I beg to move,
That this House believes that it is in the public interest for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation to withdraw their bid for BSkyB.
The motion stands in my name and those of right hon. and hon. Members across the House: the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, the leader of the Scottish National party, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the leader of Plaid Cymru and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I thank them all for joining me in tabling this motion. I also thank those Conservative Members who have set out their support for the motion in advance of the debate.
It is unusual, to put it mildly, for a motion in this House to succeed before the debate on it begins, but this is no ordinary motion, and this is no ordinary day. Make no mistake: the decision made by News Corporation was not the decision it wanted to make. It may have been announced before this debate, but it would not have happened without it. Above all, this is a victory for people: the good, decent people of Britain, outraged by the betrayal of trust by parts of our newspaper industry, who have spoken out up and down this country, and who have contacted Members across this House and told us of their concerns. The will of Parliament was clear, the will of the public was clear, and now Britain’s most powerful media owner has had to bend to that will.
This debate is an opportunity to understand how we got here and where we go from here. I will speak briefly, to allow others to speak in what has been a curtailed debate. The terrible revelations of the last week have shaken us all. They have caused immense pain and heartache to bereaved families, as they learned that their most private moments were stolen from them to sell newspapers. As each day has gone by, I am sure all of us will have felt the same: surely it cannot get any worse than this. But it has: the phone of Milly Dowler, the victims of 7/7, the families of our war dead, and the personal details of our former Prime Minister. And we are told that there is worse to come. These revelations have uncovered a pattern of sustained criminality that is breathtaking, and they have called into question our faith in the police’s capacity fully to investigate wrongdoing.
There are many things that we need to do to put these wrongs right. We have done one of them today. This was a time for the House of Commons to give voice to the views and feelings of the British public about the integrity of our media, which should be at the centre of our democracy. The principles at stake go to the heart of the country we believe in. They are about whether we allow power to be exercised without responsibility, about whether the responsibility we need goes right to the top of our society, and about the truth that no corporate interest should be able to write the law or be above the law.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the point that I put to the Prime Minister earlier, which is that it would be incongruous to have terms of reference for this particular inquiry—most of the terms of reference having been announced—that exclude the sound and visual medium? We talk of “the media” generally, but most of the argument turns on the question of the word “press” and newspapers. Should the definition not be extended?
I am sure that that point will be considered, but what I say to the hon. Gentleman is that the abuses that we have seen are in our newspaper industry, and we want this inquiry to get on and concentrate on where there have been abuses. It will, of course, examine cross-media ownership, and I think it is right for it to do so.
This debate is also about the relationship between private power and the power of people, given voice by this Parliament. We need strong entrepreneurial businesses in this country, but we need them to show responsibility, and in these highly unusual circumstances it was right that Parliament intervened. The case was clear about why the stakes were so high in this bid—I will say something about that—about why the revelations of the recent past comprehensively undermine this bid, and about why the motion was necessary. I will deal with those points briefly.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the “recent past”. As a new Member, I see that this goes back to 2003. We had deeply concerning reports from the Information Commissioner in 2006, so why was action not taken before 2010? Why was this not dealt with?
All of us accept our share of responsibility for not having spoken out more on these issues. The question is: what is to be done now? Is this House going to take action? Are we going to work together to deal with these issues?
Let me start by talking about why the stakes in this case were so high. News Corp was bidding for 100% control of BSkyB. This would have represented a major change for our public life in any circumstances, let alone those that we now face. It would have given News Corp unfettered control of one of the two largest broadcasters in Britain, as well as the 40% control of the newspaper market that it already owned. This was not some incidental change, but a major departure. The revelations of recent weeks went to the core of this bid. They suggest that people at News International have concealed and dissembled in an attempt to hide the truth about what had been done, including from this House of Commons.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the revelations and the differences in the information that has been provided to this House, it is right and proper for Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch to answer the call from the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport to give evidence to this House next Tuesday?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this, because those people are key figures in the newspaper industry, and indeed the whole media industry in Britain, and they should not be above the Select Committee. It is absolutely right—I am sure that this view will be shared in all parts of this House—for them to come before the Select Committee.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, who is new to this House, that this is an opportunity for the House of Commons to speak with one voice on these issues. That is what we should do today.
I was about to say that the issues we are discussing are about the integrity of people working at News International. The Chair of this House’s Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport says that he was misled, the head of the Press Complaints Commission says that she was lied to by News International, James Murdoch has admitted serious wrongdoing in the company, and there are now, of course, allegations that News International knew that phone hacking was widespread as long ago as 2007.
On the subject of the individuals to whom my right hon. Friend just referred, one thing that shocked many people as much as anything was the fact that on Sunday and Monday, when Rupert Murdoch arrived, he said that his No. 1 priority was Rebekah Brooks—not the Dowlers, not the families of the victims of 7/7, and not the families of dead servicemen. Rebekah Brooks was his No. 1 priority. Does that not show why he has a complete responsibility to come to this House and answer its questions?
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Throughout this process Mr Murdoch has seemed to show no recognition of the scale of abuse of the trust of the people of this country, whom he claims daily in his newspapers to represent and whose voice he claims to understand. My hon. Friend is totally right.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the workers who will be losing their jobs in this whole debacle? While the Rebekahs of this world refuse to move on, those at the bottom end of the pay chain will have no choice about losing their jobs.
My hon. Friend is right: the cruel irony of the closing of the News of the World is that the one person who we know was responsible, in the sense that she was in charge when Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked, was the one person not to lose her job as a result of the decisions that were made.
Let me make some progress. Even though we do not yet know what charges may be laid and against whom, it is apparent that there are serious questions to be answered about alleged criminal activity perpetrated by people in News International. Sky is a respected broadcaster under diverse ownership, and we did not want Sky taken over by a company under such a cloud.
Let me explain why the motion was necessary; I see that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport is in his place. For months the Government have argued that they could rely on assurances given to them by an organisation about which there was mounting evidence of serious wrongdoing. Last Wednesday the Prime Minister told me there was no alternative to the Culture Secretary’s process, and that nothing could be done. Five days later the Culture Secretary changed direction, a decision I welcome, and referred the bid to the Competition Commission. That decision—hon. Members should understand that this is why the motion was necessary—would have ended up back on the Secretary of State’s desk before the end of the criminal process. He would then have needed to make a decision about the bid without all the relevant factors having been considered. That is why we tabled this motion.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the motion was necessary, and he will note that Scottish National party Members were signatories to the motion and support him in his endeavours. He is also right to stress that cross-party unity is important in all this, but will he accept and acknowledge that he perhaps got the tone wrong today at Prime Minister’s questions? The public do not want to see this argy-bargy between the two main parties. All parties in the House must work together on this issue.
I am going to make some progress.
Let me talk more generally about the issues we face. We want a free press. We want an independent press. We want the kind of journalism that does that profession proud and makes the rest of us think. The vast majority of journalists are decent people, with a vital role to play in our public life, but the best way to protect them, and to protect the integrity of our press, is to root out the kind of journalism that has left us all sickened. We all have a responsibility to get to the bottom of this scandal and ensure that something like that can never happen again. That is why I welcome the inquiry that has been announced today, and the comprehensive nature of that inquiry.
I am not going to give way.
We have to address all the issues that we face for the future. On the relationship between the press and politicians, let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with politicians engaging with the media, and Members across all parts of the House will continue to do so. What matters is not whether those relationships exist but whether they stifle either the ability of the press to speak out against political leaders or the ability of political leaders to speak up.
I am not going to give way. [Interruption.] We have very little time for the debate and many hon. Members want to speak. I want to give them proper time to speak.
As I was saying, this is about whether those relationships are conducted in a transparent way. That is why all Members of the House—I hope that this answers hon. Members’ questions—should be available to appear before Lord Leveson’s inquiry. On cross-media ownership, the inquiry will need to think long and hard about the dangers of the excessive concentration of power in too few hands. Most importantly, we must protect people from the culture that allowed all those events to happen.
Lastly, there is a difficult issue for the House: the painful truth is that all of us have, for far too long, been in thrall to some sections of the media, including News International. For too long, when these things happened we just shrugged our shoulders and said, “That’s the way it is,”—but no longer. The events of the past seven days have opened all our eyes and given us the chance to say, “It doesn’t have to be like this.”
I want, before I finish, to pay tribute to the people who made this possible, and to Back Benchers across the House for their courage in speaking out. I pay tribute particularly to my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) for their tireless and brave work on these issues. I pay tribute to Members on the Government side, such as the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames), who spoke out about BSkyB in last week’s emergency debate, and to the Select Committees and their Chairs on both sides of the House. I also want to pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, for the seriousness with which you have taken Parliament’s role on this issue.
This is a victory for Parliament. This House has been criticised in recent years for being timid, irrelevant and out of touch. Today Parliament has shown an ability to speak out without fear or favour, to speak to our great traditions, and to show that we can hold power to account and that nobody is above the law. To paraphrase the late Lord Denning, be ye ever so high, the people are above you. This House—all Members and all parties—have given voice to the people and have said to Rupert Murdoch, “Abandon your bid.” The country wanted this: it wanted its voice to be heard, and today it has been heard.
May I begin—[Hon. Members: “Where’s Cameron?”] May I begin by welcoming the tone of the Leader of the Opposition’s speech, which I very much hope will set the tone of our debate this evening? In response to the sedentary interventions from the Opposition, may I say that it is entirely appropriate that the Leader of the House should speak during this debate given that today represents a victory for Parliament and for those whom we represent. As events have overtaken the motion and as this is a short debate I propose, like the Leader of the Opposition, to make a brief contribution.
Despite the fact that the police investigation is under way and that the public inquiry announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is soon to be up and running, we are still hearing shocking allegations by the day. We are hearing allegations that personal details of members of the royal family were handed over to newspapers for profit, that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), whom I welcome this evening, had his details blagged by another News International title and that victims of terrorism also had their phones hacked into and their privacy invaded. As both the nature of the malpractice and the scope of the newspapers involved widens, it is right that the police continue to follow their inquiries and the evidence wherever it takes them.
It was simply unrealistic to expect the public and politicians to separate all this from News Corporation’s proposed takeover of BSkyB. That is why both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister were right when they said earlier this week that News Corporation should withdraw its bid. Any hon. Member who was running the company right now, with all its problems, difficulties and the mess it is in would want to get their house in order first, before thinking about the next corporate move. That is why it was entirely right for News Corporation to withdraw its bid today. The whole House will welcome that decision.
I want to pick up a point that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) made towards the end of his remarks. Today has proved that those commentators who have in the past written this place off were completely wrong. We have seen the tenacity of Back Benchers. The hon. Members for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), my hon. Friends and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) have been in the forefront of a relentless campaign for the truth, and they have revealed that the House is able not only to reflect the public mood, but to be a champion of its causes.
I also pay tribute to the forensic scrutiny of Select Committees—those chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). They have vindicated the decision to make the Select Committees more independent of the Executive. The Chamber, which some had argued was losing its relevance and power, has in fact been leading the public debate over the past fortnight, with the Standing Order No. 24 debate, statements and Select Committee hearings all being televised live.
No one can say today, as they did two years ago, that Parliament is irrelevant. Yes, we have learned the hard way how easy it is to lose the trust of our constituents, but having proved itself an effective champion of the people on this issue, the House has the opportunity not only to regain the initiative, but to restore public confidence in Parliament at the same time.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving way. As the saga unfolds and acquires a greater international component, what powers will the inquiry have to ensure that the international aspects of the story can be properly investigated so that the House is seen to have teeth and to be able not only to clean up the mess here, but to set an international standard?
The prime focus of the inquiry that we have announced should be getting things right in this country, but I have no doubt that as we make progress there will be interest on an international scale in the way we take matters forward.
Given the news that broke this afternoon, it is right that the House can now focus its attention on the wider concerns that the public feel—allegations of widespread law-breaking by parts of the press, alleged corruption on the part of the police, and the years of inaction from politicians.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is unprecedented for a motion to be sponsored by six Opposition party leaders in the House of Commons and supported by Members on the Government Benches too? The Prime Minister said that he wishes there to be a cross-party approach. Bearing that in mind, does the right hon. Gentleman regret the fact that discussions that took place last night excluded the parties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister addressed that question in the statement this afternoon. We have published draft terms of reference. We are consulting the devolved Administrations. They will have an opportunity to make an impact on the terms of reference.
There is a proper, large-scale and well-resourced police investigation which has all the powers it needs to bring those responsible to justice.
It makes sense to allow the inquiry to take place before we pronounce a verdict on whether there is comparability with what happened in America, but the way that we have responded was the right way to respond, rather than to indulge in the sort of cover-up that happened over the Atlantic.
The House is clear that justice should be done. The Government are doing everything we can to make that happen. All Members will remember the scandal over parliamentary expenses that engulfed the House two years ago, almost to the day. Illegality and gross misconduct by a few, cover-ups and a lack of transparency, and the failure of self-regulation were a toxic mix that led to a dramatic change in how Parliament was perceived by the public, with the reputation of the majority tarnished by the actions of a minority.
I see parallels between what happened to us and what is now happening to another important pillar of any democracy, namely a free press. While there are parallels, there are also lessons. As with expenses, the right approach to the current situation is to reach political agreement on the right way forward, to ensure much greater transparency and to move away from self-regulation to independent regulation without impeding the media’s ability to fulfil its democratic role.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement this afternoon that the draft terms of reference would be placed in the Library.
This country has a rich tradition of a lively and free press, which must continue. We have been fortunate to have a strong and robust police force, which now must prove itself beyond reproach. Finally, although some outside this country may disagree, we are fortunate to have a House of Commons that is independent of Government, and the fact that Parliament has proved itself effective in resolving the issue is a tribute to how the House has addressed the matter.
It is a bit like the old days for me, with the Government on the run, the Opposition in pursuit and a headline in The Sun saying, “Brown wrong”, another example of my very close relationship with News International. It is like the old days, but with one exception: if I had not come to the House when I was Prime Minister, in a debate in which the Prime Minister has been implicated, I hesitate to think what hon. Members would have said—[Interruption.]
Much has already happened today outside the House, with the announcements by BSkyB and the subsequent announcement by Ofcom only a few minutes ago that it is now examining whether News Corporation is a fit and proper person or organisation for the 38% of BSkyB that it still holds. When there have been great occasions and great questions of moral concern, it has been this House that has spoken for Britain, and over the next few months this House must show that it can rise to the challenge. With the exception of decisions on peace and war, there is no matter of greater importance than the basic liberties of our citizens. Each generation has to reconcile for its times the freedom of the individual with the freedom of the press and balance two great rights, the right of the public to information and the right of the individual to privacy.
I want to set out the facts for the House and will be happy take any interventions after.
In nearly 30 years as a Member of this House, in opposition and in government, I have never sought to propose or impose any restrictions on the freedom of the press. At all times I have defended their right to expose any wrongdoing wherever it is found and to speak truth to power however uncomfortable it is, and indeed was at times for me. Although I will today make proposals for reform and comment on each point that the Prime Minister made earlier in the House, it is my judgment that we should reform but never undermine something so fundamental to our ordered liberty as our twin commitments to the freedom of the individual and to a free press.
I rise to speak not about myself, but for those who cannot defend themselves: the grieving families of our brave war dead; the courageous survivors of 7/7; the many other dignified, but now outraged, victims of crime and; most recently, and perhaps worst of all, the victims of the violation of the rights of a missing and murdered child. Many, many wholly innocent men, women and children who, at their darkest hour, at their most vulnerable moment in their lives, with no one and nowhere to turn to, found their properly private lives, their private losses, their private sorrows treated as the public property of News International—their private, innermost feelings and their private tears bought and sold by News International for commercial gain.
Amassed against these guiltless victims and against a succession of other victims of crime whose names I know about and have seen, and have yet to be made public, was the systematic use of base and unlawful methods—new crimes with new names: blagging, hacking, Trojans to break into computers and not just phones. It was not the misconduct of a few rogues or a few freelancers but, I have to say, lawbreaking often on an industrial scale, at its worst dependent on links with the British criminal underworld.
Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman. Mr Stuart, I am going to say it to you once and once only: you are far too excitable. Be quiet and calm down—[Interruption.] Order. If you cannot—do not shake your head at me—then leave the Chamber.
This is the only way to describe the behaviour of those at News International who took the freedom of the press as a licence for abuse, who cynically manipulated our support of that vital freedom as their justification, and who then callously used the defence of a free press as the banner under which they marched in step, as I say, with members of the criminal underworld. This nexus—this criminal-media nexus—was claiming to be on the side of the law-abiding citizen but was in fact standing side by side with criminals against our citizens. Others have said that in its behaviour towards those without a voice of their own, News International descended from the gutter to the sewers. The tragedy is that it let the rats out of the sewers.
When I became Prime Minister in 2007, I, with everyone else, had no knowledge of this systematic criminality within News International. I also did what any holder of the great office I held would do. With our armed forces at war in two theatres, and with my own sense of the need for a renewed national purpose, I wanted to unite the country, not divide it; to bring people on board, not to pick fights with them; and to strive to create the broadest coalition of churches and others across our nation in support of our nation’s best interests, and not wilfully to set out to make an enemy of anyone. I therefore believe it was right, in what is often called the Prime Minister’s honeymoon, however brief it turned out to be for me—and for my successor—to seek to build bridges with members of the public and the press and to strive to construct the widest coalition of understanding for our policies and purposes. I would be surprised if I am unique in politics in hoping for the best of relationships with our media.
Let me say, Mr Speaker, that I am about to set out some facts for this House, and I hope that once I have done so I will be able to give way to Members.
In the month that I started at No. 10, there were already issues of state involving News International—a decision that the Government had to make on a Competition Commission inquiry into the recently acquired stake that brought its ownership of ITV up to 16.8%. It was for the Government to decide on any referral to the competition authority, and the Government approached this with no bias against BSkyB. However, after examining in some detail BSkyB’s activities, the Government, on the advice of the relevant authorities, found a case to answer and announced the strongest remedy possible—a referral to the competition authority, which went on to rule that BSkyB’s share purchase in ITV was not in the public interest. So far from siding with the News International interest, the Government stood up for the public interest by making the referral. While we correctly gave it time to sell its shares, its shares had to be sold.
Next was the proposed Ofcom review into the onward sale of BSkyB sporting and other programmes, and the claims of its competitors that it had priced BT, Virgin and other cable companies out of the market. The public interest was in my view served by due investigation. We did not support the News International interest, but stood up for what in our view was the public interest. The Ofcom recommendation, which News International still opposes today, demanded that there be fair competition.
It is no secret that the 2009 McTaggart lecture given by Mr James Murdoch, which included his cold assertion that profit not standards was what mattered in the media, underpinned an ever more aggressive News International and BSkyB agenda under his and Mrs Brooks’s leadership that was brutal in its simplicity. Their aim was to cut the BBC licence fee, to force BBC online to charge for its content, for the BBC to sell off its commercial activities, to open up more national sporting events to bids from BSkyB and move them away from the BBC, to open up the cable and satellite infrastructure market, and to reduce the power of their regulator, Ofcom. I rejected those policies.
I will give way after I have set out my evidence.
Those policies were clearly in News International’s interests, but were plainly not in the British people’s interests.
The truth is there in Government records for everyone to see. I am happy to volunteer to come before any inquiry, because nothing was given: there were no private deals, no tacit understandings, no behind-the-scenes arrangements and no post-dated promises. I doubt whether anyone in this House will be surprised to hear that the relationship between News International and the Labour Administration whom I led was, in all its years from start to finish, neither cosy nor comfortable.
I think that if people reflected on events as early as the summer of 2007, with the portrayal of me in The Sun as the betrayer of Britain, they would see them as somewhat absurd proof of an over-close and over-friendly relationship. Headlines such as “Brown killed my son”, which made me out to be the murderer of soldiers who were actually killed by our enemy, the Taliban, could hardly be a reflection of a deep warmth from News International towards me. The front-page portrayal of me as “Dr Evil” the day after the generally accepted success of the G20 was hardly confirmation of The Sun’s friendship and support as the world battled with the threat of a great depression.
It has been said that the relationship between News International and the Government of the day changed only because in 2009 News International suddenly decided to oppose Labour formally. I say that the relationship with News International was always difficult because Labour had opposed its self-interested agenda.
I have compiled for my own benefit a note of all the big policy matters affecting the media that arose in my time as Prime Minister. That note also demonstrates in detail the strange coincidence of how News International and the then Conservative Opposition came to share almost exactly the same media policy. It was so close that it was often expressed in almost exactly the same words. On the future of the licence fee, on BBC online, on the right of the public to see free of charge the maximum possible number of national sporting events, on the future of the BBC’s commercial arm, and on the integrity of Ofcom, we stood up for what we believed to be the public interest, but that was made difficult when the Opposition invariably reclassified the public interest as the News International interest. It is for the commission of inquiry to examine not just the promises of the then Opposition, but the many early decisions of this Government on these matters.
During the last year of our Government, information became public to suggest that the hacking of phones, and indeed of computers, went far beyond one rogue reporter and one rogue newspaper. In February 2010, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee reported that the number of victims was more than the handful that had been claimed. It said it was inconceivable that no one else at News International other than those convicted was in the know. News International, it said, was guilty of “deliberate obfuscation”. But already, in August 2009, Assistant Commissioner Yates of Scotland Yard had taken only eight hours—less time, I may say, than he spent dining with the people he should have been investigating—to reject pre-emptively a further police inquiry. Even the proposal that an outside police force take over the Scotland Yard inquiry had been rejected.
Having seen the Select Committee report, I immediately asked the head of the civil service to agree that we set up a judicial inquiry. Far from the so-called cosy relationship alleged with News International, which would have meant doing nothing, my answer to what appeared to be News International’s abuse of press freedom was a full judge-led inquiry to meet growing public concern.
Let me summarise the formal advice contained in a memorandum to me rejecting such an inquiry: that, while there were some new facts and there was a media culture permissive of unlawful activities and deliberate obfuscation by News International, the Select Committee did not believe that the practices were still continuing, and thus they did not meet the test of urgent public concern; that time had elapsed and evidence may have been destroyed; that the News of the World and individuals had already been punished by their resignations and jail terms; that there was no evidence of systemic failure in the police, and anyway all their decisions had been checked with the Crown Prosecution Service; and that targeting the News of the World could be deemed to be politically motivated, because it was too close to the general election and would inevitably raise questions over the motivation and urgency of an inquiry.
I think that for the benefit of the future debates on the matter and the inquiry, this information is relevant.
The memorandum stated that if an appeal was made against a judicial inquiry, such a challenge might succeed, and that there was not only no case for a judicial-led inquiry, but not a strong case for either a non-judicial inquiry or even a reference to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, or even for asking the police to reopen their inquiry.
I notice that the hon. Gentleman asks for a time limit; perhaps what he ought to do is listen to the facts.
If we do not act now on what we now know, and if we do not act forcefully and with clarity, friends around the world who admire our liberties will ask what kind of country we—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman.
Earlier today the Prime Minister said it; the Leader of the Opposition has said it; the Leader of the House has said it—a new tone, a new mood. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) will be quiet. There will be interventions when the Member who has the floor takes them, and not before. Members will observe basic courtesies and listen quietly and with respect to speakers. That is the end of it. Mr Stuart, if you are not prepared to do so, leave the Chamber. We can manage without you.
If we do not act now as a House of Commons, knowing what we now know, and act forcefully and with clarity, friends around the world who admire our liberties as a country will now ask what kind of country we have become. A crime has been committed against innocent members of the public; a complaint has been made to the police and no satisfaction has been given. Even when the police have had someone’s name as a likely victim, they were neither telling them nor taking action. No action from the head of the first police inquiry, Andy Hayman, whose next job just happened to be at News International; no action from his successor, who had overall responsibility for two inquiries—Mulcaire and Abelard, or what is called Southern Investigations—each with vast but unexamined archives exposing criminality on a huge scale. Inspector Yates has redefined for us the meaning of an inquiry. He not only failed to ask any of the right questions but, as became clear yesterday, he failed even to ask any of the basic questions.
I deeply regret my inability to do then what I wanted to do—to overturn the advice of all the authorities and set up a judicial inquiry. I can say for the record that, as I left office, I talked to the leader of the Liberal party and warned him that a Coulson problem would emerge, and I did so directly, and not through an intermediary who might not remember to pass on the message. At the same time, I handed him, in person, our proposal for a commission into the media, and in summer last year, I wrote to the head of the civil service to point out that the previous advice against the judicial inquiry had clearly since been overtaken by the new evidence.
I am afraid that the House must examine more recent, more damning and more alarming evidence. Because of what happened to my children, whose privacy at all times I have tried to protect, I have been sent, I have been offered, and I have had thrust upon me a great deal of evidence that is relevant to this debate, which is now for the police to examine. It is right for the House to know that the damage done in the past 10 years to innocent lives was avoidable. As early as the winter of 2002, senior police officers at Scotland Yard met the now chief executive of News International and informed her of serious malpractice on the part of her newspaper staff and criminals undertaking surveillance on their behalf. The new investigation will no doubt uncover why no action was taken within News International and what lay behind the subsequent promotion of that junior editor concerned.
In that context, and again, because of what happened to my family, I have been made aware of an additional and previously unexamined stream of orders by one of the editors at News International, Mr Alex Marunchak, to hack and to intrude—a man who was subsequently promoted to be a full editor of a regional edition of the News of the World. As we now know, a cover-up can be more damning than the original crime, and the decision of the News International chairman to pay, without reference to his board, some victims sums of around £500,000, may now be seen as the buying of silence. Given his statements to this House, that must now be the subject of full parliamentary, as well as police, scrutiny.
The freedom of the press in this country was built through the countless acts of fearless people who had done no wrong, and yet had to make huge sacrifices. Today, the freedom of the press can best be assured by full disclosure and reparation by those who know that they have done wrong. First, for the future, the press media itself should immediately press for a new Press Complaints Commission. We need one that is proactive, not passive; one that is less about protecting the press from the public, and more about properly processing the complaints of the public against the press; and one that is wholly independent, so that it can differentiate, and be seen to differentiate, between the abuse of power as a result of self-interest and what we really need, which is the pursuit of truth in the public interest.
We need to put an end to the violation of rights, but also to ensure the righting of wrongs. Secondly, therefore, News International papers, and every other responsible paper, should in future be obliged to publish—not on page 35 or 27, but on page 1—apologies to all individuals whose rights have been infringed. Perhaps in future we will know the naming and shaming of criminals inside the media by the name of one of the saddest victims, as happened with Sarah’s law. That would require News International to practise what it has so self-righteously preached to other people.
Thirdly, we must do all in our power to prevent the subversion of our basic rights again. We must therefore be ready to discuss limits to the undue concentration of ownership in the media as a whole. I must say to the Prime Minister, in response to the statement he made earlier today, that I believe that he will have to widen the remit of the commission of inquiry, so that we are sure that it will examine not just the police and general ethics, but all the evidence of the abuse of surveillance techniques and technologies, as a result of which we saw the undermining of our civil liberties.
In the long and winding evolution of our rights and freedoms, the people of this country have always been at risk from huge concentrations of power. Traditionally, they have seen the freedom of the press as a force for their freedom, but when our country’s biggest media organisation has itself become an unchallengeable concentration of power, as it was until today; when it is has held in contempt not only basic standards of legality, but basic standards of decency, too; when it has replaced freedom with licence; when it has wielded power without ever being elected to do so; and when it has regarded itself not only as above the law, but as above the elected institutions of our country, all concerned people in this House should be able to see that what should be our greatest defence against the abuse of power had itself become an intolerable abuser of power.
History will also show that a press will not long remain free in any country unless it is also responsible. If the irresponsibility that has characterised News International is not to define the public view of the media as a whole and if continued irresponsibility is not to force Parliament to take ever stronger measures to protect the public from the press, we will need far more than the closure of a newspaper one week and the withdrawal of a bid the next.
I find it strange that when I am giving to the House new evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the Conservative party, instead of listening, want to shout down the speaker. On reflection, when we are talking about people who have been abused as a result of the infringement of their liberties, the Conservative party will think it better to hear the evidence before jumping to conclusions.
I am so grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He said that he was not aware of systematic abuses of the law by News International. May I put it to him that from near the beginning of the previous Government, News International executives, in conjunction with Members of the then Government, conspired to smear Lord Ashcroft and they illegally—[Interruption.] Labour Members think that there is one law for them and another law for others. They illegally blagged bank accounts in order to try to undermine Her Majesty’s Opposition. He knew about it then. Why was nothing done?
I am surprised that this debate, which started with our desire to protect the lives of innocent children, should end up with the Conservative party more interested in defending Lord Ashcroft. I would have thought that, if the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) knew that there were so many abuses at News International at the time, he would have advised the then Leader of the Opposition not to employ Mr Andy Coulson.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I have listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman as he has so eloquently outlined for us his bravery in standing up to Murdoch. Does he regret that the previous Government held a slumber party for Elisabeth Murdoch and Rebekah Wade, as she was known then, at Chequers?
The hon. Gentleman started by implying that I have not been in the House much. I have come to a debate on the future of the media on an issue in which the Prime Minister of this country is implicated and has questions to answer. [Hon. Members: “Where is he?] I repeat to the House that had I, as Prime Minister, not attended a debate on a problem that was partly my responsibility, Conservative Members would have been up in arms.
Yes, because what I have sought to do is give the facts about the infringement of civil liberties, about the relationships between News International and the Government and about those instances where News International and the public interest diverge. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will ask the leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister to do exactly the same on every single issue that I have raised, because it is going to be a matter of concern for the whole country, not just this month, but in many months to come: what are the precise relationships on individual policy issues between the Government of the day and one of the biggest corporations of the country? I make no apologies for setting out the record of our Government in our relationships with News International, and I hope that Members on the other side of the House will ask their leader to set out what happened in the relationship between his party and News International.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. As a parent myself, I share the disgust at the invasion of his privacy, and I agree with him that the police have serious questions to answer. Nevertheless, criminality was disclosed in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report in 2003 and by the Information Commissioner in 2006. As a new Member, I ask him: why was nothing done?
I have set out the record of my desire to have a judicial inquiry. It was opposed by the police, opposed by the Home Office and opposed by the civil service, and it was not supported by the Select Committee of the day. However, if the hon. Gentleman felt that it was right in 2003 that there should have been an inquiry into the media, why at no point, even until last week, did the Conservative party ever support an inquiry into the media in this country?
I am so tempted to take further interventions, but I would lose my chance ever to speak again, so I must bring my remarks to a conclusion.
Ofcom—this is incredibly significant—has this afternoon announced that it is now going to apply the “fit and proper” test to the remaining holdings of News International in BSkyB. This is a further useful step, but we must now have three things: a sustained and rigorous process of investigation and disclosure; a fairer distribution of media power in our country which will eventually restore the public faith in a media that are fully and genuinely free; and, as a result of what we now know, robust measures, akin to those that I have described this afternoon, to ensure that the lethal combination of illegality, collusion and cover-up that we now know has prevailed for a whole decade can never happen again.
It is not often, I expect, that I shall sign a motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. On this particular occasion I thought it right to do so. I commend the Leader of the Opposition on his approach, which is that we must tackle these appalling matters on a cross-party basis. I have always tried to do that in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which I am proud to chair, and I think that we have succeeded. I will merely say that I am sorry that the Leader of the Opposition’s predecessor did not choose the same approach this afternoon.
I believe that the atmosphere at present has become so poisoned by the stream of appalling revelations that it would have been quite wrong for the News Corporation bid to acquire the whole of BSkyB to go ahead. We still do not know—we still have not even begun to know—the full extent of what has been going on in the newsroom at the News of the World, in the higher levels of News Corporation or, possibly, outside that, in other organisations, but clearly there were already question marks about the “fit and proper” test for News Corporation’s bid. The important thing is that we should obtain answers to questions very rapidly. There is an ongoing police inquiry, which needs to be concluded as fast as possible; there is the judicial inquiry that the Prime Minister has rightly set, which I fear will take much longer; and then there is my Select Committee, which has asked Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks to appear before it next Tuesday. We have not yet received a response. The Select Committee will meet tomorrow morning, and if we have not received a reply by then, we might well wish to return to the House to ask it to use the powers available to it to ensure that witnesses attend.
There is an assumption that, once the News of the World ceases to trade, the victims of phone hacking will still have legal redress and that there will be a compensation fund for them. I doubt that that is the case, however. Is that something that the Committee could look at?
It might be more appropriate for the judicial inquiry to look at that matter, as it essentially involves a point of law, but I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern that the victims should have access to proper compensation when wrong has clearly been done to them.
The Committee decided that we wanted to hear from Rebekah Brooks because she is the chief executive of News International, and from James Murdoch because he was until recently the chairman of News International in this country. We have also asked Rupert Murdoch to appear, because he is essentially synonymous with News Corporation. He has considerable achievements to his name. He pioneered the use of new technology in the newspaper industry, which transformed it, and he took the brave decision to launch BSkyB, which changed the whole face of British television. It is the case, however, that he will now be forever tarred with the revelations that have come out over the past few months about what has happened in his papers.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was his predecessor as Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. As he also knows, we asked Rebekah Brooks—then Rebekah Wade—to give evidence to the Committee, with Andy Coulson, at that time. She admitted with clarity that she had been involved in paying money to the police. Andy Coulson said that that had been done only within the law, which was an unbelievable lie because it is impossible for a newspaper to pay money to the police within the law. When the hon. Gentleman has Rebekah Brooks and the other people from News International before him, I advise him to take a long spoon with him, because of the way in which they will try to lie and cheat their way out of the predicament that they are in.
I recall vividly the evidence given by Rebekah Brooks to the Committee when the right hon. Gentleman was its Chairman. It included matters that he rightly says might turn out to be criminal, and I am certain that the judicial inquiry will want to examine them. I have no doubt that some of my colleagues on the Select Committee, who are extremely robust on these matters, might well wish to ask questions about those matters as well, should they have the chance to do so.
In regard to the takeover of BSkyB—which is, after all, the matter that we are supposed to be debating this afternoon—it has always been the case that there are more stringent tests for the acquisition of a media company in this country. That is right; it is a reflection of the power of the media that they should be subject to greater tests. I would like to take this opportunity to commend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), who has been utterly scrupulous in his handling of this matter. I believe that he has acted on the basis of independent advice at every stage, and it is difficult to find fault with the way in which he has conducted himself.
Speaking as a former competition Minister, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that it was open to the Secretary of State to make a choice to stick with his original conclusion that he was minded to refer the matter to the Competition Commission? Had he done that, we could have been saved a lot of trouble.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State acted on the basis of the advice that he received from Ofcom. The original advice was that he should refer the bid, but Ofcom then came back and said that the undertakings being given by News Corporation were sufficient and that there was no longer a need to do so. At every stage, he has acted on the advice of the independent regulator.
I want to say a few words about BSkyB, which has been an extraordinarily successful company. It has pioneered choice in television and introduced the personal video recorder, high-definition television and 3D television. It has recently passed the 10 million home mark. It has been incredibly successful. It is right that its ownership should be subject to very close scrutiny. I would also like to commend it on its most recent announcement of £600 million of annual investment in UK content, which will do a tremendous amount of good.
The test that my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary put up to be examined was that of plurality. That is about Sky News. It is worth saying that throughout this saga, Sky News has displayed the same objectivity and independence in its coverage of matters concerning its parent company—or the company that sought to become its parent company—as it has in other matters.
We heard earlier about the published terms of reference set out by the Prime Minister. We got them from the Library and they refer to a
“judge-led inquiry into phone hacking”—
but it is confined to the press. Would my hon. Friend, having been consulted and with his Committee meeting tomorrow, agree to look into these terms of reference? Does he agree that sound and visual media journalism has to be included to make the inquiry fully comprehensive?
I have not yet heard any suggestion that similar activities have been undertaken by television or radio companies, but, should that be uncovered, I have no doubt that the judge would request a broadening of the terms of reference to include it. The important thing is that the judge should follow the evidence wherever it leads. As I understand it, that is the undertaking that the Prime Minister gave.
Some have expressed the concern that Sky News might go the way of Fox News. Fox News is very successful, but I do not believe that it would ever succeed in this country. We have an entirely different climate. Nevertheless, that was the key issue under consideration when we examined plurality. However, the revelations over the course of the last two weeks have raised a much more serious issue—the “fit and proper” test and whether or not News Corporation meets it, not just in respect of its 100% ownership, but now in respect of its 39% ownership of BSkyB. That is something that Ofcom will want to consider, but I believe that Ofcom is correct in saying that it should act on the basis of evidence rather than allegation. These matters need to be pursued to the very end. We need to discover the truth, and if it turns out that very senior executives in News Corporation are involved in, or had knowledge of, what has been going on, that will raise questions about the fit and proper test. I have no doubt that Ofcom will pursue them.
It might take years for us to find the full extent of what has been happening and to get to the truth, but if that is what it takes, that is what we must do. This episode must never be allowed to recur. We need to find out the full extent of it. We will try to begin to uncover some of the truth on Tuesday, if those people are willing to appear before us, but this judicial inquiry and the police inquiry must find the truth.
I wish to concentrate briefly on an issue that, in the understandable outrage over the phone-hacking scandal, has been largely overlooked, at least until it was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the former Prime Minister, earlier this afternoon. That issue is the extent to which the current Government’s policy has been influenced by News Corp interests.
The sorry saga of the BSkyB takeover bid has already been well documented, but other Government policies could also have been written in Wapping. The first was the announcement last summer that the Government would not implement the recommendations of Labour’s Davies report into listed sporting events. Sport is one of the biggest money spinners for Sky and there remains real public concern about the lack of sport, particularly of test cricket, on free-to-view television. When the Leader of the House responds, I would like him to tell us when the Government intend to implement Davies’s modest and sensible proposals in full.
The second example is when the Government abandoned Labour’s proposals for regional news consortia, funded by a protected element of the licence fee, in order to secure the future of high-quality, impartial regional news and news in the nations on ITV. James Murdoch hated this idea; I know because he told me so in one of the many rows we had. One of the first decisions the current Secretary of State took when he came into office was to scrap these regional news consortia, in spite of the fact that they were already well down the road to implementation and had the full support of the industry and the public.
The third area, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath has already referred, is the Government’s assault on the BBC through the biggest cut in funding in its history, leaving the corporation having to cut its programme funding by a massive 25%.
We should not be surprised by any of this. All that one needs to do is read James Murdoch’s chilling speech at the Edinburgh TV festival in 2009, in which he called for the BBC to be “cut down to size” and for Ofcom to be “neutered or scrapped”. What did the then Leader of the Opposition do in response? He added Ofcom to his list of quangos for the chop.
Returning briefly to the now dead News Corporation-BSkyB takeover, we know from the Business Secretary’s unofficial spokesman Lord Oakeshott that the Business Secretary would have referred the bid to the Competition Commission. Why did the Culture Secretary change the Business Secretary’s policy and bend over backwards to help News Corporation avoid a long and costly inquiry? His approach in this regard has been extraordinary.
He has repeatedly tried to hide behind the argument that he has a quasi-judicial role. Had he exercised that, he would have followed Ofcom’s original recommendation and referred the bid in full to the Competition Commission. Is it not the case that there has always been a plurality problem? We thought there was a plurality problem; the Business Secretary thought there was a plurality problem; Ofcom thought there was a plurality problem; every serious media analyst in the country thought there was a plurality problem. The only people who did not think there was a plurality problem were News Corporation and the Government.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that it was on the basis of Ofcom’s independent advice that the media merger should go ahead that I made that recommendation to the House? On Monday morning, I wrote back to Ofcom to ask whether it stood by that advice, as a result of which the bid ended up being referred to the Competition Commission.
We will discover that when all the papers are published, which is my next point. However, what happened came only after the Secretary of State intervened on behalf of News International in a negotiation with Ofcom.
To dispel any suspicion in the House and among the British people that the Government acted under pressure from News Corporation, the Government must now disclose the details of all meetings, discussions and communications involving Ministers, officials and representatives of News Corporation, or their representatives. That must include details of the now infamous back-door visit to Downing street straight after the election, and the Prime Minister’s Christmas dinner with James Murdoch and Brooks in Oxfordshire.
May I finish with some friendly advice to the Government? The information will come out. It is far better for the Government to put it voluntarily into the public domain now than to have it prised out by freedom of information requests or by the forthcoming judicial inquiry. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath has said, it is rarely the initial mistake, incompetence or bad judgment that is fatal, but the cover-up.
The Leader of the Opposition was right to begin his remarks by saying that what has happened today is a victory for the British people. It was the British people who were horrified by the Milly Dowler affair, and by the hacking of the communications of the families of victims of 7/7 and of Afghanistan. The Leader of the Opposition was right to say that the British public forced the political parties to unite in the motion before us, and to put pressure on Rupert Murdoch in relation to the takeover.
I congratulate the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the House on the tone of their speeches and for seeking to avoid partisan remarks. As the whole House knows, for the past 30 years there have been significant failures by Governments of both major parties to stand up to the media in this country. What has happened today as Murdoch has backed down, probably only temporarily, is a victory for the British people. However, the Prime Minister was right to say that it is not the end of the matter: we must continue with the thorough police investigation to root out wrongdoing and bring those who have committed crimes to justice.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, although my intervention will give him injury time. I want to pray in aid a point made by his right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). The Information Commissioner’s analysis shows that we should worry more about the Mail newspapers than about Murdoch. Ten years ago, when my mother was recovering from a stroke, a reporter from The Mail on Sunday went into her house without knocking on the door to try to extract information from me.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The report to which he refers was published in 2006, when his party was in power. It alleged that 305 journalists were acting illegally, and no action was taken.
We could become involved in party political stuff. I could point out that it is amazing that the former Prime Minister, who gave us that list of things that he did as Prime Minister, failed to make any mention of what his party did in government when he was merely the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Critical actions are necessary. The Press Complaints Commission has been drinking in the last chance saloon for far too long. It is ridiculous that papers such as the Daily Express and the Daily Star can walk away from it, and that only people who have been directly affected by a judgment can get it to investigate. That must be changed.
It is also ludicrous that there is so little clarity about how the “fit and proper person” test should be conducted. I asked the Secretary of State about that on Monday, and I asked the Prime Minister about it today. It is true that the British public wanted to know not just whether Murdoch’s was a fit and proper organisation to take over yet more shares, but it was not made clear whether the test could take place on the basis of its current 39% shareholding. I am delighted that Ofcom is now investigating that, but the law is still confused about the issue.
The law is also confused about plurality—the issue of who should own our media to ensure that it contains multiple voices. Surely by now the House recognises that, in the modern era of communication, it is not just news and current affairs that determine how we think about ourselves and the world. That can also be done by drama, comedy and many other means.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is so much that needs to be sorted out.
Rupert Murdoch has dropped his bid for the time being, but who knows when he will return via another bid? The British public will never forgive us if we take our eye off the ball. The inquiries must go ahead, and the revisions to law must go ahead, so that we can have a decent press in this country in which journalists—the majority—who carry out the fearless inquiries that we want, but do it legally, are allowed to continue to do so.
It is a disgrace that when Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World, a large number of journalists who had done absolutely nothing wrong lost their jobs, while the person in charge, Rebekah Brooks, kept hers. When Rupert Murdoch arrived in this country, she was the person whom he described as the key issue for him. That is the most disgraceful thing that has happened in the last week.
My party has no hesitation in backing the motion. The debate has now moved on. There will be inquiries. There will be an investigation of the wrongdoing, and there will be an investigation of the police and their activities. However, one thing must be dealt with if we are not to see a repeat of these events and a further undermining of our democracy. I refer to the whole issue of the concentration of press power in the hands of one organisation. It does not matter whether it is concentrated in the hands of News International, Rupert Murdoch or anyone else, but as long as that concentration is there, there will always be a tendency for those of us who are involved in the political field to want to be on the right side of the people who hold the power.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the debate is about more than a media mogul owning newspaper and television companies? Does it not also flag up the issue of dual share structures, in which the owners of one class of share, such as the class A non-voting shareholders of News International, have no voting rights?
We must address everything that leads to that concentration of power. If that is not dealt with, there will always be a tendency to rush after and try to please those who have such influence.
We have only to consider the accusations that have flown back and forth across this House today. Why did the current Prime Minister, when he was at a low ebb in opposition, and under pressure from the Government of the day, hire a dodgy character even though he had been warned? Was that because of the influence that that might give and the doors that that person would open? Was it because of some of the other benefits that would come from the appointment?
Why did the current Prime Minister’s predecessor bottle this, despite the fact that he knew about wrongdoings? He told us today that he knew about them. Was it because the Home Office said he could not do anything? Was it because the police said there was no evidence? Or was it because he knew there was a certain limit beyond which he could not go? After all, he was the Prime Minister, so he could have made the decision. I do not wish to be partisan; I just think that we must look at what has happened under both the current Prime Minister and previous Prime Ministers. How did they behave? How did parties behave when in government and seeking the support of News International? As long as we have that concentration of power, there will always be the danger that our democracy might be undermined by those to whom we have to pander because we need the headline.
That is bad for the business concerned as well, because of what it then believes. I have no doubt that News International believed it could get away with what it did get away with, because, being in such a powerful position, it felt that politicians might pull their punches and that the police might not fully investigate matters. As it felt that it could get away with some of those activities, it did them; then it pushed the limits and went further and further. If we do not deal with the concentration of power, I believe that this might happen again, regardless of what comes out of the inquiry, who goes to jail, and what sanctions are put in place.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, there are some big critical issues for the devolved Administrations in terms of the inquiry. Does he agree that it is imperative that whoever leads the inquiry, and however they do their business, they consult fully and engage comprehensively with the devolved Administrations?
I hope that will be the case, and I am disappointed that there was not more consultation with the smaller parties representing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about the terms of the inquiry, but I hope that will be remedied in the future.
The third reason why I believe we must deal with the concentration of power is that there will always be public mistrust of the news industry if it is felt that one group is so large that it can influence the law and politicians, and get away with things. That is not good for the press and the newspaper industry either, or for those who get on the wrong side of the door. We have seen how it has swung against the Labour party. At one stage that party was the darling of News International—but no longer. At one stage the Conservative party suffered as a result of being on the wrong side of the door. I know about that, too, from my experience in Northern Ireland, when the Conservative party joined with the Ulster Unionist party before the last election. News International had taken little interest in Northern Ireland politics and politicians, but suddenly there seemed to be an undue interest, in our party in particular. Indeed, a number of our party members were targeted—not that News International ever found any wrongdoing, but there was innuendo, and it was sufficient to sow doubts in the mind of the electorate.
That is why politicians will always try to get on the right side of the door. If we are on the wrong side, we know what will happen. We will not get the headlines, and instead we will get the investigations and the innuendo. For that reason, the concentration of power must be dealt with, even though the inquiry is not going to deal with it.
Whether that is true or not—sometimes I think that perhaps we do not give enough credit to the electorate—politicians are aware that mass media can influence elections, so they try to keep on the right side. I hope that the inquiries will be made to look into the issue of concentration.
May I begin by emphasising my personal disgust at the revelations that have come out over recent days, particularly those with regard to the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)? I really cannot imagine what it must be like to see one’s child’s health records in the public domain.
I wish to step back from what we have been discussing so far, as I think that it is important for Members of this House to do that in times of storm. We should not be in the middle of it; we should be stepping back. I wish instead to discuss media plurality in reality, as it is now in this world. The way in which individuals search for news, and indeed share news, is changing and has changed. As for the idea that the ownership of one news channel watched by a relatively small number of people should concern us greatly, I suggest that the ownership of search engines and social media should concern us more.
Let me set out a few facts from the United States. According to recent information from the Pew Research Center, Google is the biggest single driver of traffic to news sites in the United States. Facebook has 500 million users worldwide, and of increasing importance to Facebook is the fact that it shares news; it is a way for people to communicate with each other and pass on stories. People do not turn on Sky News to get stories; they get them from friends on Facebook.
In this country more than 90% of online searches go through Google, with the figure for Europe and the wider world being more than 95%. Why am I so interested in this? I have a company on my patch called Foundem, which has three employees and has interested the European competition commission. That vertical search engine company was launched in 2006, and was allegedly suppressed by Google. It is a vertical search engine for washing machines and motorcycle helmets—but news too is a commodity. If Google can suppress a company like that, it can suppress a news organisation; it can point people in the direction of their news. People may obsess about trying to make Mr Murdoch the bogeyman of the present, but this is past; this is not the way things will be in the future. It is all going to be about where people get their news from, and that will not necessarily be the News of the World. By concentrating on one man at the moment, people are missing the point. That is the central thrust of my argument. News has changed, and the way in which people communicate has changed.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that part of the revulsion against News International has arisen because it became a virtual state within the state, running to its own set of rules, being above the law and feeling that it did not have to follow even the rules of moral decency? Does he agree that one of the challenges that we face with organisations such as Facebook and Google is ensuring that they too cannot be allowed to become above the law, and above the laws of moral decency in what they publish, and in what people post?
Of course I agree with that: it is a statement of the obvious, is it not? I am greatly concerned that we do have a media state in this country. I saw an interview with somebody on the BBC recently—a former deputy editor of the News of the World—who stated as much. However, my point is that the media are changing. I do not need to comment on someone’s “fit and proper” right to own a newspaper or a news organisation; that is for others to do. My point is that at the moment we do not have control over where a lot of people are seeking to get their news from, and we have absolutely no idea whether what they are getting is the truth or not, because there is no check. That is why I agree with the hon. Lady.
Yes, I do. That is the problem: we need cross-border understanding. As for getting some sense of an international legal framework, good luck with that. It is very difficult, but that is the challenge we face.
I do not want to take up all the time I have available, because I know that others want to speak. If hon. Members will indulge me, I shall quote a few lines of poetry. I heard this the other day from a modern poet:
“The slow one now,
Will later be fast,
As the present now,
Will later be past.”
We should remember those words, because that is where we are now. There is a danger that we will obsess about the ownership of BSkyB whoever it is owned by, whether that is Mr Murdoch or someone else, following the announcement this afternoon. We might obsess about one component of the media, yet its importance will have passed. It will no longer be important to us as politicians, who clearly need to get our message over, but need to do so by having a professional relationship with the person who controls the presentation of that message to the public.
In conclusion, we should remember that the world is changing very quickly. In the future, Governments of any colour, red or blue, abroad or at home, will need to be very cautious about their relationships with businesses such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. They are the media giants of the future, and they might be just as capable of employing people who have committed the crimes alleged in recent days as News International has been in the past. We should bear that in mind.
Some chilling words: “This one is my priority,” spoken by Rupert Murdoch about Rebekah Brooks; “There is far worse to come,” spoken by Rebekah Brooks about the revelations; “News International was deliberately thwarting a police investigation,” spoken by Commander Peter Clarke, who was in charge in the investigation and who has never said that in public until now; “I am 99% certain that my phone was hacked,” spoken by Assistant Commissioner Yates, who is in charge of counter-terrorism in this country; and “Have you ever paid police officers?” “Yes,” spoken by not just Rebekah Brooks but Andy Coulson.
Some disturbing facts: News International bullied those who opposed or were critics of the BSkyB empire; the policeman investigating News International went on to work for the company not years but weeks after he had stopped working for the Metropolitan police; Parliament has been lied to time and time again by a series of different people; material was deleted at News International and sometimes squirreled away and kept against a rainy day when a police officer might come knocking on the door to try to incriminate somebody else lower down the chain in the organisation; some people were ditched and thrown overboard, as we have seen throughout this year; and, as the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) said earlier, one of the most disgusting things that has happened in the past two weeks is that the people slaving away in the boiler room had to carry the can for those who were at the helm. That does not show that that is a decent company with which to do business.
Executive and non-executive directors at News Corporation completely failed in their fiduciary duties to ensure that criminality was not going on at their company and that the organisation was co-operating completely with the police. That involves Mr Aznar, Peter Barnes, Kenneth Cowley, Lachlan Murdoch, Thomas Perkins, John Thornton and Stanley Shuman, who should all be considering their position, too. I believe that this is proof that News Corporation is not a fit and proper body to hold its present holding in BSkyB, let alone any increased holding.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who has been tenacious over the years on this matter. He said that BSkyB has done much that is good and I am sure all our constituents would agree. They watch lots of Sky television and enjoy their Sky Plus. The company has lots of technological innovation that only a robust entrepreneur could bring to British society, but it has also often been profoundly anti-competitive. I believe that the bundling of channels so as to increase the profit and make it impossible for others to participate in the market is anti-competitive. I believe that the way in which the application programming interface—the operating system—has been used has been anti-competitive and that Sky has deliberately set about selling set-top boxes elsewhere, outside areas where they have proper rights. If one visits a flat in Spain where a British person lives, one finds that they mysteriously manage to have a Sky box there even though it is registered to a house in the United Kingdom.
Sky has a virtual monopoly over many areas of our lives, with 67% of residential pay-TV subscriptions and 80% of pay-TV revenues—with an average spend of £492 a year.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s tenacity and courage over the course of this matter. He has been a credit to Parliament in the way he has pursued this. He is quite right that News International must be brought to justice, but does he agree that we must address the concentration of ownership of the media? If we do not do that, the idea that we have a free press and free media is simply false.
I completely agree that we failed to address the fact that we have allowed one man to have far too much power in his hands, including four newspapers and all the rights I have been talking about.
It is not just newspapers and broadcasting that have been subject to anti-competitive practices; it is also advertising. Sky spends £127 million on advertising—double what Virgin is able to—in any one year. The fact that it has such a big presence in the market makes it difficult for others to enter. It is anti-entrepreneurial to allow one person to have so much power, which is why no other country would allow it.
I suspect that the people of the country have been way ahead of we politicians on all of this. In the 10 years that I have been an MP, many have come to my constituency surgeries and demanded changes to the system. We have all failed in our duty for far too long, perhaps because we were frightened. If the Murdochs fail to attend the Select Committee next week, I believe that the people of this country will conclude that the Murdochs are waving goodbye to Britain—and maybe that would not be a bad thing.
I strongly support the motion and I think that Sky has been absolutely right to withdraw its bid. It gives the police time to complete their investigation and, at the end of all that, gives Ofcom time to assess whether BSkyB is fit and proper to have a broadcast licence.
I want to focus on a couple of areas, particularly to do with media regulation and how it could be improved. This change is long overdue. There is nothing new about these problems with the media. In 2006, a very comprehensive report from the Information Commissioner uncovered widespread problems here with a trade in people’s personal information. A whole series of recommendations was made about toughening up the role of the Press Complaints Commission and changing the laws in some areas, but it was seen as too easy to ignore those recommendations and turn a blind eye to the report. That is a real indictment of the Opposition. Alastair Campbell spent the best part of a decade warning them that there was a problem with the media and that something needed to be done and it is wrong that that opportunity was not taken up.
My hon. Friend raises the PCC, which has not been mentioned much in the debate. Does he agree that it has proven, over time, to be something of a toothless tiger? One of the big lessons from this sorry affair is that we need to look at having a situation in which, rather than one newspaper deciding on the rights and wrongs of another, we have a different way forward.
I absolutely agree, and I shall come to those issues in a moment. First, I want to say that the introduction of new regulation of the media should not be feared by journalism. Indeed, it could raise the status of journalism and restore confidence in the profession. If clear boundaries are enforced, that will strengthen the position of journalists if they are told to do a hatchet job on some story by their newspaper’s proprietor or editor, perhaps because they are angry that a story was given to a rival paper. In such a situation, a journalist will be in a stronger position to resist and say, “No, that would be in breach of the code and would put us in a difficult position.” At present the boundaries are not clear enough. That undermines journalism and makes it harder for journalists to face down demands from proprietors and editors alike.
It is also wrong for people to be concerned that a code would muzzle free speech. We have a tough broadcasting code to which all our broadcasters are subject, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) mentioned. Sky News is a very good news organisation. It does a good job. There is nothing in that broadcasting code that hinders free debate. We have robust debates in a range of formats, but papers are culturally different so it would be wrong to apply the entire broadcasting code to the print media. In particular, it would be wrong to expect impartiality of the print press.
I shall touch on some of the aspects where we could improve the PCC or its replacement. There is not much wrong with the PCC code. The problem is that it has not been enforced with the rigour that we should require. In particular, the public interest defence, which is a kind of get out of jail card in so many areas, has been used and abused over the years, and used in all sorts of cases where there was no such public interest to justify the pursuit of certain means.
Another problem is a lack of sanctions. As the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster) said, broadcasters who breach their code face serious and heavy fines of £250,000 and sometimes more. The press does not have such a culture. If there is no real consequence for newspapers that breach the code, they will not be too bothered about abiding by it. Finally, I wish to pick up on something that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) said, and which I have been pushing for some time. If a newspaper wilfully prints a story that it knows to be untrue, it is right and proportionate that it should give the same space to its correction as it gave to the original story. Sensible changes like that could help a great deal.
We all accept that the relationship between politicians and the media has got far too cosy over the years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the role of the regulators on ownership is important? Although we in the House are right to express our views and anger about BSkyB and other issues, it should not be for politicians to make arbitrary decisions about who owns what, or that may be seen as too much political interference in a free press.
I will not give way. I am sorry. I have given way enough and we are nearly out of time.
We need to change the culture in which, over decades, the press barons have been led to believe that they can decide policy. It is no wonder, if they have had so many politicians coming to court them and seek their support. We need to try and get over that culture, and change things for the better. By weakening the press barons, we could strengthen journalism. It is important that we approach the debate in the right tone. We should be clear that we are not trying to stifle free speech, but that our objective is to strengthen journalism itself.
There are not many in Liverpool who will shed any tears for the catastrophic downfall of News International and Rupert Murdoch or their belated withdrawal of the deal to purchase BSkyB, although they will sympathise with those innocent of any wrongdoing who have subsequently lost or may lose their jobs.
Twenty-two years ago the people of Merseyside decided to take on The Sun after it lied about the Hillsborough disaster. Although for a short time we received support in other cities, people gradually forgot the smear that had been perpetrated against us, while others preferred to believe what they had read, but nobody forgot on Merseyside. In 1999 the fight for justice for the 96 victims began and it is as strong today—
Today the House has come together to speak with one voice, but we must also show some humility. In reality, there were only two or three hon. Members willing to pursue these issues over a long period. My hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) deserve our respect for their courage and relentless pursuit of the public interest. That is ultimately why we are elected to this place. We also heard a remarkable speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), who not only provided sensational new information, but reminded us that this issue goes to the heart of the character of our country, or the good society, as he would say.
In truth, the public do not ask much of their public institutions or private corporations. They have a right to expect a free and responsible press, clean and competent police, politicians who speak up for the public interest without fear or favour and businesses that obey the law and have decent ethical standards. On all those counts they have reason today to ask, “Who can we trust?” In the aftermath of the global banking crisis and the MPs’ expenses crisis, there is an urgent need to answer that question. Today is our chance to make a start, but it is also a day for Mr Murdoch to reflect on the consequences of his company, which had no limits and a “story at all costs” culture that not only fuelled criminality, but offended every standard of decency. It is also a day for other newspapers to reflect on their level of involvement in illegal activities, because it is wrong that the reputation of the vast majority of journalists and editors is being undermined by the actions of a few. Remaining silent is no longer an option.
Given the outstanding serious allegations of criminality, the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone and of the phones of relatives of 7/7 victims and brave soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public would never have understood this deal being allowed to go ahead. From the beginning we have called for it to be referred to the Competition Commission for a full and independent inquiry, but I was told time and again by the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport that that was not necessary and, in recent days, not possible.
The right hon. Gentleman was wrong not to refer the matter to the Competition Commission and to rely on the good faith of a company that has been involved in this kind of activity.
What lessons have been learnt from this sorry episode? In matters of media ownership and mergers, politicians should never again fulfil a quasi-judicial role. Market share and power, and not simply plurality, must now be at the heart of the debate we are to have on the future. We welcome the fact that this will be part of an independent inquiry. A “fit and proper person” test should be applicable in all cases of serious failure of corporate governance. A new independent press regulatory system must reflect the new digital age and the rights of ordinary citizens more than the politician and the celebrity.
The Secretary of State must reflect on the judgments he has made, and I say to Government Members that the BBC may need reform, but its strength is absolutely central to the vitality of our democracy. We all know that the Conservative party has wanted to undermine the BBC at every opportunity. The Prime Minister described cuts to it as delicious, which demonstrates the kind of broadcasting environment they wanted to see in this country before these revelations changed for ever the course of how we make these decisions. Today is an historic day for this country. This House has asserted the public interest and finally made it clear, according to the values of my party, that no corporate interest can be allowed to write the law or break it.
This has been a very important day both for the country and for Parliament. It is important because, for the first time, we have had a very clear indication that the police investigations that were carried out so inadequately before are now going ahead and yielding results.
It is important because we have heard of the establishment of a proper judicial inquiry under a very capable judge, Lord Justice Leveson, that will deal not only with the inadequacies of the previous inquiry and not only with the unacceptable practices in the press and the media. I am wholly unconvinced that those practices were confined to News International, and I am glad that the inquiry will work on a wider spectrum. The inquiry will look at the relationship between some media and some politicians and allow for proper investigation of the perhaps too cosy relationship that has sometimes existed. The decision by the Prime Minister to provide for proper disclosure of meetings between senior politicians and the media—I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will agree to that for his own party—seems to be a great step forward.
The other area that the inquiry will deal with—this is absolutely crucial, and I give credit to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has been talking about it for some time—is the potential systemic suborning of police officers by some elements of the media. We must put an end to that.
I absolutely agree with that intervention.
I agree with the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that this is a good day for Parliament. We should avoid being self-congratulatory—we have hardly been a model of good practice over the years—but today, and over recent days, we have been able to demonstrate that we can express the views of the public.
It is also a good day because News International’s bid for BSkyB has been withdrawn, as it should have been withdrawn. There was increasing revulsion at the revelations of what were called offences against common decency. I think people would have found it very difficult to understand why the Murdoch empire was carrying on trying to expand its boundaries when there were such clear deficiencies within.
Is it also the responsibility of the inquiry to look at the warnings that have been given over 17 years about the accretion of powers by the Murdoch empire, the failure to act on those warnings during those years, and the failure to act on the very clear recommendations to which the hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) referred, which suggested in 2006 that 31 newspapers and more than 300 journalists had been guilty of illegality. Nothing was done about that in the following five years.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the rot set in when, against the advice of the late Michael Foot, Mrs Thatcher set the precedent of refusing to refer the purchase of The Times and The Sunday Times to the then Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the grounds that 40% ownership of newspapers was too much in one pair of hands?
We have had abundant evidence since then of what has or has not been done in relationships with the media.
The best contributions to the debate have been the most sober and non-partisan, and I am grateful to colleagues who entered into the debate in that context. I am grateful to the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), whose Committee has done such a lot of good work. I am grateful, as I have indicated, to the hon. Member for Rhondda for what he has said not just today but on previous occasions. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), to the hon. Members for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), and to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) for his very brief contribution. They talked not only about the criminal behaviour that has been uncovered over recent days and weeks, but about the concentration of power and ownership and the effect that that has on the media in this country, and about the adequacy of the Press Complaints Commission, which we clearly need to look at. The hon. Member for Bracknell warned that new media and technologies will bring new challenges that we have to address.
There were contributions from members of the previous Government. I think that most of what the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said had more to do with the competition authorities and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport than with the contents of this debate, but he took this opportunity to raise those issues. There was a long contribution from the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). May I say that it is genuinely a pleasure to have him contributing to our debates in this House, and he should do so more often? Everybody understands his personal issues concerning the completely inappropriate release of information about his family, and everybody has sympathy for him over that. Everybody will take careful notice of the serious evidence that he produced to the House, which I hope will be properly considered by the inquiry. I hope that he will give full evidence to the inquiry, as he indicated he would in his contribution, as I hope will other members of the previous Government who have a story to tell. I would criticise him because there was a self-exculpatory tone in much of what he said, and I think that that may have grated on some. Nevertheless, it was an important contribution.
The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) did not quite rise to the occasion. He wanted to take a partisan view, in considerable contrast to the leader of his party. He wanted to resile from the body of law that the Government of whom he was a member put in place. He wanted to say that issues that cannot be clearly linked in law should be linked in law. I remind him of what he said on 10 June, because it is relevant to his contribution:
“The serious admissions of culpability by News International aren’t relevant to the News Corp-BSkyB media plurality issue”.
Now he is saying that those admissions are intrinsic to it. He cannot have it both ways.
What we have seen is a systemic failure across the institutions of public life to get to grips with a cancer of wrongdoing. There were abundant signs over the years: admissions of criminal behaviour, Select Committee reports that went unheeded, and clear examples of big media organisations wielding too much power, political and commercial. I hope that the inquiries that are being put in place today will deal with that issue. I hope that that chapter is drawing to a close. I believe that we have a unique window of opportunity to get it right. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) says that we have barely started yet. He is absolutely right. We have barely started getting to grips with this cancer of wrongdoing, but we will get to grips with it. We now have an inquiry that will set us on the right path and a Government determined to act. That is as it should be. I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House believes that it is in the public interest for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation to withdraw their bid for BSkyB.