheartedly, and I am going to deal in some detail with the issue of prominence, because it has to be covered.

The issue of prominence has to be addressed by the PCC. It is currently parked, but it needs to be moved on, otherwise—and I do not say this lightly—it might have to be clamped by some sort of statutory mechanism. If newspapers get it wrong, ex post facto a complaint is made and that complaint is upheld, the correction must be given equal prominence to the original story. The very least that an individual or organisation can expect, if their integrity or actions have been inaccurately called into question, is that the apology should be of the same size, weight and prominence as the article that besmirched them. That is exactly the point that my hon. Friend makes. For those who argue that the same end result can be achieved by negotiation, let negotiation be the driving force of the settlement but let the persuader of “equal prominence” be available.

When the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which I have the honour to chair, examined press standards, we certainly looked at the issue of due prominence. I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that, when an adverse ruling is reached by the PCC, it is vital that it appear with the same due prominence as the original article. The PCC in response suggested to us that the failure to do so would in itself constitute a potential breach of the code. If the hon. Gentleman felt that the adjudication did not receive the proper prominence that it should have, I should be interested to know whether he went back to the PCC and made a further complaint against the newspaper.

The hon. Gentleman will not believe this, but the newspaper tried to editorialise the adjudication. It was forced to reprint it the following week because I immediately complained to the PCC that the words of its adjudication had been changed.

On the hon. Gentleman’s other points, I should say that, yes, I did contact the PCC and spoke to Stephen Abell, the chief executive. I made the very point to him. He said that because the misleading words were not on page 1, the adjudication could not be on page 1. I said, “Hold on a second. The page 1 trail took people to the misleading article. Why could there not have been a page 1 trail taking people to the PCC adjudication?” Surely that would be a fair and reasonable way to deal with my complaint and the subsequent adjudication.

Another feature that needs to be addressed is the letters pages of newspapers. I discovered that letters pages are also covered by the editors code of practice, so the same rules that cover articles in newspapers also cover letters; those letters, like everything else in the paper, are the editor’s responsibility. He or she is the sole arbiter.

In the normal chronology of events, newspapers print stories and, post-publication, they receive comments from readers. When I was the subject of the misleading article that I referred to earlier, the same edition of the newspaper contained a letter attacking me in the same way as the so-called news story. In my opinion, that was an unlikely coincidence.

To add insult to insult, the author was protected under the guise of anonymity; all I know about my so-called critic is “name and address withheld”. Mr Deputy Speaker, I am a trusting fellow as you very well know. I have tried hard over the years to find the best in people wherever I go, but my sixth sense told me that that was a stitch-up. I made a complaint to the PCC about the veracity of the letter, only to be told that because the writer wanted to remain anonymous no investigation could take place.

If the PCC thinks that its position on this matter is justified in any way, it is seriously out of touch with reality. If I do not know who wrote the letter, how do I know that it was not a political opponent seeking to make mischief? How do I know that it was not a journalist pretending to be a member of the public? How do I know that the letter was genuine?

My hon. Friend has raised an incredibly interesting point about the letters pages of newspapers. However, there are also anonymous contributions to newspapers’ online presence; people can anonymise the comments that they make online. Very rarely do the newspapers have the resources or time to look at those in detail and deal with issues against an individual or organisation. Does my hon. Friend think that that aspect should come under a statutory code as well?

Some might think that I am foolish to hold this debate, because they might think that taking on the press on any subject whatever is not a good idea. I think that it is better to take small steps rather than large ones. If we can deal with the first two issues of prominence and the letters pages, we can then move on to deal with some of the content on the internet.

For a code to work, it must operate in the unoccupied territory between the press and the consumer. The code must be able to interrogate complaints openly and fairly, yet this element of the system does not allow that to happen. The PCC administers the code; the editors code of practice committee is its keeper. That committee meets periodically to take account of public and—crucially—parliamentary comment, as well as reports from the PCC itself. The purpose of the committee is to allow the code to develop and respond quickly to changing practices and technology in the industry and to the concerns of readers.

The two issues that I have raised are not new; they have been around for some time, yet no solutions have been brought forward.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this Adjournment debate. The greater public perhaps regard MPs talking about their experiences with the media as self-indulgent. I am one of the Members who can speak with authority as one who has been maligned time after time by page after page of pure lies, but I have never gone to the PCC, which I regard as a toothless tiger.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this debate. The issue is not about MPs because we rarely feature in the local press, which is full from front to back cover with stories about individuals in our constituencies. They do not know how to go to the PCC or how to complain. They try to complain but do not have their complaints answered in any way. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what he is proposing tonight would benefit those people far more than it would us? We are, after all, here to represent our constituents, who suffer far more than we Members do. We can decide not to bother because we know that the PCC is a toothless tiger. Our constituents, however, may have expectations that will be thwarted.

Let me say to the hon. Lady, in the words of Bill Clinton, that I feel her pain, because she and I have been in the same place. The code is meant to protect everyone—not only people like us in public positions, but our families. My daughter had problems at school because people were suggesting that her dad had acted inappropriately. That is wrong. My family is not in public life; I am, and I have broad shoulders and thick skin. We have to put in place a code that ensures that everyone is protected. What is wrong with people standing up when they make a mistake and saying, “I’ve got it wrong”, and the mistake being remedied in the same way that the original story and besmirchment took place?

These problems need to be resolved, and I hope that this short debate can at least put the issues into the public domain. The press have enormous power: they have the power to make the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent. With that great power, they have massive responsibility, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) said. For the PCC editors code of practice to be effective, it must be able properly to scrutinise the press. Fairness must run through the code like the lettering through a stick of rock. I found this quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt that I thought very appropriate:

“If in other lands the press and books and literature of all kinds are censored, we must redouble our efforts here to keep them free.”

If this debate makes a pinprick of a contribution to that cause, it has served its purpose. I hope that the Minister will take on board the points that I have made and join me in pressing the Press Complaints Commission to deal with these two big issues.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann), whom I congratulate on securing this Adjournment debate. I am also grateful to have heard the contributions made by other hon. Members in expressing their concerns about press reporting.

As the hon. Gentleman said from the outset, this debate is not an opportunity to attack the press or to lose sight of the importance of a free press. It is worth recalling that more than a third of the world’s people live in countries where there is no press freedom. It is therefore important to emphasise that however the press may transgress, a free press is fundamental to our democracy. The independence of the press from state intervention is also fundamental to our democracy, and that is why this Government and previous Governments have always fought shy of statutory regulation of the press. However, the press are not immune from criticism, as we have heard from several hon. Members, and this makes the work of the Press Complaints Commission as important today as it has ever been. It is worth remembering that, as the hon. Gentleman said, the PCC covers not only Fleet street but the 1,300 regional and local newspapers. As he informed the House, the PCC was set up in 1991 to replace the failing Press Council, so this debate gives us an opportunity to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

The PCC was designed to deal with complaints from members of the public based on the terms of an agreed code of practice. Since it was established, it has handled tens of thousands of complaints and, as the hon. Gentleman said, the code has been amended more than 30 times. The PCC has also sought to expand its remit to more than just the handling of complaints: for example, it now runs a training programme for journalists and journalism students. It advocates on behalf of individuals to prevent intrusive stories appearing in the press—it is worth recalling that it can help individuals before a story is actually printed—and deals with the problem of media scrums by communicating with the whole press and broadcast industry as a story is breaking. It is right that it has evolved as an organisation and that the process of evolution continues.

Public confidence in the PCC’s work is vital. To maintain that confidence, not only must it be effective and robust; it must be seen to be effective and robust.

Will the Minister say how many times the PCC has been involved in a story before it has been printed and how many media scrums it has assisted in dealing with?

I am afraid that I do not have those figures to hand, but I will ensure that my hon. Friend is informed of them tomorrow by e-mail or letter.

It is my experience that the PCC has a strong appreciation of the need to be seen to be effective and robust. It spreads the word on what it does and what it can do. It seeks to be transparent in how it works and is extremely helpful in providing advice. It is always willing to discuss decisions and the reasons behind them. Of course, that does not mean that it will always reach what the complainant sees as the right decision. We have to be realistic and understand that that would be the case with any system, whether statutory or self-regulatory.

The PCC can and should constantly scrutinise how it works. It should listen to what others have to say, respond to them and act on the feedback. It will certainly have received significant feedback from tonight’s debate. I know that it receives useful and constructive criticism from other sources.

I am grateful for the Minister’s explanation, a lot of which I was aware of. Will he answer one point? I have had direct discussions with Stephen Abell and Scott Langham, and when I put these points to them, they do not say that they will look at the problem and try to resolve it, but argue for the status quo. It is surely wrong that they absorb the information that they get, but do not do anything about it. We have to get to a position where they do. As I mentioned in my speech, these problems have been around for a long time. When are we going to deal with them?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. I will come on to how the PCC deals with criticism and recommendations of how it should change its ways.

As the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, the code has been changed more than 30 times. I will give one example, which may draw another intervention. One way in which the PCC is scrutinised in this House is by the excellent work of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. It is good that the Chair of that Committee is in the Chamber tonight. I gather that the PCC places great weight on its recommendations and has adopted many of the recommendations from its last report, the thrust of which was about making the organisation a more public-facing body.

Before I come on to the hon. Gentleman’s specific point, it is important to say that although the press pays for the PCC, it should not be seen as a creature of the press. The Select Committee commented on that problem with self-regulation in 2003. As a result, the PCC changed the balance of the commission so that there is a two-thirds majority of lay people. The PCC has announced three appointments recently, who will take up their posts soon: Lord Grade, the former chairman of the BBC, Michael Smyth, the chairman of Public Concern at Work who retired recently from the law firm Clifford Chance, and Jeremy Roberts, who is soon to retire as a permanent judge at the central criminal court and the Court of Appeal.

There is no room for complacency, and that starts with the code itself. One benefit of a non-statutory approach is the flexibility that such a code offers. The PCC would tell me its code committee is able to move quickly to incorporate issues of public concern, and that anyone is free to contact the committee to ask that it includes coverage of any issue.

The PCC holds an annual consultation so that the public can suggest changes, and Members of Parliament, including the hon. Gentleman, are free to raise concerns about the coverage of the code. I am told by the PCC committee that all proposals are fully considered and answered, but he has said that he has advocated a change and been met in response with an argument against that change and for the status quo. I was obviously not privy to that conversation, but I suggest to him that he make a formal proposal to the PCC for a change to the code as part of the annual consultation, to get on the record from the PCC why it feels that a change from due prominence to equal prominence would not be the right way forward and that the code deals adequately with the provenance of readers’ letters.

I think it is very important that the Government do not take a view. That sounds mealy-mouthed, but I have been keen to stress that the system is self-regulatory, and no Government—not this Government, and not the previous Government—want statutory regulation of the press. It would be the thin end of the wedge if Ministers recommended specific changes to the code.

May I finish this point before the hon. Gentleman intervenes again?

It is open to hon. Members to raise the issue in the House, and of course it is open to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to examine the PCC and make recommendations. In a self-regulatory system, individuals should be able to put their case, whether they are Members of Parliament or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) pointed out, members of the public.

Does my hon. Friend recognise that the revelations that have streamed out over the past six months have probably led to a greater loss of confidence in the self-regulation of the press than there has been at any previous time? I strongly support self-regulation, but if the public are to regain confidence in that self-regulation, the PCC will have to be seen to have stronger powers. My Committee strongly recommended that it was not sufficient for the PCC simply to require a newspaper to publish an adjudication. In cases of serious breaches of the code, there should be some sanction available to the PCC to demonstrate that the breach was unacceptable and to ensure that newspapers take seriously the requirement to abide by the code.

I have run out of time, but I would say in conclusion that the PCC and the press will have heard hon. Members’ remarks in the debate. The Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee will be aware that the PCC is conducting its own review following the phone hacking allegations. As well as being a criminal offence, phone hacking is of course a breach of the code. The PCC is reviewing the matter to see whether it can make its recommendations stronger, but it will have heard the important—

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).